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In the jargon of the young ones today, my meeting with Suzan Lori Parks last night in Buffalo brought up, “so many feels.” She talked about the folks in the past, whose footprints she follows. While I sip my coffee in this warm Panera Bread shop while blizzard #2 of the never ending Buffalo winter takes hold- her thoughts give me pause. The past, our collective pasts, those who have past, and what passing means. Upon listening in, (more advice from Suzan) I caught in the stream of consciousness, something in my spirit on “passing” as it has come to be called for minorities, specifically the safety and inclusion that passing can give you. Now when I use the term, I speak of going under the radar, and folks assuming you are one of the “right” group. So as it used to be, and as it is today, people of color who pass for white still reap rewards in our society. To go back a bit, I look to Rita Cansino. This fine woman was a contract player for the studio system. This Latin beauty let the studio system dye her hair red, and lightened her appearance and change her name to become Rita Hayworth. The red bombshell skyrocketed to fame after her white looks were assumed. To move closer in time we have Latina Wonder Woman Lynda Carter. She hid the fact she had a Cuban father, otherwise she would have never been cast as the star spangled heroine we all know and love her as. Jennifer Beals also has spoken on the issues of being biracial, and people always questioning her race. Her racial ambiguity and sometimes not passing for white has led to a career of roles that confront race in a daring way. Beals
The subject of passing when it comes to transgendered women brings this into a contemporary context. Activists Janet Mock and Laverne Cox have been all over television and social media lately spreading the gospel of inclusion and what it means to be a trans woman of color today. Passing for trans women is a matter of life and death today. The sad tale of Islan Nettles highlights that. She was murdered in essence because she did not pass. She was killed for having the unmitigated gall to think she could be herself in public. She didn’t pass muster. Therefore she had to be murdered…
Islan Nettles Janet Mock was quoted recently by Colorlines.com that she acknowledged that “passing is a privilege.” She doesn’t have to worry much about being murdered in the street like Islan. Janet Mock is quoted as seeng the safety benefits as well.
I am reminded of that melodramatic yet affective scene from the classic movie Imitation of Life, of what happens when you suddenly are confronted with not passing… young Sarah Jane, being beaten in the alley by her white boyfriend screaming, “I’m white, I’m just as white as you are.” What a stinging scene. It always made me cringe, cry, and get furious at society for encouraging this woman to deny her mother and hate her race because of the benefits our white supremacist society grants white women.
The complexion for the protection as comedian Paul Mooney calls it-Paul Mooney -gave early blacks just freed a safety net when Jim Crow threatened to put them back into slave conditions regarding freedom. Passing saved their lives, and gave them better or equal rights as the rest of society Passing.
Suzan Lori Parks talked about her work not being subversive because she did not have the intent to turn the world over. Her epiphany onstage was that maybe telling the truth is subversive. I agree sister Parks. Telling your truth to the world cuts through the crap and the noise. All of this talk of the pros (which seem to be short term) and the cons and psychological damage that comes with passing brings intersections of race and gender, and sexuality together again. For transgendered women, passing can bring safety from physical violence. However I question the safety when they might engage in a romantic encounter with a CIS gendered heterosexual male who discovers they are trans…this is in no way victim blaming. It is food for thought. What truth do trans women owe people when they pass? I say they owe nothing. Our sexuality and gender are our own affair, but it is worth discussing.
Of course all of this violence and danger that is an issue concerning minorities is all a symptom of heterosexism and white supremacy. That needs to be addressed.
Thank you sister parks. You inspired me to join my transgender sisters of color in the fight for truth.