My great-grandfather could, and did, pass for white. His only son, my grandfather, was darker and couldn’t. My grandfather told me a story of his youth that must have taken place in 1938 or 1939 in Jim Crow Louisiana. He accompanied his daddy on one of his jobs hauling things. My great-grandfather went in the front of the business as a white man. They sent his “boy” (my grandfather) around back. My grandfather waited in the back, alone. His father, whom he was named after, let these people think that his only beloved son was no relation to him to preserve the lie of his whiteness. Because his whiteness helped him provide for his dark housekeeper wife, and his only son, my great-grandfather gave up part of who he was in order to survive in a world that was turned against him.
I used to straighten my hair. It was not out of an attempt to become white. It was an attempt to be invisible. My nappy hair is the most prominently identifying of my ethnic features. When my hair is straight I am confused for Latino, Vietnamese, Pacific Islander, sometimes even Italian. I have never said that I am anything other than what I am. But I have seen differences in how I am treated that cannot be entirely imaginary.