Monday, January 20, 2014

What’s normal now (4)…beyond the boundaries – passing for / as…?
Torrey Orton
Jan 20, 2013

Passing for white, or Jewish or gay or…another passing identity?

I’ve passed briefly for German, Dutch, Irish, Swedish, but never French, Italian, Russian…where passing is defined as being treated as one of those origins by birth members of that origin. I don’t even mention Chinese, except where I’ve passed as Chinese on the phone a few times by dint of a capacity for fluently mimicking the standard politenesses which make everyone comfortable in Chinese (and my face is not visible!!). This passing is always a treat, usually a surprise the first time around and enduringly a source of pleasant assumptions about my flexibility…or maybe that’s my evasiveness?

The treat is intensified by the fact that I’ve never passed for Australian in my present home country, though when back in my original one - the US - I’ve never passed for American for 40 years. In both places the locals say ‘how long ya been here’, or similar (where’re you from?), which on an irritable day I reply to thus: “Here longer than you’ve been alive” (when being prickly) or “Richmond” (when being passive aggressive). This ‘passing’ is not to be confused with the contemporary euphemism for dying…

For others with stigmatised attributes – race, ethnicity, sexual preference, gender, religion – passing may be both an opportunity to share the dominant class privileges of the culture in question, to feel a traitor to one’s class, culture, etc., and to be in danger of being self-outed by misspeaking. Misspeaking is one of the dangers the effective passer has to master since accent and vocabulary are among the easiest signs of an identity group membership and motivation for exclusion of others. This is sharply observed by Tim Winton in The “C” Word (The Monthly, December 2013).

Normal boundaries

One of the minimum requirements for being normal is a workable definition. Usually this requires some kind(s) of clear boundaries for some normal to be other than another unanchored evidentiary mote in the everyday eye. Another level down, or up, we have the boundaries of the language in which the normal is being expressed. ‘Passing’ carries a sense of either leaving something behind or being left behind, which is probably why ‘pass’ has replaced ‘die’ as the privileged descriptor for death events in the Obits pages of our papers and tellies. ‘Pass’ implies a continuing presence anchored by the past still in someone’s mind. Die is just that – dead and gone.

So we can imagine that to ‘pass’ in this sense suggests the living, those left behind, are in a defective state of some sort (see the major religions for established answers to that assumption). And so, segue to passing for white, or straight, or religious (or not) where not being the real thing in any of those domains may be experienced by the unreal ones as an intentional, discriminatory exclusion. Here’s an example:

“Isabelle Mussard is 41 and lives in Oakland, California. She is sometimes mistaken for Latino or Iranian but is actually of Métis descent, by way of France and Senegal, and of unknown mixed origins on her mother's side, as she was adopted. She takes no pride in passing as white, but sees many parallels in the experience that spans the varying identities of her family. "I think a lot about the analogies between coming out as a black woman of mixed heritage and my lesbian mother's coming out." Mussard remarks on another tension, a "triple consciousness" for passing as white, being black, but resisting America's definition of blackness given her European ancestry. Not having a black identity that is linked with the American history of slavery renders her identification even more complex. She is wary of appropriating a culture that is not her own and says that she wants to stay cognisant of and responsible for her privilege in passing.”

Koa Beck “The trouble with 'passing' for another race/sexuality/religion …”, Thursday 2 January 2014

This background presents the kind of situation in which constant renegotiation of one’s identity is a requirement, or threat, of everyday living and typifies a characteristic of our culture of “liquid fear” which Z. Bauman characterizes so exhaustively. The exclusion experience can occur also for members of an imagined dominant identity whenever they are caught in the minority role such as turning up at a largely LGBT event, or a working class pub by default of any other option and so on. Overseas travel can be a great opportunity to learn about being a minority person though few seem to do so, reliably treating encountered (and, one would have thought, sought) difference(s) as a deficit of the dominant identities they are visiting. Try some. You may like them. Food is a recognized boundary riding opportunity for most humans.

The identity boundary problem reaches into the future in unexpected forms like this: One of my favourite passing problems is artificial intelligence. Here’s my take on it. When a robot can conduct a life it is no longer a robot; it’s a person. Prospects of this occurring are not too great …but then…

As for robotic persons, they’re around aplenty in public discourses speaking in the tongues of commodification and politicisation in repeated sound bites answering questions the enquiring reporter hasn’t asked, or as often disregarding the reporter’s queries to mount as if not heard their mantra of the moment. This is a party-free phenomenon.

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