Consciously, I know I’m in a South Africa that is politically, but not socially, post-Apartheid. Even so, the little old white lady’s racist comments surprise me. Complaining about the incompetence of black employees in grocery stores, she proudly notes how she nevertheless carefully pronounces the names on their nametags because they like it when we do that. We use their names – treat them as human – because we love the Lord. And then she tucks her purse under her arm and totters away with a smile and a wave to the three black pastors waiting in the adjacent room for my next interview. I don’t think she knows their names.

Not once in the interview does she lower her voice. She doesn’t know that her condescension, not to mention her conflation of incompetence with a particular skin colour, is racist, so she doesn’t care if they hear. Mistaking my attempts at impartial data collection for affirmation, she misinterprets them as indicating we’re on the same team. I am now filled with anxiety. Did they hear her comments? Will they also mistake me for being on her team and, by extension, hear my attempts at neutrality to be perpetuating the white racism of the South African context? And if they do, will they be right? I know ethnography can’t be neutral when performed in such politically and socially charged situations. Indeed, it can never be. What then are the ethics of data collection when the aesthetic – the appearance, the identity – of the researcher itself functions as a symbol of the worlds that are colliding in her project?

I stop the recording, collect myself, check my notes, and walk into the adjacent room. I smile and shake the pastors’ hands. But now I feel strange repeating their names back to them. We sit down at the table and I realize once again that I actually have no idea what team I’m on.

This is my second day in South Africa. Ever. But I grew up hearing stories situating the lives of my maternal grandparents and their kids, including my mum, on the land I now tread. My grandfather, the principal of a “coloured” high school, was active in the ANC and, from what I hear, was a stubborn, tough, justice-seeking man who pushed things further than the racist legal system could handle. By 1965, he had stirred up enough dust that he was facing imminent imprisonment. And so in 1966, when my mum was eleven-years-old, the family left their homeland, making their way to different parts of Europe. None would ever return.

My mum wound up in a small town in England. Riding the train to her new home she would wonder, where are the mountains? Re-location changed who she was; it changed her body. She stopped being the coloured girl who white boys threw stones at and black boys scorned. Without the differentiating categories of the Apartheid system, her coloured body became black. White boys and the darker-skinned Africans she later met while working in London would still scorn. But throughout adolescence, as a member of the only black family in town, she also began to embody the exotic. Racism’s face, still twisted in a snarl, now also bore the look of desire.

I was fourteen before I started perceiving anything about my bi-raciality as more than a simple and, to me, lovely fact of life. Depending on who I was with and how I styled my hair, or if I had a good tan, the way others perceived me oscillated in ways I found funny, even charming. Sometimes if my dad picked me up from school, acquaintances would ask if I was adopted: “You just look so much more like your mum!” they’d exclaim. My high school best friend was a red-headed white girl, and when she joined us on family outings, people would assume that our family was blended – that she was my dad’s kid from a previous marriage, and I was my mum’s. Divorce was easier to see than racial complexity, and a better explanatory narrative than the idea that a white man and a black woman could produce a little girl who was in the between.

But racial ascriptions can shift over years and I, like my mum, would feel how their construction changes when they cross geographic borders. As we moved from England to Canada, complexion and context made my black identity more difficult to perceive. Now people would see family pictures and blindly accept my dad’s visage while asking awkwardly, “where’s your mother from?” And once again, “are you adopted?” Their questions didn’t bother me, though. They made me feel unique: I had a story to tell.

It wasn’t till I moved to the States that I began to feel the tension between the parts of me that made me me. I learned more about the history of privilege associated with passing around the same time I learned – by experiencing – some of the anger the lighter-skinned sister can evoke. Who I was and always had been stopped feeling clear-cut; it stopped being a simple and lovely fact of my life, and began, instead, to feel complex, confusing, even painful.

I wasn’t passing as white because I wanted to. I was passing as white because of the misconceptions of others and the fact that continually correcting those misconceptions was not only exhausting, but also impossible. How would I introduce myself at parties? “Hi, I’m Natalie – oh, and by the way, I’m bi-racial”? That’s not sustainable!

But the alternative entailed being privy to more types of racism than I could imagine. White racists, thinking I was on their team, would let something slip or, worse, wouldn’t realize they were racist – like the little old lady outside Cape Town. Black racists openly expressed disdain for passers, without realizing I was passing among them.[1] Such privy continually implicated me in narratives that weren’t mine. Each forced from me a story I didn’t feel like telling.

In a time when clear-cut identity politics seem crucial for social movements toward reconciliation, the ability to pass without the desire to do so actually disrupts each and every configuration of them and us we might construct.

And the fact of that disruption intrigued me. I had a choice for how to connect this complex identity to my work. I could help construct a new identity category for theorizing about race, ethnicity (and class, gender, ability and sexuality…). I could tell stories that expand our stories for understanding what identity can be. I could tell the story or, and this is the one chose, I could use the story. I could deploy my identity – in its precise play of visibility and invisibility – to see what kind of knowledge it could produce.  And this is what I found myself, by surprise, able to do in South Africa.

So back to the three black pastors, all now facing me. We weren’t connecting or getting deep. Both my questions and their answers felt stilted. And then one of the men said, “all white people, when they meet you…you can tell they have hate for you as soon as they see you.”  He paused for a second and continued, “no offense to you”.

An awkward ethics had surrounded the conversation with the little old lady. Letting her in on the secret that I wasn’t actually white would have exposed her own assumption. It would have implied my judgment of her racist attitude. That wasn’t my job. And yet it felt icky nonetheless. I had let her leave not knowing who I was.

When the pastor said, “no offense,” he opened a place for me to come out. “It’s no offense to me at all,” I said, “I’m actually not white.” All three looked shocked, and one of them actually lifted his hand and rubbed his skin with an inquisitive expression on his face implying: but your skin is white!  “I know,” I laughed.  “But I’m actually bi-racial.” I told my story – narrated my identity – and then asked, “if you can feel white people’s hate immediately, did you immediately feel that hate coming from me?”  They looked to each other and back to me awkwardly. Then the man who’d made the claim threw up his arms and laughed: “no, no, not you…because you’re a sister.”  “But you didn’t know I was a sister when you met me,” I pushed.  “Nah, you’re cool,” he said dismissively, indicating that this line of questioning was over.

It was a pilot interview, and therefore brief. I couldn’t take the insight further, but I was struck. These three pastors encountered a white person whose heart they could perceive as black. My body, what my body hides and, more so, the revelation that happens in and through that tension, opened a space; this was not a space on which they could write their own story but, rather, one within which an imaginative performance of reconciliation could play out.

The awkwardness with which the pastors answered (and failed to answer) my line of questioning indicated that they had initially encountered me in a mode that now felt inappropriate. My visible whiteness inadvertently goaded their usual response. My blackness didn’t just reveal, but actually made that response a lie because I wasn’t who they thought I was. The pastors experienced how they too commit the sin that angers them so.

This experience was not uncomplicated. In a South Africa that is politically but not socially post-Apartheid, it’s true that these pastors most often do encounter smiling white masks over hate. And yet together we opened up imaginative space to embody future possibility: a genuine moment of reconciled racial difference.

Had they known who I was at the outset – had I immediately narrated my identity to them – we’d have missed this performance. I can’t say much came of this pilot interview beyond this flash of possibility. We lacked the time to open the space further with deep, honest discussion of what actually happened in that moment of misperception. But the experience points out that such conversations might be able to happen. The experience shows that identity can be deployed to produce the type of knowledge that is not just saying things about reconciliation, but which also could aid in the path to reconciliation. In sum, it reveals the possibilities inherent to playing with the aesthetics and the ethics of passing.

Natalie Wigg-Stevenson

Vanderbilt University




[1] I am using these terms, “white racist” and “black racist” somewhat provocatively to evoke what it feels like to be caught in the between. I do, however, realize that the latter especially is a hotly contested concept. Different historical cultural trajectories give rise to different forms of racialized tension and there is, therefore, a difference between forms of racism that grow out of privilege and forms that grow out of oppression. I maintain the language of racism for both, however, because I would argue that every form of race-based disdain should remain open to moral analysis in the fullness of its complexity. I maintain the language in this essay, in particular, because it points to a singular facet of bi-racial life: the experience of being called the N-word as a child hurt in much the same way as being told I wasn’t “black enough” to participate fully in a Black Seminarian fellowship as an adult. I experienced both as assaults on my racial identity; that is, I experienced both as racist.

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