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Passing as Black

Posted on February 10, 2015

I had dinner with a group of guys that I’ve been friends with for over a decade. One of my friends had been reading my blog, and it led him to share a very powerful story about a surreal encounter that he went through recently.

When my friend, let’s call him Drew, told me this story, I was shocked. It was a perfect companion to my previous post, Hidden in Plain Sight, how we battle stereotypes and perceptions everyday. It’s the type of story that you encounter on NPR’s Code Switch, or read about in the nonfiction book, Black Like Me. The difference is that all of these stories are set in the distant past. More than 50 years ago. But this happened in 2015. Maybe it’s naive of me, but I couldn’t believe that an interaction like that could take place in 2015. Here is how it went down…

Drew plays in an adult dodgeball league. Typically, these leagues are thinly-veiled excuses for grown people to congregate and drink. However, in Drew’s league, things must have gotten pretty competitive because Drew, who himself is very athletic, suffered an injury serious enough that he needed medical attention.

He wrote his name, Drew; Filled in his address - 200 Yet Another Peachtree St; And checked the proper ethnicity / race box - Black.

So he did what the informed, insured and cost-conscious injured do - he avoided the ER and instead headed to one of the now-ubiquitous urgent care facilities. Upon check-in, he is greeted by Bonnie, the receptionist. As par for the course, Bonnie handed him a stack of patient registration forms to fill out. He sat down and began to write. He wrote his name, Drew; Filled in his address - 200 Yet Another Peachtree St; And checked the proper ethnicity / race box - Black. He completed all of the forms, and handed them to Bonnie.

Sir, I noticed that you mistakenly checked the box for Black instead of White. I’ll go ahead and fix that for you.

She quickly scans them, and said, “Sir, I noticed that you mistakenly checked the box for Black instead of White. I’ll go ahead and fix that for you.” Now, Drew was completely caught off guard by this statement.

After what felt like minutes, he composed himself and timidly responded, “Ma'am, I’m Black.” She looked at him incredulously. It was the type of look that said, “There is no way that you can possibly be Black.” Drew obviously read her body language because he continued, “Both of my parents just happen to be very light-skinned.” Bonnie remained defiant - “You don’t look Black. You look White. You must be Irish or something.” Drew repeats, “Ma'am, I am Black.” The back and forth goes on for far too long before Bonnie eventually surrendered. She begrudgingly accepted that this man that looks White to her insists on “passing” as Black.

It made me think - why would she find it implausible that my friend is Black? Maybe it was because he didn’t fit into her paradigm of what a Black person looks like. Yes, Drew is light or fair-skinned and obviously of mixed heritage. He is tall, gangly even, with an athletic build, long arms and even longer legs. To me, these are very Black features. Contrarily, he has some features predominantly seen in White people - blue eyes and hair that, in the light, takes on an amber, blondish hue. However, I had always considered Drew to be Black.

So, on the spot, I performed a super scientific experiment by asking our waiter what race he thought Drew was. The waiter was a young Hispanic male, so I thought that he would instantly confirm my suspicions that Drew could not pass as White. Man, was I wrong. The waiter looked a bit lost by this strange question, but eventually he muttered, “He’s obviously White. Do you mean like what type of White? Like Russian.”

Okay, so Drew could pass as White. Then I thought more about the strength of Bonnie’s conviction, and I wondered - maybe she was defiant in part because she couldn’t believe that anyone that looks like Drew would ever try to pass as Black. 50 years ago, fair-skinned Blacks had a choice. They could pretend to be White in order to shake off the shackles of discrimination and segregation. Passing as White meant that they could secure higher paying jobs, live in any neighborhood, attend any school, and have access to stores, restaurants and even restrooms that were off-limits to their darker-skinned brethren.

If her reaction was a remnant of this dark part of our history, then it’s is a tell-tale sign that we still have a long way to go in terms of educating people like Bonnie that we, Black people, come from multi-cultural backgrounds, and as a result, have diverse complexions across the entire color spectrum. I can only hope that Bonnie learned this valuable lesson.

Don’t get me wrong. I still think we’ve come a long way. We are on a positive trajectory signified by Drew’s actions. He checked the “Black” box, and stood his ground when his “Blackness” was called into question. It sounds strange to say, but he chose not to pass as White. That’s progress.

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Hi, I'm Don Pottinger.

I love building things with computers. At 10 years old, I wrote my first program using BASIC. I built my first computer when I was 12 years old. I studied Electrical and Computer Engineering at Georgia Tech. Now, I'm a full-stack software developer and entrepreneur passionate about building rich web and mobile apps. My weapons of choice are Ruby, Javascript, and Objective-C.

I live in Atlanta with my amazing wife and son. For fun, I play too much soccer and follow my favorite soccer clubs, FC Barcelona and Arsenal F.C.

My CV so far

  • Chief Technology Officer at Kevy (2014 - Present)
  • Co-founder and Head of Technical Development of Body Boss Fitness (2010 - Present)
  • Co-founder and Head of Technical Development of Kickdrop (2014)
  • Resident Nerd, Full-stack Developer and Backend Team Manager at Big Nerd Ranch (2012 - 2014)
  • IT and Management Consultant for Accenture and Slalom Consulting (2008 - 2012)
  • Graduate of Georgia Tech with BS in Electrical and Computer Engineering (2008)

My Recent Projects

Facts About Me

  • I was born in Jamaica and raised in the United States.
  • I speak English, Spanish and Jamaican Patois.
  • I love to travel. So far, I've visited Peru, Argentina, Spain, Switzerland, Germany, Greece, France, Italy, Canada, Jamaica, Hawaii, Mexico and England.