As a mixed-race, bisexual woman, I’m told regularly that I can ‘pass’ as white, or ‘pass’ as straight. The concept of ‘passing’ is probably one of the things I most hate in the world; I detest the fact that some people from the groups I identify with (in this case, Indians* and LGBTQIA people) will suffer more due to the fact that they cannot ‘pass’ as something deemed more desirable by society.
(*I would clarify here that I’m referring to my experience of treatment of Indians in Western, specifically British society, although structures which praise lighter-skinned Indians over darker-skinned ones are still in place in India itself – you need look no further than the skin-lightening cosmetics industry to see proof of this.)
In short, people from oppressed groups who can pass as a member of the oppressing group have more privilege than those who cannot. This is fairly easy to understand: in a world where racial bias in the hiring process still flourishes (white Britons have a 10% higher employment rate than British Indians), and where violence against LGBTQIA people is prevalent (17% of British LGBT+ people have been victims of hate crime in the past 3 years), those who aren’t visibly ‘others’ have a better chance of getting by.
Passing privilege is essentially another tool of erasure used to support oppressive structures. And frankly, it’s just tiring. It’s tiring to consistently have people go out of their way to assume you’re part of the oppressing group, to have part of your identity ignored, and then to find that some members of your own group dislike you because you have the ability to pass. I’m in no way trying to suggest that this puts people who can pass in a worse situation than those who can’t; I completely understand the anger that comes with seeing people from the same group as you get the privilege of those in power. I’m just tired of the system of passing, as something which enforces the dichotomy of normal/other, and by doing so creates divisions within oppressed communities.
In fact, the dichotomy which oppressive structures love so dearly is at the heart of the issue. Aligning some members of oppressed groups with the oppressors serves to normalise them, and by implication to other the members of the group who don’t pass. It creates and supports the myth that the oppressors are what is ‘normal’ and that anyone who diverges from this is an outsider. This is probably most visible in the case of sexuality: from childhood, heteronormativity is enforced, and yet if a teenager comes out as not straight, one of the most common responses is “you’re too young to know what you are”. Passing operates on the principle of ‘innocent (i.e. oppressing group) until proven guilty (i.e. oppressed group)’.
Passing also serves to reinforce stereotypes; unless I cut all my hair off and wear butch clothes, I can’t possibly be a queer woman. Unless I walk down the street in a sari, unless my skin is a certain shade of brown, I can’t possibly be Indian. This is incredibly harmful; it again contributes to the othering of people who do fit these stereotypes, and leads to bizarre hierarchies in oppressed communities, with people competing to fit the stereotypes.
Whenever I raise the issue of passing privilege in conversation, people ask me ‘why are you complaining? It means you’re safer and better off!’. They’re inevitably confused when I reply that I don’t want to be, but it’s true. I don’t want to benefit at the expense of others, especially not others who are members of my own communities. I don’t want a privilege imposed on me by the hierarchy. I don’t want to be seen as one of them, because the implication is that I am more worthy because of the fact that I don’t ‘look Indian’, or ‘seem gay’. I don’t want to lose aspects of me which are critical parts of my identity. I’m tired of half of me being invisible.