By: Damieka Thomas
When I was a kid, in the glove box of our car— nestled between Alicia Key’s “Songs in a Minor” and India. Arie’s “Acoustic Soul”—was Jewel’s “Pieces of You.” My mom didn’t listen to that shit, but my grandma had left it in our car; and it followed us for years afterward. Anyway, on one of our long drives to Fort Bragg, with the wind whipping through my hair and the scent of redwoods in my nose, I flipped through the CD brochure and read, “What we call human nature is actually human habit.” At the time, I was only about nine, grappling with identity in a way that perhaps I always will be. I knew that I was not Jewel: blonde-haired and fair-skinned; so lily-white that I burn at the mere thought of the sun. But I also wasn’t India. Arie, black and proud and beautiful, dismantling systems of oppression and looking damn good rocking her fro while doing it. I wasn’t even Alicia Keys, a little ambiguous but still obviously black. Still, in all that confusion, that phrase stuck with me: “What we call human nature is actually human habit.” I soon learned that to be mixed is to be acutely aware of this fact.
To be mixed on it’s own is one set of issues to grapple with, but to be mixed and to pass—that is a whole new ballgame entirely. To pass means that I can walk into a room free of the judgement that comes from the automatic racist assumption of black criminality. To pass means that no one blinks when I walk into a store, and no one follows me with suspicion in their eyes. No one calls security when I linger too long looking at the glittering jewelry section. When I go to Walmart, no one double checks my receipt, then eyes my cart suspiciously to make sure that I have bought everything that I have.
To pass means the freedom to choose when and where I want to be black, rather than to have blackness thrust upon me in every room that I enter. To pass means that when I go to my friends house in fifth grade, her mom doesn’t tell me, “I would have never let you in my house if I knew you were black.” It means that when the cops pull me over, they don’t take my car and make me walk the next town over in 90 degree weather, and I don’t have to count myself lucky to survive the encounter at all. It means that during quarantine and the riots, I don’t hole up in my apartment in Boston, shaking and angry and wanting to burn down the whole goddamn world, with only a dwindling supply of food and a cat to keep me company because I’m too scared to leave the house as a black man. This has all happened to my family members and friends alike, and that is how I know deep in my bones that it’s real shit, even as my own white family smiles in my face and tells me, “I don’t see color.”
To pass means that I get the privilege of knowing people’s true feelings. It means that people feel comfortable telling me, “Black people are racist too!” They feel okay talking about how black people should just pull up their pants, learn to speak proper English, and get a real job. They feel okay saying, “How are they gonna tell us not to say the n-word like we didn’t invent it?” It means that when I’m in high school, my white friends feel comfortable singing along with the n-word in a rap song, and when I say, “Hey, don’t do that shit,” they feel comfortable responding, “You don’t even look black!” It means that they will use AAVE and twerk around me, and tan to a bronzed crisp, and save money for lip injections and rap along to J. Cole, all while telling me, “All lives matter.” It means that I can be silent when I shouldn’t because at the end of the day it is not life or death for me, not the way that it is for a lot of my family members.
It means that once people do realize that I’m mixed, they feel fine calling me “exotic” or “ethnic” or whatever the fuck else is code for “palitable to white people because you look more like us.” It means that people get to be surprised when they see how black my little sister looks compared to me, or how proudly black my stepdad is in all of his dark-skinned glory. It means that I get to exist. I get to simply live without the supposition of guilt.
Passing means that when quarantine hits, I get to sit up in my white grandpa’s house and have plenty to eat while people starve on the streets, while people die for fucking nothing. I get to sit back on my bed and watch people die on my phone because I don’t have to see it in person. I get to tweet angrily and post about it on Facebook, and while this pisses off some of my white relatives, at the end of the day, it is still palatable because it is coming from someone who looks like them. Dark skinned women get killed for much less, and no one fucking blinks. No one gives a shit because to them “black girl magic” is a disappearing trick from which black women will never return.
Passing means that when I watch the now infamous video of George Flloyd being suffocated by a knee on his neck, calling out for his dead mother, I can imagine some of my relatives living the same situation, but never myself. I never see myself in those videos. And at the end of the day, that is what passing truly is: the thin line between life and death.
“What we call human nature is actually human habit.” We got three hundred fucking years of habit to contend with. The good thing is that with courage and self-reflection, habits can be broken. That’s why I joined Mad Mouth. To dismantle these habits in systems and in people, in myself and in others. That is why I am done being silent. It’s time that people like me—people with any level of privilege—do what marginalized people have been forced to do for centuries. It’s time we sit down, shut the fuck up, and listen.
About the author: Damieka Thomas is a mixed race student and a Senior at #ucdavis studying English with an emphasis in Creative Writing and a minor in Education. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, writing, hiking, yoga, traveling, and indulging in the frequent Netflix binge with her cat by her side. After she finishes her undergraduate degree, she aspires to get an MFA in Creative Writing and eventually move to New York City with her cat to pursue a career in publishing, as well as offer her cat a fresh host of pigeons to terrorize.