Passing for Black-ish

Hannah Miet
“Looking back on it, my life would be much different if I had had different hair,” writes Hannah Miet. (Hannah Miet)

A version of this essay originally appeared in Pelican Bomb.

As much as I hate to break it to you, because it means repeating it to myself, I must confess: I am a white woman.

I wasn't always so forthcoming. There was a year in my life when I was dating a Black Panther, ran with an activist circle that included several Black Panthers and may have even considered myself a Black Panther, though I wouldn't have said that aloud. I accessorized this crisis of identity with elephant-print headwraps, wooden bangle bracelets and Black Star blaring from my apartment. I'm pretty sure the only reason I got away with it was because of my hair, which is not "curly" so much as it is kinky and grows out rather than down, forming a large, perfect circle around my head. In other words, I rock a Jew-fro.

The other white women in our activist circle, who did not rock Jew-fros and had no capacity to rock Jew-fros, seemed to run into more problems. Our group met once a week at different members' apartments, familiarizing me with New York City neighborhoods where (at the time) my non-activist white friends would not have considered stepping off the subway: the South Bronx, Flatbush and Bedford-Stuyvesant (this was before Peaches, Do or Dine and Outpost's "Bed-Stuy Chai"). Like most activist groups, we spent a good 25 percent of our energy arguing amongst ourselves. One frequent subject for consideration was whether white members of the group were overstepping their boundaries as allies.

I was never called out. In fact, the Black Panther I was dating would openly discuss with me the issues he was having with other white members on our long rides from the outer boroughs back to my Harlem apartment, where he'd massage my shoulders and burn me CDs, and where we'd cuddle like cats. I grew to cherish my role as a confidant to this intuitive and intelligent man. He trusted me enough to lend me his spacious apartment in Brooklyn while he was on tour with his band, allowing me to escape my cramped studio. I proceeded to invite friends over without explaining that it wasn't my place. I watched as they scanned the life-sized sculpture of a (literal) black panther in the entranceway and the Malcolm X books on the shelf, too afraid to ask questions. I reported back to him gleefully on this experiment.

I will assume that there were many reasons besides my hair that allowed me to play this role in his life. As for the group, it probably didn't hurt that I remained pretty quiet. I showed up to protest against the police officers who killed Sean Bell, Malcolm Ferguson and Amadou Diallo, but I wasn't exactly on the front lines. The other members of the group may have even thought I was at these rallies only to support my boo. Another likely reason no one challenged my participation: I was 19 and very stoned. There was a lot happening on top of my head, but there was little self-reflection happening within it.

It was my sophomore year of college, and I couldn't make it through a class without stepping out to take a hit off my pipe in a public bathroom, in a storage closet or walking down Madison Avenue blowing my smoke away from the businessmen in crisp suits (or at them, if I was feeling bold) without worrying too much about the cops. (Talk about the white privilege.) Suffice it to say, I was living a rather unexamined life.

The weed came with its own identity. The most popular poster in college dorm rooms circa 2007, and probably now and forever, was Bob Marley smoking a joint against a red, yellow and green backdrop. Since I lived in Harlem and went to a commuter school, I didn't have a dorm room. But I definitely had a Bob Marley poster—a postcard-sized, black-and-white version framed from some knickknack shop on St. Mark's Place because I thought that was classier.

Most of my friends wore Rasta beads and went to reggae festivals, had freestyle battles and wrote slam poetry about police brutality. Not all of those friends were white, but absolutely none were actual Rastafarians. Most of us became friends not because of political activism, sisterhood or even our questionable fashion choices, but because we all smoked weed every day and couldn't really function around people who didn't. When your life revolves around a drug culture, you grab on to everything that is loosely associated with it so your world seems bigger.

A few years later, after I buried my Rasta beads and elephant-print headwraps deep in the closet, I lived in New Orleans for a summer, and my skin became darker. In the heat and humidity, my hair expanded, though some credit goes to a talented hairdresser named Selma. I became a regular at Bullet's in Treme on Tuesday nights for Kermit Ruffins's set. Within a couple of weeks, I was on friendly terms with the regulars, the bartenders and Ruffins, who much to my delight had complimented my haircut.

When friends from New York came to visit, I took them with me. Some of my nonwhite friends danced and felt at ease, but others, mainly the white ones, never felt comfortable. "I didn't realize that we would be the only white people here," one whispered. "New Orleans is 60 percent black," I whispered back, unwilling to reflect. When you're ethnically ambiguous, you fit in almost everywhere, or at least you seem less like a blatant outsider. And maybe some of that is that you feel like less of an outsider.

Not only have I rarely faced any kind of discrimination based on my perceived race (I know Jews face plenty of persecution elsewhere, but I grew up in Brooklyn and now live in Los Angeles, where we do just fine), but I have often benefited from being what a Beverly Hills casting agent I met at a party once called "ethnically white"—someone whom everyone can feel comfortable with. Someone who could sell you toothpaste, or bacon cheeseburgers, or your own soul on a platter. It's embarrassing to admit that while I no longer smoke weed or consider my cultural heritage to be linked (invisibly) to Jamaica, I still feel good when someone assumes I am something other than white. When an Uber driver asks, "Where are you from?" and I say, "New York." And they say, "But where are you from really? You look Dominican." Or "You look mixed." Or, simply, "I can't place it." My gut reaction is to assume this means I am beautiful.

Looking back on it, my life would be much different if I had had different hair, and I don't think it would be better. I don't think my first friends in elementary school would have been black. I don't think I would have lived a life in which I was able to slip through social groups and exist outside of racial tension without really being forced to think about it. And I don't think—no, in fact I'm quite certain—that I would have ever had a Black Panther phase, which was as loving as it was instructive.

I don't really know what to do with that, other than to be honest. So I'd like to make it clear, one last time for the people in the nosebleeds who might not have heard me the first time: I'm a white woman with a lot of kinky hair, and my fair skin grows dark in the sun. I'm sorry for the confusion this has caused you, and most of all, I'm sorry for the confusion it's caused me.