What’s it like growing up when people mistake you for white?

Three women of colour explain what it’s like being white-passing in a white girl’s world

Pin It
maira
Maira Haque

Growing up as a mixed-race, white-passing girl, I was never sure which box to tick when filling out those forms that describe your ethnic origin. As someone who’s half-Turkish, half-Iranian, I’d consider myself to be Middle Eastern. But Middle-Eastern was never listed as an option on the tick-box forms, so I’d always just glumly tick “other”.

When you’re not white, but you look white, it’s easy to feel like an “other”. I’ve lost track of the amount of times complete strangers have come up to me and asked where I’m from, often because they’ve been running bets with their friends trying to guess. I’ve lost track of all the jokes I’ve been told about Muslims being terrorists by people who assumed I was white, like them. When you’re white-passing in a white world, it’s easy to feel like an outsider.

Our society is getting better at recognising how little racial diversity there is almost every industry and walk of life, although there’s still a huge amount of work to be done. White-passing people can have a unique perspective on racial identity and difference due to the fact that they can ‘pass’ between cultures with greater ease. To find out more, we spoke to three white-passing girls about their experiences. These are their stories.

YAZ MAHMOUDI, 24, IRANIAN

I grew up in a very white suburb of Oxford. Despite passing as white, my primary school was so white that I often ended up being the most ‘ethnic’ kid in the class. I was teased a lot for having a foreign surname, and I used to wish I had a different name.

I rarely stand out in white-dominated spaces, and for those who are aware of my ethnic background, I’m often an ‘acceptable’ minority to have around. Sometimes I refer to myself as ‘white but not quite’ as a joke.

Despite the immense privilege my light complexion affords me, there are those moments where being Iranian entails othering on an institutional and interpersonal level.

I wonder if it’s disingenuous for me to claim that I experience the levels of racism that other people of colour do. Maybe I am white? What I notice is that micro-aggressions and exotification occur when my ethnicity is the direct topic of conversation. I’m generally coded as white, and middle class, but there are moments where I’m kind of haunted by the ‘not quite’ thing too. 

When I was nine I was in Iran with my Dad and brother and a woman kept quizzing us about where we were from. She couldn’t believe that kids as pale as my brother and I would both have Iranian parents. Quite often Iranian people will speak to me in English, not Farsi, and when they find out that I’m Iranian will respond along the lines of ‘oh, I wouldn’t have had any idea!’

DAKOTA RAY HEBERT, 23, EUROPEAN & DENE FIRST NATIONS

My Mom is Native, and my Dad is white. I look white throughout the winter months, but once the summer sun touches me, I am a bronzed goddess. To this day, I am mistaken for a variety of races aside from Dene. I've been asked if I'm Spanish; Greek; Lebanese; Egyptian; Italian. It’s phenomenal how much I get confused for other races, especially considering I live in Saskatchewan, which has a high Indigenous population.

People act differently around me because they perceive me as white – big time. They feel comfortable, and that’s where I feel a power. I can offer an opinion for Native people, but as a perceived white person. I’ve learnt that people take those opinions more seriously if they think the opinion is coming from a white person than a Native person. It’s fucked up.

People will say something offensive about my people, and only then I realise they don’t think I’m Native. I believe in the best of people. But once they say something offensive about Natives, I pretend like I don't understand the stereotypical joke they were trying to tell. Then I make them explain it. Then I tell them I am ‘Status’, which in Canada means (essentially) ‘very Native’. After that, I make them buy me a drink, and explain to them their flawed thought process. And I bask in their uneducated opinions, and relish their cowardly backings-away.

Because my father is white, I’m at the point in my blood-quantum that if I don’t have babies with a Native man, my children will not be considered Native in the eyes of my government. My uterus is a political decision right now.

The media just want to see us as feather wearing, war-paint colouring, hide-cloth donning people. But, I like shopping at Sephora, and wearing fancy clothes, and dancing at clubs just like most people. We’re goddamn human beings. We have jokes, and lives, and stories. It’s fucked.

MAIRA HAQUE, 17, PUNJABI PAKISTANI

Growing up, I often wished I were white because of the xenophobia I faced from my peers. I would be called a ‘Paki’ or a terrorist. It got so bad that whenever there were parent-teacher meetings I would get so much anxiety about bringing my parents to school and I would coach them to speak specifically in English, and to never ever talk in Urdu for fear that someone would overhear and mock me even more.

While white passing privilege is real, it doesn’t protect you from racism within your own community. I often hear Islamophobic comments from my peers who are aware of my ethnicity but don’t expect me to call them out on it because I don’t fit the image of what a ‘Muslim’ person looks like. People say racist things to me because they operate on the assumption that I’m white. 

One time I was working as a cashier at a gas station and a man came in rambling about how he hates everyone in the Middle East and if he could, he would kill them all. It was such an eye opening, incredibly scary experience that shook me to my core. I often notice a change in demeanor and attitude when I tell people that I'm a Pakistani Muslim. They either ask insensitive questions under the guise of being "curious" or they completely stop interacting with me.

As a child, I felt very isolated from members of my own ethnic group. Aunties within my community would praise me and call me beautiful solely because my skin was fairer than other girls my age or because my eyes were green.

I often felt as if I had to prove that I was Pakistani enough for the Desi community while simultaneously being "cool" and assimilated enough for my white peers. My identity, quite literally, was in a state of disarray.

Shortly after entering high school I began to learn more about my culture instead of vehemently hating where I came from so much. Thankfully my parents provided a great emotional support system and I slowly began to make more Desi friends and standing up to my peers who dared to racially insult me. Self-love is truly revolutionary and I regret spending so many years full of so much internalised racism.

More Arts+Culture

Like this?
Like Dazed on Facebook