Tuesday, August 12, 2014

An Examination of Passing

I feel that a large portion of my college learning has been learning how to pass.

And I have learned how to pass in a lot of ways: race, economic class, religion, location, political, gender.

Passing has in some ways been a concerted effort on my part. I choose to go to MIT because I wanted to get away from some things, racism being one of them. Like in tales of the tragic mulatto, once I made it North I found that race suddenly became less of a hindrance. No longer did I get questions of "What are you? What are you mixed with? Are you from [insert country]?" from classmates or passerby on the street. (Yes, strangers have approached me to ask questions about my race in VA.) I didn't get questions about my choice to go the MIT rather than a HBU from my new professors. My white friends didn't approach me for the secrets of relaxer, Brazil straightening, or twist outs. By some definitions, I have made no effort to hide my race. I have worked with and run events with the Office of Minority Education; I talk about my experience of being biracial; I write and read about racial issues; I do not alter my hair or skin to hide my race. Is just going to a school in another state hiding my race?

But I do pass! I can't calculate what combination of changes in my behavior, appearance, or perceived identity have changed that I can regularly pass for white. But I do. And I get benefits from that. And I've gained knowledge to pass in other ways too. What I mean is, even if I'm not making a conscious effort to pass right now, if I did want to make that effort I would now have the knowledge to do so.

It take a surprising amount of information and self-vigilance to pass. Ask yourself some questions focusing on economic passing: What is the cost of a meal plan vs cooking? Which is more common on campus? Are dining halls a social meeting place that cooking would exclude you from? If so, can friends bring a guest for free? What are the right kinds and brands of clothes to wear? How much do these clothes cost? What sort of trip for spring break have most college students gone on? What about traveling/studying abroad? How much does this sort of travel cost? Are you expected to have traveled before? What percentage of your campus was Greek affiliated? What is the cost of joining a sorority? Before being asked these questions, were you aware that you would need to know or prepare for these costs? If you didn't have to think about it, you're probably in the economic position that I am passing for. In order to pass, I have to weigh all of these options to find what I can fake and what I have to let go.

Some of it is about making things "presentable." I'm always amused by the careful balance that women are expected to play in professional settings. Women are paid more if they wear the "correct" amount of make up at work and are attractive. But engineers mock and belittle women who are 'vain' enough to adorn themselves. Of course, these engineers often don't know whether a person is wearing make up. I've had people say I looked ill when I skipped a day of concealer and I've had people compliment my eyeshadow when my face was completely bare. I once asked a male friend if he thought I wore make up. He responded no. I was talking with a different female friend who doesn't wear make up and she admitted that she thought I was always wearing make up. The truth of course is in the middle. The perception of the reality is more static. I can get away with a day without make up because most days people perceive that I look a certain way. Similarly, I can get away with being a little more stingy with money because I can present the right signs of affluence. The reality of race, class, or gender doesn't have to be there, just the presentation for others.

And the guidelines for passing vary every so slightly on the situation. It takes an incredible amount of knowledge and reading of a situation to pass appropriately. Women are encouraged to dress appropriately for their gender based on the setting. Once while working a public event for the Smithsonian, a patron suggested that one of the staff members wear a dress like she had last week, saying that she didn't look lady-like in her capris and blouse. Meanwhile, my course 3 presentation advice has been to wear pant suits or pencil skirts rather than dresses, to avoid earrings because they are distracting, and other careful limitations on femininity. It's like playing one of those cell phone games where you tilt your phone to balance. Even when you're sure you're holding your phone level, the stupid game has you sliding to the left. When you tilt just a smidge to correct, suddenly you're too far to the right! Always you have to be vigilant of where you hands are, subtly adjusting them while keeping an eye on the situation and score.

Some of my 'education' in passing has been unintentional. I wouldn't venture to say it was forced, but it would have been difficult not to change. I used to have a mild Southern accent and speech patterns from growing up in northern Virginia. While I didn't use 'ain't' on a regular basis, I was apparently an interesting spectacle of the South. Spectacle enough to be asked to perform! "Say daughter! Say drawer! Say crayon! Say crown!" Now I don't think that most people intended to be insulting or make me uncomfortable. A few friends complimented me on my lilting tone. But! Imagine if someone with a speech impediment or foreign accent was asked to perform this sort of thing: it would clearly be inappropriate. The reason I speak with a Southern accent and use certain phrases is because I am a mulatto woman from the South and grew up as such. Some of my family is from further south: Georgia. My grandmother attended church and said 'ain't' when she was pressed. Pages have been written to validate AAV as a valid form of expression. But the social pressure to speak with a very particular type of Northern accent is pervasive. Over time, my accent decreased. I don't know the slang or expressions currently used in what was once my community. I now pass in a way I had never even intended to. In fact it would take the conscious effort to NOT pass.

I know that this doesn't really have a clear cut moral or lesson. I just wanted to write this out. I think that I would have wanted to know that this informal education was going to be such a significant part of my life when I was picking out schools. I guess to some degree I knew because I had a really adverse reaction to the privilege I encountered at Dartmouth; I knew I didn't want to spend four years becoming more like that, or even getting used to folks like that.