It was one of the first weeks of sixth grade when Lanna Ahlberg found herself at school talking on the phone in Traditional Mandarin with her Taiwanese grandmother.
Hanging up the phone, Ahlberg found a number of girls staring at her.
“In sixth grade, a lot of people thought I was Hispanic or white because I have chocolate hair, like it’s not black hair. My eyes aren’t as prominent,” Ahlberg, now in eighth grade, said. “My mom is Taiwanese and my dad is half Swedish.”
If you’re a person of color who has ever been mistaken for white, you’ve experienced the phenomenon known as “white passing.”
Simply defined, White passing is when a person of color is perceived as white at any point in their life.
Many people who experience “white passing” feel alienated and left out of their culture(s), because their identities are often misinterpreted based off of their physical appearances. It’s common for people who experience “white passing” to be accused of posing as a race they’re not a part of.
However, “passing” for another race is not only experienced by people who “pass for white.” Many people intentionally or unintentionally pass for other races.
Most recently, this was seen in the news when Rachel Dolezal, a woman of European descent, posed as black in her community, assuming the position of president of her local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapter.
On “The Real,” a daytime American talk show, Dolezal said that although she was born white, she has always identified as black.
“Sometimes how we feel is more powerful than how we’re born,” Dolezal said.
Dolezal’s uncommon perspective on identity has provided a platform to discuss its correlation to race and culture.
“I don’t think you need to get technical about what you are necessarily,” senior Olivia Crouch said. “I think it just kind of matters what you choose to associate yourself with.”
Crouch’s mother is half black and half Hispanic, while her father is white. Although percentage-wise Crouch is primarily white, she identifies most with her Hispanic heritage.
“[Hispanic] is what I check when I fill out applications,” Crouch said. “When I was growing up, sometimes my grandparents–my mom’s parents–would live with us, so I was exposed to their culture and their beliefs when I was pretty young, so that’s kind of what I’ve associated myself with.”
Although Crouch said she doesn’t necessarily feel excluded because of her mixed heritage, she has experienced the difficulty of not fitting into the preconceived notions of racial identity, or fitting into a definitive “racial box.”
“There’s certain people who will be like, ‘You’re not fully black, so you don’t understand what it’s like,’ like that,” Crouch said. “If I’m like, ‘Oh I have thick hair, it’s really annoying,’ they’ll be like, ‘You have mixed hair, so you don’t really know.’ It’s just stuff like that. They’re messing around, but it still gets me.”
Gicela Lechuga, a fellow senior, also strongly identifies with her Hispanic heritage.
“They [Lechuga’s parents] are immigrants from Mexico,” Lechuga said. “I’m like imported cheese because they made me there and had me here.”
Unlike Crouch who is a quarter of the race she identifies with and Dolezal who is not at all, Lechuga is fully Hispanic. Despite her heritage, with her fair skin, green eyes, and straight brown hair, Lechuga said she experiences unintentional “white passing” “99.2% of the time.”
“Sometimes, it bothers me,” Lechuga said. “It’s like, ‘What are you trying to say about my race? About Mexicans? That all of them are tan and look and act a specific way?’ There’s light skinned Mexicans; there’s dark Mexicans; there’s black Mexicans.”
Like Crouch, Lechuga said that there are moments where she feels alienated because of “white passing.”
“Sometimes I do feel left out because when I go out and I’m hanging out with other Hispanic people, people talk in Spanish to everyone else and then they get to me and they’re like, ‘She’s probably White, I’ll talk to her in English.’ And I’m like, ‘No, I understand Spanish completely well,’” Lechuga said.
In the end however, Lechuga said she understands why people might perceive her and her heritage in a certain light.
“I can’t blame people,” Lechuga said. “There are lots of stereotypes people have and people make generalizations and see things in the media. And so when there’s a case like me, people kind of try to ignore it–they don’t know how to act and they’re not used to seeing this sort of Latino person.”
The source of misunderstandings is in the stereotypes built around different races and the ways in which we perceive racial structure. As seen in the cases of Dolezal, Crouch and Lechuga, people do not always look like the culture they identify themselves with most.
Although Lanna Ahlberg speaks Mandarin and eats rice or noodles at nearly every meal, she strongly identifies with both sides of her identity.
“I like to embrace both sides,” she said. “I really do think that people should not be ashamed of their culture. I kind of find it annoying when people don’t really express their true background and you only tell half of the story because then people can’t treat you genuinely.”
Like Crouch, Ahlberg also experiences the difficulty of not fitting into others’ preconceived notions of race.
“I have a friend who’s also half Asian and half white, and we always joke around because we never fit into a certain category. When we’re here, we’re identified as a different person of color; over there, we’re identified as white.”
For Ahlberg, her identity extends beyond her race, as she feels strongly about her Taiwanese nationality.
“Because I’m American, it doesn’t bother me when they think I’m American, but when they say something like, ‘Oh you’re Chinese,’ that bothers me because I’m not Chinese- I’m Taiwanese. People will automatically put you in these stereotypes even if you may not practice or identify with that.”
“Challenging the construct of race is at the core of evolving human consciousness,” Dolezal said. And although she was condemned for her “black passing,” Dolezal brings up an interesting point about choosing how we’re perceived–or in the case of unintentional “passing”–having no control over how we’re perceived.