The privilege and pain of passing as white

(Illustration by Kamna Shastri)
(Illustration by Kamna Shastri)

I’m South Asian-American.

But here’s the catch — I don’t look like it at first glance.

When people first meet me they assume I am racially white because of my blond hair, hazel eyes, and rather pale skin. If they see me with my family – all of whom are darker than I am, with black hair and dark eyes — they wonder if I’m adopted.

I’m not. I have albinism.

Genes don’t play the same game of categorizing people as our minds do.

As someone who can pass as white, I undoubtedly benefit from white privilege.

Sometimes the privilege manifests in the smallest of ways; those “flesh colored” band-aids don’t stand out against my complexion.

Other times that privilege manifests in larger ways; I’m not followed around while shopping. A friend once described the experience of her classmate telling her that her skin was the color of poo. No one will probably ever say such markedly unfavorable things about my skin color.

And I’m seldom asked the probing question ‘where are you from?’

I’m sure I receive many other perks that I’m not even aware of – they are probably so normalized I’m unable to identify them as privileges.

These are benefits – but they fill me with shame. There are experiences my South Asian peers and family have gone through that I will never truly understand. In minority communities, the experience of being ‘othered’ — while horrible and undesirable — can act as a glue, connecting people. I’ll never be part of that connection because I haven’t undergone nearly as much discrimination as my parents and peers who are more obviously people of color.

Victor Varnado – an African American comedian with albinism once said that seeing someone who looks like you inspires an immediate camaraderie, a nonverbal understanding of similar shared experiences.

I envy that camaraderie.

For me, it’s a one way mirror. I watch through the window while knowing I share at least some things in common with the other South Asian students walking through the dining hall at my college. But they’ll never know that about me. And when I see someone with the same skin tone as mine, it’s not quite the same feeling because beneath the color there is still a breadth of cultural differences.

Even though I’ve been a recipient of white privilege, I’m not a stranger to being judged on the basis of color.

People have already decided who I am by looking at the color of my skin. It used to bother me because their judgments weren’t accurate. Now I recognize inaccuracy isn’t the problem: their deciding that I am white – without knowing the full backstory — subtly denies me the freedom to define myself.

I remember attending a temple ceremony in Bothell when I was eight. A younger girl approached me to ask why an American was at the temple. I corrected her — but she challenged me to count to ten in Telegu (one of India’s regional languages). When I told her I didn’t know Telegu but can speak Tamil, she told me that I was not Indian.

On other occasions while visiting India I’ve had security guards at tourist sites question my parents, asking multiple times if I am actually their daughter. People commented about me in Tamil while taking the elevator in a Chennai department store, thinking I couldn’t understand. A foreign tour guide in a Tamil Nadu town once thought I was “pulling a fast one” when I explained I was visiting family. He strongly suggested I had some British blood and when I finally explained my albinism, he didn’t quite buy it.

In spite of some of these unpleasant experiences, I have grown up strongly rooted in Indian culture — it is my home base. At the end of the day, Tamil is the most mellifluous language to my ears. I like listening to Carnatic music from South India while eating breakfast, especially on Sunday mornings. There’s a certain unparalleled warmth in being offered chai and murrukku. My culture is my upbringing, my home, and my family, in no way am I ashamed of it.

Unlike some other immigrants, I have never wanted to oppose my cultural upbringing to fit into American society — maybe it’s because by virtue of my physical appearance, I already do fit in.

As a result, the identity I’ve created for myself is not in opposition to my South Asian background — which is the common story you hear in the mainstream media (in books like “Born Confused” for instance). Instead my identity is in opposition to being mistaken as white.

There are things I do to make up for my outward lack of Indian-ness. And as much as I enjoy them, I think I’ve been doing them for the wrong reasons. Watching Hindi and regional films, dressing in kurta tops over jeans and oxidized silver earrings, which in India would be called indo-western fashion, but here seems rather out of place and could even be called ‘fobby’ — these are all things I genuinely love.

Yet there have been moments where I’ve forced myself to wear the flashy blue kurta top instead of my favorite coral boatneck blouse to school. I tell my friends that I prefer Hindi films to Hollywood ones.

I don’t know what I’m trying to prove, nor to whom. I often wonder why I’m always leaning to one side, and why I force my preferences on myself.

In order to not be stuffed into the box that people categorize me in based on my skin color, I’m trying to stuff myself into yet another box – neither box truly gives me the room to be myself.

This is the realization I’m growing into. It isn’t the mismatch of my cultural identity and my physical appearance that has been so complicated and confusing. It’s the fact that I have limited my identity to that experience, thereby denying myself the freedom to just be me.

In that way my story isn’t all that different from anyone else’s. Aren’t we all struggling to move though the world on our own terms and to be ourselves beyond the limitations of our identities, even as the world tries to decide who we are without asking?

9 Comments

  1. An insightful and sensitive piece. Thank you for sharing your story, Kamna! Your article made me think about how I am unintentionally “passing” as a white, US born American. I am ethnically Jewish, born and raised in Russia, where my ancestors have lived for many generations. I do not identify as white because I grew up in a country where ethnicity, not race, was the main way to categorize people. Most Russians (and fellow Russian Jews) would say that I look stereotypically Jewish. However, Americans don’t identify me as Jewish or an immigrant at first sight. If they stopped to think about it, they would probably say that I must have some Mediterranean or Middle Eastern heritage, but most likely people don’t give it much thought at all. When I open my mouth and begin to speak with my rather strong foreign accent, I always feel like I’m shattering their perception of who I am and creating a distance that may not have been there for those first few moments, while the people I just met still believed that I was “one of them.” Then there is the whole issue of Jewishness, which seems to take people by surprise, especially in Seattle, and having to explain that to me, being Jewish involves ethnicity first, and religion second, which is not the way it is commonly seen in the US. Complicated stuff!

  2. Very well worded. I’m also a South Asian albino (Gujarati) and I was wondering if I could talk to you about your experiences. I’ve mostly been ashamed of being albino. I’ve lied and said I was half-white (though my parents are clearly full Indian). I was wondering if you ever felt this kind of shame or guilt and how you overcame it.
    Thanks!

  3. Thanks for sharing Kamna. I am South Asian/Swedish and have never felt accepted by the Indian community (apart from immediate family) primarily based on my looks. I’m not albino, however I am very fair and I have vitiligo. I am often told I am ‘not Indian enough’. Living in Canada with a huge Indian community I can understand the feeling of lack of freedom. I often want to yell ‘I’m Indian too!’

    I will say that this never happens with Swedish people I meet. They don’t care, I often get a hug as soon as the word ‘Swedish’ leaves my mouth. And when they find out about the Indian side; they love it! I just want to be accepted as both.

    1. Thank you for sharing your experience, Rakey. I used to think I was alone in feeling the way I sometimes do and am finding out that there are many people who have similar threads running through their own lives. I appreciate your perspective!

  4. Can you please provide some pics of you with your family so we can visualize you and get a better sense of what you’re saying

  5. I am passing for White and sometimes, I just want to scream! There’s a pain in passing. I have mixed girls’ hair as far as texture and I use Black hair products but my hair is red. My skin is always the lightest shade of foundation. I am slightly pink but mostly porcelain. I have hazel eyes but my eyelids are hooded. I have a Black girl’s nose and lips. I’ve been told I have a Black girl’s body. I claim “White” because I know I get to use White privilege. I know that I am perceived as White. But when things like Trayvon Martin or Ferguson happen, I have to hear the ignorant things White people say and I try to explain Black Lives Matter to them and I hope they’re listening. I have had White people and Black people tell me that I have a Black girl’s butt or lips but if I tell them I am mixed, they don’t believe me. I’ve had Black people tell me that I am guilty of cultural appropriation and I have tried to switch up my clothing and my music and my lingo to try to fit in on either side but Black people say I am trying to act ghetto and they seem offended. I’ve dated Black guys and been harassed by the police because they thought my boyfriend was kidnapping me or hurting me in someway. I’ve been with my brother’s and been harrased by employees and police who accuse my brother’s of stealing. If I shop alone, I don’t get followed or told to leave my bags outside or have employees hold my things outside of my changing room like I do with my family or I did with my ex. I have had waiters ask me for my ex’s order and I have had them seat us in a secluded area (like a private party room) or refuse to serve us. That never happens when I am alone or with Whites. I don’t call beige items “nude”. I try to be respectful of everyone. I sometimes have White people tell Black jokes in front of me or act like they don’t know me when they see me in public with Blacks. I’ve gotten fired when my cover has been blown and the excuse is always that they don’t approve of my lifestyle and I have been denied jobs because they don’t want to hire a White girl and my name sounded Black. I’ve had more White people than I can count try to save me from the Black people I am with and had them tell me it’s not safe to be with them or it’s not safe to be on the Black side of town or to be the only White person in a room. I’m always the only White person in the room. I’m don’t notice anymore. It scares White guys away. I hear a lot of racist things and I try to correct people but sometimes, I just want to hide and my face burns with shame and embarrassment. Sometimes, I feel like I need to be Whiter so I can just totally escape the pain. It’s awkward seeing a race movie in a theater. Mostly, my White friends’ parents and my White friends themselves didn’t want a bad influence around. I’m living a lie.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

9 Comments

  1. An insightful and sensitive piece. Thank you for sharing your story, Kamna! Your article made me think about how I am unintentionally “passing” as a white, US born American. I am ethnically Jewish, born and raised in Russia, where my ancestors have lived for many generations. I do not identify as white because I grew up in a country where ethnicity, not race, was the main way to categorize people. Most Russians (and fellow Russian Jews) would say that I look stereotypically Jewish. However, Americans don’t identify me as Jewish or an immigrant at first sight. If they stopped to think about it, they would probably say that I must have some Mediterranean or Middle Eastern heritage, but most likely people don’t give it much thought at all. When I open my mouth and begin to speak with my rather strong foreign accent, I always feel like I’m shattering their perception of who I am and creating a distance that may not have been there for those first few moments, while the people I just met still believed that I was “one of them.” Then there is the whole issue of Jewishness, which seems to take people by surprise, especially in Seattle, and having to explain that to me, being Jewish involves ethnicity first, and religion second, which is not the way it is commonly seen in the US. Complicated stuff!

  2. Very well worded. I’m also a South Asian albino (Gujarati) and I was wondering if I could talk to you about your experiences. I’ve mostly been ashamed of being albino. I’ve lied and said I was half-white (though my parents are clearly full Indian). I was wondering if you ever felt this kind of shame or guilt and how you overcame it.
    Thanks!

  3. Thanks for sharing Kamna. I am South Asian/Swedish and have never felt accepted by the Indian community (apart from immediate family) primarily based on my looks. I’m not albino, however I am very fair and I have vitiligo. I am often told I am ‘not Indian enough’. Living in Canada with a huge Indian community I can understand the feeling of lack of freedom. I often want to yell ‘I’m Indian too!’

    I will say that this never happens with Swedish people I meet. They don’t care, I often get a hug as soon as the word ‘Swedish’ leaves my mouth. And when they find out about the Indian side; they love it! I just want to be accepted as both.

    1. Thank you for sharing your experience, Rakey. I used to think I was alone in feeling the way I sometimes do and am finding out that there are many people who have similar threads running through their own lives. I appreciate your perspective!

  4. Can you please provide some pics of you with your family so we can visualize you and get a better sense of what you’re saying

  5. I am passing for White and sometimes, I just want to scream! There’s a pain in passing. I have mixed girls’ hair as far as texture and I use Black hair products but my hair is red. My skin is always the lightest shade of foundation. I am slightly pink but mostly porcelain. I have hazel eyes but my eyelids are hooded. I have a Black girl’s nose and lips. I’ve been told I have a Black girl’s body. I claim “White” because I know I get to use White privilege. I know that I am perceived as White. But when things like Trayvon Martin or Ferguson happen, I have to hear the ignorant things White people say and I try to explain Black Lives Matter to them and I hope they’re listening. I have had White people and Black people tell me that I have a Black girl’s butt or lips but if I tell them I am mixed, they don’t believe me. I’ve had Black people tell me that I am guilty of cultural appropriation and I have tried to switch up my clothing and my music and my lingo to try to fit in on either side but Black people say I am trying to act ghetto and they seem offended. I’ve dated Black guys and been harassed by the police because they thought my boyfriend was kidnapping me or hurting me in someway. I’ve been with my brother’s and been harrased by employees and police who accuse my brother’s of stealing. If I shop alone, I don’t get followed or told to leave my bags outside or have employees hold my things outside of my changing room like I do with my family or I did with my ex. I have had waiters ask me for my ex’s order and I have had them seat us in a secluded area (like a private party room) or refuse to serve us. That never happens when I am alone or with Whites. I don’t call beige items “nude”. I try to be respectful of everyone. I sometimes have White people tell Black jokes in front of me or act like they don’t know me when they see me in public with Blacks. I’ve gotten fired when my cover has been blown and the excuse is always that they don’t approve of my lifestyle and I have been denied jobs because they don’t want to hire a White girl and my name sounded Black. I’ve had more White people than I can count try to save me from the Black people I am with and had them tell me it’s not safe to be with them or it’s not safe to be on the Black side of town or to be the only White person in a room. I’m always the only White person in the room. I’m don’t notice anymore. It scares White guys away. I hear a lot of racist things and I try to correct people but sometimes, I just want to hide and my face burns with shame and embarrassment. Sometimes, I feel like I need to be Whiter so I can just totally escape the pain. It’s awkward seeing a race movie in a theater. Mostly, my White friends’ parents and my White friends themselves didn’t want a bad influence around. I’m living a lie.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.