The Delicate and Exquisitely Sophisticated Art of Passing
A recent post on AngryBlackBitch spoke about racial voice profiling, that is, trying to divine the race of the person on the telephone, and according treatment thusly. This was a fascinating concept, and the comments provided links to a compelling PBS website called Do You Speak American?, on American English, which took some time to wade through, but was especially gratifying in its focus on two aspects of American English close to my heart: Californian and Chicano Englishes.
ABB speaks eloquently regarding the confusion that can result from racial voice profiling, when one doesn't have the appropriate or proper accent to fit the stereotype. This got me to thinking about my own voice, and the projection of fantasies, desires, and defense mechanisms contained in projecting one's voice in public. Voice of course is just one of many personae we masquerade behind in moving through potentially hostile territories; one of many potential weapons in what counts for many people of color and GLBT folks as a sophisticated arsenal.
As someone who has always passed racially, a situation which has led, as many light-skinned people can tell you, to some awkward moments (that is putting it nicely), voice is one way to gain a certain narrative power over other people. It is certainly one I used voraciously as the precocious yet utterly effeminate child I was, to establish an edge over those who wished me harm (fellow students, teachers, my family). This was one of the reasons I was fascinated by English as a student, for which today I am rewarded by the dubious compliment of "You speak so well..." For what? is a good question to that observation.
Yet, a strange side effect of this phenomenon has been I am terribly sensitive to accent, intonation, and inflect, and in very short order can assume a wide range of stylistics in my speech that can leave careful listeners confused. To a certain extent, this sensitivity is a map of the places I have lived: California, the East Coast, Quebec, and those that have taught me (UK professors). Cold City and the state that surrounds it is known for its particular accent, and I have discovered, to my simultaneous chagrin and delight, that I am picking that accent up as well.
If I had to come to some sort of personal conclusion about this, I believe it speaks to some sort of desire to meta-pass, that is, to be taken as a local or native of wherever I may find myself, even if in my mind I hold myself above and beyond the micro-scene. But than again, I do think that my true home is seat 22C, on any jetliner to any given place at any given time, and the rest is just trimmings.
Passing is about power, of course: the power to not only fool those who would oppress you but to partake in aspects of society forbidden you via race, gender, sexuality, or class. This is why racial passing has always been so abhorrent for white supremacists, and had somewhat of a bad reputation among people of color. It is the assumption of privilege "unearned." Nella Larson's excellent scene in her novella Passing, in a rooftop restaurant as Clare (a light-skinned woman) stares at Irene (another light-skinned woman) staring at Clare, captures this ambivalent yet powerful gesture: Clare is unsure of everything except the fact that she passes seamlessly as a white woman. Part of the ironic pleasure of that particular game is the ability to spot the passer, from the position of passing one's self. In my quotidian life, this happens more around sexuality than race.
Are passing people pawns in a white supremacist and homophobic society? Well, that is simplistic. I would prefer to think we are secret agents, or fifth columnists. But this is not true for every person (again, the differences between Clare and Irene come to mind). Interestingly enough, when we apply this question to sexuality, one can come up with very different (and troublesome, to my mind) answers. "Masculine" and "str8 acting" might get you so far in sexual fantasy, but are terrible rubrics when it comes to identity.
For me, the passing heroine par excellence is the morbidly fascinating Sarah Jane, in both films versions of Imitation of Life. This is one light-skinned girl who won't take no for an answer, and both films posit this as the real problem, not the fact of a violent white supremacist society which condones and enforces racial roles and stereotypes. The Sirk version, from the 1950s, and Susan Kohner, the Jewish actress who play Sarah Jane, offer us a wild vixen intent on pleasure. Now obviously I realize that this sexuality in relation to the woman of color of any skin tone is historically problematic (to put it mildly), but there is something about Sarah Jane's desire to break free of her racial bonds that I think is inspiring. Once, when I taught Sirk's Imitation of Life, my students produced a video spoof called "Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane?" that posited two alternative pathways for her life: Married to a white man and disappeared into whiteness, or becoming a Black Power Soul Sister. The fact that both are equally possible makes me like the lightness of being (pardon the pun) that Sarah Jane, and by extension I suppose all passing people, have, although in truth many viewers of the film just want to smack her. But of course it is the desire to smack, the desire to punish, the move towards coercion, that speaks most powerfully towards the transgression that is passing (and of course in film towards any uncontained female sexuality). If I can paraphrase Diana Vreeland, perhaps the best way of thinking of passing is the dictum: Passing is Refusal.