Skin Worn Thin

Every time someone sees me as either white or black, I wonder, is passing an act of capitulation, or resistance? A rejection of identity, or of identification?

Alexander Hurst is a Paris-based writer, and editor of Are We Europe ...

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Every time I crossed the courtyard, walked past the well in the corner and slipped out of the baby blue gate nestled into the high brick wall that surrounded my Chadian host-family’s house, I instantly became nasara. It’s a Ngambay word that means both “foreigner” and “white-person” at the same time. A little pack of children would follow me down the red-dirt street, chanting “nah-sa-rah, nah-sa-rah” and laughing.   

During my first weeks in Moundou I had protested once—in jest—to Sem, a balding evangelical pastor with a belly and a deep laugh, who was my NGO’s main contact in the town. “You know my Mom is black, right?” I said to him, from the passenger seat of his SUV.

He chuckled, and simultaneously looked away from the dirt road as he accelerated his Toyota that sported a Christian fish sign and an American flag sticker on its bumper.

“Yes, well,” he paused and pointed to my bare forearm, then looked me in the eyes, my blue eyes. “Just look at you, and then look at us!” He laughed again, then he turned his head back to the road and blared the car’s horn angrily at a motorcycle that was approaching the intersection from our left. He hit the accelerator again, forcing the moto, or clando, as they are called locally, to swerve aside as we blew past in a cloud of dust.  

*

My friend Frederic worked at the largest employer in Moundou, a textiles company named CotonTchad, where he shoveled coal into furnaces for six hours a day. The company ran a “club,” which consisted of a few cabanas clustered around a tennis court that hadn’t been played on in thirty years, and pool that lived a permanent dry season. It had pizza and free internet. Chadians with cars, and nasaras, went there.

A few weeks after I had arrived in Moundou, Frederic took me to Club CotonTchad. The city hadn’t passed into dry season yet, and so the red-earth roads were jagged with ruts made by rainstorms and our bicycles jostled and bumped until we got to “Rond Point de la Femme” traffic circle, then turned onto a paved main street that lead to across the Logone River, and eventually to N’Djamena.

As we neared the river, the look and feel of the city dripped away to a dozen cracking, once-cream colored concrete houses set back on lawns bordered by bushes in place of spike-topped front walls. This was the old area that in colonial times had been reserved for the French. There would have been a barricade at the beginning of the road, and Chadians would have been denied entry. Now, the houses belonged to CotonTchad, and where they finally ended, the club sat perched against the banks of the river.

The green uniformed guard at Club CotonTchad’s gate did his own double take at me when I dismounted my bicycle and unclasped my helmet. He looked at me curiously, this nasara on a bicycle instead of in a car, but stepped aside and waved me in. I passed with a Parisian-lilted “bonjour,” and he said “bonjour” back with the Chadian r that rolls off the tongue. A few steps in, I realized that Frederic was no longer beside me, and turned around to see that he had been stopped by the same guard who had let me pass unchallenged just moments before. I went back.

“It’s okay,” I told him, “Frederic’s just showing me around. We’re going to go in and probably grab a Coca-Cola.” 

And so, Frederic and I walked into the heart of Club CotonTchad, where its post-imperial rust was framed by manicured grass—the kind with thick, sandpapery blades that can be coaxed out of a desiccated ground with only mildly exorbitant water use. We sat in plastic chairs at a round plastic table, flecked with our own sweat. It was pushing past thirty Celsius. I ordered the two most expensive Cokes in Moundou. Frederic poured his into a glass, I drank mine from the bottle. The Coke left a saccharine film in my mouth.

Then we biked home in the rain, and even in the downpour I felt hot and dirty. On the way back an unknown stranger stopped us on the side of the road in the rain. He yelled something in Ngambay, and Frederic tried to calm him down. He looked at me then, in his stained and torn green shirt, gestured toward my helmet, and spoke to me in French.

“A white man in Africa, he’s permitted everything,” he said with anger. “But what if I were to go to Europe, to France—what would happen then?”

Biking away, in a country where I was unquestionably privileged and seen as white, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was passing, and that maybe, just maybe, this man was the only other one who knew. In Chad, I couldn’t have it both ways, couldn’t slip into the well-defined role of being white when it suited me, and then set myself apart from it when it did not. In Chad I was white.

*

Passing for white is a well anchored, though marginal, phenomenon in American racial history. There was never a uniform definition of who “counted” as black in the United States, alternating between one quarter ancestry (Virginia’s designation of “mulatto” in 1822), and the “one-drop rule” that spread throughout southern states during the Jim Crow era. 

Even as late as 1982, Susie Guillory Phipps, who identified as white, but whose great-great-great-great-grandmother was black, brought a lawsuit against the state of Louisiana to overturn the law forcing her birth certificate to declare her to be black. The law—a 1970 update from a previous one whose standard was “a trace of Negro ancestry”—had established 1/32 as the new color line, and state genealogists had determined that Susie Phipps was 3/32 black. She lost her case.

“It’s funny about passing,” the 1920s author Nella Larsen writes in one of the earliest novels to engage the phenomenon, “we disapprove of it and at the same time condone it. It excites our contempt and yet we rather admire it. We shy away from it with an odd kind of revulsion, but we protect it.” At the time when she was writing, between 2,500 and 30,000 African Americans with light enough skin and physical features that allowed them to “pass” unquestioned into white society often did. 

Adrian Piper, ambiguously pigmented and a conceptual artist, writes in an essay, “Passing for White, Passing for Black,” that “In the African-American community, we do not ‘out’ people who are passing as white in the European American community,” perhaps in recognition of a decision born in some sort of pain. 

Internalized racism, some might taunt. Pity, others might respond. The desire for “whiteness” shows up throughout our history as a persistent response to racism, or our notions of beauty, or a desire to belong, to be privy to the intimate moments of the leitkulture through the unacknowledged silence that acknowledges you as just that. And those moments can happen, they can buzz in and out of your life, leaving you flecked with power and its seductiveness one moment, and then a sense of disembodiment in the next.

One day you can grab your coffee from the counter of a Parisian café, cringing as the barista asks where you’re from, and then replies—curiously, innocently, unaware of what her words mean in the context of a country that has in its history counted people as fractions—that you don’t look cent pourcent américain, and the next day your friend’s uncle can tell you that he’s actually been to Ohio once for business, to Cincinnati, where he stayed in a motel that was kind of scary, he explains, leaning in and dropping his voice low, because the whole place was—almost to a whisper now—filled with black people

It can be tauntingly, cloyingly sweet to pass into the club in silence, unchallenged.

*

The word passing entered my lexicon in the early days of 1999, when I was eight years old. We had had five snow days in a row, which was almost unheard of. Every night we kept putting our pajamas on inside out for luck, and every night it kept raging snow and ice. With the days off, I had read Black Like Me, John Howard Griffin’s account of the way he chemically darkened his skin and then intentionally passed for black while traveling through the deep south in the 1950s.

A sprawling, abandoned lot sat across the street from my house, next to a meatpacking plant that made the whole block smell like sausage on Wednesday afternoons. The neighborhood was a little mecca of multiculturalism in the middle of a ruined Midwestern steel town; that didn’t mean it was tranquil. In a city split by its river between a predominantly white west side and a black east side, the neighborhood, which fell just west of the river, was seeing its own racial divisions revealed and exacerbated by a nascent onslaught of gentrification. Every block-club meeting became a battle royale for the soul of the neighborhood, roiling with the tensions between the (white) “social justice gentrifiers,” the (white) “urban warrior gentrifiers” who had followed them a decade later, and the minority residents who preceded both and were slowly being priced out of the few square miles of city they called home.

Yet, the neighborhood had still only rounded the first base of gentrification. Though dotted with half-finished half-million dollar “townhomes,” it still hosted a shabby, peeling Catholic Worker house and community theater in the southern half, a big open-air food market to the east, a gay spa and gay nightclub around the corner from my street, the projects on the northern edge by the lake.

Each part of the neighbourhood had its characters. There was Shorty, a sometimes—no, mostly—homeless handyman who once saved an elderly couple from a burning house and collected his Citizen of the Year award in paint-dripped cargo shorts. “Bubby” Hawk, a teenage guy who swore incessantly, had a trick-bike pimped out with neon lights and gold handlebars, and who set off bottle rockets next to the browned-out carcasses of the old cars in his house’s yard. The screech from the bottle rockets upset the retired judge and World War II veteran-turned-pacifist down the street because the sound took him back to Normandy, where he had lain shot in the back. A well-off, white investor, who would eventually develop the vacant lot into fortress-like townhomes, loved peeling down the street in his red, vintage Ferrari and would put up the neighborhood’s sole “Bush/Cheney” sign in front of his house.

An evangelical pastor, who lived at the intersection of Bubby’s home and the lot, had painted in slightly off-level stenciled red letters, “The John 3:16 Building” on his large but aging house. The Catholic Workers, with a completely different interpretation of the “Red Letters,” protested the Cleveland Air Show (or more precisely, the military presence at it) every summer with signs, songs, and street theater. And our neighborhood mailman (also a Catholic deacon), hosted a legendary fall potluck party in his backyard that, without fail, degenerated into fairly serious drinking with a light touch of pot after midnight.  

That winter, the lot was still empty, and a pickup kept plowing the gravel circle in the middle, which meant that the snowbanks it created kept getting higher and higher, reinforced every time it stormed ice. We tunneled them out and ringed the tunnels with snow-forts. Other kids decided they would knock the forts down, and kick the tunnels in. As they chased me into my house, the words they shouted stuck. “Get whitey!” they yelled.

“Yeah, let’s jump this little white boy’s ass.”

They had no idea that a few years later, when I became a pre-teen, my mother and I would come close to having the talk.

“Look at me,” she would say one day, as if the thought had been squatting at the back of her mind, and she wanted to express it before it got lost. “When you walk out of a store, don’t keep your hands in your pocket. I saw you do that the other day. Things might be different when you’re out with your father, but you don’t want to give anyone any reason or excuse to accuse you of shoplifting.” 

“You’re a young black man,” she added.  “Even if your friends end up fine, you’re the one who will end up in trouble.” 

But in the winter of 1999, at not quite nine years old, the trouble on my mind was literally on the outside of a glass door, looking in. As the group of boys angrily pelted the house and cars with snow, I held up my middle finger at them, felt my heart beat, stared, and determined to myself that there was extraordinarily little that I had in common with them, or wanted to have in common with them.

I knew that outside that door, I was physically powerless. As a product of an educated, leftist social circle, I knew—perversely—that my power, a fundamentally greater power, was structural. It lay in my ability to navigate with confidence and ease the codes, institutions, and expectations of polite, white, society. The choice between power and powerlessness seemed so clear.

I wore successive pairs of neon yellow running shoes when I was young; my group of neighborhood friends (three white, one black) told me they were “pretty white.” I got good grades, and to my classmates, that too was “pretty white.” The syntax I used, the way I formed words between my tongue and teeth. Pretty white. My favorite song was “Everlong” by the Foo Fighters, I was building a desktop computer on the weekends, every year I reread practically the entire Tolkien canon. It was all pretty white pretty white pretty white.

I wrote about the yellow shoes in my common app essay and got into Amherst College. Because I had checked off the box on the demographic page of the PSAT that moved me from National Merit Semifinalist to National Achievement Scholar, I got to cash my $2,500 check and didn’t have to do work-study. And I felt like an impostor, like no matter what I wore, it would always be a disguise.

I had crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge and grown up reading books like Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. I had watched Amistad and newsreels of firehoses pinning protesters against walls while police dogs snapped at their feet and officers bashed their heads in with billy clubs. I had gone to teach-ins about the Children’s March, summer social justice camps about race and class and urban poverty, learned about Ida B. Wells and stepped into sanctuaries that had welcomed Martin Luther King. I knew the lyrics to “Go Down Moses,” and had celebrated Juneteenth. 

And still, I thought, what right did my clear blue eyes, the ones that got me stopped in public by middle aged women, that brought compliments from security guards and pre-9/11 trips to the cockpit from flight attendants, what right did those eyes have to inhabit someone else’s struggle, someone else’s pain?

It was only years later that I would learn about the myriad moments of discrimination my mother had hidden from me while I was growing up. Like the neighbors who had eventually stopped their children from playing with me when I was five. “Not the chocolate ones,” she had overheard the woman say to her daughter, Tabitha. Or how despite an extremely high score on my entrance exam to Saint Ignatius High School, I had been “overlooked” for the honor’s program until my mother had intervened with an admissions officer. The school, she told me just recently, had a history of doing that to minority students.

*

Across geography and time, human cultures have found common ground in their unease with things that are liminal—things that can’t easily be classed and thus neatly ordered. Mary Douglas writes about this in her 1966 anthropology classic, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, where she dissects cleanliness and uncleanliness, forbidden foods, and things that make us feel uneasy. These are things that straddle definitions, exist between two categories, like animals that cleaveth the hoof but cheweth not the cud.

Philip Roth tells us why his main character in The Human Stain, Coleman Silk, decides to forsake his identity and pass for—become?—a white Jew. “All he’d ever wanted since earliest childhood was to be free: not black, not even white—just on his own and free.” But he can’t be just on his own and free, and so he decides that there is at least more freedom to be had by being white. Coleman Silk decides not to be liminal, not to be a walking, living taboo. Is passing an act of capitulation, or resistance? A rejection of identity, or of identification?

The challenge and irony put before those who pass as white is that white is an unspoken norm. Successive waves of immigrants have arrived in the United States and acquired whiteness. The Irish needed not apply, but then they became white. Italians, ostracized and Catholic—they too became white. 

There is history and heritage in being Scottish or Swedish, Hungarian or Polish, or any other European ethnicity traditionally associated with white skin. White, though—is it anything other than a stand-in for power? A definition for something that needs not be defined, but simply is? Whiteness is never the identified half of a mixed identity. As a girlfriend once observantly pointed out, I have never, ever, reflexively referred to myself as “half-white,” a linguistic construction that is itself active, rather than just is. To paraphrase Larsen, it’s funny about whiteness—in order to claim it, passers have to racialize it, define it, give it some sort of mass and shape. They have to “act white.”

But is it even possible to pin down an ontological whiteness?

*

By April, Chad’s dry season, I had to lean my arm way down over the edge of the well, grasping the frayed ends of the rope with fingertips, in order to lower the leather sack down far enough to touch the surface of the water and slowly slip beneath. Dry season near the equator is a series of sun-forced strabismic glances. Months of cursing the sun and wiping your brow repeatedly, until you could swear that the skin there had been worn thin.  

One day just after dry season had passed, after water had finally shot down from the sky with such force that it kicked sand up into the air and shook mangoes from trees, I was walking home from the market with two Chadian friends. We stepped to the side of the road to get out of the way of a motorcycle, whose driver sped by in a cloud of dust, his djelleba puffing out around him; a chimera, fat with wind.

Because we had moved, we were close enough to two little girls sitting on the side of the road to hear them speak. I couldn’t understand their Ngambay, but they were giggling.

One of my friends burst into a big, open-mouth laugh. “Those girls,” he told me. “One said, ‘Look, there goes the nasara’. And the other one said, ‘No, he’s not a nasara, he just looks like one. He’s really Chadian on the inside.’”

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