uncovering the "privilege" of being a white passing person of colour

Why we shouldn't let white people police who gets to be "white".

by Niloufar Haidari
02 February 2016, 10:01am

I am a 'white-passing' person of colour; a white-passing British-Iranian woman of colour to be exact. I am in no way ignorant as to the privilege this gives me in a still very much racialised world in which the after-effects of colonialism and imperialism are all too evident and dark skin is seen as anything from unattractive to a reason to kill. I am aware that in a culture in which fair skin is still valued higher than those of brown people whether in the fashion industry, on the internet or just at family gatherings, I am lucky. I am white-passing, and I have white-passing privilege. In short, this means that I am not necessarily immediately recognisable as a 'brown person', an 'other'. Make-up companies cater to my concealer and lipstick needs, 'flesh-coloured' plasters and crayons are roughly the right shade. Due to the fact that I have spent my whole life living in the UK, I suffer from Vitamin D deficiency and am therefore more likely to be mistaken for Italian/Spanish rather than Middle Eastern for 9 months of the year. I would like to make it very clear that I am in no way trying to claim I suffer the same kind of discrimination based on skin that black or dark-skinned Asian women do; I don't even suffer the same kind of discrimination as other Iranian women who are darker than I do.

But I do suffer discrimination. I am white-passing, not white. And interestingly, it often seems to be white people rather than other people of colour who are darker than me who are quick to announce my non-eligibility for discrimination and to tell me I'm white. I have experienced a long and varied history of this from both white friends and anonymous white strangers on the internet.

A couple of years ago, I went travelling around Central America with a white girlfriend. As we travelled through these countries, my friend was always very quick to let me know that "I was just as out of place as her" and "looked just as white". It never seemed to occur to her that I wasn't and didn't. It never occurred to her that when I was walking around on my own and not with her, people would talk to me in Spanish rather than English and often assumed I was either Argentinian or at least half Latino. If I ever tried to tell her my experiences of the region were very different when she wasn't by my side she would simply laugh at me and tell me I was deluded. This is the white privilege of dictating other's experiences, of feeling comfortable enough to dismiss the feelings and lived experiences of POC because the thought of everyone not fitting into neat black or white boxes is unthinkable.

Sure, I may have 'white passing' privilege in London or on Tumblr where diversity is de facto but take me out of these very particular places and I am no longer white. I am not white-passing in the English countryside. I am not white-passing whenever I tan which is essentially less of a 'tan' but the colour my skin was meant to be if my grandparents had not chosen to live in a country in which it's overcast on average for 70% of the year. My features are not white: particularly my nose, hair and abundant body hair. I was in no way white-passing when I was a teenager with a unibrow and a moustache in hijab. My sideburns alone stop me from being white-passing even now. I was not benefiting from any kind of white privilege when I was called a p**i following 9/11. In fact, I was never classed as anything except brown until Kim Kardashian became famous and everyone (incorrectly) decided she was white. As an aside: it is interesting to note that the Kardashians are definitely white-passing now, but only after having undergone extensive surgery and laser hair removal to achieve a particular look. Indeed, when the Kardashians first came to fame, much of white mainstream media was quick to make jokes about their hairy faces, and Kim has since come forward to admit she lasers everything from her forehead to her arms. In his 2012 film The Dictator, Sacha Baron Cohen responds to Megan Fox asking "what do you think I am, a Kardashian?" with "Of course not, you're much less hairy". Obviously body hair is an issue for women of all ethnicities, but being called 'hairy' is often an insult reserved for WOC, particularly those of Middle Eastern/South Asian descent.

This phenomenon in which pale POC are told they are white is prevalent online too, particularly when social justice issues are being discussed: white people have a thing for focusing on light skinned POC's 'white features' and attempt to strip us of our ethnicity. I published an article about white privilege in regards to body hair feminism from my perspective as an Iranian woman and returned to at least 3 comments below it telling me that Iranians are in fact white. I began wondering what exactly white people had to gain from telling brown people that they look and/or are white? One explanation is a discomfort with being white. In a time where many people are now more aware of nuanced forms of racism and concepts such as privilege, white people are more likely to be aware of and experience white guilt. One outcome of this can be 'ethnic shopping' i.e. claiming to be from a different race other than white (claiming to be 1/18th Native Cherokee Indian so you can justify wearing a headdress to a festival). In this case it is almost a reverse of this: the discomfort with whiteness means that they 'ethnic shop' for you - that is, to deal with their own discomfort, they lump us into a more privileged 'white-passing' category thus taking away our actual lived experience and re-fashioning our identity as privileged/more privileged for personal gain.

This is essentially a form or gaslighting; telling a white-passing POC that they are white is pretty much nothing more than bullshit designed to throw you off and insinuate that whatever problem you're having "isn't that bad" or is non-existent based on their Higher Authority as a White Person. As mentioned previously, light-skinned POC do undoubtedly have privilege over darker-skinned POC but a white person taking an authoritative stance on this issue is inherently disingenuous - telling you that you are white is meant to make you feel bad for complaining, but in truth they don't really care about darker-skinned people's problems either. After all, white people are still the gatekeepers of whiteness, and 'whiteness' as a concept has not historically always been tied to skin colour. What 'white' is changes over time: Jewish, Irish, Greek, Spanish, and Italian migrants to the United States are all examples of ethnic groups once rejected for their supposed 'racial inferiority' but who have now fully assimilated into whiteness due to a willingness to play by its rules. James Baldwin argued that being white "is not a colour, [but] an attitude" - that is, it is less defined by what you look like than it is a social structure for the gifting of power to some and the social and economic disenfranchisement of others. On his blog 'aRR' Kenji Kuramitsu talks about "whiteness's frantic, obsessive drive to organise immigrant groups against black people, who are viewed as the idle, perpetual counterpoint of the American dream".

Anti-blackness is the founding stone of whiteness, and all assimilation into white culture is framed against it. To relate it back to the topic at hand, white people who tell POC that they are 'white' are perpetuating the idea that you're 'one of them' as long as you agree to be a safe space in which they are free to act like bigots and will keep quiet about your race issues. They are unwilling to acknowledge your cultural background or otherness, especially with regards to their accountability to you and other POC. In short, they don't really give a shit but don't want to admit it.

No matter how 'white' we may look, it is not we as POC who have the agency to designate the borders of whiteness. The 'benefit' of whiteness can only be bestowed upon us by a white person and is only accessible through what is essentially a renunciation of our ethnicities and experiences. Furthermore the privilege of whiteness can be taken away far more easily than it is given: for example, although the US has historically classified Iranians as white (perhaps due to relations that were previously warm and 'Western-friendly') anti-Middle Eastern sentiment following 9/11 has proven that not all those who are classified white on a census form are easily absorbed into whiteness. Indeed, Iranian sociologist Neda Maghbouleh's work looks at the idea that Iranian-Americans "live a racial paradox" in that although the state understands and treats them supposedly as 'white', they are not treated as such by the world in their everyday experiences. She states that "We have this long tradition in sociology of studying when "brown" groups or groups that have been racialised become white. It's usually a story of impugning other minorities, ascending through social class, becoming rich enough to become white, and my case is really interested in the opposite. What happens when a group that has historically been categorised as white has enough racialising experiences such that it's not when brown becomes white, but when white becomes brown."

Being a person of colour with white-passing privilege means that my experiences of discrimination will never be akin to those with darker skin, to those whose otherness is painted clearly across their face and not only evident when you are at a close enough range to recognise racialized features. However to have my identity reduced to white by well-meaning white friends and strangers on the internet is a silencing of my lived experiences. We do not need to register on a Pantone scale whereby we are classed as 'brown enough' by a white gatekeeper for our identities to matter. I appreciate the privilege my pale skin affords me, but allowing white people to decide the boundaries of what constitutes non-white is inherently dangerous, particularly as the borders of whiteness are policed often in self-interest rather than out of genuine attempts at inclusivity.


Text Niloufar Haidari 
Photography Khashayar Elyassi

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