Monday, October 9, 2017
We Wear the Mask: 15 True Stories of Passing in America
For those who don't experience it, the concept of "passing" might sound like a foreign concept. Brando Skyhorse, editor and contributor of We Wear the Mask: 15 Stories of Passing in America, defines passing is "when someone tries to get something tangible to improve their daily quality of life by occupying a space meant for someone else". But how does this work?
Perhaps you remember Rachel Dolezal, civil rights activist, graduate of a historically black university, instructor of Africana studies, and past president of the Spokane, WA chapter of the NAACP. She was believed to be African-American because of her appearance: A lightly tanned skin color, voice, and dark textured hair. In 2015, she applied to be appointed as the Chair of the Police Ombudsman Commission in Spokane, listing her ethnicity as multi, including "black". During an investigation into her application, it was discovered that she was not African-American at all. In fact, her ancestry was almost exclusively European for the past four centuries, as corroborated by her parents who admitted that she was a white woman passing as black. Rachel Dolezal, who legally changed her name to Nkechi Amare Diallo in 2016, chose to pass as black, for reasons that have not been fully explained. In We Wear the Mask, the reader learns of many other situations of passing, and the reasons why it was necessary for the writer to present her/himself as someone else.
Out of the 15 essays, there are three that I found particularly illustrative. In the editor's essay, "College Application Essay #2", he ruminates on the college application process, and what ethnicity he should select on the application form and what he should write about for the essay portion. Brando was born to Mexican parents, but after his father abandoned the family, when the author was a toddler, his mother reinvented herself as Native American - calling herself Running Deer Skyhorse, and Brando Ulloa became Brando Skyhorse. He was raised as if he was from a Native American ancestry, and both he and his mother passed as Native American to those they encountered. It wasn't until the author was 13 that he learned the truth of his background, and from then on he struggled with what racial group he identified and who he believed he was.
Patrick Rosal's essay is written in epistolary form, addressed to "Lady at Table 24". He is a published poet and writer, and winner of the Asian American Studies Book Award, Global Filipino Literacy Award, the Asian American Writers Workshop Members' Choice Award, and a Fulbright scholarship. Patrick was attending that year's National Book Awards ceremony to support some fellow writers, who were nominated. Dressed in the required black tie, enjoying the fine food and drink, he's having a grand time. That is, until he is intercepted by an unknown woman, when he is on his way across the ballroom to speak to a friend. This unknown woman, the "Lady at Table 24", blocks his path and for a second Patrick thinks he knows her from somewhere, because otherwise why would someone interrupt him? That is, until she asks him for more napkins and silverware. From this, the author reflects on how clothing can be used to identify people, to change people's identities, and how sometimes those things get mixed and muddled. How you can wear an expensive suit, attend a fancy party, and still be confused for the help.
In a divergence from the deeply individualistic essays about passing in America, Dolen Perkins-Valdez presents a compelling essay about how America itself passes. In "On Historical Passing and Erasure", the author argues that the USA, through the way it selectively idolizes historical figures, the history it chooses to teach to its students, and the ways in which it rewards its citizens, it tries to pass as a democratic country that is truly devoted to "liberty and justice for all", not just a select few.
Other essays discuss religious passing - for example having Jewish heritage and surname, but none of the stereotypical physical markers that others identify with Jews, so that you are almost always treated as a gentile and have to explain why those antisemitic jokes aren't funny. Other essays explore the complications of passing as a cis-gendered heterosexual, when you truly identify as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community. There is a wealth of diverse experiences here, but they certainly do not compose the entirety of what it is like to pass in America.
I would highly recommend We Wear the Mask: 15 Stories of Passing in America, especially if you're interested in the concept of "passing", and what it's like from a personal perspective. Each of the contributors offers a glimpse into what it is like to live in America, when your identity is in flux. Who you are, and how you present yourself can be an easy choice, or it can be a lifelong struggle. Whatever your experience, you will probably find some essays that will speak to you.