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Mistaken Identities : And in America, Light-Skinned Blacks Are Acutely Aware That Race Still Matters to Many People

September 28, 1989|LEE MAY | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Rep. Augustus Hawkins, 81, vividly remembers riding a bus in his home town of Los Angeles many years ago when a white woman sat down beside him. "She kept moving over to be next to me," he recalled, "and then she said, 'You know, we sure are getting a lot of blacks in this neighborhood. I don't like sitting next to them because they smell.' "

Hawkins, both curious and offended, asked the woman if he smelled. When she answered no, he said, "If I were to tell you that I'm black, what would you say?" Her answer: "I wouldn't believe you."

'Assumed I Was Lying'

"That woman's view has never changed," said Hawkins. "She probably assumed I was lying just to kid her."

What was a disagreeable incident for Hawkins, who represents such areas as Watts, South Gate and Huntington Park, is an all-too-common occurrence for many very light-skinned black people: They are born between two worlds. Some choose to join the white world, "passing" in order to gain privileges denied to black people. Others prefer to live black, gaining the satisfaction of feeling true to themselves and their race.

As Hawkins' experience shows, it is not a new predicament.

But today, with interracial marriages more common--according to the Census Bureau, there were 218,000 black-white marriages by last year, compared with 51,000 in 1960--and racial confrontations once again grabbing headlines, the issue of what determines a person's race is more prevalent in our society. By being mistaken for white, black people often see white behavior and attitudes--ranging from the humorous to the sinister--that would otherwise be concealed.

Mistaken for White

What follows are some of the stories of blacks who have been mistaken for white.

Carla Dancy, 34, now a lobbyist with a computer firm in Washington, received a welcome to Raleigh, N.C., that she will never forget. "I went there on a Saturday," she said, "and my boss was taking me around, introducing me to people.

"One of the people who greeted me welcomed me by saying, 'Hi, so glad to meet you. You're going to love North Carolina. We still lynch niggers and burn crosses down here.' "

Dancy, noting that the man was a customer of the firm she was starting to work for, said nothing to him because she did not want to sour the professional relationship. She said: "I didn't tell him. I don't know what my face looked like or how I handled it in front of him. I said, 'Yeah, I'm glad to be here,' or something like that, and kept on going."

But "someone must have told him after that that I am black," she said, because "he could never look me in the eye for the four years we worked together. And he never said he was sorry. We never discussed it." Three other white people present, including her boss, knew she was black and "were flabbergasted," said Dancy.

On another occasion, she was waiting a long time in line for a North Carolina driver's license, slogging her way through the bureaucracy and finally dashing out of the examination office only to find that her license said she was white.

"The people had never asked me my race," she said, "so I had to go back and get the picture taken again. I don't know why they did not have me fill out something that told my race."

Dancy's reaction to being mistaken for white is not uncommon, according to Joyce Ladner, a sociologist and professor of social work at Howard University. The mistake "is like calling you out of your name," she said. "You want to be recognized for what you are."

Ladner asserted that attention to race continues, even though many legal barriers to race-mixing have fallen, largely because the Reagan Administration fostered "a heightened awareness of racial tensions."

"That unleashed people's most base instincts," she said.

Amid increasing cultural and ethnic diversity in the United States, race remains unshakable as the ultimate identifier. One can change dress, life style, weight and many other characteristics, but race, as Ladner put it, remains "fixed and immutable."

When Carol Tyler, 54, a Red Cross executive in Columbus, Ohio, went to a blood banking meeting in Toledo, she and a few white associates started a conversation about another acquaintance, who was black. They were "speculating about her age."

Amid the banter, one of the white women said, "Don't you know you can't tell about those people?"

Tyler remembered being "completely taken aback, but I didn't say anything about it. The next day somebody said something about my age." Recalling that moment, Tyler laughed and said, "Oh, that was the perfect set-up." She said she told the group: "You know I'm one of those people whose age you can't tell about."

The white woman, who also was taken aback, "was so upset that she couldn't look at me," Tyler recalled. "I finally said, 'Hey, I didn't intend to make you feel bad, but you never know who you're talking to.' "

Tyler said that when she saw the woman during annual meetings after the incident, "our relationship was a little strained."

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