Looking at me, you wouldn’t think that I would be able to pass for white, but that’s something I have unknowingly been doing for most of my life. Listening to Phil Collins, wearing surfer t-shirts, dancing at 80’s nights at grungy college clubs; those things were only the outward indicators. I was surrounded by white kids, who I thought were my friends, who I studied to better mold my behavior to their own. I was white, wasn’t I?
In the 1980’s in NY, I lived in a midtown Manhattan apartment building, surrounded by white families. I smiled and waved at neighbors, and at the doorman and the receptionist. But I was clearly an outsider, clearly to everyone but myself. There were few black folks in our building. It was at the Catholic school I attended where I saw a lot of children that looked like me, riding buses and subway trains from the boroughs, to a safer place where their parents hoped would get a good education. I looked like those kids, but I wasn’t one of them, they made that clear. I was a foreign boy with a strange name, not Catholic. I spoke differently, ate different foods, hell I didn’t even play basketball or any other sport that they had heard of. I was suspicious, like liver hidden under peppers and onions by a parent trying to fool them. I did not belong. So I found a place among the other kids, at the margins. Ultimately, it was the benign neglect of the white kids vs the suspicion of the black kids. It was an easy choice really, and once the die was cast, I had marked myself.
My time in Sudan was an aberration in this regard. Surrounded by people who looked exactly like me, I was forced to face the fact that I was among my own people. That didn’t stop me hanging out with expats, and other folks, although that was mostly socioeconomic. I was also a little too soft, too foreign – or maybe that’s just how I felt.
It was in college that things began to change, ever so slightly. I was in America again, but not the America that I knew. I was in the South, but at the large school across town from the HBU (historically black university). The kids in my dorm were almost uniformly white. My black colleagues sensed my otherness and steered clear, although to be fair I had surrounded myself with white kids, and hence marked as “other”. I went to football games, clubs, coffee shops. I played table top and live action role playing games, more and more marginal. Graduate school more of the same, this time in the southwest. This is when I began to get curious, hanging out with the black graduate students, wondering if I could cross back over. I don’t want to say it was too late, but enough time had passed to make it difficult for me. I had formed my identity around this delusion I’d overlaid onto real life.
Of course, I wouldn’t have much choice. As the country has shifted right, my marginal “whiteness” has disappeared. The feeling that my blackness will be forced upon me in an encounter with the authorities has increased. The hostility towards the various aspects of me (black, Muslim, immigrant) has reached levels I could not have foreseen. My version of passing isn’t going to protect me going forward: not from my neighbors, or my in-laws, or some random person in the park. The only question left is who am I when I am not passing.