White Passing

How you look vs. who you are

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Words || Gabrielle Edwards

In our political climate, racial identity is a consistently challenging aspect to unpack, particularly for those of us who don’t fully fit into one box. While the word ‘race,’ has many connotations and varying definitions, one constant appears to be a tie to physical features. For those who are commonly considered as white-passing, including myself, this brings up a number of questions regarding how we should identify and what does it even mean to be a ‘person of colour.’

In case you need some context on my background, my dad is white and my mum is Filipino. When sharing this, I’m frequently met with surprise and doubt, including the occasional “hmm, I can kind of see the Asian in you,” whatever that means…

To clarify, I am definitely not oblivious to the immense amount of privilege I do hold by being white-passing. Throughout history, being white-passing could afford you a number of luxuries; from escaping slavery during the Antebellum Period in America, to evading segregation laws if you were African-American. This would give you access to more careers, school and transport. Jane Morrison, a young slave, was even able to sue the state for her freedom under the justification that she was white-passing. So, while being treated as a white person in our society today can definitely be seen as an advantage, I would be lying to say it hasn’t caused me a lot of confusion and uncertainty. 

I was born in Australia. The only language I speak is English. I have fair skin, brown hair and big eyes. My last name, being that of my father’s, is incredibly British. By these accounts I appear pretty white, but that of course isn’t the full story. Identifying as fully ‘white’ never feels quite right. As trivial as it may sound, even making jokes about “how white I am” when trying to stomach spicy foods feels like I’m denying part of my heritage and willingly whitewashing myself.

I’m incredibly proud to be Filipino. I love having a big Filipino family, getting to learn bits of Tagalog and experiencing all the richness Filipino culture has to offer. I get just as excited as my mum to see Filipino representation, from Nico Santos in Crazy Rich Asians to Jacob Batalon in Spiderman: Homecoming or Bruno Mars performing at the Grammys.

Internally, as a kid, I always felt quite at peace with the balance between these two identities. I was more than happy to boast about my mixed-race background during ‘multicultural week’ in primary school. It was only as I grew older that I started to understand how strict boxes were drawn around each identity and that perfect harmony didn’t really exist. 

I first visited the Philippines when I was only 11, and while I couldn’t fully understand the implications of the way I was treated, I could definitely comprehend enough to know that I was different. My mum and family constantly referenced to how my dad and I would be treated differently because of how we looked. This could be seen from the friendly security guards to the helpful shoppers at the mall, and probably a mirage of other ways I was too naive at the time to understand.

From my experience with my family and other Filipinos, having fair skin and features such as a high nose and big eyes are often considered more desirable and attractive. So when I’m complimented on my appearance, it never feels genuine, but rather an output of colourism and internalised-prejudice.

Every now and then, not appearing as Filipino will lead to a number of awkward encounters. A standout of these being one of my Asian high-school teachers making jokes about how she was a bad driver and completely fit the stereotype. While her tone wasn’t malicious, it was still uncomfortable to have to sit through as she assumed that she was the only Asian person in the room. While these situations thankfully don’t occur often in my personal life, they still very much throw me off guard and leave me at a loss for words.

Examining the various ways celebrities interpret and unpack their own racial identities and white-passing privilege allows for some interesting insights. In a Vulture interview, half-Filipino actor Darren Criss, faced criticism for claiming that he didn’t fully identify with the label ‘Asian-American.’ He processed that while he was technically Asian-American and was proud of his Filipino heritage, he never felt like that was how others saw him, particularly in the entertainment industry. While I may not relate to some of his other statements in the interview, this is definitely an experience that I can empathise with. Upon reflection, it’s upsetting that the way he describes perceiving himself is based so strongly on how others view and treat him. This was reflected through him saying that he didn’t necessarily yearn for representation in the media as much as fellow Asian-Americans or Filipinos, because he didn’t feel like the representation pertained to him personally.

On the other hand, Keanu Reeves, another mixed race white-passing actor, talked about how he identifies as a person of colour. When interviewing for his new movie, he expressed his appreciation of the opportunities he is given, though states he doesn’t want to be seen as a spokesperson. This is assumedly to give other Asian stars the spotlight in discussing topics regarding their own representation and place in the industry.

Unfortunately, colourism is rampant in Hollywood, and too often light-skinned people of colour are cast in place of darker-skinned actors, with studios patting themselves on the back and calling it a day. Even Beyonce’s dad, Mathew Knowles, references the advantage lighter-skinned women of colour in the pop music world, including his daughter, have over other darker skinned artists. 

Similarly, Black actresses Hallie Berry and Alexandra Shipp, both faced criticism for playing Storm in the X-Men franchise, a character usually depicted in the comics with dark skin. Recently, Shipp replied to these criticisms saying that, “For any black girl, for there to be a black superhero, we picture them looking like us.” In this interview she reaffirms that she strongly identifies as black and is hurt by those who appear to be taking that label away from her. This obviously feeds into the idea that what counts as ‘passing’ can vary greatly per person, therefore making it no one’s right for one person to demand someone should only identify a specific way.

Interestingly, select biracial and white-passing celebrities are fully embraced and accepted as people of colour, the likes of which include Phillipa Soo and Meghan Markle. I hypothesise that representation plays an important role in dictating which of these white-passing people can or can’t be accepted as people of colour. In predominantly white spaces such as the British monarchy, it makes sense that Meghan Markle being biracial is a stand-out point. Opposingly, Phillipa Soo, when performing in Hamilton, is surrounded by a diverse array of people of colour, meaning she doesn’t solely hold the banner in terms of racial diversity. 

In short, individuals should be wary of running to attack people of colour and questioning the validity of their identity. They should instead focus their attention on notifying studios and large businesses of the kind of representation they desire. Representing a diverse array of people of colour with all skin tones and features is incredibly important to counteract colourism and gatekeeping.

It is ridiculous to me that the way a person’s identity is perceived and dictated is based purely on genetics, something no one has any control over. If one genetic strand of my DNA was changed, would no one ever question my ethnic background? 

Regardless of how I look, I am still half Filipino and have every right to call myself Asian-Australian. While I want to continue using what privilege and platform I have to raise up the voices of other Filipinos and people of colour, I want to recognise that my own voice also matters. At the end of the day your racial identity is YOURS and no one should get a say in how you identify.