The Accidental Caucasian

I found myself relating to the fraught situations that they experienced, particularly in regard to racial passing. You see, I have been passing for white. I know what you are thinking: How is a brown-skinned black woman with an afro passing for white?
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A recent study showed that hiding your social identity at work, whether race, ethnicity, gender, age, religion, or sexual identity, resulted in decreased job satisfaction and turnover. Researchers also found that workers who hid their social identity were more likely to be exposed to discriminatory behavior because coworkers were more open about their prejudices when they believed that no one from that group was around.

As someone who has studied the concept of people of African-American descent passing for white in American culture, I was not surprised that the passers found themselves dissatisfied with their situations. Here is what did surprise me: I found myself relating to the fraught situations that they experienced, particularly in regard to racial passing. You see, I have been passing for white. I know what you are thinking: How is a brown-skinned black woman with an afro passing for white? But, by phone, I have been passing for white for as long as I can remember. When I was a kid, I called a cousin and when her friend answered, I declined to leave a message. When she and the friend arrived at my house later, I overheard my cousin asking, "Did it sound like a white girl?" The friend nodded. My cousin pointed at me and said, "Yeah that was her." I wish that every incident of accidental passing were this benign. But in situations when I later meet a white person who assumed that I too was white, I encounter all sorts of emotions from confusion and embarrassment, to irritation and hostility. I am reminded that even in the age of Obama, Americans are still deeply invested in race as an impervious category of difference. Indeed, it is the reason why the Obamas are black, rather than multiracial. Racial difference is still the primary means through which we understand our world and our place within it. And, any experience that challenges categories of race is usually unwelcome.

Recently while trying to hire a nanny for my daughter, I experienced several 'I am not a white person, but I play one on the phone' moments. I had delightful phone conversations with numerous white women, who when they arrived at my door apologized for getting the wrong address. They looked terribly flustered when I announced that I was indeed the person that they had spoken with by phone. Some recovered from the shock. Others sat nervously peeping at every photo frame in the house to figure out if my husband was black too. One quickly announced that she would be raising her hourly pay rate. This happened so many times that I briefly entertained the idea of announcing my race on the phone. But I was not sure of how to do this without sounding like I had an AK-63 strapped to my back: "So look hear, nanny. I am black. Do you have a problem with that [whitey]?"

Studies have shown that these women were not naive to think that they could identify race by phone. Prof. John Baugh's research suggests that speech is often used to identify race, and that when someone is identified as African-American or Latino by phone, discriminatory practices often follow. Though Baugh is African-American, he conducted the research by responding to ads for apartments using three different dialects: Black English, a Chicano dialect, and what is known as American Standard English. (You can hear Baugh performing each dialect here.) On the one hand, Baugh's research demonstrated a sharp bias against black or Chicano dialects. But the fact that Baugh, an African American, performed all the accents himself, also demonstrates just how superficial such distinctions can be. If someone can just as easily adopt a different accent, then to an extent what we are calling racial identity is a kind of performance.

Nonetheless, differences in accent and dialect are often the result of powerful material realities, more precisely, racial segregation. As American racial practices have shifted, so have the voices of my own family. I sound different from my much older brother and sister who started their education in Alabama's colored schools and later transitioned to integrated ones. And of course, they sound different from my mother and father who spent childhood and early adult life under the heavy weight of institutionalized segregation. But the history of racial segregation has not been linear, and continues today with largely white suburbs and brown inner cities. I live in New Jersey, the nation's fifth most segregated state for blacks and the fourth most segregated for Latinos. It should be no surprise that in a state where residential segregation is so prevalent, people might expect to be able to detect race by linguistic differences. And, it should follow that in a culture in which racial segregation caused by vastly different economic and educational opportunities is the norm, white applicants might view a potential black employer as inferior to a white one.

Though I have a sense of the complicated and troubling reasons that my nanny search turned into a startling game of peekaboo, I decided that I did not want to be an accidental Caucasian any more. I suppose I could have started using Black English when I called applicants. But instead, I added a photo to my ad. One applicant, a white woman, emailed me soon after to say that she was no longer interested in the position. New applications for the position slowed down tremendously and of these, just one was from a white woman, a recent eastern European immigrant who I suspect had yet to be fully initiated into the privileges of whiteness. I did, however, find a nanny, a hazel-eyed blonde, who after describing herself by phone, explained carefully, "But I am African-American." Oh what a complicated place America is.

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