“It’s funny about ‘passing.’ We disapprove of it and at the same time condone it,” were the words of American novelist of the Harlem Renaissance Nellallitea ‘Nella’ Larsen on her 1929 novel “Passing.” The book tells the story of two women and their exploration of race and identity, one living as a black woman in Harlem and the other severing all ties with her black past.
When a member of a racial minority group is perceived as a different race, it is considered ‘passing.’
In America, white-passing occurs when Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) are seen as being white instead.
But why is it problematic to identify as a white-passing Latine?
The concerns with the term are twofold: firstly, for Latines of white phenotypes or mixed backgrounds, passing as white denies them of their own identity; secondly, for the Latine collective, white-passing individuals can play a part in erasing our identity, playing and conforming into the white-dominant American society.
Sociologist Dr. Sherryl Kleinman from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill states that “the words we use can also reinforce current realities when they are sexist (or racist or heterosexist). Words are the tools of thought. We can use words to maintain the status quo or to think in new ways”.
The choice of words when referring to individuals that don’t conform to the stereotypical physical appearance of BIPOC is very telling of the term. ‘Passing’ means to shift possession of (something) from one person to another, to “come to an end.”
In the pre-Civil Rights United States, ‘passing’ indicated the transition into freedom from enslavement. In academia, the term is generally understood on a period of time in the United States, beginning with the post-Reconstruction (the 1890s) all the way to the Civil Rights Movement (1960s).
Although the word “passing” can have triumphant connotations such as passing a test, it often carries the notion of deception and disguising the true identity of something. This is why white Latines and mixed individuals feel so strongly towards the term and actively try to reshape language.
Bueno‑Hansen and Montes, in their 2019 reflections “White passing? No! Seeing myself in my own light,” explain how new terms such as “white-assumed” are created from the organic need of individuals to “see themselves in their own light,” coming up with innovating “theories in the flesh,” which occur when the physical realities of skin color or sexual orientations combine to generate politics due to necessity.
In the same article, Bueno-Hansen and Montes demonstrate how advanced alternative language can benefit individuals and reshape the concept around white-passing. Alternative terms such as white-assumed and white-adjacent pose a “critical resistance to whiteness,” while white-passing enforces assumptions based on binary logics that make it uncomfortable for white Latines to use in their vocabulary.
‘Not Latine Enough’ and Struggles of Identity
The problems that the term white-passing brings about are heavily tied to the denial of Latine identity it supposes for light-skinned individuals. Gabrielle Rivas shares her struggles with not being “Mexican enough” when a fellow Latina student in school answered for her and said, “No, she’s not [Mexican]. She’s Chicana. Her parents are Mexican, but she’s not”.
The challenges of having to prove oneself as a Latine are various and wide, from language barriers to cultural traditions to surnames not being “Hispanic enough”; however, one of the biggest characteristics for white Latines is phenotype.
Skin color, hair texture, and facial features such as thin noses are perceived first. Race seems to be built on people’s physical aspects and body characteristics; nevertheless, it is imperative to know that race is not genetic and, as such, cannot be addressed by the looks of people.
Race is a socially created phenomenon that, even though it cannot be touched and is difficult to categorize, still has physical repercussions on bodies, especially those of color. Since our perceptions of phenotype are embedded in us, race has come to be identified by skin color.
Emily Nanea Renteria’s “Pochos/as Push Back: Multiracial Latinos/as, White Passing, and the Politics of Belonging” explores the efforts of mixed-race individuals in defining their identity and their feelings of exclusion from the Latine community. In her thesis, she interviewed thirteen participants on their experiences as white Latines and studied Spanish language fluency, phenotype, and cultural capital as the elements of identity choices.
White Latines are uncomfortable with the term white-passing because it implies that they are trying to distance themselves from their latinidad, even when forced to prove their identity and challenge physical assumptions about their race.
Lastly, it is imperative to note that policing a person’s identity is problematic. It is nobody’s place to say that someone isn’t “Latine enough” or “doesn’t look” Latin. As darker-skinned and/or monoracial people of color, policing someone’s latinidad calls for revision.
In short, it is exceptionally reductive to conclude a person’s background based on skin color.
The Problems of Hiding and White-Privilege
On the other side of the coin, however, the problems of white-passing are translated to darker-skinned and/or monoracial people of color when white-skinned Latines conform into the white-dominant American society.
White-passing makes it easier for people to hide parts of their identity at the right times and, as such, invisibilize the culture as a whole.
Light-skinned Latines have advantages and privileges, whereas other Latins are faced with challenges that stem from their physicality.
Not being vocal and advocating for change and inequality as a white-skinned Latine is wasting the opportunity to bring attention to the matter.
For the Latines who conform to the white standards, their ‘passing’ can be used as a commodity to shift as a means to end. This is more typically seen in the dichotomy of Latin and American entertainment industries, where women recur to their light complexion to appeal to the Latin market and shift to the exotic Latina trope to attract the American market.
As explained in the case of Sofia Vergara and Kali Uchis in this Medium article, light-skinned Latines need to understand their privilege and be cognizant of their actions. Deciding when to be Latine and when to seem white is problematic and erases the experiences of BIPOC.
Latinidad is far too complex to be reduced to color, even though it seems to be what it always comes down to. As Latines, the collective aim should be to open up educated discussions on race and allow different stories and experiences to be shared from various angles. Light-skinned Latines should not be entitled to speak over darker-skinned and/or monoracial people, the same way that white-assumed Latines should not have to prove time and time again that they belong.
“White-passing” terminology is being challenged by more grounded words such as “white-assumed,” and if language helps shaping our worldview, I am hopeful for our community.