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Passing for white and straight: How my looks hide my identity

I first became aware of my passing as a young child confronted with standardized testing. My second grade teacher had walked us through where to write our names in capital letters and what bubbles to fill in for our sex, our birth date and ethnicity. But in the days before “biracial” or “multiracial” or “choose two or more of the following,” I was confronted with rigid boxes of “white” or “black” – a space that my white father and black-Italian mother had navigated for some time.

But even at 8 years old, I knew I could mark “white” on the form without a teacher’s assistant telling me to do the form over with my No. 2 pencil. I could sometimes be “exotic” on the playground to the grown-ups who watched us for skinned knees and bad words. But with hair that had yet to curl and a white-sounding last name, I was at first glance – and many after – a dark-haired white girl with a white father who collected her after school.

That girl came with me to junior high and even high school. Even as my hair became wiry with puberty, the frizziness soon a universal topic in the girls’ bathroom as girls began their marriages to the straight iron, I became aware that I read no differently. Another curly-haired white girl who wished that her hair was straight.

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