Spoiler Warning: If you are currently reading this book or plan to, there will be spoilers in this post. Proceed at your own risk.
For the Anti-Racism Book Club‘s January pick, we read The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett. The book focuses on the lives of Stella and Desiree Vignes, biracial twin sisters who are so light that they could both pass for white. Suddenly, Stella disappears without a trace, leaving her sister alone in their New Orleans apartment. The story takes place primarily in the 80’s, when the sisters are adults and each has a daughter of her own. Throughout the book, the author shifts back and forth between multiple characters’ storylines. Once we make it to Stella’s story, who is now well into adulthood, the reader finds out that she’s been living as a white woman for decades, married to a white man and the mother to a blonde-hair, blue-eyed daughter – eyes so blue they’re often referred to as “violet”. Not only is she living as a white woman, she has completely cut off her side of the family, not revealing to anyone – not even her husband or her daughter -who she really is.
Her white-passing started innocently enough. She once went to a museum and the white people there just assumed she was white. No one bothered her. No one treated her different and she didn’t correct them. She started to wonder what her life would be like if she tried in earnest to be a white woman – free of the trauma of her past when she witnessed the lynching of her father and was sexually harassed by a former employer. She applies to a job as a secretary, withholding her biracial identity, and begins working with the other white women there and later marries her white, male boss.
I’ve written about my biracial identity on this blog before and this book brought it back to the forefront of my mind. I couldn’t help but identify with Stella Vignes. If your skin is white, people (mainly white people) simply assume you’re just white. I know this because of the look on some faces when they see a picture of me with my parents – one black and one white. It’s a look of surprise or confusion. Should Stella be blamed for taking advantage of other people’s assumptions? For me, there’s definitely a lot of white-passing guilt that comes with white-passing privilege, especially when I talk to other biracial folks who are darker than me. Their lives are vastly different from mine just by virtue of how much melanin happened to end up in their skin. The world perceives them as Black and they suffer through the discrimination, racism and other disadvantages that I generally don’t have to worry about.
Stella’s story intensified my white-passing guilt more than ever. I started asking myself if I’m like her. Am I subconsciously hiding the Black part of myself? Is it my fault that others assume I’m white? Should I be doing more to correct them? I’m proud to be biracial, to be Black but I can’t deny that I walk through the world pretty much a white woman. My curly hair used to give me away a little bit but now that I’ve cut it short, the curls are no longer present and neither is another hint that I’m not just white. I recently spoke to a darker-skinned biracial friend and had a difficult time putting into words how I felt. She lives her life as a Black woman. She doesn’t have the privilege of being able to pass for white. Now still, I can’t really express how I feel, particularly about Stella’s choices. I empathize with her, I understand why she did what she did but it doesn’t make it right. Especially when I talk to my friend and hear about her experiences being perceived as a Black woman only – not biracial, not half white.
In a 2005 interview with Glamour Magazine Rashida Jones, a biracial actress of Black and Jewish heritage, said, “I had no control over how I looked! This is my natural hair, these are my natural eyes! I’ve never tried to be anything I’m not. Today I feel guilty, knowing that because of the way our genes tumbled out, Kidada [her sister] had to go through pain I didn’t have to endure.” Because of how their genes tumbled out – I know this is an oversimplification but it drives home how ridiculous the construct of race and racism really is. My friend said that’s what makes racism hurt that much more because, in a way, how people treat you is based on chance. She lives the consequences of this chance everyday.
I have faced some racism in my life but most of the incidents, in comparison, have been minor. I had a woman berate me on the bus once, demanding I tell her what my race is. One of the higher-ups at my job asked me what race I am in the middle of a crowded hallway. I’ve also had men ask me what my race is but as a come-on (by the way, asking “what are you mixed with?” is not the best pick-up line…). I’ve definitely been made fun of for my hair when I was young because didn’t know what to do with my biracial hair. All of these are small prices to pay, though. Being biracial can be a difficult identity to navigate. Sometimes I don’t feel like I truly belong anywhere – too white to know what it’s like to be Black in America and too Black to avoid questions and quizzical looks from those who just have to put me in a category.
Don’t get me wrong – I love my biracial identity. But depending on if I’m surrounded by white folks or Black folks, I am in that moment what I’m perceived to be by others. I’m mostly perceived to be white, or at the very least, ambiguous. My Black identity is washed away until I do what Stella never did, which is to tell people exactly who I am. I’m not sure if it’s actually anyone’s business – Stella would surely argue it’s not. I have yet to make up my mind about that.