Do I not get a voice anymore?: Coming to terms with the idea of white-passing
BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color); white-passing; identity; activism; skin color
This case takes place on an individual level but lays claim to an issue that is worldwide. It addresses racial differences within a particular culture, specifically in terms of skin color. It questions the privilege of individuals within the Puerto Rican community, where the color of one’s skin varies.
If there was anyone who fits perfectly within the description of an ‘advocate’ it would be Anthony. Anthony wears a number of advocacy hats. He is a strong advocate for his little sister who has cerebral palsy. He is an advocate for improving education, as he founded a club at his school that pushes for the advancement of antiracist and antibias principles within education. But, above all else, he is an advocate for his fellow Boricuas (people of Puerto Rican birth or descent).
Being a Puerto Rican American is a central pillar in Anthony’s identity. His mother is of Polish descent and was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio. His father, Victor, was born in Orocovis, a small city in central Puerto Rico. At a young age, Victor had to drop out of school to support his large family. Victor spent most of his young adult life working under terrible conditions in the fields of Puerto Rico’s demanding agriculture industry. Once Victor entered his early twenties, he determined he wasn’t living the life he wanted for himself and was certain that he’d never be able to cultivate it there on the island. Shortly after, Victor uprooted his life and moved to Cleveland. Once Victor moved to the mainland United States, his parents and some of his siblings followed him with similar aspirations of acquiring higher-paying and more fulfilling jobs.
Despite growing up in Ohio, Anthony always felt very connected to his family’s Puerto Rican roots. His heritage was woven into his identity since childhood. He grew up learning Spanish as his second language. He took multiple trips to Puerto Rico, visiting the town his family lived in for generations. He even participated in a long-term study abroad program taking place in San Juan during his junior year of high school to better understand Puerto Rican culture. Throughout his life he was a member of numerous social justice organizations, fighting for the rights of Puerto Ricans. According to him, his mission in life is to promote Puerto Rican independence from its territorial status.
Once Anthony arrived at college he doubled down on his role as an advocate for Puerto Rican rights. He began leading discussion sections and attending demonstrations, trying to spread awareness of the discrimination Puerto Ricans face and the unjust territorial status the government of the United States continues to hold over it. Because of his activism, Anthony’s platform as an advocate grew significantly. This new platform caused him to gain both positive, as well as negative attention.
As of late, the positions of leadership Anthony holds within the Puerto Rican community have faced some backlash from other Hispanic activists. Those who have voiced their concerns state they don’t believe Anthony should be allowed a position of leadership within the movement because he is white-passing. By identifying Anthony as white-passing, they are signaling that he is a member of the BIPOC community who may be seen by society as white instead of a BIPOC individual. Those who are concerned with Anthony’s leadership positions view him as having an increased amount of privilege over other members of their cultural community because of the color of his skin.
Anthony is honest. He wasn’t aware the color of his skin would be a topic of discussion amongst his cultural peers until arriving at college. He tried his best to listen to the concerns voiced by his fellow activists and advocates. Now, he understands they are arguing that there is a correlation between his growing platform in activism and the privilege he holds by coming off as white-passing. They continue to urge him to step down from his leadership roles to let someone who they believe can truly represent their community take over.
Despite accepting that the light nature of his skin affords him certain privileges within American society, Anthony does not believe the tone of his skin should bereave him of his leadership roles within the movements and causes he has advocated for his entire life. Anthony focuses on obtaining a better understanding of where the concerns of his fellow BIPOC members stem from but maintains the belief that he shouldn’t have to silence his voice in the service of others. He believes there is room for all Puerto Ricans, no matter what skin color, to advocate for their rights and values.
As you consider this case, discuss:
- Is it possible to be racist toward someone of the same race?
- How can we avoid making assumptions when it comes to each other’s cultural identities?
- Is it problematic to use the phrase white-passing when identifying someone? If so, why?
- How do you think the issue of white-passing should be addressed in our society and within organizations?
- Do you think skin color dictates who gets to lead movements for social justice?
- What does this case illuminate about the policing of other’s identities?
Additional recommended resources to explore the central themes in this case are available.
- Candelario, C. (2020, December 2). What is white-passing (and is it actually an offensive term?). PureWow, https://www.purewow.com/wellness/what-is-white-passing.
- Lloréns, H. (2020, March 2). ‘Racialization works differently here in Puerto Rico, do not bring your u.s.-centric ideas about race here!’. AAIHS, https://www.aaihs.org/racialization-works-differently-here-in-puerto-rico-do-not-bring-your-u-s-centric-ideas-about-race-here/.
- Robles, B. (n.d.). Don’t discriminate against Puerto Rico – LULAC. League of United Latin American Citizens, https://lulac.org/news/pr/pr_brobles/.
- Sloan, N. (2013, December 18). Stanford historian re-examines practice of racial ‘passing’. Stanford University, https://news.stanford.edu/news/2013/december/passing-as-white-121713.html.
- Taylyn Washington-Harmon By Taylyn Washington-Harmon June 04, 2021. What it means to be white passing if you’re BIPOC, according to experts. Health.com, https://www.health.com/mind-body/health-diversity-inclusion/white-passing.
Masi, Taron. American University, Washington, D.C., USA. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org