The story continues…
It never occurred to me that the concept of passing was simply a way to comply with an oppressor that would never acknowledge me as a true equal.
My job afforded me the opportunity to be a support to local people in the black community. As I did, my view began to transform. Transformation did not happen magically. It was a choice I had to make. Necessity demanded I challenge my mind and tear down what I believed at its roots. The more I researched the more my heart grew heavy with compassion for the people I served. Sorrow for what MY people have suffered.
As connections formed, I began to learn about the black community, meeting diverse people. I was amazed at the strength, resilience, beauty and spiritual prowess of people I encountered.
Soon my shame began to eat at me. Disgust with myself was nipping at my heels. Those in the community encouraged me. Not once was I treated as an outsider. To me this was a kindness I did not deserve.
For the first time in my life I was able to be myself – not just a portion of myself.
The freedom I felt when I took off the mask was indescribable. I knew that I had been wrong and still I carried with me into all situations the shame of how I had passed. I simultaneously felt rage welling up in me due to the truths I discovered about the whitewashed history I had learned growing up. Anger began to rise in me like nothing I had seen before, toward the system and toward myself. At this point I began my dark night of the soul. I had grown so accustomed to passing as white that I had adopted attitudes toward my brothers and sisters that represented the privilege that caused so much suffering. Setting fire to the structure of systemic racism in my heart and mind was the only solution. Grief, pain and anger were all constant states as I processed the truth about what my life had been.
I needed to be honest with myself about my attempt to adapt and avoid pain by embracing a stance of enmity against my own people. This process was incredibly painful. I went through a period of hating white people, hating myself and being ashamed of my creole and white lineage. The amount of anger and rage at realizing I had lived a lie for so many years burned furiously, so hot within my soul I felt as if I was being consumed. I was. One time a friend asked me years before this, “Do you know why the caged bird sings?” I answered as if I knew, but truly I did not. The reason I did not know the answer is because I did not realize I was sitting in a cage of my own making. She was referring to the book “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou. I had tried to read the book but put it down because the feelings it stirred up in me were to be denied. Acknowledging Maya Angelou’s suffering would lead to acknowledging my own failing, prejudice and suffering. Though my suffering was minor compared to hers it still existed.
During this time, I watched ”Nappily Ever After.” It brought me to tears, facing another truth about myself as I gazed in the mirror. My hair was a point of hatred for me. Beauty to me equated to straight hair. I despised my hair. Torturing every strand, I would go to the lengths of damaging it to get it to look white. The routine to maintain the straight look of my hair took several hours daily.
I watched “For Colored Girls Only,” a movie based on a book called “For Colored Girls who have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf” by Ntozake Shange. It spoke to long dead pieces of my shattered heart, challenging me to embrace my blackness for the gorgeous stronghold that it is. At this point I was satisfied with where I had arrived. Honesty with myself about my heritage, my own prejudice, and the system I live in had allowed me to be free – finally. Stopping there is not sufficient. All of that was simply fertile ground for more growth to occur.
This Black Lives Matter movement has shown me that. Still remaining silent and placating racist, ignorant privilege is not acceptable. That was still a habit of mine. When this all exploded my immediate reaction was to defend white people. Frightened by my own remaining rage my instinct shouted, “Shhhh, you will offend the white people.” Telling myself daily that this is not my fight, panic overtook me. Do not get involved. Stay silent. Keep your head down and keep moving. This won’t be sustainable. No one cares because this is the way it is and the way it will remain.
After all, I am still under the thumb of an unjust system and had settled into the fact that racism exists, and it would never be a burden lifted. I accepted that to choose to be myself meant to choose to never attain equality. As my newsfeed flooded with people railing against the injustice done to an innocent black man, my anger grew. I refused to look at it, though.
To acknowledge it would reopen old wounds and demand further change, change I was not sure I could handle. Daily I am addressing the left-over ashes of an identity that was rooted in the systemic oppression of my ancestors.
Passing created an identity that allowed me to align with the oppressor. Betrayal of my own heritage was the result. Looking at that has been overwhelming at times. Pressure increased for me to choose a side. People held signs that said: “Silence is violence.” Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote: “In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends” pounded on the door of my soul demanding an answer. As the riots broke out, I dug my heels in the ground proclaiming that it was not necessary. The reaction was too extreme and again Martin Luther King Jr. arrived at the door of my heart. Pounding deeply within were the words: “Riots are the voices of the unheard.” My alliance was still with an old identity. That whitewashed version of myself sat in the back of my psyche like a coat I outgrew that I could not bear to get rid of for some reason.
After becoming involved with the black lives matters movement directly and allowing myself to feel my anger, I realized I was hanging on to that identity just in case. That identity gave me a way of escape in case the world did not fully support the developing changes that were occurring. I don’t want to make the same error my ancestor made when he embraced an identity that supported a system of oppression that results in his current decedent’s demise.
This is a battle. I cannot hold on to this system of thought and support the rights of black people at the same time. It is time for me to choose.
Black people have worth as human beings, and we have all been lied to. I wore those lies like armor to avoid pain and to attain privileged status. The deception of this lie is in the fact that privilege was never attainable that way. The only way to attain equality is by doing the work of confronting and destroying the corrupt system in place. The burden is for those who have the privilege to carry. I am included in this group. As a person who can pass, I have experienced the privilege that comes with alliances with an oppressive system. Along with that knowledge comes responsibility. Changing myself is something attainable. Acting daily to maintain that change is something I can do. In addition to that, action is needed on my part in whatever measure I can provide.
Since passing is a phenomenon that has occurred since the initial slavery laws were established, I imagine that this will resonate with others. My plea to you is an encouragement not to buy the lie of the oppressor that says passing will assist you in gaining equality. The truth is that if we do not break our silence the system will continue to break us. It will continue to beat us down until there is nothing left. I am choosing to forgo privilege for the sake of my identity by actively opposing systemic racism in my environment and psyche.
Systemic racism is cunning. Power and privilege are seductive. It is not worth my dignity or freedom. To tell myself this does not affect me is to choose to be blind to my own eventual demise. Privilege is an illusion that can be ripped from my hands at any moment given a shift in circumstances. I chose reality instead of the temporary comfort of an oppressive illusion. ′