Passing: A Hidden History of Whiteness in America

I have a black mother and a white son. They are both biologically mine. My black mother and my white son. In public, my mother is easily identified as black and treated as such; while my son has only ever been seen as white and is treated as such. They are linked by one generation through me, the “mixed” one. They are equally valuable and valued in my eyes. But one has the option to walk through the world relatively unburdened by race; and the other has spent over 70 years feeling the disdain of others because of the color of her skin, the particulars of her features and the texture of her hair.

For just about every light-skinned African American, there is a person of color who has passed as White would surely have done if he had been born in an earlier time. Procreation between blacks and whites throughout the slaveholding and Jim Crow south is known. But the pervasive myth about the children borne from those unions — unholy as many were — is that they produced light-skinned black children only. That they spawned mulattoes and quadroons and octoroons, the presumed tragic figures of a society divided within itself. What the current white supremacist movement fails to embrace is the fact that a light-skinned, mixed-race black parent is as likely to produce a fair-skinned, straight-haired white child. And many of them did. Many of them passed and were raised as white. White in skin-tone and identity, but still the product of African American lineage.

Southern whiteness is not pure in any sense. It was constructed in the inhospitable environment of systemic dehumanization designed as a result of economic exploitation. In that system, whiteness mattered to differentiate between those who could hold power and those who were intentionally disenfranchised from opportunity. And at the nexus of those binaries lay the phenomenon of passing.

So passing they did, by the hundreds and thousands. Often by their own choice at an age when they could see the opportunity to fulfill the American dream of life and liberty for all. But often, that choice was made by a mother who had to ask herself, “Do I expose this baby as black or do I let my child pass?”

For many mothers, the choice to let their baby pass was an absolute necessity. Passing secured for those children a place in society where they could live as full human beings. Both black and white mothers faced this choice, only with slightly different nuances. While a black mother with a mulatto-looking child could raise her child (and perhaps later that child could decide to leave home and family for a distant place and try to pass, as many did). But a black mother with a discernibly white-looking child would recognize the opportunities opportunities available to that child and opt to give it up at birth to a white family, a white church, a white hospital, any institution that would be sure not to ask questions about the child’s parentage.

A black mother had to give up that child in order to give him or her a chance at life. In doing so, that black mother risked that child being raised to believe that she, the mother, lacked value. She might have had to watch him or her be raised to hate her own lineage, to negate her own identity over and over. To watch that child march on behalf of whiteness or participate in a lynching of his own possible relatives. For black mothers of white children raised in the south, the choice was to give the baby a chance or to give the baby a true sense of self. An unburdened life or the real possibility of death.

For white mothers, the choice might be between hiding a pregnancy and “discovering” a foundling to be raised by herself, a close family member or, if the baby could not rightfully pass, by a black family who could be trusted not to ask questions. Again, a choice had to be made but for those mothers, not only to save the life of the baby but herself. To birth a black baby could mean censure, isolation and worse. The choice of motherhood or self-preservation.

For all the knowledge of light-skinned African Americans in our community, it is puzzling that we are unwilling or unable as a culture to reason out this simple logic: people of African descent who were brought here as slaves had babies with white American men and women; those babies were a little lighter skinned and over a generation or two of those mixed babies having light-skinned black children, they could now produce white-looking white children.

The discomfort with this knowledge is surely multifold. The fact of rape is of course the most glaring problem. But perhaps a slightly nuanced narrative can live alongside of that more violent reality — but by first establishing a point of fact: no one can consent to sexual intercourse with a person who claims to own them. That is rape. However, using the logic of the time, it could possibly be argued that some measure of real intimacy may have grown between those who supported the ownership of human property and those who were presumed to be of a lesser humanity.

In fact, people living in such close proximity to one another over a lifetime, who must interact with another, whose lives are dependent on one another, may under some circumstances, bond. Famously, Homer Plessy represents a case in point. The legacy of his name lies in the 1892 Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson that tragically affirmed "separate but equal" doctrine in the south. But what makes Homer Plessy notable is the fact that he was so fair-skinned, so White in appearance, that he had to identify himself as black in order to initiate the premise for that court case. Plessy's grandmother was a free woman of color in New Orleans who had married a French expat to the United States. He had the option to pass but chose to stand on behalf of racial justice and offered himself up to the cause by sitting on that train and identifying himself as black.

Where Plessy chose to assert his racial identity, an act of radical self-awareness, others chose for themselves and their children to pass as White.

For white supremacists, there may be visceral distress is the knowledge that they have a grandparent or a great grandparent who passed and that they are the product of that choice. They are the product of an environment in which human connection was betrayed by a social and political structure that forced their great grandparents to actively choose barbarism over civilization. Their ancestors had to lie in order that they could be treated as fully human. But that black ancestor is there and probably not too far in the past. The greater discomfort is in knowing that because someone before them could pass, they might have turned around and taken part in lynchings and white power rallies simply to throw other people off the track of their own ancestry. They adopted white supremacy ideas to purposely negate their own identity, knowing that white supremacy is a lie and that their very presence in that arena proves it. Knowing that they are a case study in the absurdity of believing that white and black should not mix and that one race is superior to any other.

Or maybe they don’t know and don’t want to ask. Maybe they just accepted it as a personal peccadillo that their grandparent obsessively avoided the sun. Or maybe they thought it logical when their parent warned them to obsessively avoid the sun for fear of looking “dark.” It never occurred to them that the reason for that fear was a black grandparent whose genetic code passed down to them might kick in after an hour on the beach. Possibly, when looking at old pictures of grandparents or great grandparents there was that one person who everyone said, oh s/he was “Italian” but they never say from where. That was a person who passed and was able to adopt the identity of an acceptably “white” European ethnicity to explain some anomalous physical traits.

Perhaps they have a great grandparent or grandparent who never knew their dad but there’s that nice old gentleman who was a good friend and even though he’s black everyone seems to like him. That nice gentleman is in their family tree.

And for some who have thought to ask, they can trace back their family line on one side more than the other. That empty branch features a black great grandparent that no one wants to know.

While the absurdity of white supremacy is not in the genetic argument but in the cultural and political one, it is possibly helpful to think about some of the conditions under which it is a provable lie.

My son could walk into a KKK rally and no one would think twice. He could pass, if he wanted to. He could give me up, if he decided it was easier to hate himself and us. If he chose to, he could pass through the world without the joy of recognizing his diverse lineage. I hope he doesn't make that choice. The mothers who gave birth to young people who rallied on behalf of whiteness, many of them felt that they had no choices and so their grandchildren and great grandchildren rally against them and against themselves. For all that supremacy, we are all the weaker.

What is Design for Social Impact?

Published on the SVA Products of Design blog in July 2017, this is my attempt to define my approach toward teaching design for social impact.

"Design for social impact is the practice of interrogating systems—institutional, economic, social, political, interpersonal—in order to define opportunities for change that give voice to those who has been disenfranchised or marginalized by design. In essence, this field of study provides a methodology for examining domains of power through Socratic inquiry, structural and systems-based design thinking, and solutions-based design making." Read more. . .

Teaching Diversity in Design

Published in the Design Management Institute's Journal in June 2017, I wrote this article to offer my perspective on how the design community can actively work toward greater parity in hiring and promoting people who are largely under-represented in the field.

"For diversity and inclusion to take hold, it must be conscious, purposeful, and reflective" . . . Read more (note: this article is behind a paywall per the publisher. If you would like a copy of the PDF, please email me directly).

Featured: Allan Espiritu of GDLOFT profiled in GDUSA

Graphic Design USA informs the design audience of Allan Espiritu's inclusion in an exhibition at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia.

The Barnes Foundation is presenting Person of the Crowd: The Contemporary Art of Flânerie, an exhibition featuring the work of more than 50 U.S. and international artists who have taken to the street throughout the post-war period to speak to issues as diverse as gentrification, gender politics, globalization, racism, and homelessness. Person of the Crowd, on view February 25 through May 22, features works, new performances, and historical pieces by Marina Abramović, Vito Acconci, Eleanor Antin, Constant, David Hammons, and Zhang Huan, among many others.

Read more . . .

Featured: All Good Things in Modulation in Against the Grain

Writer and editor Matthew Porter wrote a vivid profile of my clients Adam Brodsley and Eric Heiman, the SF-based design firm.

"'Volume' means tonal range. Volume, Inc, of San Francisco means tonal modulation. Eric Heiman, 110dB, likes it loud. Adam Brodsley, 55dB, prefers it quiet. Their contrasting tastes power balanced, evocative design. They began their partnership in 2002 and, ever since, continue to explore the narrative qualities of visual and written tonal range seeking to evoke and provoke new meaning and thought. Read more . . .

RoboCycling: Bringing the Power of Automation to Recycling

Profile of Matanya Horowitz and his company AMP Robotics.

Do you track your trash? How carefully do you sort your garbage—organic waste in a composter, recyclables separated into the right bins, non-recyclable waste isolated into its own receptacle? How cautiously do you ensure that hazardous materials are excluded from the recycling bin or that your bottles and cans are clean?

Read more . . .

Share the Road

Interview with Oliver Risse of Floatility for Core77.

How do you get to work each morning? According to the United Nations and World Bank, there's a 54% chance that you live in or near an urban center—and it follows that you likely work in that city as well. It's possible that your home is within walking distance of your workplace, but there's a better chance that you commute either by mass transit or in your own personal transportation device.

Read more . . .

The Election is Rigged: Thoughts on Systems and Social Justice

Throughout this campaign, the Republican candidate for our country’s highest office warned that the election was rigged.  Perhaps we should have taken the accusation more seriously.

The election is rigged. The system is rigged. What do we mean when we say those things? At their core, these statements point to a belief – let’s even call it an acknowledgement – that there are inherent injustices built into the election system; and that these serve to empower some people and marginalize others.  Those inherent injustices either exist by default or by design.

To say that the system is unjust by default is to acknowledge that all systems have flaws; and that all systems are living organisms that evolve or need to evolve in order to accommodate new ideas and realities about social equity. We can then acknowledge that systemic flaws can be interrogated without assigning blame to any bad actors. Flaws in the system are not created out of malice.

The alternative is to say that the system is rigged by design. We are then asserting something sinister about power-holders in the system. We are saying that our election system has been designed to purposefully disenfranchise certain communities from participating fully in the system, from holding equal value in the system and from benefitting equally from the system. Is the system rigged?

Let’s face this uncomfortable fact. We are all inclined to believe that injustice is at play when we do not benefit from a system we feel invested in. When our candidate loses, our ballot measure is defeated, we lose out on a job to a colleague, another student earns an award, or another agency wins a major contract we were being considered for, we instinctively wonder if some surreptitious action was at play. We can all too easily fall into blame and suspicion about the “other” side.

So in order to investigate whether a system is rigged, we must necessarily divorce ourselves from the outcome. If we are the principal beneficiaries of the system, then we must acknowledge that we might be inclined to rig the system in our favor, not create equity, not fix what is broken, just break it to empower whatever we perceive “our” side to be.

We, of course, have a perfect case study in this from the current election. From all we’ve read, the Republican candidate for President in 2016 only stated that the system was rigged when polling and public opinion tilted against him, never when it swayed in his favor. And when he questioned the potential outcome of the election, he quite openly admitted that he would only deem it not rigged if he won.

To claim that a system only works when we win is to perpetuate injustice in favor of those who already hold power, those who often win because they can design systems that favor them and the “us” they represent. To be a winner in any system often means that we can willfully avoid confronting injustices in those systems. Because we are not marginalized, we can avoid addressing the ways in which our power marginalizes others. By not interrogating the systems that favor some “us” that we represent, we enable the system – either by default or design – to continue to marginalize those who cannot achieve our level of power.

To acknowledge the need for change is to recognize systemic problems as inherent to the ways systems grow, creakily because bureaucracies are slow and heavy and laden. In fact, we can give due credit to many voices over several generations who have spoken up against the purposeful disenfranchisement of marginalized communities and led to more just elections. Our electoral systems certainly have changed over time to accommodate voices that had been previously disenfranchised by design. But we can also acknowledge that we need to continually interrogate the system because to not do so, to be complacent in the face of ongoing societal change, is to cede responsibility and undermine the health of the systems that form the foundation of our democracy.

Designers, however, are trained to see the possibilities for change. Not only the possibilities but the need for change. Whether you call it innovation or disruption or design for social impact, design is intended to interrogate what is and build something new, and presumably better.

The challenge for designers is to see in the electoral system opportunities for change. Is the system rigged? To interrogate that question we must start by unpacking the system itself and our own power within it.

Question #1. What is the election system and what does it seek to accomplish?

Question #2. What are the beliefs that hold the system together? What happens to cause a breakdown in that belief?

Question #3. Who has power within that system? Who is marginalized by design? To what varying degrees? How are people disenfranchised by design?

Question #4. What are the qualifications for holding power within the system?

Question #5. Who is allowed to question the system? What are the mechanisms for questioning whether the system is functioning justly? What are the mechanisms for affecting change? What would change mean?

Perhaps how we answer these question depends on we see ourselves in the system and how we perceive those who hold either more or less power within it.

To fix the system means to accept challenges to our own power. It means the willingness to accept that we will not always win or gain or benefit. It means having the heart to accept surprise defeats and recognize that the system functioned as it needed to in that moment. But perhaps it also means that you, and I and everyone have the right to question the system at any time and to interrogate how and why and whether it works to the benefit of all stakeholders. And to define and question who the stakeholders are and whether they are truly qualified to uphold, defend and maintain the system or if they too have become so entrenched that they cannot see the injustices within it.

In fact, this question of who holds power is an essential aspect of our interrogation. We must face that we expect people who represent our most fundamental systems of government to act in good faith. Once we accept that, that our fellow citizens are generally, genuinely acting in good faith, we must interrogate further what elements of identity and bias play into their view of the system and their role in it.

As designers devote themselves to all manner of social impact design, this is a space that cries out for action. Not in the design of ballots or Get Out the Vote posters or even voting booths.

218 million eligible voters in the U.S. should demand a call to action. Designers can be the force for positive change so that in the next election, the central debate can stay focused on the issues that matter and not on whether or not we are being held hostage by a non-functional, rigged system.