On Being Possible: the White-Passing and the Black European

Dear WB-readers,

My name is Fannah. I’m a 24-year-old, third-year English student who’s going to New York next semester and ideally (idyllically) wants to become a writer. I’ve been a member of the Writer’s Block board since September and I’ve written two other articles for this website already. But I had a much more controversial introduction in mind at first: more controversial than my name and age, and more controversial than the “PG13” piece I wrote on teenage love a few months back.

I am a mixed-race—African-American and Caucasian/Dutch—woman. Although many people would argue that I have no reason to feel discriminated (and they have), I’m not sure that’s true. Sure, in some way, things are a lot less bad than they have been—but they’re far from good. And I do feel the pressure of racism and sexism, the history of discrimination and oppression, on my already stress-sensitive shoulders.

Sexism is one thing, and I won’t try to incorporate it at the same time. Also, I’m quite obviously a woman, if I may say so myself. People can try to deny that sexism is an issue I deal with, but that would be futile. Yet it seems to be hard for some people to fathom that I experience racism in a personal way. I often feel like I have to justify myself and explain why it is that I feel the struggle of the black race so emotionally, even though I am never really discriminated against on the basis of my skin color.

Not too long ago, I heard a word that clarified this lack of understanding: I am white-passing, someone told me. My skin is not particularly dark. My hair is curly, but not nappy. My lips and nose are small enough to conceal my heritage. And I was—against all my parents’ expectations—born with blue eyes. All of this apparently provides me with the “ability” to go through life as a white person.

I couldn’t put my finger exactly on why the word rang in my ears so painfully for days, until I dissected the word itself. I pass for white. I “pass”, which is the opposite of being stopped, stunted, prohibited—the opposite of failing. It made me think: would I be unable to do the things I do now if my skin were darker; hair were messier; eyes were brown? Would I be stopped from entering certain places, or denied certain things? Or would I be able to still “pass” in life, but with obstacles like pointing fingers, whispers and covert bias in my way? And would that make me fail in life?

A lot of people believe that racism is hardly existent in today’s Western society. At least it’s supposedly gotten a lot better. (I’m purposely not going to mention the issues around the Dutch December festivities here.) Black people have the same opportunities, privileges, rights—whatever you call it—that white people do. But that is rarely the problem. The problem lies in the aforementioned obstacles: the covertness. Through the grapevine, at my current job, I heard that a customer complimented a colleague of mine on his mastery of the Dutch language. He was born in this country, he’s never lived anywhere else, but his color suggests otherwise. Or rather: people assume otherwise. My sister, darker-skinned than I am, is often asked where she’s from. “Amsterdam,” she replies truthfully every time. “No, but really,” people laugh, again assuming that it’s impossible. The Dutch can be anything—Christian, Jewish, short, tall—but apparently not colored. At least not originally. If your skin is different, you must be from somewhere else.

I wouldn’t want to have to explain time and again that yes, I was really born here. I received a regular education, I know my way around the city and I speak the same language as you do. I wouldn’t want people assuming things about me. At the same time, however, I am proud to be part black. Being black is more than a skin color. It’s also not a stereotype. I am proud to stem from a people that fought for liberty and won; a people that endured so much and survived, thrived even.

But people don’t always believe me. They think I’m somehow faking the understanding, the compassion. They think I’m just another white kid listening to R&B. (Which I don’t, not a lot anyway.) Showing an interest in black culture and history has recently become pretty problematic, so much so that I’m afraid to come across as an imposter. But when I talk about race, it’s not from the point of view of a woke European. I’m not hyping up 90s hip-hop and hoop earrings. I feel it, I have the history in my blood. It’s personal. It’s a point of pride with me.

I don’t want to be white-passing. Of course, I don’t want anyone not to “pass” in society. I don’t want it to be a thing at all. I don’t want people to say offensive things either way, whether they assume I’ll be offended or not. I want to make clear that it’s not a case of covert prestige: it’s prestige, period. It’s pride. It’s me. And it’s not about skin color: it’s about history, and family, and understanding.

Moreover, today’s society is complicated: it’s a melting pot that has run over with possibilities. It’s not okay to assume just one of two, or three, or even five options. Wake up and smell the rendang your Indonesian-Dutch neighbors are preparing. Listen to the people asking for directions in perfect Dutch, then speaking fluent Arabic/French/insert-foreign-language-here to a relative on the phone. Look around and see a rainbow of people around you, and get used to it. Not all that is different is Other. I am 24 years old, female, light-skinned, African-American and Dutch, from Amsterdam, an English student and aspiring writer. I am a possibility.

Fannah website


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