By Koa Beck
I first became aware of my passing as a young child confronted with standardized testing. My second grade teacher had walked us through where to write our names in capital letters and what bubbles to fill in for our sex, our birth date and ethnicity. But in the days before “biracial” or “multiracial” or “choose two or more of the following,” I was confronted with rigid boxes of “white” or “black” – a space that my white father and black-Italian mother had navigated for some time.
But even at 8 years old, I knew I could mark “white” on the form without a teacher’s assistant telling me to do the form over with my No. 2 pencil. I could sometimes be “exotic” on the playground to the grown-ups who watched us for skinned knees and bad words. But with hair that had yet to curl and a white-sounding last name, I was at first glance – and many after – a dark-haired white girl with a white father who collected her after school.
That girl came with me to junior high and even high school. Even as my hair became wiry with puberty, the frizziness soon a universal topic in the girls’ bathroom as girls began their marriages to the straight iron, I became aware that I read no differently. Another curly-haired white girl who wished that her hair was straight.
School records could be curiously inconsistent, occasionally marking me as “white” and sometimes “other,” my recorded ethnicity changing year to year as I would pass and then suddenly not.
White parents of school friends would never fail to comment on how I was “striking” or “foreign-looking.” Distant relatives on the white side of my family would remark that I could easily pass for Israeli, for Spanish, for Italian, and other nationalities that can be filed under “pan-ethnic.” But they always equated me with the culturally sanctioned “chic” identities, like an exoticized princess you could encounter on a distant beach or in a novel. Compound that with my Hawaiian name (I was born there) and I was the problematic backdrop to any movie. The pretty prop to a white, male protagonist’s discovery. Somebody’s “Pocahontas.”
The first time I read Nella Larson’s 1929 novel “Passing,” in which a black light-skinned protagonist is passing as white during the Harlem renaissance, the following passage eerily resonated with me: “They always took her for an Italian, a Spaniard, a Mexican, or a gipsy. Never, when she was alone, had they even remotely seemed to suspect that she was a Negro.”