Mistaken Identities : And in America, Light-Skinned Blacks Are Acutely Aware That Race Still Matters to Many People

Times Staff Writer

Rep. Augustus Hawkins, 81, vividly remembers riding a bus in his home town of Los Angeles many years ago when a white woman sat down beside him. "She kept moving over to be next to me," he recalled, "and then she said, 'You know, we sure are getting a lot of blacks in this neighborhood. I don't like sitting next to them because they smell.' "

Hawkins, both curious and offended, asked the woman if he smelled. When she answered no, he said, "If I were to tell you that I'm black, what would you say?" Her answer: "I wouldn't believe you."

'Assumed I Was Lying'

"That woman's view has never changed," said Hawkins. "She probably assumed I was lying just to kid her."

What was a disagreeable incident for Hawkins, who represents such areas as Watts, South Gate and Huntington Park, is an all-too-common occurrence for many very light-skinned black people: They are born between two worlds. Some choose to join the white world, "passing" in order to gain privileges denied to black people. Others prefer to live black, gaining the satisfaction of feeling true to themselves and their race.

As Hawkins' experience shows, it is not a new predicament.

But today, with interracial marriages more common--according to the Census Bureau, there were 218,000 black-white marriages by last year, compared with 51,000 in 1960--and racial confrontations once again grabbing headlines, the issue of what determines a person's race is more prevalent in our society. By being mistaken for white, black people often see white behavior and attitudes--ranging from the humorous to the sinister--that would otherwise be concealed.

Mistaken for White

What follows are some of the stories of blacks who have been mistaken for white.

Carla Dancy, 34, now a lobbyist with a computer firm in Washington, received a welcome to Raleigh, N.C., that she will never forget. "I went there on a Saturday," she said, "and my boss was taking me around, introducing me to people.

"One of the people who greeted me welcomed me by saying, 'Hi, so glad to meet you. You're going to love North Carolina. We still lynch niggers and burn crosses down here.' "

Dancy, noting that the man was a customer of the firm she was starting to work for, said nothing to him because she did not want to sour the professional relationship. She said: "I didn't tell him. I don't know what my face looked like or how I handled it in front of him. I said, 'Yeah, I'm glad to be here,' or something like that, and kept on going."

But "someone must have told him after that that I am black," she said, because "he could never look me in the eye for the four years we worked together. And he never said he was sorry. We never discussed it." Three other white people present, including her boss, knew she was black and "were flabbergasted," said Dancy.

On another occasion, she was waiting a long time in line for a North Carolina driver's license, slogging her way through the bureaucracy and finally dashing out of the examination office only to find that her license said she was white.

"The people had never asked me my race," she said, "so I had to go back and get the picture taken again. I don't know why they did not have me fill out something that told my race."

Dancy's reaction to being mistaken for white is not uncommon, according to Joyce Ladner, a sociologist and professor of social work at Howard University. The mistake "is like calling you out of your name," she said. "You want to be recognized for what you are."

Ladner asserted that attention to race continues, even though many legal barriers to race-mixing have fallen, largely because the Reagan Administration fostered "a heightened awareness of racial tensions."

"That unleashed people's most base instincts," she said.

Amid increasing cultural and ethnic diversity in the United States, race remains unshakable as the ultimate identifier. One can change dress, life style, weight and many other characteristics, but race, as Ladner put it, remains "fixed and immutable."

When Carol Tyler, 54, a Red Cross executive in Columbus, Ohio, went to a blood banking meeting in Toledo, she and a few white associates started a conversation about another acquaintance, who was black. They were "speculating about her age."

Amid the banter, one of the white women said, "Don't you know you can't tell about those people?"

Tyler remembered being "completely taken aback, but I didn't say anything about it. The next day somebody said something about my age." Recalling that moment, Tyler laughed and said, "Oh, that was the perfect set-up." She said she told the group: "You know I'm one of those people whose age you can't tell about."

The white woman, who also was taken aback, "was so upset that she couldn't look at me," Tyler recalled. "I finally said, 'Hey, I didn't intend to make you feel bad, but you never know who you're talking to.' "

Tyler said that when she saw the woman during annual meetings after the incident, "our relationship was a little strained."

Like Tyler, many light-skinned blacks "enjoy being able to smoke out white people," said Charles King, who as director of the Urban Crisis Center in Atlanta, conducts seminars for businesses, schools and government agencies to help them deal with racial problems.

But mistaken identity can lead to angry confrontations.

Derek Henson, 35, a Los Angeles hotel executive, was in a Veterans Administration counseling session earlier this year with a group of white men in Long Beach, when a casual conversation turned ugly.

"This guy was talking," Henson recalled, "and he said, 'You know, my daughter is hanging around with a whole lot of (blacks), and it's really starting to (irritate) me.' "

A furious Henson told the man: "Excuse me, we're all men here. We're all veterans. We can talk (about sex and profanity) and all this stuff, but if you say that word one more time, I'm going to bust you over the head. . . .

"He was shocked. He was beet red. He followed me to my car and said, 'No offense.' I said there was offense." Henson said he sees the man weekly and "he's never brought it up again."

Henson, who is suing a Beverly Hills hotel, charging that he lost his job as executive assistant manager last year when his boss found out he was black, said he frequently has to "pull people to the curb" to warn them of his color.

He told the moderator of the VA class that he was shocked that he would allow such a conversation.

"It was totally inappropriate, even if there weren't a black person there. I looked at everybody in the class and I said, 'You can talk all the (black) talk you want, but when I walk through the door, it ceases because I don't want to hear it.' "

If Henson had not spoken out, it is unlikely anyone else would have, said King. "Very seldom will a white person correct another white person about race. They feel it's impossible to get that person to change his mind."

This cold reality conflicts with America's idealistic view of itself, King said. "America lives in a myth of a melting pot, teaching children that this country is for everyone. But the practical reality is that equality has never been lived out."

Hazel McConnell, a widowed 74-year-old retired federal employee who lives in Wakefield, Mass., dated a man long ago in Columbus, Ohio, "and we were out for a ride. All of a sudden, four white men drove up beside us on the side I was sitting on.

They shouted racial slurs, she recalled. "My friend reached down and said he had a club under the seat, just in case they stop and try to do anything. It was really scary. There were four of them, and I thought they might jump out and beat us up or something."

Her friend was "really angry," McConnell said, "and I was scared. It was a very threatening situation. But afterward, I felt he just expected it as something that you have to deal with when you're a minority person."

King says that, whether light- or dark-skinned, black people always expect the worst in race relations.

"Being black," he said, "means you don't expect to have a good time. There's no shock value left in being black."

Nonetheless, cases of mistaken identity can lead to some remarkable responses. Jessica Daniel, a Boston psychologist, said that some light-skinned blacks "go to extra lengths to prove they're 'blacker' than somebody who is dark-skinned." In the 1960s and 1970s, wearing the biggest Afro and the brightest dashiki provided the proof. Today, joining black groups and speaking out on black issues show blackness, Daniel said.

Why does a person's race matter?

For Anthony Browder, a Washingtonian who studies and lectures on African culture, the answer is simple: "We live in a racist society where people are judged by the color of their skin."

Underscoring his assertion, Browder was a key organizer of the third annual Melanin Conference, which explored political, economic and social issues involving skin color.

Browder sees the emphasis on color as part of the "divide and conquer syndrome" fostered historically by whites. "Many African Americans have bought into this idea that if you're light, you're all right," he said.

Browder and others noted that light-skinned blacks used to be deemed by whites as more intelligent and better looking. Blacks, in turn, used various "tests" to determine whether a person was light enough to join certain organizations.

Nowadays, in an ironic twist, darker skinned blacks often are deemed more desirable by some employers who want to make sure their affirmative action employees are visible.

Gus Hawkins remembers the days after the 1965 Watts uprising, when he "had to be careful going through" the area he still represents in Congress because "there was a strong hostility to whites in the neighborhoods at that time. It hurt me not to be able to get around the area," he said, but he was afraid someone "might take a shot at you" thinking he was "a white face passing through."

In fact, Hawkins said, "I recall once in Will Rogers Park, I was walking from the clubhouse out to my automobile and some fellow ran down to attack me on the basis of 'here's whitey in our neighborhood.' "

Hawkins said friends who knew he is black rescued him. He did not report the incident, he said, but it taught him a lesson.

"Usually, in the areas where I have that situation," he said, "I always have a person obviously black along with me. You learn to adjust to some of these situations and reduce the risk."

One of the ways he reduces the risk of being mistaken by whites these days is by removing his Masonic ring, which identifies him as a member of the secret fraternity whose members use secret handshakes in greeting each other.

"I have had white Masons attempt to give me the (white) grip," Hawkins said. "I have become so embarrassed . . . I just refuse to be a Mason when I'm traveling."

Reflecting the experiences of many people like himself, Hawkins said, "I get accused on both sides. Blacks think that you're passing, and whites think that you're the uppity type and are challenging them. So, in a sense you're an outcast. This has been a problem all through the years for me."

And for many others, including Walter White, who led the NAACP through the 1930s and 1940s until he died in 1955. In his 1948 autobiography, he wrote of his "insistence, day after day, year in and year out," on identifying himself as black, asserting that when white people discover his color they are upset by a "startling removal of the blackness." Then, he said, "they find it impossible suddenly to endow me with the skin, the odor, the dialect, the shuffle, the imbecile good nature traditionally attributed to" black people.

"Instantly they are aware that these things are not part of me," White wrote. "They think there must be some mistake. There is no mistake. I am a Negro."

Many light-skinned black people today are just as avowedly black and take pains to avoid being mistaken for white--partly because they are proud of their race and partly because they want to avoid the pain of hearing other blacks denigrated. They, like White, say many whites are amazed that anyone would decline to be white.

Whites often assume black people are white because of context--where they live, shop and go for fun, say many blacks. To signal her race, Dancy said, her resume "has always said, NAACP, Urban League, African Methodist Episcopal Church--you know, things that make people look and say, 'Oh!' "

She and others note that black people are more likely than whites to believe that a person is black, regardless of how light his or her skin may be.

Henson said: "We always know. I don't care how light you are, if you have green eyes or whatever, there's something about you, and when you pass each other, you'll get that look."

Whenever mistakes are made, light-skinned blacks say they often get blamed for them.

"It's as if you've insulted people," said McConnell, "by allowing them to believe you're white. They think you're supposed to say, 'Don't talk to me. I'm black.' "

Mistakes are made in all kinds of ways, as Beatrice de Munick Keizer of Boston knows. Personnel administrator at the headquarters of the Unitarian Universalist Assn., she said a black woman came to her office and said, "It's so wonderful to see a black person in this job."

"Yes, it's great," replied de Munick Keizer, who is white.

Recalling the conversation, she said, "It all goes to show how meaningless these things (racial distinctions) are."

Ideally, yes. Eventually, maybe. But not yet. After all, until six years ago Louisiana had a law saying anyone was legally black if she had more than 1/32 black blood. The law was repealed in 1983 because of a contentious court case involving Susie Guillory Phipps, who wanted to change the designation on her birth certificate from "colored" to "white."

While the 1/32 law was repealed, Phipps is still legally black.

"We lost," said her lawyer, Brian Begue. "The world wasn't ready for a race-free society."

Race freedom is available only to whites, said King. "They never have to deal with any problem of who they are." He added: "One of the truisms is everyone in America has to adopt to another identity to succeed except a white male Protestant heterosexual. He is the only one who escapes the trauma of identity."

For light-skinned blacks, there is no way out.

"They're in a twilight zone," King said.

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