Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Passing and Crossing (Oh, My!)

A few weeks ago, I backed into an interesting dialogue here. It started with a post by Rachel S., who's also a sociologist and also blogs often on race at Rachel's Tavern. And part of what the discussion was about had to do with "transracialing," a concept I had never heard of before.

Actually, there was considerable back and forth about what transracialing is. One comment suggested that it was just what they call it when an individual or couple adopt a child of a "race" different from their own. But a more expansive view suggested that transracialing might be similar to transgendering, that is, when a person crosses the gender divide and "becomes" (either literally by surgery or to some lesser extent) the "opposite" of the category in which they originated. Now the point was made that people are born biologically gendered, but the point was also made that society does apply--with a heavy hand--characteristics and expectations related to the perception of each gender. And then, of course, there are, in fact, a healthy handful of folks convinced enough that sometimes biology errs that they have surgery to change their bodies, if they can afford to.

"Race," on the other hand, is only as biological as it can be physically perceived. That is to say, many African-Americans have "passed for" White, sometimes for their entire lives. And one Californian writer who had been raised as and married Black, discovered in his fifties a few years ago when he had a DNA test that his family actually had only some Native American blood and no African-American heritage at all. He was not pleased. Apparently, his people (located in Louisiana where he was raised) just didn't like White folks and had features and skin tone that allowed them to pull off living on the "colored" side of town--so they did, with all the attendant difficulties accompanying that decision.

So, after reading everything the others had to say, I started mulling over what I think about the idea of transracialing. "If 'passing,' 'Watermelon Man,' and 'Black.White.' (the recent television show) are all transracial in nature," I commented, throwing in my two cents. "What about European-Americans who wear oversized clothes low on the hips, speak various Black vernaculars, and/or dred-lock their hair? Or to get even more subtle, what about European-Americans who prefer rap, jazz, or R&B or who go to Black clubs and maybe hang out with Black friends (primarily)? And certainly 'transracial' might be construed to include European-Americans who have reached a point of being bicultural in every area of their lives, even to the point of blending their families and birthing biracial children?" Am I, then, I wonder, "transracial" rather than "bicultural" as I have typically referred to myself in the past?

I can affect with great facility what is often perceived as typical Black speech patterns and body language. I have an African mask in my living room and buy mixed c.d.'s and shea butter soap from guys that sell their products from card tables. I own 150 books on racial issues, most of them written by people of color. And I performed in a spoken word event two weeks ago, for goodness' sake. I have been laughingly referred to by Black friends and students from time to time as the "Blackest person I know." But what does all that mean, in the end? I don't know yet.

Anyway, I was still mulling over these questions when I made a trip to another city to see a play this past week-end and wound up spending Saturday afternoon with an African-American extended family that was celebrating the youngest grandchild graduating from high school. It was a fair-sized group, with people coming and going all afternoon, a mother-lode of the most wonderful food in the old guard Black southern tradition, and just enough bottle-tipping going on to appropriately oil those with a mind to get oiled.

Before going to the celebration site, however, I had the pleasure of spending an hour or so privately with the 72-year-old matriarch of the family, who happened to be White--German, in fact (rather than European-American)--a woman who married an African-American soldier while he was in her country and then eventually returned here with him in 1959. They had a family. He eventually left the military and joined the post office. They built a beautiful little home on a good-sized hunk of land and basically lived the "American Dream." Except, of course, that it took them so long to get the Army to let them wed that they wound up with two children before they could finalize the matter. And even then, they had to sign a paper promising never to try to live in Florida as man and wife...!?

She had plenty to say about adventures such as having to travel separately--him in the car with the children and her with the baby on the train--whenever they needed to pass through the southern United States. But overall, it all sounded less dramatic than it might have, given some of the stories I've heard or read. Nevertheless, it was truly fascinating to me to be sitting in her house, filled with Black family photographs, with African artifacts here and there, and with a large painting of African-Americans picking cotton on the wall over her head--while she herself is not a person of color. Seventy-two-years-old, with her German accent still readily apparent, and with her husband passed on now for some years, she would fit handily in any European or European-American setting, but she has surely become transracial, if anyone has.

She doesn't speak Black vernacular. She doesn't affect Black mannerisms. Yet, when I commented on the painting of the cotton-pickers, she only replied with the name of the one who had given it to her, rather than making any attempt to explain it. It is part of her world now, no matter what she looks like. And it's as simple as that. No matter what word we put on it.

Perhaps, as one of the commentors to Rachel's post suggested, "The act of 'trans-'ing is an attempt to insert agency and self-definition into categories which socially don’t seem to be founded on these." In other words, people through the ages and into the present, however hard the attempt is made to squash them into socially-constructed categories, will, like water, seek their own level. They will, without apology, define themselves, even if they put themselves in harm's way for doing so.

And Les, who can be found here, wrote, "Being black is therefore not just a skin color but also an ethnic identity. I think this is an important distinction. A person who is visually black is recognized as such whenever [he or] she deals with anyone. A black-looking person is identifiable as such before [they] move or open [their] mouth. It is not an invisible identity. However, somebody who has been accepted into the black community may have black ethnicity." Hmmm.

*nods slowly and thoughtfully*



iaintlying said...

"Am I, then, I wonder, "transracial" rather than "bi-cultural" as I have typically referred to myself in the past?"

Knowing a little of your background
and having encountered you personally, I would role the dice and say that you are transracially cultured. I would say this because you are cultured across many societal lines and barriers. Like the German woman that you speak of in this post, YOUR experiences have become a part of YOUR world, no matter what YOU look like. There is no need to explain as if it COULD be explained. I think that people get stuck on what they can perceive with their 5 senses. I believe that it is the spirit of a person that makes the actual person. Since a spirit has neither race nor gender, I think
you would be exactly who you are regardless of what you look like.
That being said, is it truly "passing" and/ or "crossing"
if a person is in fact being exactly who they are?

For my money, I think not.

Changeseeker said...

Great question! And I have no idea what the answer might be. Interesting for more mulling, however...

iaintlying said...

My take on being Black:

Black is not a skin tone
nor a state of mind

It is not an issue going forward
or a movement that got left behind


That being said, I just am. You just are. We all are just who we are and we will be exactly who we are reagardless of we are perceived through some one elses 5 senses. You really can appear to be one type of person and actually
be totally someone else. It happens everyday on too many levels to name.

Rachel S said...

Ok, that was a really good post.

The women you are talking about is a really good example of what I was thinking when I was invoking the idea of transracial. Although I do think it is more of an umbrella concept.

For example, (and I know this is a little unusual but bear with me)Michael Jackson would be one type of trnasracial person. In his case, his transracial transformation is more phenotypical and less cultural.

SO I guess being transracial could involve taking in a new culture or it could involve changing phenotype. In fact, I saw a woman just today, who seemed to be in the process of phenotypicaly transracialing. She was (I'm guessing) Japanese, but she very clearly had some eyelid surgery done and had a full head of dyed Blonde hair to match. I think the phenotypical ttype of transracialling is the most looked down on--In fact, when I saw this women I lamented, how said it was that she had done this to herself to fit a "Eurocentric" beauty norm. I'm not defending my prejudice here; I'm just noting how this type of transracially is treated by many people (myself included). On the other hand I'm less critical of the cultural form of transracialing.

Anyways, this post really reminded me of the tremendous variation in what transracialing is.

Piscean Princess said...

I love that you continued this conversation on your site. I still am not sure exactly what to make of the transracial idea, but I love reading what you (& iaintlying & rachel) have to say.

Changeseeker said...

Iaintlying: Yes, as you point out, no matter what they look like, people don't necessarily appear on the outside exactly as they are in their private lives, BUT boy-oh-boy, does society encourage us to keep our real selves private, huh?

Rachel: I totally agree that Michael Jackson has become some kind of transracial poster boy. I always use him as a perfect example of what rampant racism can produce over time.

Princess: Good to see you're out and about. :-D Off the topic, I know, but I wish I could get "Lena" down to Florida. If I come across any kind of mechanism for pulling that off, expect to hear from me about it. And for anybody who'd like to know what I'm talking about, there's a whole string of posts on the Princess' blog about her recent performance as Lena Baker, an African-American maid who was executed for shooting a man in self-defense after he raped her, including this one.

judd grill & jason ortiz said...

love your insight. identity is paramount in achieving individuality, which i believe you have done.

judd grill

Changeseeker said...

Thank you, Judd. I like to think so, but it's nice to have it recognized by one I respect as much as I do you.

Hillary For President said...


You are highly insitefull. A top intelluctuial in are socity.

I know you say your not ready four a bilingual blog yet. But I thing you mite publish in jive as well as english. It not relly a language.

but still.

Hillary For President said...

Half any of you seen this site?

I meen he KILLS a black person by shooting 3 times. The white people that die.....die in 1 shot. instant. The tore ture in his sight toward black people is highly racism and unacceptible. Why do he kill whites in 1 shot and torture black man to DEATH?????

Someone need to say somethink.


Piscean Princess said...

Hey Change!
Well do let me know if you find a way to pull it off. I haven't been to sunny FLA in years & I would love to perform the piece anywhere there's an audience.

My dad, who's in California, is also trying to figure out a way to get me there to do "...Lena"!

So, between the 2 of you, I have bi-coastal representation & my mother as my faithful PR/Marketing representative! Y'all are the best!

naschek said...

Hi! I am casting a show where I need people who feel they were born into the wrong race. Do you or anyone believe you should be another race from your own? Have you ever wanted to have surgery, dye your hair, wear contacts, change the color of your skin? Please email me!


changeseeker said...

Sorry, Nasche. I'm convinced that "race" is a socially-constructed political notion rather than a "biological" reality (such as specific genitals might be). The problem is not skin tone or even difference. In fact, in 1950, a group of eminent scholars and scientists wrote a statement on race for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (more commonly referred to as UNESCO), calling "race" a "social myth." But it's become the most important characteristic in the United States because White Supremacy socializes us to imagine that lighter skin indicates superiority. This is a joke or a nightmare, depending on how you look at it and where you stand in the society. Regardless, we're not born with a "race." It's bestowed upon us at birth by a White Supremacist ideology established 500 years ago to justify the rape of humanity by Europeans for their economic benefit. Wanting to reject White Supremacy would be a healthy response to a destructive force, but in reference to the way things still are at this point, James Baldwin once said, "You can learn everything you need to know about race in America by asking a White man would he want to be Black."