"Passing" and Other Costs of Racism
by Karen Sellers
In the 17th century Western scientists began using pseudo-scientific methods to establish race hierarchies. Research continued in the 18th and 19th centuries, with scientists searching for biological evidence to explain the differences between peoples. Mostly they studied physical evidence—skin color, hair texture, eye shape and color, bone measurements, etc.—eventually identifying up to 60 categories of race. But these endeavors served primarily to justify oppression and exploitation of people already deemed inferior. These scientists wanted to find biological, "objective" evidence in order to validate their superior social position through an independent source.
The systems put in place to oppress the excluded were not under threat, having been long established by the self-proclaimed superior class. Now that they were substantiated by scientific proof, it was clear that the systems must be good, even just. There would be no need to consider racial minorities or populations in underdeveloped countries, for example, because they were "less than" and did not count. They did not even merit the opportunity to improve their condition.
My own family story gives a glimpse into what these systems can do to people and families. My great-great-great grandmother, who was biracial, had children, likely through sexual domination. Her son, my great-great grandfather, was reduced to a tactic known in the African American community as "passing." As a very fair-skinned African American, he could "pass" for a "Caucasian" (a term based on now debunked pseudo-science). While "passing" from African American society into white society had its obvious advantages, it came at a cost. It involved renouncing one's heritage, one's very self.
This is not how God wants us to live. Jesus came to destroy barriers so that humans could be united in love for God and for one another. As Paul writes, "There is neither Jew or Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28). This is God's ideal for society, in which there is no room for oppression.
The following word portrait, written in the voice of my great-great-great grandmother, is my attempt to bring her dilemma, and that of her son, to life.
"My Son Done Passed"
I'm called LaDusta. My mama named me Virginia Augusta when I was born, but I never liked the name Virginia. I went by Augusta for a while, but then I changed it to LaDusta. I didn't know my daddy. All I knew was that he was a Negro. Even though Mama was a white woman, she loved the Negro part of town.
I don't have much schooling, just what Mama taught me. I didn't have any brothers or sisters, either—it was just the two of us.
I didn't have anyone to protect me when the men started messing with me. That's how I ended up with my first baby boy; I was 15. His father wouldn't marry me so we lived with Mama. Then two more babies came along.
I did get married—once. But he died, and I was alone again.
In those days it was hard times in the city. The city was still trying to get itself right after the war. Jobs were hard to come by, and everyone scrabbled for the few jobs there was. It was even harder for mulattos and Negroes. Mama used her family connections to get my sons jobs—as a driver and as porters.
All my boys got married. The middle boy, Edward, married a girl named Julia. They had two daughters before Julia died. So I took the two girls in, as no man was going to be able to raise two little girls.
Then Mama died. And Edward, who always wanted better for himself than what the white man was willing to give, got it in his mind that it would be better to leave and start a new life someplace else. We went round and round, but I couldn't talk him out of it. He was determined to leave. He left as a Negro and passed on into the white world. Before he left his foreman advised him, "Make sure people refer to you as Mr. Wilson."
I don't know what exactly happened to my boy. He sent me a picture once of him and his new son, Leslie. But I died without ever seeing or hearing from him again.
[Author's note: Edward Wilson moved to Missouri and then to Arkansas. In the 1900 census he is listed as a white widower. In the 1910 census he is listed as married.]
Karen Sellers is dual degree MDiv/International Development student at Palmer Theological Seminary/Eastern University. She enjoys reading and researching a variety of topics.