January 25, 2004
BY ANETTTE JOHN-HALL
Lise Funderburg, the fair-skinned, straight-haired daughter of a white mother and a black father, remembers standing in an elevator with two white women when an African American man stepped in.
“[The women] treated me as an ally, like we all should be afraid of the black man, that we’re all ‘in this’ together,” Funderburg recalls. She says she countered by stepping closer to the black man, showing the women where she felt her allegiance lay.
“I go through life knowing that people are misexperiencing me,” says the 44-year-old Mount Airy author of Black, White, Other: Biracial Americans Talk About Race and Identity (Quill, 1995). “One of the consequences of looking the way that I do is my insides don’t match my outsides.”
Go to any Gap or Benetton store and see how our culture extols the beauty of racial ambiguity. In magazines and advertisements, we’re bombarded by what hipness looks like today: Alicia Keys and Norah Jones and J.Lo, Derek Jeter and Vin Diesel and Benjamin Bratt. The more blended, the better. People who can’t be pigeonholed, who are the products of many ethnic backgrounds, are seen as exotic and sophisticated. They are the future.
Yet that’s not how identity often works in practice. Even the U.S. Census’ 126 racial and ethnic combinations don’t come close to describing the way mixed-race people feel about themselves. Boxes just don’t do it.
And that makes the idea of passing – the racial deception that many light-skinned African Americans have practiced since the days of Jim Crow to gain rights and privileges – passe. But people still do pass, black for white, gay for straight, even poor for rich. Sometimes, an individual reaches for the life he wants; more often, observers, in misidentifying someone, thrust “passing” upon him.
So says Brooke Kroeger, a journalism professor at New York University, whose book Passing: When People Can’t Be Who They Are (Perseus Books, 2003) has helped reignite a national discussion about the nature of identity in society. In Philadelphia, the discourse is being further enhanced by the selection of James McBride’s book The Color of Water (Public Affairs, 2003), for the One Book, One Philadelphia project. (McBride’s title comes from his mother; when asked to explain what she was, she said she was the color of God, the “color of water.”)
McBride’s autobiography focuses on his mother, a Polish Jew who married an African American and passed as black, perhaps to gain acceptance in Harlem, where she had escaped an oppressive father, and later Brooklyn, where she raised 12 children.
Funderburg faced no such dilemma. When she was growing up in Powelton Village in the 1960s, biracial families were the norm. While a lot of her homogeneous friends reveled in sameness, she was more comfortable with difference. She floated in and out of diverse racial and cultural worlds. Every school day, she would take SEPTA down Lancaster Avenue, through Mantua, to get to Friends Central on City Avenue, “the only white person on the bus.”
Or so the other riders thought.
It was those other folks who insisted that she pick one race. Black kids called her “cracker.” White people just stared. It was not until she was an adult that she understood the benefits that come with skin privilege.
“When I’m with my dark-brown friends, I’m highly conscious that people treat me differently” – better – Funderburg says.
She refuses to check the white box on the census form, but she will check the black one. Her reasons are political: She knows that higher black numbers mean more governmental financial support to disadvantaged African American neighborhoods.
Not that she ever denies her white heritage, yet it frustrates Funderburg that society wants to paint her into a racial box when there are so many other variables that define her: her sex, her political affiliation, the fact that she grew up in the city.
“You have to be careful in making assumptions,” she says. “Do you not talk to a white person about Missy Elliott or a black person about classical music?”
Bilal Qayyum laughs when he recounts all the assumptions that have been made about him. A distinguished-looking man with straight, silver hair and skin the color of bleached almonds, Qayyum, 57, a representative for the city’s African American Chamber of Commerce and a longtime community activist, has been mistaken for white most of his life, even though both his parents are black.
As a child, his appearance enabled him to travel in the rarefied circles then limited to African Americans who passed the “paper-bag test”: For admittance to clubs and organizations, they could be no darker than a paper bag. Qayyum attended dances sponsored by elite social clubs such as Jack & Jill and summer-camped in Massachusetts.
The experiences allowed him to “understand my people a little better,” he says. Skin privilege is rampant among African Americans, too, he realized.
He, too, is privy to comments that whites make about blacks when they believe themselves to be in white-only company.
“I feel like the spook who sat by the door,” he says, relating an episode last spring at a Cherokee Indian festival. A white man commented to him that the only people who should be eligible for reparations were Native Americans, not blacks, who, the man said, were always looking for handouts.
“I’m black and I work for reparations,” Qayyum said he told the man.
“You’re black?” the man replied incredulously. As soon as he could, the man walked away.
Neither Qayyum nor his fair-skinned mother, Mae Daniels, 94, ever considered passing. “I grew up in a black community, in black culture,” the West Philly native says. “That gave me the foundation to be who I am today. Even if I decided to totally lose my mind and flip, I couldn’t do it because of my history.”
When Brooke Kroeger discusses her book with black audiences, linking it to the movie The Human Stain – in which Anthony Hopkins plays a black professor who shuns his family to pass as a Jew – she gets much the same response.
African Americans, she says, “are furious about the idea [of passing]. The denial of a heritage, how horrific that would be. They ask how damaged a human being must be to do that kind of thing.”
Passing, Kroeger notes, is usually done for adventure, opportunity or safety. For African Americans during the days of segregation, the latter two applied. But along with the duplicity came a lifetime of deceit, secrets and shame.
And such seems to have been the life Stanley Flowers led.
Incredibly, his daughter, Judith Baitzel, never knew her father was black. She knew Flowers as a funny, compassionate dad, a great dancer, and an even better chef. But on the few occasions when the pale daughter would ask her olive-skinned father where his coloring and curly hair came from, he’d answer, “I’m a lot of things. I’m a Creole. Just say French and Spanish.”
He never mentioned the African blood that made up a large part of his ancestry.
At the urging of her children, Baitzel, 69, whose mother was Pennsylvania Dutch, has just recently started to research her father’s ancestry. Flowers grew up in a small town outside of New Orleans, left home at 16, and settled in Reading, where he met Baitzel’s mother.
Baitzel met her paternal grandmother just once, as a child – “she was very warm and talked funny” – and never knew her father’s other relatives. The only mention Flowers made of life in the South was of rice and sugar in barrels.
“Do I think he deliberately tried to pass? I don’t know. It could be,” Baitzel says. “Maybe nobody asked him, so he just didn’t say. People used to think he was Jewish, and he let them think it. He had yarmulkes and knew the prayers and everything.”
If Flowers was passing, his daughter has long since forgiven him.
“I had a wonderful father. Whatever he did,” she says, “he did out of necessity.”
Contact staff writer Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986 or email@example.com.
© 2004 Philadelphia Inquirer and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.
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Video, event summaries from recent talks in Reports from the Road.
2021 Events: “The Branded Journalist: Nellie Bly Changes the Game.” [VIDEO of TALK] Ephemera Society of America, Jan. 14, 2020, 3pm. Nellie Bly: Pioneer of Investigative Journalism.” American Woman Writers National Museum, March 10, 2021, at noon. Empire State Center for the Book, March 18, 2021, 7pm.