Monday, November 12, 2007

Dressing White

This weekend I went to a party and was describing my research on passing to a party guest I had never met before. He told me he knew someone in his MBA program who was passing--a young woman who had a black father and a white mother. I asked him how he knew she was "passing"--and he said that she had disclosed her family background to him and that since she "dressed" and "talked" white then it seemed as if she was passing as white.

I know I said I would write more about bigotry vs. institutional racism, but I thought I'd start with this anecdote because in some ways it reflects both in nuanced form. I'm not necessarily calling this person a "bigot" but I find his remarks problematic and steeped, at heart, in a rhetoric of racial hierarchy. Because what does it mean that she "dressed" and "talked" white? Especially in the context of being in an MBA program? The unspoken element was that she was not "dressing" or "speaking" as a black person--but what does that mean? And if she were acting "black" would that be more or less appropriate in an MBA program? Do people who act "black" have less resources in gaining an entry into a Fortune 500 company upon completion of an MBA program? This kind of thinking--subtle beliefs in the essence of whiteness and blackness and the implicit hierarchy and privileging of this coding, especially in certain spaces like MBA programs shows the deep effects of racial and racist thinking.

I mean, lets think about it. This guy I was speaking to (who, should I mention, presented as a white American man, but since we're talking about passing, I suppose I can't say for certain how he identified since it never came up) graduates, gets a job, is responsible for hiring people: is he going to be more or less likely to hire an African American person who fits with his conception of "whiteness" which he equated with "normalacy" (this came out when I pressed him about what he meant that she dressed and talked white--like everyone else--like every other middle-class normal American). Doesn't this imply that if you don't present as a white-middle-class American that you are labeled as "other" and will therefore be less likely to be hired? And if normalcy is, indeed, equated with whiteness, then isn't this an example of how, institutionally, racism gets perpetuated at the micro level? Can we imagine Condoleeza Rice, with the same set of credentials and ideologies, wearing cornrows? I'm not a fan of Rice but I did sympathize HUGELY when she caught all the flack she did for just wearing knee-high boots a few years back when she went touring Europe (there's that famous photo of her with the boots at a US army base in Germany). What would happen if she started wearing more "ethnic" clothing or letting her hair go natural?


dance said...

I asked him how he knew she was "passing"--and he said that she had disclosed her family background to him

By definition, then, that isn't passing, I should think.

"talked white"--eh, basic stereotyping, possibly a legit comment because a lot of people do change mode of speaking.

"dressed white"--more problematic. How many people in MBA programs "dress black"? Are all professionals then passing? what the hell does that even mean?

Jennifer said...

Good question--if someone discloses one's mixed background, does that then mean that the person is not "passing"--this is somewhat under dispute (within the academic community) in terms of people who "intentionally" pass and those who don't. Of course, one could argue that at the moment of disclosure that it would resolve all questions of identity/heritage, so that perhaps he meant that she was "acting white" (which is a whole other thorny and vexed and condescending issue). It is true that, possibly, this woman could be doing some "code switching" in terms of her speech patterns (taking on different language patterns, vocabulary, accents depending on the social context) but again, that "standard English" (which is I think what he was getting at) is associated as a typically "white" trait is problematic--especially with certain immigrant groups (Spanish ancestry, Asian ancestry). I know this issue comes up A LOT in Hawaii among those who speak pigeon (or Hawaiian Creole English) and the charge that they need to "speak like a haole (white person)" in order to speak standard English.