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  • Writer's pictureTheatre TIM

My personal politics of "passing"

Today in Black Dramatic Theory we got into discussions of shadism and the politics of color both within black spaces and outside of them. Many of the theorists we have already read, from Langston Hughes, to W.E.B. Du Bois, were light skinned Black. Though they would never be accepted as white, their proximity to whiteness provided certain privileges. We prepared for class by watching Imitation of Life, the 1934 version, directed by John M. Stahl, and starring Claudette Colbert as Beatrice Pullman, Louise Beavers as Delilah Johnson, and Fredi Washington as Peola Johnson. Louise Beavers and Fredi Washington are pictured in the photo on this post. We also read Langston Hughes' 1930 play Mulatto. Each of these plays featured a young mixed race person, fighting hard against a system which saw them as black, and therefore cut them off from privilege. Each of these characters, Peola in Imitation of Life, and Robert in Mulatto, felt they deserved the privileges of their whiteness. Neither of them, however, questioned the system that denied rights to black folks. They wanted white privilege because they looked close to white, not because they saw anti-black racism as inherently wrong, but because of their proximity to whiteness.

This ability of light-skinned black folks to both tap into certain privileges and also be denied them, is the struggle often used to create the archetype of the "tragic mulatto". Both Peola and Robert pushed back against the tragic resignation that these characters often embrace, instead demanding privilege loudly and at the expense of their darker family members.

In class we discussed the ways in which this ability to "pass", as well as light-skinned proximity to whiteness and the privileges that come with it. We also discussed how proximity to whiteness is not whiteness, nor is accepted as whiteness. Even as a child, I was aware that my existence disrupts white spaces. Because I look so white, this seems strange, and yet somehow, it was there. Others in the class shared other experiences. The one white person in the class was the only one who isn't constantly aware of themselves, and the racial make-up, of every space they walk into. Whiteness allows one to see themselves as default. For me, walking away from this conversation, I thought, again, about this tenuous place that we who sit along the color-line occupy. A space where we are sometimes accidentally accepted into white spaces, where we are looked at suspiciously, but eventually (sometimes) accepted into black spaces. Historically we have often tried to tap into white supremacy. Historically we have generally been rejected by white supremacy. I see it is my job to stay hyper-aware of my positionality in all rooms, as a constant disruption, and ensure that I don't use white supremacy to project my voice into any kind of space.

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