The In-between: A Meditation On Passing
About seven years ago, I was riding home on the Metro Blue Line from Los Angeles down to Long Beach when a large, chestnut-colored man in his late thirties sat down in the seat next to me. Ignoring my headphones and the book I was clearly reading, he started asking me questions about my day and where I was coming from. Uninterested in making small talk or in fielding his advances, I politely declined his request for my name and number by telling him I had a boyfriend.
Like so many before him, my current suitor was not immediately discouraged by this information, and instead, persisted for the next several stops in an attempt to win me over. However, as we neared the end of the line, he accepted his fate, and, trying to make sense of my rejection, turned to look at me accusingly. “Your boyfriend is White, isn’t he?” he said, his eyes full of judgement. Although, at that moment, the answer was actually no, for the first time in my life, I did not feel the need to reply. Instead, I simply smiled at him while shrugging my shoulders mysteriously, and silently stood up to exit the train.
I was reminded of this moment last week, when, in response to my “Awakenings” article, a brief exchange took place on Twitter between myself and two other readers. The debate was over the in-between and the notion of belonging. The first reader posited that traversing between worlds seemed easier than asserting one’s right to take up space in a particular community, whereas the second instead maintained that it was more difficult to reside in the middle. I was in the midst of traveling and quickly tweeted out a response in agreement with the former, but as I sat on the train and contemplated the debate further, I ultimately arrived at a position that was (perhaps unsurprisingly) somewhere more near the middle.
In clarifying his position, the first reader tweeted, “I meant that traveling between the worlds, being accepted by them because of passing or whatever reason, is simpler than trying to assert your space in a world and saying you belong.”
I agree with this point whole heartedly, in large part, because I understand the word “passing” to imply a certain level of inauthenticity or hiding, as opposed to the naked vulnerability that goes hand-in-hand with declaring one’s position. However, on deeper reflection, I also feel compelled to clarify that the active pursuit of passing is not what my experience of the in-between has been about.
Much like the second reader suggests, there is a constant pressure from all directions on in-betweeners to “pick a side.” This was the case seven years ago. The man on the train used his assumption about my boyfriend’s race as a means of attempting to push me over an invisible line into the world of Whiteness. In the past, such an exchange would have prompted an active embrace of my Blackness, which would have ultimately forced me to, once again, set aside a part of myself. By resisting this urge, I manage to instead, maintain my position on the line, which was a difficult act, but one that ultimately allowed me to keep ahold of myself in my entirety.
When speaking with my father about the notion of passing over the weekend, I noticed several slight differences in our experiences that helped to shape our diverging perspectives. Unlike me, my father had never had to question what group he belonged to, and thus, had always been relatively secure in himself and his identity. This security allowed him to embrace or dismiss whatever elements of Blackness he saw fit, and also to position himself however he liked in relationship to the Black community.
In contrast, from the start, my belonging to this same community has often been precarious, and I have frequently been questioned and/or rejected by many at the proverbial door. Thus, even at a very young age, I learned that “passing” (as White) was the worst possible thing I could do, and that because I was perceived as light enough to do so, I had to work twice as hard to clarify my affiliation.
The result of this difference in experience is that in-betweeners like myself have often felt required to take up a more extreme performance of their identity in order to justify belonging. For me, in terms of race this meant that over the years I actively engaged in numerous displays of Blackness in order to lay claim on a position in the Black community. I wore my hair in braids, dated only Black men, aggressively consumed Black popular culture, and focused heavily on the African Diaspora experience in my studies. I did these things throughout my teens and twenties not only as a means of trying to sort out myself as a biracial person, but also because they helped to clearly articulate my affiliations with Blackness, and thereby reject any perceived opportunity to pass.
The real significance of my encounter with the man on the train, therefore, is that I had finally come to a point in my racial development where I no longer felt intimidated by his threat of non-belonging. Through my studies of diaspora and years of engagement with the Black community, I had come to realize that my biracial heritage and in-between positioning was also intrinsically part of the Black experience. I didn’t need to be accepted as Black because I was always, already Black. Just because my version of Blackness might look or feel or sound a bit different than my father’s or that man from the train’s, does not in any way make my experience of Blackness less significant. I was, am, and always will be an equal member of this community, even as I traverse between it and multiple other worlds.
Similarly, I also maintain my position in the queer world as a bi woman whose romantic relationships primarily convey an image of straightness. People are free to assume whatever they like about me, my belonging remains unchanged. My sexual attraction to both men and women by definition, root me in this space, and are thus all I need to know that my place as an LGBTQ+ member is secure.
Moreover, my belonging to this world contributes to and underscores the very diversity for that which it is known. As the growing list of letters used to reference the LGBTQ+ community suggest, there is no one experience of queerness that is superior to any other. Therefore, diversity within this space should not be minimized or even simply tolerated, because it is this presence that actually brings life and beauty to the community in the first place. We cannot and should not all feel as though we must pretend to be the same, and at the same time we must also recognize that this lack of sameness does not negate our equal value and belonging within the community.
So, to return to my conversation on Twitter and further clarify my position, I find it most challenging and rewarding to maintain myself in the middle. In doing so, at the same time, I actively work to expand the boundaries of all the worlds around me, thereby also insisting on my right to belong as a full and complete member of those spaces. While it is, of course, easier to gain acceptance for such an act of expansion in minority spaces, I also believe it is necessary to point out that such in-betweenness also exists in connection with dominant experiences. For every middle member like me who actively seeks to embrace their minority group experience, there are also those who opt instead to pass in dominant society. In this way, diversity exists in the dominant world as well, although there it is often downplayed or minimized as a prerequisite of belonging.