OTI Online
summer 1998

"Passing"
Life in Black and White
by Toi Derricotte


I'm sure most people don't go around all the time thinking about what race they are. When you look like what you are, the external world mirrors back to you an identity consistent with your idea of yourself. However, for someone like me, who does not look like what I am, the mirrors are broken, and my consciousness, or lack of consciousness, takes on serious implications. Am I mentally "passing"?

All my life I have passed invisibly into the white world, and all my life I have experienced that sudden and alarming moment of consciousness when I remember I am black. It may feel like I'm emerging too quickly from deep in the ocean, or touching an electric fence; or like a deer stuck in the headlights of an oncoming car. Sometimes in conversation with a white person who doesn't know I'm black, suddenly a feeling comes over me, a precursor—though nothing at all has been said about race—and I either wait helplessly for the other shoe to drop, or try desperately to steer the conversation in another direction, or prepare myself for painful distinctions. My desire to escape is indistinguishable from my "blackness," my race, and I am filled with shame and fury.

People have asked why my parents, my grandmother and I never "passed" over into the white world. It was unthinkable. With my dark grandfather driving, my grandmother and I would ride in the backseat of my grandfather's Cadillac as if we were being chauffeured. We'd shop the aisles at Saks Fifth Avenue when there wasn't even a black elevator operator. On the one hand, there was always a feeling of anxiety that something would betray what we really were; on the other, I think we were really quite self-possessed, almost arrogant. We saw ourselves, with all our struggles and complexities, as rich in culture and history, fierce, determined, strong, and even beautiful. While we wanted the privileges white people had, we had contempt for what we saw as their pale lives.

I truly cannot remember when I first learned I was black. It is as if every experience I have had of realizing I am black, all the way back to grade school and before, is tainted with that fear of discovery, of being recognized as black. Now I realize that the depression that made me begin the work of this book was really a first re-memory of "killing" voices from my childhood. It was like feeling returning in a limb that has been asleep.

House Hunting September

Last month, I called a real estate agent. "There is a house I think you'd be interested in," she said. "It's on an estate on Highland Avenue, and the people are very particular about who buys it."

My heart shriveled. Should I find out whom they are "particular about"? Should I let her think I'm white and go without Bruce to see it? When I take Bruce we are shown entirely different neighborhoods, all-black or integrated.

I decided to act dumb: "Oh, really? Why isn't it a multiple listing? What are they so careful about?"

"Well, you know, some people like to do it this way. Let me have your phone number; I'll call you back." But she never called back. I wonder if our name is known: "That black couple looking for a house in town, and the wife looks white."

This week I called another agent and played a game. "We'd like to look at the house you're describing, but we'd also like to see a house we heard about on an estate."

"I'll see if I can get the owners on the phone and we'll go see it."

When Bruce and I got to her office, of course she hadn't gotten hold of them. "The man works at night. No one is at home."

"I'd still like to see it. Drive by on the way to the other house."

She got lost! Imagine a real estate dealer getting lost in her own town! "That's all right," I reassured her. "We can go past it on the way back."

The house she showed us, in the integrated part of town, was expensive and rundown. On the way to the "particular" house, once again she got lost. We had to direct her. Bruce said, "There it is! There it is!" It was all lit up. And she kept driving. Finally, half a mile down the road (I was waiting to see if she would ever stop), I said, "Why didn't you stop at the house?"

"Oh," she stammered. "Did we pass it?" I felt a hopelessness descend. No matter how clever and determined I am, they can always find a way to stop me. I decide to look for a house in another community, one where we are not yet known, and this time I'll go to the real estate agent's alone.

October

It's the overriding reality I must get through. Each time I drive down the streets and see only whites, each time I notice there are no blacks in the supermarket or walking past, I think, I'm not supposed to be here.

Some part of me doesn't give a fuck about boundaries in fact, sees the boundaries and is determined to dance over them, no matter what the consequences are.

March

We finally decided on Upper Montclair, New Jersey. The neighborhood isn't integrated but the schools are, since busing is in effect. Many afternoons, instead of asking not wanting to arouse the suspicion of the real estate agents I would sit outside one of the neighborhood schools at lunch hour like a pedophile, counting the number of black faces. Though sometimes I'd be brave and ask. I didn't only want information; I wanted to commit a small revolutionary act to leave the impression that the world is full of liberal white parents who want change.

Last week the people across the street gave us a cocktail party. I felt grateful, but out of place. I couldn't get over the feeling that I had to prove myself different from what I was sure almost all of them took for granted that Bruce and I didn't know anything about wine or art and had never seen an Oriental carpet in our lives yet at the same time, I had to be absolutely "myself; that was the only way I could earn their respect. Suddenly, right in the middle of my urgent desire to belong, came my hatred of them and everything they stood for.

April

This morning I put my car in the shop. The neighborhood shop. When I went to pick it up I had a conversation with the man who had worked on it. I told him I'd been afraid to leave the car there at night with the keys in it. "Don't worry," he said. "You don't have to worry about stealing as long as the niggers don't move in." I couldn't believe it. I hoped I had heard him wrong. "What did you say?" I asked. He repeated the same thing without hesitation.

In the past, my anger would have swelled quickly, I would have blurted out something, hotly demanded that he take my car down off the rack immediately, though he had not finished working on it, and driven off in a blaze. I love that reaction. The only feeling of power one can possibly have in a situation in which there is such a sudden feeling of powerlessness is to "do" something. When you "do" something, everything is clear. But this is the only repair shop in the city. Might I have to come back here someday in an emergency?

Blowing off steam is supposed to make you feel better. But in this situation it doesn't! After responding in anger, I often feel sad, guilty, frightened, and confused. Perhaps | my anger isn't just about race. Perhaps it's like those rapid-fire responses to Bruce a way of dulling the edge of feelings that lie even deeper.

I let the tension stay in my body. I go home and sit with myself for an hour, trying to grasp the feeling the odor of self-hatred, the biting stench of shame.

The Club July

Last week a young woman who lives down the street came over for dinner. We got into a conversation about Tall Oaks Country Club, where she is the swimming instructor. I asked her, hesitantly, but unwilling not to get this information, if blacks were allowed to join. (Everybody on our block belongs; all had been told about "the club" and asked to join as soon as they moved in. We had never been told, or asked to join.)

"No," she said.

"You mean the people on this block who have had us over for dinner, whom I have invited to my home for dinner I can't swim in a pool with them?"

"That's the rule," she said, as if she were stating a mathematical fact.

Four days ago Ann, the woman down the street, called to ask if my son could baby-sit. I like this woman. Easy to talk to. She and her husband are members of the club, and I couldn't resist telling her the story.

She said, "Oh, Toi, John and I wanted to invite you and Bruce to be our guests at a dinner party. Several of us said we would turn in our resignations unless you could come. But the majority felt it wouldn't be a good idea, because you would see all the good things and want to join, and since you couldn't join, it would just hurt you and be frustrating. John and I wanted to quit. I feel very ashamed of myself, but the next summer, when I'm stuck in the house with the kids and nothing to do, we'd start going again."

August

When I'm with Bruce, I feel black, feel as if I'm taken in by his blackness, as if his blackness falls on me, as if it casts a powerful shadow. Perhaps I assume we become the things we love, and I assume everyone else can see.

Whatever is tainted of Bruce is also tainted of me; whatever is beloved of him is also beloved of me. I become what he is in restaurants, in real estate offices at times reluctantly, but without question.

Do I, given my place of trembling identity, slip over and become the thing I am closest to? If so, no wonder I married a black man! To have married a white man would have been terrifying, to love a white man would have made me feel constantly adrift from my most primitive cells. How frightening to be awash without constructs! To be placed outside the walls of the city! To lose kinship, memory, and begin again with nothing, a liquid self, as I do again and again each day.

Knowing whom we love and hate holds reality in place. His body protects me, stands between me and a kind of annihilation.

April

I see them going out together on Friday nights. I peek through the shutters when I hear their voices in the street. They come out, all at the same time: the Baldwins walk across the street and get into the Lloyds' car, the Stevenses wave at them as they pull out of their drive. They're all going to the club for dinner or a party. And they make noise out there, the noise of happiness, as if they want me to hear and be sad.

August

Saturday morning Bruce and I spend a couple of hours talking about the club. I want to try and join, to sue them, but I just don't have the energy and guts to do it without him. He says he's tired of talking about it. He claims I'm taking this hard because it's the first time I've directly felt the results of racism, the first time I've been refused because I'm black. I don't get the constant reminders that people with dark skin grow so accustomed to that they are often not bothered. He says my color has given me a kind of mobility. The pain I feel now is the pain most black people experience when they are children, when they realize they cannot escape from their skin.

When I finally talked to Ann again she never did invite us to the club she invited us to their home for dinner, and we went, sick with anger but wanting to be forgiving. She poached salmon with creme fraiche and served it on her grandmother's china, with sterling, and damask from Holland. I sat in the living room as sick as if I had eaten feces, my lips pulled back like a frightened dog's.

That night my heart touched self-hatred. It was as white as white light. It burned my eyes like a holocaust. I had to enter and be one with it before I could forgive myself.

December

I asked Bruce if he had married me because of my light skin, and he admitted that, partly, it was true. He was aware that my color, especially in business, would allow him to be seen in a different way.

I had always thought that Bruce was the one person in the world who loved me for myself. We have been married for twenty years and never talked about color. Now I see that I am partly a shield he is holding up for protection. He, too, has a secret in the corner of his heart that stands between us like a mirror we don't want to look into.

I want to tell him how, when we pull up in front of a hotel, I want to rush out of the car door, to go in before him just in case he will be given an inferior room. Often I don't because I don't want him to be "emasculated," not to have the normal power of a male to get a hotel room, but I distrust what women are supposed to trust in their men the power of acquisition. I often feel I could do better alone.

Thinking White

At a recent dinner party for my mother, my black friends astonished me by saying that I look whiter than she does. But I had always thought that she looked whiter than I. Was that my way of rejecting her, of not wanting to be like her? Or was it my way of "ennobling" what I came from? Someone said I'd better have a good, clear picture on my book; she said that, in a way, it is brave of me to say I look white, because saying you look white, at least to some black people, is a red flag of presumption, arrogance, and perhaps even insanity.

"She think she white" was one of the worst insults that could be hurled during childhood, rasped nearly out of the subject's hearing.

"She think she white" might indicate, not that you wore a pretty dress, but that you wore it in a certain way, as if you were proud of it as a fact of your being, as if you deserved it, took it as a personal accomplishment, as if in some way it created a hardness around you, set you apart, gave you not only an identity of your own but one that separated you from the others and shut them out.

"She think she white" is not the same as "She wants to be white." It means, she thinks she is white. It aims not only to make the hearer think that she has done something wrong, but to assault the very idea of the self, to deal a shattering blow to the center of all thought. Isn't that racism's greatest injury?

What Makes You Black?

It is always a question asked by whites who, I suppose, think, looking at me, that the necessary attributes - color, features, hair, or perhaps something more subtle: speech, some giveaway inflection of being are missing. Some have said, shocked: But nothing about you is black! This expresses a puzzlement, a curiosity, but it can also be an accusation, as if they were saying: Look, now, black is one thing that I am absolutely sure of you owe me an explanation!

Black people never ask. We understand that blackness is both real and unreal, that it can't be explained, nailed down, or verified. That it is an attribute of the body, slightly, like a halo.

"You bright?" a young girl asked me as she passed by on a street in the small town in Louisiana that was my mother's childhood home. I had never heard it said that way before. "Bright?" I asked.

Was it something in my body that gave me away? That girl, with her Southern X-ray eyes, having peered more deeply and concertedly into miscegenation? She looked proud of herself, as if she had caught me hiding. Or perhaps she was smiling because it made her happy to find me kin. Or perhaps, like those girls who combed and brushed my "good" hair, she saw me as an example of what could in fact burst out of any one of us girls not the "throwback" our mothers warned us about, making us worry through all our pregnancies, and check first, before fingers and toes, our baby's ears but a "bright" child, like me.

Face to Face

Can whites begin to understand and take in the pain of this racist society? So often white people, when a deep pain with regard to racism is uncovered, want it to be immediately addressed, healed, released. Black people have had to live with the wounds of racism for generations. Even goodwill and hard work won't make the personal hurts cease. Perhaps awareness can insure that we do not pass the damage on to others.

Things don't change. Newsweek, October 1994 blacks have inferior intelligence, re: The Bell Curve. It's as if, no matter how much I heal myself, the world keeps breaking my image into shards and sticking them into my heart. I am supposed to distrust and hate myself. How can I explain to you that, at the same time, I do distrust myself; the world has succeeded; I won't let this happen. I will not think what the world wants me to think. And that, in some way, my confession is a kind of subterfuge, a tactic, a way of overturning the damage. It is the silence that I fear more than anything, the pretense, the way it seems that, in the silence, suddenly some violence springs out that is unconnected. Is it better to keep things looking neat?


Excerpted from The Black Notebooks by Toi Derricotte (W.W. Norton & Company, New York). Derricotte is an award winning writer and the recipient of two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. She is an associate professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh.


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