Is anyone so comfortable in his own skin that he never fears exposure?
How many preachers shout hallelujah at the top of their lungs to cover their own nagging doubts? How many ministers comfort the bereaved while their hearts are burned out from sharing too much grief?
How many businessmen brag about their accomplishments to silence the small voice whispering in their ear that it will all come crashing down?
How many part-Asians or part-Hispanics write white on the census, then feel guilty for betraying a part of their heritage?
How many husbands and wives say “I love you,” while a voice inside adds, “I did, and I should, but I’m just not sure any more.”
Passing isn’t just about race, but if it were, it would not be just about white and black. In Japan, Burakumin hide their origins. In India they say, “Beware the black Brahmin and the pale Chamar,” for people have been fighting to escape caste identity ever since caste was invented.
Gays know a lot about passing, too, although their phrase for it is “in the closet”.
I was once “in the closet”, a very peculiar closet, and I passed for two and a half years. Not a gay closet, but a religious one. That experience is another reason a white science fiction writer has such an interest in race. I know first hand the fear of exposure that passing brings on.
Until I was just shy of sixteen, I was a straight-laced, Bible toting, young Baptist. I believed what I had been taught, despite normal adolescent doubts, and I was reasonably sure of a trip to Heaven when I died. Then, in a flash of insight, all those doubts came together and in one instant, all belief fled. One moment I was a Christian; the next moment I was an atheist. I never asked for it; I never wanted it; but there it was. Like Saul on his way to Damascus, struck down by a total change of life – only in the other direction.
I was afraid of what had happened to me, but I was even more afraid to tell anyone about it. My father was a deacon and lay minister, good natured and fun loving except where religion was concerned. In that regard, he was God-struck into inflexibility.
I feared him, with a fear that made me mute when confronted by his disapproval.
The fear was unjustified. Years later I came to realize that he hid behind certainty to disguise his own fears.
Unjustified or not, the fears were real, so for two and a half years I lived inside myself and confided in no one. I went to church three times a week, I sang hymns, I read my bible, I prayed aloud when called on. I fully lived the lie, and no one doubted me. I passed, successfully, but at an emotional cost that I wouldn’t wish on anyone.
In 1967, on the way to Michigan and college, I vowed to never lie again. No doubt, that is why I’m a writer; I’m still trying to tell the stories I couldn’t tell before. It’s also why my long suffering friends probably know more about me than they ever really wanted to know.
In these last weeks I have spoken often about black people passing for white and turning us all into one race. These have been logical arguments intended to clarify the American situation. I have tried for a neutral tone, although, in fact, I approve of miscegenation and passing and any other thing that people do to make their lives work under harsh circumstances.
I always realize my privileged position. Yes, I’ve worked since I was eleven, I came up from a harsh and rustic environment, and I went to college on a scholarship that I earned by hard work. But if I had done all that, and had been born black, I would never have made it.
I don’t feel white guilt, but I feel an endless obligation to the men and women of all races who fought for civil rights, particularly to the black men and women who fought hardest and against the steepest odds; and an endless obligation to tell the truth through what I write.