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Guessing Games

Passing, an Embarrassing Remnant of Race Politics and History, Was Supposed to Be Passe. But It's Still With Us--Especially in Los Angeles, the Destination Point for So Many Diverse Departures.

February 21, 1999|LYNELL GEORGE | Lynell George is a Times staff writer. She last wrote for the magazine on photographer Camilo Jose Vergara

I'm 28 years old. I am light-skinned (olive). What color is that? It's hard to explain . . . . As a child I had nearly alabaster skin and blue eyes . . . . I have been asked nearly every day what I am or been the object of guessing games. Every nationality has been mentioned. I see passing as a sort of image projection . . . . What I mean by "image projection" is that it is not just one's looks that project whiteness, it is also knowledge, patterns of speech, manners of dress and the people one is affiliated with. [It's] almost second nature to me. I do it without thinking. I do it sometimes against my own free will.

-- "Nicole"

*

"Nicole" dabbles in a world of racial sleight-of-hand.

There's work--a corporate 9 to 5. There's school--ivy walls and French literature. There's a slender portion of social life wedged amid it all. For each, Nicole juggles not just her schedule but her persona. It's an art she's been perfecting for most of her 27 years--with pots of foundation, contact lenses, a Crayola array of lipstick shades, but mostly a psychic chutzpah she's come to master.

For her job as an administrative assistant at a tony business firm, she might blow-dry her hair straight and apply makeup to "enhance" her "light features." For school, she may wear almost no make-up and allow her hair to air-dry and coil naturally.

"In any situation such as a fine dining establishment run by whites--white neighborhoods, taxi cabs, bars, restaurants and other social situations--I feel more comfortable looking as white as possible," Nicole explains as if she's simply detailing her route home. "Still I feel--and know--that I am 'black,' no matter how much I try to pass. These changes make a difference, however. I have felt the difference of how people treat me whether they are white or black based on how I look."

Passing was supposed to be passe. If not dead, at the very least moot. An embarrassing, tattered remnant of a particularly American brand of race politics and history.

But it's not. "There are still many older people in the country, and especially in California, in Orange County, here in Los Angeles, up in Ventura County, [who] come up to me and confess that they are doing this, or that their relatives are doing this now," says writer Shirlee Taylor Haizlip.

Since her 1995 bestseller, "The Sweeter the Juice," which chronicled a generation-spanning search for her mother's family, who abruptly "crossed over," Haizlip has become dirty laundress, confidant, confessor. "They are usually people over 40 who are passing in the old-fashioned way. They haven't told their children. They've lived a certain way for so long and they can't change that."

Beyond those who are trapped in the hand-me-down deceptions of their family's past, passing has put on a modern mask. In this post-civil rights era, in this increasingly multiracial society, "passing" has reemerged in an updated and equally startling form.

Because Los Angeles has become the destination point at the end of so many diverse departures, it provides a Lazy Susan of cultural identities, poised, just so, for the grabbing. For a new generation of L.A. youth, the old-fashioned notion of racial identity may feel too constricting. From the debate around multiracial identity to the cultural imprints of integrated life, the thinking is: If you grow up next door to it, immersed in it, doesn't it some way become a part of you?

Proximity raises a host of possibilities that, when put in practice, become loaded propositions. Increasingly in L.A. you can find Iranians passing as French or Greeks passing for Louisiana Creole or Irish-descendant California girls passing for Cuban.

Perhaps for practical advantage--or perhaps just for fun--passing has even been turned on its head: a quest to look more "exotic," not less.

Whether it's a vindictive pose based in reaping the spoils of affirmative action, or just a costume for an evening, modern passing unleashes a set of complicated questions.

If racial identity is a box, a structure, a home with four sides, what happens when one decides to remove one wall? Reconfigure a ceiling? Do away with the old floor? What if identity were as fungible as all that, like acquiring a new address or running henna through one's hair?

Passing challenges what is truth and what is illusion and ushers onto center stage a lengthy list of race-based taboos. Even in its most seemingly innocuous pose, it scratches at old wounds--those rooted in access, respect and esteem--and cannot erase the racism and guilt that lie at the heart of it all. In all its incarnations, passing tells us that the harder we try to erase identity, the more we struggle with it.

*

For generations of families--not just black, but latino and Jewish as well--there are names without faces in family albums, limbs missing on an otherwise sturdy tree: Sisters, brothers, mothers who had "gone over," vanished to the "other side."

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