“Passing” has always been a touchy subject for me. As a mixed-race person I have always felt as though I lived in a rather “damned if I do” place with regards to how I identify. My life experiences and upbringing were very much centered on my Native American heritage. My appearance, however, always made the acceptance of that by both myself and other people very difficult. It’s not easy to present as differently than you identify because there will always be plenty of people to tell you how you should identify. I am constantly reminded that because I present as white to their eye then I should accept that I am in fact a white person. There are two problems with this: I am not a white person, and it is not the decision of anyone outside of myself to decide how I get to identify. There is no proper way to present as a person of color/non-white person, and for anyone else to press a definition of what is or is not properly “of color” is unacceptable.
I don’t recall a ton of pop culture that deals specifically with the politics of being mixed race or presenting differently than you identify. It is one of the reasons that when I picked up and played Dragon Age II that I was so startled and taken with some of the missions surrounding the character Feynriel.
Feynriel is a half-human/half-elf young man that you meet when his mother is distressed because he has come into magic in a way that has caused him to possibly become a danger to himself. A funny thing about Dragon Age is that the writers, most notably I imagine being David Gaider who wrote the novels where I noticed this lore most heavily played upon, have given us a situation where a person born of mixed-race origins will always present one way. In this case, a child born of one human and one elf parent will always present as human, and in a world lacking DNA science, there is no way to tell otherwise. Dragon Age provides us through the course of two novels and three games with two fairly prominent characters who depict this background. One I will not spoil for you if you are not aware of it or do not consider it canon (though to me it is completely obvious that this is in fact exactly his lineage and quite intentional). The other is Feynriel. They do, however present very differently.
Both are men, and one is the very picture of a stereotypically “ideal” looking man, while Feynriel looks far more elven. He has the narrower features, flatter forehead and more shallow set eyes of the elves in DAII. He is more fair and thin. I even found his ears to be slightly pointed. I found it interesting that both characters seemed to prove my basic idea that no mixed race person will every look exactly a certain way.
I wish that BioWare had taken a slightly less Caucasian approach to presenting a face of a mixed-race person, but in my mind the variation in features provides a little bit with me to work with that I might almost be willing to let that pass. Almost.
Feynriel’s second largest problem is that he doesn’t feel like he fits in anywhere. When he lives among humans he feels as though he stands out as obviously an elf (a point I found odd given that half-human/half-elf children should always look human, until I thought about it more). Considering that elves experience extreme levels of racial hatred and discrimination this is understandably an uncomfortable place for him to have lived his entire life. His first largest problem being that he is also a mage, subjecting him to hatred and fear above that status. Feynriel wants to live among the Dalish Elves, a nomadic clan of elves, and when (if) he is there, despite finding some help with his magical woes, he feels, again, that he stands out due to his human parentage.
Wow. Can I relate.
Feynriel made me feel a little like I could relate to that situation. Not quite ever belonging in one place or to any one people because no matter where you were someone was going to see you as the other. Additionally, his situation made me re-examine the thoughts that pounded instantly into my head when I watched his woes unfold before me. My initial reaction of “Hey! He looks awfully elf!” really hit home when I realized that that assumption is the very thing that I get upset with people for. I loathe people for telling me that I look very white, dismissing my Native background, and I had just done the same thing, albeit to a pixelated character, but done it all the same.
Chally at Zero at the Bone has written many great things about this topic, and I recommend this part three of a series she has written: The Privileges and Pains of Passing.