Out in the Open·Personal Essay

Piya Chattopadhyay reflects on the privilege of racial passing

Out in the Open host Piya Chattopadhyay's biracial, fair-skinned children have the ability to pass as white. She reflects on what that may mean for them in the future, and both the good and bad that can come with the privilege of passing.

'I spend a lot of time looking at my children and wondering to myself what their skin tone means in 2019'

Piya Chattopadhyay's daughter and twin sons (Submitted by Piya Chattopadhyay)

This essay was originally published on September 20, 2019.

My daughter Jasmine has light brown hair and hazel eyes.

My son Niko's hair is even lighter, but his eyes are dark brown.

Same goes for my other son Julian (which makes sense, since they're identical twins).

They're all tall and lean. And they're all fair-skinned, the kind that no amount of sunscreen seems to stave off a sunburn.

By appearance, they take after their father and his lineage.

So I'm forgiving when people say, "They don't look like you at all," but a little less forgiving when people confuse me for their nanny.

My kids are Canadian. By heritage on my side, they're Indian (my Bengali parents immigrated to Canada in 1967). On their dad's side, it's a mix of Scottish, Irish and English.

I tell you this because I spend a lot of time looking at my children and wondering to myself what their skin tone means in 2019... and what it will mean in years to come, as they grow into adults.

Each of them has the ability to "pass" as a white person.

Piya Chattopadhyay, her husband Peter Armstrong, and their twin sons (Submitted by Piya Chattopadhyay)

Passing means being assumed to be something that you are not.

And it can be a privilege. There are clear benefits when people assume that you're white.

Not having racial taunts hurled at you for the colour of your skin is one obvious example.

But there are a lot of other times when passing as white can also have its advantages.

For example, when crossing the border into the United States, James Chaarani – who's the child of Muslim-Lebanese immigrants, and is himself white passing – explained on Out in the Open's recent episode "Come to Pass":

"I feel the need to conceal who I am when I'm crossing the U.S border... It's not that I've done anything wrong. I just don't want to be hassled. And it's paid off: I can't remember the last time a border guard gave me any trouble."

But as Chaarani argues, there can also be a cost to passing.

"Since I'm so inconspicuous, it means I also get access to unfiltered versions of Islamophobia and ethnic hatred," he said, "I see and hear the subtle bigotry that some non-Arab people express amongst themselves, because they think I'm one of them."

And that's the thing about passing.

It's a privileged door you can choose to access, but once you walk through it, you can't always predict what will be on the other side.


Piya Chattopadhyay is the host of CBC Radio's Out in the Open.

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