Ten years ago, I had my DNA analyzed by 23andMe. Since then, I receive updates each month about relatives that are linked to my genetics, many of whom are unknown to me. I assisted some of these new relatives in finding the family from which we both descended. This family was found in a couple of post–Civil War censuses, but by the 20th century, the family members had disappeared from record. It took a while, but eventually I was able to find them.
After 1899 they identified themselves as white. Yes, they were passing for white and probably do to this day.
This will be the fourth branch of my family on my father’s side who have passed and continue to pass for white. My father’s cousin passed for white for about six years, having landed a job as a chef in an upscale hotel restaurant in Louisiana. He sent money to his family in Kentucky. I learned that this cousin had to stop passing for white when he witnessed the lynching of one of his colleagues who was doing the same thing and was found out by the hotel’s management. The cousin stayed long enough to get his last paycheck and made his way back up to Kentucky, never to pass for white again. He was willing to risk his life to get a job and make money to support his family in a way that no Black man could ever do, due to Jim Crow and other systemic elements of racism.
Today we have many actors, musicians, and celebrities who are Black, passing for white. They are treated better, they make more money, and they are able to do things that they would be unable to do if a majority knew that they were Black. Another version of “passing” is what a lot of Black women do. They have been conditioned to embrace the white aesthetic in order to be accepted, to build self-esteem, and to make white people comfortable. These are the Black women who spend hundreds of dollars every couple of months on hair weaves and use bleaching creams and dangerous medications to lighten their skin color even though it might destroy their liver. They travel to parts of Africa to change their eye color permanently to blue or green, even though it might mean that they develop permanent blindness.
Today, many white people seek to emulate Blackness. First we have all of the Rachel Dolezals out there proclaiming that they are Black. And then there are the white women who get plastic surgery to emulate Black women with wider hips, bigger lips, bigger butts, larger breasts, curly hair, and darkened skin. The difference is that — with the exception of some people like Dolezal and those who are “Blackfishing” on social media — women like the Kardashians who seek to emulate Black women do not actually want people to perceive them as Black. They are not trying to pass; they are co- opting Blackness and making it their own. They are taking advantage of the dominant culture’s preference for those who seem or look “exotic.”
Much of my father’s family was “color struck” — today it is called colorism. Light or white skin is valued over brown and black skin color. In my father’s family, all of the children were encouraged to marry someone much lighter than themselves in order to avoid bringing color into the family. My grandfather was a fair-skinned man and he married a very brown woman. To this day my family blames my grandmother for bringing color into the family.
I think about this as I browse through the database that tells me that I have 2,000 relatives found through DNA testing. At least 1,500 of them are white. I learned very early on, as I reached out to some of these white relatives in hopes of getting more family history and information, that these white folks are not so accepting of a Black relative.
I started to use Facebook to find some of these relatives to see what they look like and what they are about. Imagine my surprise to find out that many of them are very conservative, Christian, associated with white supremacist groups, and supporting of Trump. I do not reach out to these people. If they want to reach out to me, that is fine, I will talk to them. But I have reached an age now where I am not going to continue to be the initiator of “peace” talks. I am not going to listen to any proselytizing to convince me that I should think the way they do.
In all my days, I never thought I would see so many Black women embracing who they are and refusing to be dictated by the white aesthetic. We who have taken up with the “natural” movement are no longer apologizing for not having straight long shiny hair. We are not getting plastic surgery. We are accepting our weight, our curves, our lips, and our breasts.
After 21 years of locking my hair, I shaved my head and ushered in a new phase in my life, which includes having extremely short hair. None of us Black Boomers would have done such an extreme hairstyle 30 years ago. It would not have been acceptable to family and friends. But I am glad to say that I really do not care what others think or say. I am only trying to pass as me.
Kim Hines (she/her) has been known to Twin Cities audiences as a theater artist — playwright, director, and actor — for 50+ years. Her first YA novella, “Wingo-fly,” was published last year, and she hopes to release a second novella in late winter 2022.