In 2015, one of the first viral disputes took centre stage online. The internet found itself entangled in a discussion over the dress a mother planned on wearing to her daughter’s wedding in Colonsay, Scotland. The debate, catalysed by an image of the garment on Facebook, centred around the colour of the dress. Some observed a photo of a white and gold garment while others perceived the dress to be blue and black. The conversation garnered over 10 million tweets and sparked a series of scientific investigations on human colour perception. Despite it being almost a decade since the initial phenomenon arose, there is no unified scientific explanation for why some people saw the colour differently than others; why some saw white while others saw black.
How we present ourselves tells a story. The jeans we slide into before heading off to work, the style our barber scapes into our hair, the makeup we paint on our cheeks. All of this image work, this cosmetic cabinetry, is constructed to communicate a specific identity to whoever we may come across each day. It is a way to enhance, embolden, or eschew the identity we were assigned at birth, to produce the visage of how we wish to be received in life.
At times, we are successful. The under-eye concealer hides the fact that it is Monday morning and you’d rather be sleeping. The gold-plated cufflinks that sport the logo of a prestigious Ivy League school illustrates that you are well-educated and promising. With the help of Photoshop and the advancement of plastic surgery, we can manufacture an impression of how we wish to be seen. In private, we regard ourselves as blank canvases and, in turn, soak our paintbrushes in an oily acrylic and illustrate our most ideal identity to display to the world. But not all art is received the way an artist intended it. Not all art critics come to the same consensus upon review. Yes, we can control what people see but we can’t necessarily control how they receive us.
You may emerge from your house one Saturday morning sporting Nike running shoes and a matching workout set. One neighbour, perhaps walking the dog, waves at you as you stand on your porch and thinks that you’re about to go on a run or that you’re an athlete or even a personal trainer. Regardless, you’re viewed by this dog-walking-neighbour as someone who prioritises physical health and wellness. Simultaneously, another neighbour strolls past your lawn, this time on the way to the mailbox, and reveals a polite smile as they turn the corner. They might evaluate your outfit and see something quite different. It could be that they regard you as someone who values comfort over style. They may think that you prefer to lounge all day in snug clothes and mentally place you in the category of people who wear yoga or sweatpants day in and day out (no offence to said categorised people). In short, one neighbour views you as active, healthy, and sporty while the other views you as, well, unconcerned and lazy. Two completely different assessments of your identity, exemplifying that the way you are received not only varies from person to person but is out of your control.
“Soft heavenly eyes gazed into me. Transcending space and time and I was a rendered still” – Mariah Carey, When I Saw You (1995)
Rebecca Hall’s 2021 film Passing, based on Nella Larson’s novel, depicts a story where two women become reacquainted. They are both married. Both are of a middle-to-upper socioeconomic class. Both are mothers. Both have chemically relaxed hair. Both are light-skinned black women. The key difference is one woman, Clare, brought to life by the impeccable Ruth Negga, is living her life as a white woman, while Irene, deliciously portrayed by Tessa Thompson, is living her life as a Black woman. The story takes place in Harlem during the years leading up to the Great Depression, where racial conflict was just as paramount as in the present and is presented in the film as its central underlying tension. The last time Irene saw Clare she was Black, yet now she looks white, almost unrecognisable after many years of separation. We are led to believe that Clare has chosen to “pass” because she thinks her life will be easier as a white woman. Clare lives in constant fear of being discovered for what she truly is, citing that she was terrified that her baby, conceived with her white husband who is unaware that she is Black, would turn out darker skinned and expose her ruse. Despite this, after reconnecting with her childhood friend Irene, she seeks to re-engage with the Black community. Without her self-proclaimed “Negro-hating” husband’s knowledge, Clare skillfully inserts herself into Irene’s social life, attending various parties and functions. She is not only passing but double dutching between identities, skipping between white and Black at her liking until she inevitably trips. This fluidity privately infuriates Irene, who has decided to live as a Black woman. Irene, who we see passing at times in the film – once to shop for a toy for her son and another time to enjoy a refreshing drink at a hotel bar – is married to a darker skinned Black man. Together, they have two undeniably Black children who their father, characterised expertly by Andre Holland, insists on educating on the dangers of growing up “Black in America.” Throughout the film as Clare passes in and out of identities, we watch as the camera focuses on Irene. The film leaves it up to us to deduce if she’s envious of Clare’s dynamism or disgusted.
We’ve seen this dance before, this tightrope where lighter skinned Black people toe the margins of race. When chanteuse Mariah Carey first emerged with a record number of hits, several decades after the time when Passing is set to occur, critics were quick to adorn her as a “white girl who can sing” despite her biracial identity. In the predominantly segregated music industry, listeners struggled to place Mariah and her unequalled voice. Was she white and therefore a pop singer? Or was she Black and therefore an R&B artist? In her memoir, The Meaning of Mariah Carey, the legend documents how she too struggled to make sense of her identity. Carey was raised by her Irish mother in predominately white neighbourhoods where she was often the only non-white person. As she rose to stardom, she found success among a dedicated Black fanbase and explored her Black identity through her music. With the release of her sixth music album, Butterfly, Carey pushed further into a contemporary sound that was founded by Black artists. Her collaborations with hip hop and R&B musicians such as Diddy (known as Puff Daddy at the time), Dru Hill, Mase, and Missy Elliott served as a dog whistle note to the earlier critics who muddled her identity. With Butterfly, and her subsequent R&B-laced releases, Carey seemed set on ensuring no one confused her identity ever again. She had chosen to be seen and heard as a woman of colour rather than a “white girl who could sing”. In short, she had chosen not to pass.
This choice that biracial people often have to make in which they select one identity over the other was widely discussed in the dissection of Obama’s 2008 campaign. Despite having a Black Kenyan father and a white mother from Kansas, Obama referred to himself as African-American rather than biracial. It is true that unlike the fictional Clare from Passing and Carey, Obama looks undeniably Black. However, his distinction received criticism from a few members of the biracial community who felt as though Obama was denying his white side with this classification. Of course, there are political implications to Obama’s running as “the Black candidate” rather than the “biracial” one. The important “Black vote” accounts for 24% of Democrat votes. There are no statistics available that look at representation of the biracial vote, which should tell you everything you need to know about the strategic importance of the demographic to the party or how voters are willing to self-identify. One also cannot help wondering what the reaction from the Black community would be if Obama referred to himself as biracial and not Black. In any case, if approval ratings and winning elections are the barometer for success, the choice not to pass has made Obama more fruitful. Instead, Obama leveraged his identity to help unify voters across many demographics, running as an African-American candidate with a Black father and a white mother, who was born in Honolulu, who worked in Chicago and who was educated at Harvard. A melting pot of identities pushing to the surface with “Black” only the tip of the iceberg.
The erasure of biracial identity is perhaps most cemented by the 20th-century legal instrument known as “the one drop rule.” Codified in law, any person who had a Black ancestor, and therefore poetically contained “one drop” of Black blood, was deemed to be a negro and subject to the conditions of slavery and segretation. In a nation obsessed with binaries and the black and white, biracial members of society became the forgotten, erased grey matter. From America’s ugly origins, biracial individuals have had to exercise their racial fluidity and fluency in an effort to be seen, to be recognised by the law, to sell a million records, and to win elections. One by one, case by case, killing an identity so that the other can have a chance to live.
“Left the canyon, drove to the club. I was one thing, now I’m being another” – Lana Del Rey, Happiness is a Butterfly (2019)
There are also times where our perceived identity is not rendered by the visages we inhabit – our attire, our dialects, the way we wear our hair – but by geographies. Borders and country lines have a profound impact on how we are received without any material change to our physical appearance or speech patterns.
In Singapore, on assignment for work, I was simultaneously fascinated and horrified by the overt relationship between class and race. I entered Singapore knowing very little about the city-state’s history and ethnic makeup. I had been told that it was an “international” city, home to a variety of “foreign workers” with a “diverse culture” that culminated in the city’s renowned food and hospitality scene. Knowing that it was a convenient travel hub for the Asia-Pacific region, I eagerly planned trips to Thailand, Indonesia, and Australia, for both work and pleasure, to experience first-hand the noted “expat” experience and greedily indulged in new cuisines from around the world.
This excitedness was quelled when I noticed a common thread throughout Singapore and the other cities I visited in South East Asia. I was struck by the overt class divide that parted the two groups of foreign workers, mostly characterised by race. There were the “expats”, who almost always were lighter-skinned, affluent, and hailing from “more developed” countries. These expats were all in Asia to “extend their learnings” from company headquarters to the “emerging APAC region” in industries like finance, film distribution and licensing, product marketing, management consulting, and architecture. And then there were the “migrant workers”, who were darker-skinned, frequently arriving from “developing” Southeast Asian countries, earning a fraction of their expat counterparts’ salaries in industries like child care, sanitary work, and hospitality. I watched, and blindly participated, as the expats experienced a white glove version of Singapore afforded to them by the “migrant” working class. I spooned truffle soup dumplings into my mouth quietly as I observed a German couple bicker over what wine to order with dinner while their Indonesian nanny sat, also silently, with their twins, obediently preparing each of them a plate of noodles. On flights to Bali, as a podcast buzzed in my ear, I watched as a young Dutch couple sat in first class while their screaming kids were taken to economy by their elderly Malaysian nanny. I bit my tongue as I observed my white peers earnestly adopt a Singlish accent to communicate to taxi drivers, as if temporarily mimicking their dialect would improve the speed of their trip.
Was I an expat or a migrant worker? Surely, my identity on paper – my job, my salary, my industry, my corporate card – indicated that I was closer to being an expat. And yet, I felt a kinship with the migrant workers. Although not of the same race, and definitely darker in skin tone, I understood what it meant to serve another class, a whiter class, in order to create a better living for yourself and family. My parents immigrated to Canada from their respective Caribbean islands to improve their livelihood and mine. And when they arrived, they weren’t ascribed the coveted, glamorous name of “expat” that came with its own set of privileges. They were called something dirtier and synonymous with the “migrant worker” moniker. They were called immigrants. They were dark like the migrant workers in Singapore. They were likely overlooked with invisibilised identities like them too. However, here I was, their son, in one of the most “diverse” cities in the world, privilege gushing with every swipe of my corporate card, conflicted on which side I stood, feeling more othered and in between than ever.
During my term in Singapore, Bong Joon-Ho’s masterpiece Parasite began distribution in the Asian market and was garnering critical acclaim. I remember seeing the poster at an independent movie theatre and buying tickets on a whim, opting to avoid any of the reviews out of fear of spoiling it. For those living under a rock, the thriller juxtaposes two South Korean families of opposing socio-economic classes. One family is extremely affluent, living in a magnificently sprawling house located in a wealthy neighbourhood. The other family is poor, living in squalor, and hell-bent on scamming the rich family in an effort to improve their own financial standing and quality of life. Throughout the film, the poorer family “passes” to insert themselves among the elite. They inhabit rehearsed identities such as art tutors, premium cleaning staff, and high-class chauffeurs to insidiously implant themselves in a new class. Like a parasite, they cling to their wealthy hosts.
On paper, the poor family would appear to be the villains of the narrative. They are the ones responsible for the deceit, the plotting and scheming, and yet I found myself rooting for them. Like the migrant workers that served my peers and me, I silently hoped that they would achieve a better life even if it was at the detriment of the richer family. This, of course, has less to do with my virtues (or lack thereof, depending on how you look at it) and is more indebted to the craftsmanship of Joon-Ho and his cast’s stupefying character work. Despite this understanding, when I returned to my neighbourhood, the chic, gentrified Tiong Bahru, strolling past the elderly locals who were closing down their shops to set up for yet another early morning, I couldn’t help but project the class divide from the film to the silver-spoon fed expat environment in which I was living. I struggled to find comfort in it. I knew that the racial-economical class divide made me uncomfortable, and although it was not dissimilar to other places in the world, I couldn’t tell from what vantage point I was looking in. I couldn’t evaluate just how culpable I was. It was like my own identity was still processing, buffering and pixelated as it struggled to find a home in this new geography. A new geography that hadn’t yet taxonomised an identity that resembled mine.
I had seen this confusion before, this processing. I experienced it in the form of confusion in the eyes of Black Cubans in Varadero when I visited with my family as a teenager. They were accustomed to meeting white tourists, yet here was my dark-skinned family who also came from the Caribbean eager to engage, crack jokes, and converse with them in a way that past visitors perhaps had not. I experienced this “processing” while in Haiti, in the excited irises of children who were identical to me in hue while in Haiti when I day-tripped outside of the Dominican Republic one summer. “My colour, my colour!” the kids would scream through their smiles and chase my Jeep through cane fields. Their eyes were washed with wonder as if the vision of me bumping around in the backseat held a mirror to an alternate life for them that was previously not legible. I witnessed this rendering in the wary eyes of the Angolans who rode the subway with me each morning as I commuted to a predominantly white Catholic university whilst on academic exchange in Lisbon. The same type of processing. It was a delicate kind of rendering in which they tried to make sense of just who I was and my place in their current geography. My identity and my context did not make sense to them and, I suppose, their existence and how they lived took a while for me to grasp too. The shift in geography revealed an economy of ways to live. The diaspora unfolding, right in front of my eyes.
Upon graduating university, I stumbled on a documentary series that I quickly became obsessed with. In the YouTube series, cleverly named Strolling, artist and filmmaker Cecile Emeke accompanies a Black citizen on a walk through their city while silently capturing a one-sided conversation between the subject and the viewer. The conversation is diasporic in nature as each stroller details their experience as a Black person in the filming location, which ranges across cities in France, Jamaica, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, London, America, and Belgium. Although the stories contain a smattering of themes and topics, circling around anecdotes regarding sexuality, gender, artistry, warped beauty standards, colourism, and racist holidays (Sinterklaas, I’m looking at you), all subjects are unified in their otherness. Without mentioning passing directly, all subjects reference the tension between their own Black identity and the prevailing culture and traditions of their home country. Through her confronting cinematography, Emeke shifts focus between her subject and their accompanying environment to further contrast the presence of a Black individual living in a country with a colonial history. This juxtaposition, the editing of her subjects’ voices over the buildings and streets of their city, the scenes of her subjects scampering through empty streets as her lens follows, makes it impossible for her subjects to be unseen yet alone pass. Instead, Emeke expertly forces the viewer to imbue the histories and narratives of the subjects with the architectural landscape of the city. France told by Fanta, Italy according to Theo. With Strolling, Emeke and her muses step the viewer into an alternative walking tour of a place they thought they knew and pulls focus to a narrative that is seldom heard but was always there.
Coming To America (1988)
Darryl: “So, what do you people play in Africa? Chase the monkey?”
Prince Akeem: “No, our favourite game there is football, but I believe you call it SOCCER!”
In January of 2021, I relocated to New York. I was excited for a new work opportunity, ecstatic to live in a place marked as “the greatest city in the world” but, most paramount, I was eager to be around people who looked like me. As enjoyable as my assignment was in Singapore, at times I found it alienating. I returned to Canada with a renewed gratefulness for the importance of being around your own kind, your own culture. In high school, in university, in work, and in life, I found that some of my most cherished relationships were with people who shared an identity with me, and I was eager to live in a city that offered that in abundance. To be around people who understood me, with one look, one reference, and without the need to explain myself. I loved Toronto, a city known for its multiculturalism and cultural makeup, but I was excited to immerse myself in a city where the Black population was three times larger.
When I accepted the work transfer to America, I was well aware that I would be entering yet another shift in perceived identity. Decades of learning woven into the fabric of the literature, music, and films I absorbed in my formative years warned me, like Irene’s husband in Passing, about the perils of being “Black in America.” Of course, Black people worldwide experienced strife, but the hardships that my dark-skinned neighbours endured south of the border reached me the loudest. African-American-flavoured grief had been propagated to me through Black History Months in the Ontario school curriculum and the endless news cycle of Black death amplified by my social media algorithms. The insurrection on the Capitol, which surmounted a racially charged election in the US, occurred a week before I moved to New York. With tensions bubbling south of the border, many Canadians pressed me: Do you really want to be Black in America? Upon preparing my visa documents, I thought: Is their grief, their pain, different from mine? Concurrently: If I hold up our collective trauma to the light, their American next to my Canadian, are their shapes and edges different? And finally: Is their joy different from the joy my Black Canadian friends and family feel, in the fleeting moments where we forget all that’s stacked against us and just live? It did. It had to be. I knew that the “Black community” was not a monolith. And yet, James Baldwin, my favourite writer, fearlessly wrote: “To be a Negro in this country [America] and to be relatively conscious is to be in a state of rage almost, almost all of the time.” Am I entitled to that rage, Jimmy? And, if not, where should I put my anger?
My experience growing up in Canada was coloured by my relationships with many other first generation Black Canadians whose parents had also come from the Caribbean. I don’t think at the time I realised how unique this was but, looking back, I did not grow up with many peers whose parents identified as African American or were born in a country in Africa. That is to say, all my Black Canadian friends had parents who, like mine, recently immigrated from places like Barbados, Jamaica, Trinidad, Guyana, Haiti. And so, we bonded over the love for our mother’s oxtail, spoke to each other in rehearsed patois, and recited to each other crass Vybz Kartel and Foxy Brown lyrics that the other kids in class could not comprehend. Unknowingly, we also borrowed from American Black culture as we turned our televisions to Channel 49 to watch BET. We quoted jokes from Friday and Rush Hour as if they were our own, identified with Will Smith in Fresh Prince and with Monique in The Parkers, wore Phat Farm and Sean Jean, watched AJ and Free on the couch of 106 n Park. I supposed at the time that Black Canadian culture, formed primarily by first-generation Canadians, operated like a sponge: we eagerly soaked up anything that resembled us, whether it came directly from ourselves, our parents, or someone who shared our skin colour but lived in a different geography. Our excitement to occupy cultural fractions as our own, is akin to what we’ve seen with the Black Canadian poster child: Drake. Drake, whose parents are Jewish Canadian and African American, migrates across the Black diaspora with his music, slipping into Jamaican patois, Caribbean East London slang, Houston trap influences, and, most recently, afrobeats and house music. As Black youth in Canada, we were so eager to inhale anything that might look like us or sound like us because the Black culture that we had was either nascent or inherited from another country. We are taught from a young age to take a culture that is from another place, often a country or island we have yet to visit, as our own, and are well attuned to slipping into another that doesn’t belong to us at all.
This fluidity came in handy when I immigrated to America as I, without knowing, had been a student of Black American culture my whole life. The records my father played in the basement, the books I read, the civil rights heroes I studied – predominantly African American. I quickly made friends with Black Americans upon entering New York City, some with lineages extending to chattel slavery in the south, others whose parents had immigrated from parts of Africa before they were born. Although there were a few blind spots that growing up in Canada didn’t prepare me for, such as HBCUs and the Greek system that governed them, I soon discovered we were all borrowing aspects from each other. I ate Jamaican oxtail and veggie roti with an American-born friend whose parents came from Eritrea and Somalia. I shared vibey playlists filled with Nigerian musicians with friends whose family trees had roots all over America. These contemporary cultural artefacts – Sunday nights spent watching Insecure and Real Housewives of Potomac, the debates over the superiority of DONDA over Certified Lover Boy, the discussions on the historical accuracy of The Vanishing Half – these belonged to all of us. You know, “Black shit.” At first, I felt like an interloper, not knowing what an AKA was nor having a grandmother who made gumbo, but then I realised, because of all of our fractured histories, we were all flaneurs across the Black diaspora. We were all passing right before each other’s eyes. Strolling.
If you make the trip to Mexico City, there is a popular seafood restaurant that tops nearly everyone’s recommendation list. Contramar, located in the hip Roma neighbourhood, is known for its delicious red snapper. The photogenic meal is iconic not only for its succulent taste but also its unique preparation. The white fish is butterflied, split, with one side of the dish served in a traditional red Mexican chilli coat and the other in a milder, herbal Italian sauce. Two cultures, two tastes, living harmoniously on one plate. Something for everyone, you could presume.
In Passing, Irene says something that I’m not certain I agree with. In a conversation with her white friend, Hugh, she states, “It’s easy for a negro to pass for white. I’m not sure it would be so simple for a white person to pass for coloured.” This only raised a flurry of questions within me as I examined her statement in today’s context. Is it true that a white person cannot easily pass for Black? Would a white person not want to or would it be hard to? And finally, what privileges could a white person glean from sliding into blackness?
I began to wonder if white people, too, could pass. That is, can a white person’s identity change when they cross geographical borders? Does their safety and status diminish as mine does when I adopt the social standing of the host diaspora in a country I visit? Surely, by this point, we’ve been inundated with detailed accounts of cultural appropriation, that is, non-Black people who borrow aspects of Black culture to advance themselves: Jesy Nelson, Iggy Azalea, the Justins, the Kardashians and Jenners, Awkwafina, Bruno Mars, so on and so forth. But can whiteness also shift? Or is whiteness and its implied supremacy omnipresent across geographies and borderlines?
Upon my arrival in New York, I befriended many immigrants who had come to live in America for different reasons. We bonded over our otherness, our unique cultural traditions and our precarious visa standings. Some of these friends moved earlier for school and exchanged their educational visas for working visas upon graduation. Others had moved to the United States at a younger age, with their parents, as their mothers and fathers relocated for work. One of these people, who ended up being a close friend, was a boy who had grown up in Mexico City and moved to the US when he was 16. Despite his American citizenship, I carved a mental distinction between him and the other Americans due to his cultured upbringing. He was fluent in Spanish, decorated his apartment in a variety of cultural objects from Mexico, and frequently schooled my friends and I on which restaurants to avoid in New York if we craved authentic Mexican cuisine. I remember him correcting me when I assumed he was Latinx because of his culture and dark features, explaining that although he was “culturally Latin”, he wasn’t racially Latin. His family was of central European heritage and only settled in Latin America after being displaced by the Holocaust. But for some reason, I couldn’t accept his truth entirely. There was something different between him and the other white Americans I met. To me, his upbringing in Mexico rendered him not white but an imagined hue of “off-white.” Or, at least that’s what I told myself.
I had been to Mexico before. Given its proximity to Canada, Mexico was a popular vacation destination for families, friends, and school graduation trips. As I had only visited the country as a tourist, to saturated destinations like Cancun, Tulum, and Cozumel, I was eager to go with a local, someone who was not only raised there but also went back frequently. And so, my friend and I, along with a gaggle of others, planned a trip from New York. The main focus of the trip was Mexico City, where he was from and where I had never been, but we began with a trip to Puerto Vallarta, and I closed with a solo trip to Oaxaca before returning to Mexico City.
We spent our days eating and drinking through each city. Carnita and campechano tacos from street vendors. Aguachiles, 365-day-aged mole, and tuna tartare affixed to a multi-course four-hour lunch menu. Huevos divorciados for brunch, chilaquiles for the table. Tamarind margaritas and mezcal mojitos. Grilled fish and pulpo with nearly every damn meal. I stocked up on probiotics two weeks prior and felt ironclad, invincible. My friend had done an excellent job at selecting restaurants and frequently invited some of his hometown friends, who co-signed his reservations.
One dinner, we went to a popular restaurant in Roma and received abominable service. The staff were rather inattentive, a few dishes came out tastelessly cold, and the overall pacing was off. We were prepared to silently swallow the disappointment but my friend, the one from Mexico who planned the trip, slipped into Spanish and made a brief, warranted complaint to the waiter when asked how everything turned out. It was then, as he waded into Spanish and my eyes moved between him and the waiter, that my understanding of him began to shift. He morphed from the fabricated “off-white” race I projected on him to, well, white. Amidst the other locals, the waiters, the Airbnb hosts and staff, those who shopped at the markets we visited, I realised a stark difference. Another processing began to occur. I noticed that my friend, despite his darker features, was white, just as he had told me when we first met. His identity, along with the cluster of individuals he associated with in the city, illustrated a separation between him and the indigenous Mexican population. And like #The Dress, he began to change colour before my eyes.
Obviously, there was a difference between his features – his complexion, his nose, his hair – and those of the indigenous population. But I was perplexed as to the reason why I was only able to clock it now. Why was it that in New York, I assumed him to be Latinx, but in Mexico, among his own people, I saw that he clearly was not? How much did it have to do with the pronounced class divide in Mexico City that rendered his racial identity clearer to me? How much did it have to do with my own bias of what a white person looked and sounded like? For when I lined him up against the rest of the population and divided them into white and brown in my brain, I so clearly saw that not only was he in the first category, but there were a vast number of people, like him, in the first category. I discovered that this did not make him any less Mexican. If anything, it further outlined a sect of Mexicans who had settled from parts of Europe and America now lived amongst the indigious population, with the fluency to slip in and out, to pass.
I mentioned my observation to him and to his friends, who all laughed at my ignorance. “El es fresa!” they explained in slang used to describe a subculture of more preppy, upper class, Americanised Mexican. “He is Wexican!” they all joked. And there it was again: #TheDress. Two sets of people staring at one thing but seeing different colours. Upon meeting him in New York, I stupidly thought of him as “off-white”, “spicy white” if you will, but to his Mexican peers, he was almost “off-brown”, more of the milder, green side fish at Contramar than the spicy traditional red side. I began to wonder if he thought of himself as either. I wonder if he even thought of himself as anything or even all of the things. And if he did or didn’t, what difference did that make to how he moved through the world?
During my second week, I travelled to Oaxaca City alone. In the midst of strategic planning for next year, I couldn’t take the full week off and opted to work intermittently, slipping out for lunch and to sightsee when I had time off. I prefer to get a sense of my surroundings early when visiting a new city and often start off each trip with a tour. However, as I had to dive right into work upon arrival, I couldn’t schedule a tour until a couple of days in. On my third day, I found a pay-what-you-can tour that would last roughly three hours, promising to take me on foot through a vast component of Oaxaca City. I grabbed my water bottle and sunglasses and arrived a few minutes early to check in and meet the other tourists who had signed up.
The tour began the way every “free” walking tour begins, with the guide requesting the group to stand in a circle and take turns saying our names and where we were coming from. One of my favourite activities when a tour guide launches into this trope is to count the number of Americans who don’t introduce themselves by saying they are from the United States but by saying the exact city they live in, as if Des Moines’ or Raleigh are as well-known as Sweden’ or Nigeria. This particular tour was occupied by travellers from Canada, Germany, and the Netherlands but, unsurprisingly, most of the tour group hailed from the United States. However, when it was my turn, I revealed that I was not only from New York but originally from Canada, as if that distinction would render me different not only in the eyes of the other travellers who came from the States but also the non-Americans. Separated but equal. Same same but different.
It only took a couple of stops for the questions to start pouring in. One by one, I was approached by white Americans that questioned me on just what brought me to America, what I did for work, and how I found myself in Oaxaca alone. I suppose they might have just been friendly and were trying to make conversation as I didn’t sense any malice in their tone. However, I did find a strange commonality among the three times I was approached. In all instances, the Americans possessed a general curiosity around why I, a Black man, would freely decide to move to the US off the heels of the Trump administration and lodge in a divided America. Some asked this bluntly while others grazed into the subject. However, what none of them were shy about was declaring their leftist political views as they assumed I would share the same (they were right). The majority of them had either relocated to Mexico and countries in South America during the Trump administration or were on the cusp of a move, for they believed this new iteration of America no longer represented their values. They felt the need to tell me this, as if to convince me, a random traveller on their “free” walking tour, that they were not like the other Americans. I nodded and smiled and generally agreed with their remarks but found myself distracted by why they felt so comfortable revealing their life story, their disappointments with America, and their political views to me, to a mere stranger in a bucket hat.
Not even on vacation could I escape the white gaze and its assumption of what it means to be “Black in America.” I wasn’t able to pass and fade into the mould of a translucent tourist strolling in the city. My body, tainted by my American residency, emboldened by my Black skin, immediately politicised me. It exposed the liberal agenda I was assumed to have, and did. How I looked, how I spoke, revealed a door that they felt comfortable walking through regardless of the fact that I couldn’t even vote. And by contrast, I could not match their fluency, their ability to slip and settle into another culture and feel so at home and attended to. But then again, maybe their fear of being typecast into “that American” was similar to mine when I mentioned that I was not only from New York but also from Canada. A way to signal that I was not like the rest, that I was “a good one”, and not allow my identity to be left up to yet another passing assumption. Maybe we weren’t that different. After all, wasn’t I also a settler trying to differentiate from the masses out of fear of not being seen?
“Mirror mirror on the wall, who is fairest of them all?” – Snow White
Fair, definition according to Oxford Languages:
- in accordance with the rules or standards; legitimate.
- light (of complexion or hair)
People, places, and borders. Water, melanin, and skin. Language, bones, and blood.
What makes someone fair or accurate?
What makes someone a legitimate representation of themselves?
Without the gaze of another tainting them.
Without the cloak of a guise to hide themselves.
There’s a scene in Passing that I found so compelling yet subtle that I had to rewind to make sure I absorbed its full nuance. The setting: a jazz club. The characters: Irene, Clare, and Irene’s husband Brian – all Black – and Hugh, Irene’s friend – white. The jazz club is alive, gyrating and rambunctious, populated with a pulsating Black crowd that mimics the danceability of an Earnie Barnes painting. Feeling comfortable amongst her own people and free of her white husband, Clare spikes her drink and heads into the abyss of the dancefloor to let loose, shedding her faux race and allowing her white guise to be betrayed by the rhythmic sway of her hips. The music is slow and sultry, led by the seductive bellow of a horn. It’s there that Hugh, like me at the restaurant in Mexico City, sees Clare change colour. In real time, he realises that she isn’t white but is passing for white and watches in wonder after Irene slips him a hint. “Things aren’t always what they seem,” Irene cooes, quietly blowing Clare’s cover. “Nobody could tell from looking at her.” She watches Clare dance with a handsome Black man, in intrigue, almost as if she too is processing not only the potential implications for Clare but also for herself. Is Clare a liability to her, a time bomb waiting to erupt? Is she a threat, someone who has mastered the art of passing and turned prejudice into privilege? It’s understood that this shapeshifting fascinates Hugh as he believes there is a true power in being able to pass. As if it’s a compliment, he says to Irene, “Sometimes I think you could,” remarking that with her lighter complexion she could potentially pass as white. Irene chews on this, taking a brief look at Hugh and then back at the dancefloor, back at Clare entrancing her dance partner with her movement. “Who’s to say I’m not?” she responds. A trumpet in the distance trembles as if it’s winding down for the night. “I just mean…we’re all of us passing for something or other.” Hugh meets her gaze in recognition, you can almost see the beginning of a smile unfold on his face. “Aren’t we?” Suddenly, the music stops and the sound of applause ricochets throughout the bar. Claps in abundance break out for the music, for the dance, for the performance and, of course, for the guise.
Brendon Holder is a Canadian-born writer based in New York with work in The Globe and Mail, The Puritan, The Drift and elsewhere. He was recently a Fiction Finalist for the Metatron Prize for Rising Authors.
*Image by Matheus Viana on Unsplash