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  BLACKLINES

PASSING
by Jean Pierre Campbell
2003-12-01

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In prefacing his proclamation, he asked that I withhold judgement, because he anticipated stern disapproval. Essentially, he proclaimed, "From this day forward, I will no longer identify as half-Black." Because my friend looks like a white male, I now assumed he'd allow people to take for granted that he was one. He went on to explain that he didn't want in any way to be limited in life any longer. In other words he wanted some "white privilege." But I didn't have the heart to tell him that "Whiteness" doesn't buy nearly as much as it used to. ( America's future will be less and less about race and more and more about class. )

To his surprise ( and mine ) though, I informed him that he'd made a culturally smart decision. I kept thinking about how with greater frequency our conversations have ended with me exclaiming, "God, you're White!" The first time he ( let's call him Evan ) and I went to a Black club years ago, I, in my haste to pursue my own agenda, went off to mix and mingle. Because he'd come at my invitation, he was pissed when I abandoned him. When he finally confronted me, he had only one question: "Why are Black people so rude?"

In one particularly irritating discussion recently, Evan assessed young, Black women. "They're loud, ignorant, bossy, mean-spirited, and callous." On what exactly was this based? During O.J. Simpson's trial, he had spoken with numerous Black women who all said essentially the same thing about Nicole Simpson: "That White bitch got what she deserved!" When I tried to explain this wasn't a comment about Nicole, but an example of Black women's very troubled relationship with white women who marry very successful Black men, he still found "the crime" inexcusable. ( It should be noted that White folks are the only ones I know of who to this day still walk around with deep wounds associated with that damn trial. )

That my friend would choose to be White ( which is an identity, mind you ) seems fitting. He has lived his life in a white middle-class community. He was raised by his mother who is white and her parents. And for a substantial period of his life, he didn't even know that his absentee father was Black. So his identification makes perfect sense.

Evan found out he was Black around age 8. Until then, he'd had no inkling about his racial heritage. And it has taken him more than two decades to work through all the racial bullshit that has been heaped upon him. After all, it's quite jarring to realize that all the nigger jokes at dinner were really about you. In fact, for two decades, he has been defiantly vocal about his true racial background, confounding white folks near and far. Having fought this battle, I think he fortunately realizes with whom he really identifies.

For instance, when Evan joined me and a couple of buddies for lunch, he mentioned that he prefers dating white men over Black men. Since my buddies knew he was biracially Black, a hostile debate ensued. While I accept my friend's position ( what else can one do? ) , my buddies attacked him for being a self-hating "Negro," which would probably be a common assumption, and not an entirely inaccurate one, by many Black folks who were aware of his pedigree. Not only does my friend lack Black cultural connections, the rootedness that makes one Black, more importantly, he refuses to open himself up to new cultural knowledge that might drastically alter old perceptions.

As a child, Evan always associated Black people with poverty, a powerful image that encompasses more than financial status. Not long ago Evan asked me why neighborhoods deteriorate when Black people move into them. I explained that Black arrival in white areas is accompanied by property-plummeting fears, which causes "white flight" - white residents along with their businesses and resources disappear, followed by class change over time. This did little to change perception because Evan is terrified since Blacks are moving ever closer, year by year, to his quiet little neighborhood.

In fact, Evan confessed to me that being Black is limiting for him psychologically. With the spectre of racism hanging overhead and the baggage of history dragging behind, he becomes less self-assured, less driven, and less resilient. As a White male, however, he allows himself a generously optimistic vision of the future, one cushioned with enough racial entitlement and ease that's freeing; it's a real motivator. ( I didn't bother telling him that it was all designed to work that way. )

Because Evan in terms of lived experience can only identify as a White male, it's probably healthier psychologically for him to live that way - since he can.

During conversation recently, my friend shared one of his shoddy racial theories; I responded the proverbial, "God, you really are White!" To counter my usual assessment, he called attention to his liberalism as a way of separating himself from the desperate, backward yokels he's told me so much about. He was patting himself on the back for being an enlightened white male, which was unimpressive to say the least. I mean, if he really were an enlightened white male, he'd be more of a "race traitor," a member of that group of white folks who go about exposing Whiteness as political fiction - an arbitrary, socially constructed demarcation designed to elevate one group above another, creating an illogical racial order that at root is uncivilized. My friend ( and he is my friend ) doesn't think this way at all, because like other White folks he's too preoccupied ... believing in his Whiteness.


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