Passing Through: Another Take on Identity in Activism and Design

My grandmother always seemed to have cutlery to polish whenever I visited her for dinner. She was, almost to a point of a stereotype, distinctly matriarchal in the way she existed in my family structure. Physically present, shouting inquiries of personal issues from the kitchen, enlisting any idler to shine her silverware. I would sit down in her green, billowy recliner in front of the TV as I cleaned on a fold-out dinner table. This time, talk show hosts were debating about immigration, which caused my grandmother to launch into a story as she cooked jerk chicken from behind me.

She and my father are from Jamaica, but neither of them really look like it. Something many people in this country don’t realize is how mixed it is in the Caribbean. All in the same family gathering, we had people who looked asian, white, black, or something altogether different. At the time, I didn’t really think of it as odd; every couple in my blood line were interracial. When she arrived in New York to immigrate, my grandmother recounted all of the invasive questions clerks asked her about herself. The one that stood out: “What race are you?” She answered:

“Human?”

This past year, I’ve sat down with a lot of creators about representation in games. One of the first questions out of their mouth is “How do you depict minorities well in games?” Maybe it’s because this is usually over dinner, knife and fork in hand, that I want to reply with “Human?” Thinking of my grandmother who doesn’t have a clearly identifiable race by American standards trying to explain herself to an official. ‘Human’ is loaded though; dominant identities are conflated with universal traits of humanity while minoritized people must be loud about their diverging qualities. Usually, I would fall back on trying to tap what is really human, and in turn, interrogate and separate what we assume is default about humanity and is really dominant culture.

I’ve started to think of my grandmother’s story a little differently lately. I feel like there’s a more active, personal dynamic with identity than what we currently conceive. Contemporary activism has a strong slant towards self-identification, particularly within established minoritized groups. This makes sense; a person is who they say they are, and that needs to be respected. What does that say about my grandmother, who didn’t have an answer for her race until she lived in America? Would she be outside today’s activism if she didn’t explicitly label herself?

We aren’t inherently any of these social categories. We are not essentialized genders, races, sexualities, abilities, or anything else. These labels are instead leveraged for power, two kinds in particular: to create difference and then elevate one difference over all others, or in reaction, to form community around a shared minoritized quality. Despite flexibility in some of these communities about who counts for what, identity is treated as a fact once declared, in complete ownership of the person who claims it. This isn’t the whole picture.

Upon memory, the first time I heard the term ‘passing’ was when I looked through transition video diaries on Youtube by queer people. It means when you successfully appear as cisgender to someone, and is constantly haunting non-cis people’s lives. Many queer folks on forums and chats thought passing was the ultimate test non-cis people should try to conquer. Men on personals sites plaster ‘passable only’ all over their ads. The thing about passing is that you can try to influence it as much as you can, but ultimately, it’s the perceptions of other people that decide whether you pass or not. There is a bit of your identity that is always held hostage by the public, a site of power struggles. I’m interpreted to be many genders throughout my day, and not simply man, woman, or non-binary, but a whole other host of qualities and baggage that each particular person brings to those things. I’m being gendered by them; they imbue my identity with whatever gender they interpret and create a power dynamic with it.

This isn’t the sole domain of gender, as we can see, my grandmother was being raced during her story. I am often raced by white people who don’t see me as ‘one of those black people’ and by non-white people as ‘basically white.’ This structures our relationship with one another, both the restrictive and creative forces of power that is organized by institutional oppression. Removing individual expressions of power by interpreting other people’s identity makes us go to the default, that people are a series of labels that can be neatly organized into who’s valued and marginalized. These aren’t simple declarations of ‘I’m going to treat you like a woman,’ rather us creating an internal barometer to gauge how we should relate to one another. I think this creates an easier view for how microaggressions and non-overt oppressive power plays happen in daily life.

Some of the queries I’ve received plan to show that a character is transgender by having some sort of reveal, because how else would a player know that the character is trans? This is a product of declarative identity, and it is often used to marginalize even with the best intentions. A stronger way to express someone’s sense of self is to show the struggle over that negotiating space of someone’s identity. By making it extremely particular to the people involved; what does it mean for someone to perceive a woman cis when she’s not? Or to assume someone’s half white, half black? Framing it this way makes it pretty compatible for play design, as the me-too slant of current rhetoric around representation rarely talks about what it means to have these identities, especially ones like race and sexuality that was created to categorize the other.

The mechanics of passing, and how that affects activism and design, feel shoved to the side for a very identitarian manifestation of intersectionality. Identity doesn’t have to be restrained to story conceits, but up for play. It’s not only the person themselves who plays with identity, rather, they co-struggle with society and how individuals interpret them. This is more readily apparent for people who don’t neatly fall into boxes, but can be done with all aspects of identity and oppression. This doesn’t even have to be strictly realistic, find any good science fiction book on cyborgs or mutation and how humanity is negotiated. If we consider what it’s like to be human to be this struggle, we afford ourselves complex insights into not only the minoritized, but also the ingrained qualities of dominant cultures.

This article was community supported! Consider donating or being my patron so I can continue writing: Support

Comments are closed.

Proudly powered by WordPress
Theme: Esquire by Matthew Buchanan.