By Gyasi Byng
In 2007, a few weeks after full body scanners were installed in airports, I traveled from West Palm Beach, Florida to Long Island, New York to visit my sister and her children. After taking off my shoes and earrings, I stepped in, put my hands over my head, and let the scanner’s mechanical arms pass over my body. An alarm sounded, indicating that I was possibly carrying some type of suspicious material. Without a word, I was escorted out of the line and into a hallway to receive a full body search. Running her hands through my legs, over my arms, and between my breasts, the female security officer told me that the underwire in my bra had probably set off the alarm. She told me that I was free to go back to the security line and claim my luggage. However, before I could step away, her supervisor eyed me curiously, reached across the other officer, and began to grope my thick curly hair. Once she had finished, the supervisor looked me in the eye and said, “Now you can go.” I was never told explicitly why my hair was searched, but I can only assume that I must bear resemblance to women who keep razor blades and pocket knives in their hair.
I’ve seen pictures on Twitter and Instagram playfully captioned with phrases like, “about to be randomly selected”. The subjects of these photos are often Middle Eastern men and women wearing turbans or hijabs. Though what is about to happen to them is insulting and degrading, they make light of the racism that is inherent in the system. When my hair was searched at the airport, I followed suit and posted a status about it on Facebook: “My hair was just searched at the airport. Dafuq?” The status received twenty-three likes.
For most individuals, racism is a constant and unshakeable companion, as tangible as the ground they walk on. It sits at the dinner table and makes awkward conversation. It sits in the passenger seat as they drive to work or run errands. Racism is not a supposition, but fact. For me, that is not the case. Unlike other people in my family, I am able to pass for white. Instead, racism has continually been an intangible specter, a phantom whose existence in my own life I have never been able to prove. Racism has been in the margin—on the fringe of my life—severely affecting close members of my family, but only drifting by me on the way to do damage.
Traditionally, passing has been interpreted as subterfuge, chicanery, though it is not always willful deceit. I cannot help the fact that my race is “invisible,” and I cannot change the perception of my “white” body as a non-racial one. Despite what Jean Toomer, Nella Larsen, and Philip Roth have written in their novels, I have never interpreted passing as a tragic act of self-mutilation, and unlike Clare Kendry, I’ve never thrown myself out of a window to avoid being “outed” as black. There was not a moment when I chose to shed my racial skin and play pretend as a black girl in white clothing. I don’t try to pass as Jewish either, though family rumor claims we’re one-sixteenth God’s chosen people. I pass for “white” because my skin is white. Passing for me is unintentional. It is a card dealt by the apathetic and random hand of biological caprice.
When I came home from the hospital as a newborn, pink and perturbed, looking thoroughly displeased with life, my sister pulled at my mother’s arms so she could get her first good look at me. Gazing at my green eyes and fat fleshy cheeks, my sister turned to my mother and said, “Mommy, why is the baby white?” Whether to comfort my sister or to reassure herself (I’ve never thought to ask), my mother replied, “Don’t worry, she’ll get her color soon.” The closest I’ve ever come to being “black” is being mistaken for Puerto Rican.
Werner Sollors was the first person to compare passing to the Trojan Horse. The metaphor seems strange, yet the similarities between racial passing and the ancient myth are uncanny. When I pass, I become a spy in enemy territory, lulling soldiers into a sense of false security because, when I pass for white, my body signals that all is well; white people are free to be white people among other white people. However, what is inherent within that metaphor is that I (my blackness?) will eventually emerge and seize the opportunity to dismantle my enemy’s house. Though, to see this metaphor through, I must acknowledge myself as a house divided—the white exterior constantly at war with the blackness buried beneath.
When discussing a difficult client during a work meeting, my boss—exasperated with the client’s demands and rude behavior—sighed and said, “Well, that’s just what Jamaican women are like, so you all will have to deal with it.” At that meeting, during that moment, in that particular second, I was the Trojan Horse. I could strike, dismantle, and conquer. During that moment my passing did not have to be passive, but active and aggressive. I could have stripped my co-workers of their whiteness by showing them that it doesn’t take much effort to be white. (Look! Even a black girl can do it!) Yet for some reasons I still don’t understand, I didn’t speak up. One might call it fear, but simple answers aren’t always the right ones. The second after the comment was made and I didn’t speak up as a second generation Jamaican, I acknowledged myself as white. Unintentional passing became intentional passing.
To be the Trojan horse, the soldier spy waiting to strike, one must remain silent, yet my silence complicates the metaphor, transforming the Trojan Horse into a sign of surrender and submission. Though I love my body as it is, even though I delight in my God-given flesh, I am at times horrified and disturbed by its ability to pass. When I am silent, my body is not the supposed societal symbol of post-race bliss, but instead widens the gyre of assimilation.
Once, at a friend’s wedding, my sister stood outside the church to blow bubbles at the departing couple. Her long, black curly hair was pulled back from her face into a bun. A woman behind her—zealous in her fervor to celebrate the newly wedded pair—accidently blew bubbles into my sister’s hair. When my sister turned to her, the woman patted my sister’s hair and said, “Oops, I’m sorry, honey. I know you paid good money for that.” As a black woman, my sister immediately understood what the woman was implying.
As a passing woman, I’m still not sure why my hair was searched at the airport. I want to understand the search as a racial act. I want to claim that the woman interpreted my natural hair (the one possible symbol of my black identity) as suspicious and therefore necessitating investigation. However, I know that I have never in my life been seen or recognized as a black person.
When I was in graduate school working on my master’s degree, a new friend and PhD candidate approached me and said, “So I heard a rumor that you’re not white.”
“No,” I said. “I’m not white. I’m black.”
My friend stared at me for a moment and then asked, “But how?”
Most of the time I don’t emerge victorious from the Trojan Horse. Most of the time I’m found out. Unintentional passing means giving an account of your ancestry and lineage as soon as the ruse is discovered. The unintentional pass requires you to keep pictures of your family on hand so that you can justify and support your racial identification. Saying, “I’m black” in either white or black society is not a declarative statement, but an argument that must be reasoned, explained, and defended.
Throughout my life, I have had to account for my blackness, giving some sort of rationale as to why I don’t look like a black person. When I concede that I do in fact have ancestors that were some other race, I’m usually told that I am “not really black” or the person I am speaking with looks at me strangely as if to question why blackness is my preferred racial identification. When you are racially ambiguous, when you are able to pass, it seems illogical that you would choose to be black.
Though racism may not recognize me as an old acquaintance, it has passed me by enough that I can recognize its face. Though it is a ghost in my own life, it is heavy in the lives of those around me. Asking someone to explain and defend why they assert a black identity might be a racist act, but I don’t consider it as heinous as what others have been through.
My sister’s husband is Irish and Italian. Their two daughters have blond hair and blue eyes. Once while I was shopping with my sister and her older daughter, a passerby took a long look at my face and then complimented me for having such a beautiful child. My sister was mistaken for the nanny.