Passing When I Don’t Want To

As an English-speaking white person, I’m often mistaken for a Canadian. This happens to me on the phone as well as in person, and it’s been particularly acute in the last couple weeks (doctors’ appointments plus random calls here and there). As with any other country, there is all sorts of tacit knowledge you have if you’ve grown up here. Little things about how the medical system works, names of chain stores, bits of popular memory, etc. It takes years to catch up on tacit knowledge in a place, and I’m learning, but more than twice in the past two weeks I’ve had to stop someone and explain that “I’m an immigrant, so no, I don’t actually know how it’s done. Would you please explain it to me?” Which is kind of weird. I’d been playing the American card to get a free pass for my lousy French with Francophones for two years (works great, especially because I do know a little French and can occasionally make it through a broken exchange now — beyond commercial transactions — with strangers), but suddenly, I’m playing it in other contexts too.

In many ways, it’s a privilege of whiteness (and a midwestern “non”-accent) that I can pass at all, and I’m sure it’s benefitted me more than once. But like all social privileges, membership in the club comes with certain expectations.

Interestingly, it happens the othe way as well. Americans who don’t know me now have questions about my place of origin and my citizenship. So far, that’s just amusing.

3 replies on “Passing When I Don’t Want To”

  1. Hi Superbon,

    My heavily accented (read: crap) french alerts most Paris locals to my status. This excuses me, as you point out, from much social expectation.

    Friends who speak better, however, are routinely outraged at being mistaken, er, identified as an American. This amuses me to no end.

    The sad fact of privilege means tho that I fare a good deal better than the french-born children of north Africans who speak fluently.

    Immigration: weird

  2. That is an interesting concept of passing for a native when you don’t want to. As a Taiwanese-American in Japan, I think that happens to me all the time. Most Japanese people assume I am Japanese, and although I can speak enough Japanese to get through my daily life, I sometimes get weird looks when I come upon lexical gaps in my vocabulary. I think people think I speak Japanese like a child or somebody with special needs before they would guess foreigner. By passing for Japanese, I can go about my business without the stares and curiosity that some of my Western friends of non-Asian descent have to deal with all the time, but at the same time I don’t instantly get the “foreigner pass” when it comes to special treatment such as having people want to talk to me just for being foreign or compliments about my ability to use chopsticks or to speak even the slightest bit of Japanese.

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