It’s Time to Replace the Phrase “White-Passing”

I’m real tired of the phrase “white-passing.”

I’ve been over it for a long time. It feels like a lazy shorthand for an experience that should be discussed specifically and in detail. Besides that, people are using the idea of “passing” incorrectly and extrapolating it to other identities when it has a very specific origin.

The concept of “passing” was created during chattel slavery in the land now known as the United States to refer to mixed-race people with Black heritage who could move through the world as if they were white. People who passed received legal, economic, and social rights that were warranted simply by being white in America. Black people who were unable to pass could not access these rights or even a level of humanity that came with being perceived and received by society as white.

Passing as an idea specifically concerns Blackness in relation to whiteness. There was no such thing as any other race “passing for white” and there was no such thing as Black people “passing” for any other race. Passing for white had not only social benefits, but also institutional benefits: people who successfully passed could vote, own property, and even be presidents of elite universities.

However, passing had a negative side. The “tragic mulatta” archetype was a literary trope created during the antebellum period. A tragic mulatta (or mulatto, if the character was a man) was a mixed-race woman with Black heritage who successfully passed for white. However, this character would lead a life of despair and catastrophe because she could never fully make peace with her Black heritage. You can learn more about this archetype and read about examples of it here.

It’s more than fine with me if Black people continue to use the term “passing” — after all, it has a very complex sociohistorical significance to us. And, in my opinion, we are the experts on what “passing” means — each part of the process — and what it means when you don’t pass. However, if you’re not Black and talking about Blackness — yes, both parts — keep the term “passing” out ya mouth. It don’t make sense for anybody else to use it any other way.

Not to #gatekeep, but the nature of passing — as a word, as a process, as a social experience — is very particular to the construction of Blackness and Black people in the present-day United States relative to whiteness. It simply doesn’t make sense when people generalize it to other identities.

I understand why people have attempted to extend the concept of passing to other racial/ethnic identities (such as Latinidad or the myriad of groups from the SWANA region, which stands for Southwest Asia and North Africa) and social identities (such as “passing for cisgender” or “passing for nondisabled”). We should have language to discuss what it means for a marginalized experience or heritage to not be recognized by society. However, the word “passing” is not the way to do it. I don’t have the solution for talking about that experience with other social identities, but using different terminology is possible: for instance, look at the use of the word “masking” in the autistic community.

Despite its historical significance, I believe that the term “white-passing” has lost its utility. In my opinion, words and phrases that were coined for a specific reason — even when they were created and/or embraced by marginalized people themselves — can and usually do become outdated at some point. This can happen for many reasons: co-optation; misuse; the loss of need for such a phrase; general changes in language and terminology.

One notable example of a term losing its utility is the word “tr*nsvestite.” It was embraced by many people who, in the present day, would be referred to as transgender or gender non-conforming. The organization Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) was founded by Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, two prominent nonwhite self-identified drag queens; they provided resources to homeless queer and trans people in New York City. While Rivera and Johnson embraced the word “tr*nsvestite” as members of the community, it is now widely understood to be offensive.

“White-passing” is in a similar boat — while it isn’t considered offensive, it certainly is no longer useful. First and foremost, it’s not descriptive enough. What does it mean to pass on different levels: individual, interpersonal, and structural? Second, the phrase is reductive of the experiences of people who physically appear to be white but have a non-white parent or parents. It collapses many different experiences and relationships to both whiteness and non-whiteness under one (very flimsy) umbrella. Lastly, it’s an incomplete phrase. What are the effects of being “white-passing” for that person themselves and what are the effects of the existence of “white-passing” people for the world around them — including both white people and the nonwhite community they come from?

People do not consider what it means to be “white-passing” in different settings. Folks tend to think that if someone is white-passing in one place, they will always have a certain experience of race and ethnicity. However, what constitutes race — on all levels from individual to systemic — varies with context. Being “white-passing” means different things to different communities in different places.

Earlier this year, I interviewed my friend Gia for an assignment. Gia is biracial, with one white parent and one Black parent. From kindergarten through eighth grade, Gia was the only Black student at her school; due to this, she was always seen as Black, despite her very light skin. She said that while she is “white-passing in some instances, [she] was not white passing in this instance.” She explained by saying that “My Blackness depends on the amount of whiteness around me. Compared to their whiteness, I wasn’t the same type of white as them — I experienced racism because it was in comparison to whiteness.” During our conversation, she said that being white-passing is “contextual” and discussed the significance of hair, particularly to Black women. She said that her “biggest indicator of Blackness is hair” and that changes to her hairstyle — such as having braids versus straightening her hair — often changes people’s perception of her race.

In the present day, when it is said that a person “passes for white” — or any identity, for that matter — it is implied that these identities are absolute and immutable. (This is because we have divorced the context of “passing” from its roots in chattel slavery, when it was known that to “pass” was the result of deliberate and tangible actions.) Many identities that we consider central to our existence are constructed and vary depending on context. What constitutes who is “disabled” is constructed, just as what constitutes a “woman” is constructed. Racial categories, however, were even more deliberately constructed than other identities. Whiteness was created during the era of colonization and chattel slavery to be the default, the norm. It meant having access to opportunities, citizenship, and, ultimately, power. Race, and especially whiteness, are not grounded in science or reality; they were invented by humans to provide legitimacy to the oppression of those deemed nonwhite.

[I would like to make it very clear that I am not saying that race simply doesn’t exist; as sociology’s Thomas Theorem says, situations that are defined as real are real in their consequences. In this case, though our conception of race was and is constructed, the consequences of race are very real.]

The phrase “white-passing” also locates whiteness and its privileges squarely within the individual rather than incorporating a lens of how it operates in our wider society. When we say a person is “white-passing,” we are saying that their whiteness travels with them from situation to situation; it ignores how a person’s whiteness can fluctuate with context, such as in Gia’s story. We have to recognize that, for many people with nonwhite heritage, they may or may not be received as white depending on the conditions at hand.

A man may appear to be white upon first approach by a law enforcement official. But if that official asks for his identification, and that identification displays a name such as “José Antonio García,” Mr. García may no longer be “white” to that official.

A woman may appear to be white while exercising in an all-female gym. When putting back on her regular clothes after her workout, she also puts on a hijab. To many people who see her wearing her hijab while outside the gym, she may no longer be “white.”

A student at a high school that is >95% Black is thought to be white by their peers, the vast majority of whom are Black. When they go on to attend a predominantly white institution (PWI) for college, their peers, the majority of whom are now white, correctly assume that the student is biracial. In a majority Black environment, the student was “white”; however, in a majority white environment, the student was no longer “white” to most of their peers.

Let me give a real-life example. At a meeting for a community organization which I was a member of, we were dividing ourselves up into small discussion groups based on racial identification. There were groups for white people, Black people, and non-Black people of color. One member was having trouble deciding whether to join the group made up of white people — which, if solely based on appearance, they could have joined — or the group made up of non-Black people of color, which, if based on certain personal experiences, they also could have joined.

At some point, this person began to cry as they told us about the racism and Islamophobia their family — which is from the SWANA region — faced when they were a child, which deeply affected and traumatized them. When this person is with their family, they are not perceived and received as white. But, now an adult with their own life, they would appear to be white while going about their day, on public transit or at the grocery store. However, that doesn’t wipe away the experiences they carry with themself. While this person does have skin color privilege, they still have emotional trauma due to negative racialization that would not immediately be recognized just from looking at them at that particular moment.

There is quite a bit of discourse on social media, particularly on Twitter, about “white-passing” people like the folks described in the previous examples. Many people who participate in this conversation say there is “no such thing as being white-passing.” I generally agree with them, for the reasons I stated earlier: the phrase “white-passing” is ambiguous, unhelpful, and has been divorced from its historical (but still relevant) origins. However, I halt when they say that people who would be called “white-passing” are “just white.” There is a difference, even if it is contextual and, at times, seemingly trivial. We must be precise with our language if we are to have conversations about race and find solutions to racism that really work.

In general, I’m just tired of people who do not have the experience of being Black in America utilizing the concept of passing. When non-Black people talk about “passing,” they’re just talking about the physical appearance of an individual. They typically do not consider the interpersonal experiences of that individual and how structures and institutions treat that individual. Passing is deeper than how one looks; it’s about your treatment by society and the things you receive as a result of that treatment. It’s about access.

I believe that the term “white-passing” has reached the end of its utility. It’s time to say what we really mean: access to whiteness.

What does it mean for an individual to have access to whiteness? First, instead of saying that whiteness is a fixed characteristic within an individual, it tells us that whiteness is a socially constructed mechanism. It also tells us what happens when a person can be read as white: not simply that they are “passing” for white, but that they can access and therefore utilize the powers and privileges of whiteness. Lastly, it implies that an individual’s whiteness isn’t a constant, but rather, it fluctuates; they may or may not access whiteness depending on the situation.

Let me be clear that I’m not saying white people — white people with two white parents, white people who would never, ever be racialized as anything else — should start using “access to whiteness” as a euphemism to describe themselves. Y’all just white, hun. Don’t try to gloss over it.

I am also not saying that people with access to whiteness do not have to reckon with their skin color privilege (not to mention their privilege under texturism and featurism, too). Our communities still have to do the work of unlearning eurocentric standards of beauty, which affects not only who finds you attractive, but also systemic processes such as school discipline and sentencing in a court of law. People with access to whiteness must always be cognizant of their privilege and ensure they’re not taking advantage of it to contribute to the oppression of people darker than them.

“Access to whiteness” is a better term because, unlike the concept of passing, it can be extrapolated to non-Black racial and ethnic groups. It at least begins the conversation about the effects of being perceived and received by society as white. The phrase also talks about whiteness rather than being white — that is, it demonstrates that whiteness is a constructed, subjective concept rather than a fixed characteristic. In addition, “access to whiteness” locates racial categorization (and the benefits that accompany being categorized as white) within social structures and processes instead of a singular person and their physical traits.

“White-passsing” is the past; leave it behind. “Access to whiteness” is my proposal for the language we need in order to have conversations about how to bring about a more equitable future.

Jo can be found on Twitter and Instagram.

Y’all are Mean as Hell to People You Don’t Find Attractive

Header image description: a rectangular graphic that reads “your desirability should not determine your access to love.”

I’ve noticed a theme in the social media posts of certain marginalized and multiply marginalized people on social media regarding their social lives. (I’ll define “certain” in a bit.) These posts are usually along the lines of “Fuck [privileged group], I’m only dating/hanging out with other [identity I have] people from now on.”

So trans people might say “fuck cis people, I’m only dating/hanging out with other trans people from now on,” while disabled people might say “fuck the ableds, I’m only dating/hanging out with other disabled people from now on.” I often hear nonwhite folks say “fuck white people, I’m only dating/hanging out with other people of color from now on.” Most common on my social media timelines is Black people saying “fuck non-Black people, I’m only dating/hanging out with other Black people from now on.” You get the gist.

It’s very true that being in relationship — any type of relationship — with people who have a type of privilege that you don’t can be incredibly draining, and I applaud people for setting the boundaries they need in order to thrive. However, sometimes these people look down on their fellow marginalized folks who don’t set the same boundaries for themselves.

Besides being wrong — not everybody needs or even wants the same boundaries as another person — it’s also misinformed. They assume that everyone who shares a certain marginalized identity has the same amount of choice when it comes to their social, romantic, and/or sexual lives. The fact of the matter is, not all of us do.

I’ve noticed that most of the people who post those kinds of statuses benefit from desirability politics. They’ll be light-skinned Black people, or thin disabled people, or “pretty” [read: having European features] nonwhite people, or “high-functioning” disabled people [read about why functioning labels are harmful], et cetera. The fact of the matter is, some marginalized and multiply marginalized people don’t benefit in the same way.

Image description: a rectangular graphic that reads “your desirability should not determine your access to friendship.”

I know so many marginalized and multiply marginalized people — particularly those of us who don’t benefit from desirability politics — whose friends and/or romantic interests are primarily people with different identities than ours. We can’t limit our options for who we socialize with because most people limit themselves so that we are not an option in their social lives.

My friends often poke fun at me for having “bad taste” when it comes to romantic interests. The people I find attractive apparently aren’t all that good-looking to the average person. Apparently, being attracted to people who aren’t the most conventionally attractive is embarrassing.

Apparently, believing that people who don’t fit racist, ableist standards of beauty and comportment are deserving of love is something to be ashamed of. It’s something I deserve to get made fun of for.

Like I said before: some marginalized and multiply marginalized people don’t benefit from desirability politics. Some of us feel unlovable.

Due to our world’s intersecting, overlapping systems of oppression — including, but not limited to, colorism, fatphobia, anti-Blackness, ableism, and misogynoir — some of us may quite literally be unlovable to most of the population.

And it’s the rest of y’all’s fault — because y’all prioritize a person’s desirability in determining whether they deserve friendship, love, and compassion. Y’all prioritize a person’s desirability in determining their worth.

It’s to the point that I get really upset when my friends talk about their romantic and/or sexual relationships around me. I shut down and turn inward, the same way I do when I have a panic attack. I get jittery; my breathing gets shallow; I don’t interact with the people around me or the conversation that’s going on. I start to reflect on the fact that I haven’t had certain experiences — the fact that I am not afforded certain experiences — because I am average-looking, “weird,” awkward, and neurodivergent.

Image description: a rectangular graphic that reads “your desirability should not determine your access to compassion.”

I’m still relatively privileged when it comes to desirability politics. I’m not dark-skinned. I’m skinny. For the most part, I can pass for neurotypical/non-disabled. But as soon as my mental illnesses decide to go H.A.M., people — generally white/non-Black, neurotypical, light-skinned, and/or conventionally attractive people — drop me quick as fuck. Y’all put up with people like me until you remember that we are unable to live up to those racist, ableist standards of beauty and comportment that y’all value so highly — that y’all value over the fact that everyone, every damn person, deserves grace.

I don’t want a bunch of comments on this post that say “But you’re beautiful, Jo!” or “You are lovable, Jo!” This is not me fishing for compliments, or even trying to boost my self-esteem (cuz no matter how close we are, y’all can’t do that for me). This is me asking y’all to really evaluate why y’all are willing to be kind to some people moreso than others. This is me asking you to examine who you are in relationship with.

Who have you found yourself attracted to? Who do you do favors for? Who do you spend time around? Whose GoFundMe campaigns do you share? Who do you extend grace to when they’re being “difficult?”

Are they all white or light-skinned? Are they all non-disabled? Are they all skinny? Are they all around your age? Are they all conventionally attractive? Are they all “charming?” Do they all enjoy doing things like going to clubs, being in large crowds, or other activities that are inaccessible? Are they all “talented?”

Who do you find yourself getting annoyed with? Who do you find yourself ignoring on social media or on the street? Who disgusts you? Who do you find yourself cringing at? Who are you short with?

Are most of them Black? Are most of them fat? Do they “behave oddly?” Are most of them autistic and/or neurodivergent? Are most of them dark-skinned? Are most of them “ugly?” Are most of them disabled? Are most of them elderly? Do they have access needs that you don’t have?

Are we just too “difficult” to be around?

This post is me saying you should interrogate your proximity to desirability and change your socializing habits accordingly. This post is me saying you should interrogate who you find worthy of grace. Do that shit, immediately. Because right now, y’all are mean as hell to people you don’t find attractive.

Image description: a rectangular graphic that reads “your desirability should not determine your worth.”

Don’t Forget About Us — A Disability Justice Review of Turn This World Inside Out: The Emergence of Nurturance Culture

Rating: 3.5/5 stars (but still worth a read)

Short version: While the book provides novel insight into how we can care for people instead of utilizing shame, its core principle hinges on a myth that indirectly says that disabled/ neurodivergent people cannot be nurturing in the way the author outlines as the “right” way. If readers utilize a disability justice lens and additional readings (provided at the end) about disabled wisdom and diverse manifestations of emotional intelligence, I believe the book can still be helpful in learning how to be more nurturing both individually and as a culture.

Rating: 3.5/5 stars (but still worth a read)

Short version: While the book provides novel insight into how we can care for people instead of utilizing shame, its core principle hinges on a myth that indirectly says that disabled/ neurodivergent people cannot be nurturing in the way the author outlines as the “right” way. If readers utilize a disability justice lens and additional readings (provided at the end) about disabled wisdom and diverse manifestations of emotional intelligence, I believe the book can still be helpful in learning how to be more nurturing both individually and as a culture.

Ableism – which can be defined as disdain or outright hatred for disabled, neurodivergent, and chronically ill people – is present in everyone and all aspects of society. No person or group, no matter their identities, is exempt from recognizing and unlearning their ableism.

All too often, disabled people are left out of social justice work. Somehow, because we have more or different access needs than “the average person” and we (rightfully) become frustrated if those needs are ignored, we are unable to do “the real work” of activism. Because we aren’t “normal”  – because we can’t be out in the streets for hours or we’re unable to complete a task as expected due to a flare-up, we aren’t “good activists”. Of course, this is bullshit.

The core concept I have learned from disability justice is simple: every person is different. Not in the trite, “we’re all the same on the inside” way – I mean that no two bodies or minds are the same. We all have different needs and methods of approaching tasks and challenges. We all understand and express things – such as emotions or frustrations – differently. We are all different, and as long as they aren’t harmful, all of those differences are valid.

However, we tend to stigmatize people whose differences are more apparent than others. Nora Samaran’s book Turn This World Inside Out: The Emergence of Nurturance Culture makes it clear that the author not only believes in, but actively perpetuates the idea that there is a “normal” and “right” way to approach the work of transformative justice and making our world a more caring, nurturing place. This hinges on an ableist belief that is repeated throughout the book: that the ability to be nurturing relies on “attunement” to “subtle, nonverbal cues” (pp. 27-28). Again, this is bullshit.

There are many neurodivergent people in this world who are not attuned to “subtle, nonverbal cues” who are still incredibly loving, empathetic, and emotionally intelligent. There is a prevailing belief that autistic people cannot empathize with others because they do not understand common nonverbal cues in the same way as neurotypical people. On the Autism FAQ section of their blog, Lydia X. Z. Brown answers the question, “Do Autistic people have empathy?” Their answer perfectly sums up my issues with Samaran’s assessment of what qualifies as nurturance.

One of the…characteristics of Autism is a deficit in the ability to understand nonverbal forms of communication — including tone or pitch of voice, word choice (such as idioms, colloquialisms, and metaphors), facial expressions, body language, and other subtle communications…most Autistic people have a hard time accurately expressing their own thoughts, feelings, or opinions using nonverbal forms of communication. We also have trouble identifying the emotions of others based on subtext or body language.

Lydia X. Z. Brown

The inability to produce and interpret nonverbal cues does not prevent someone from having emotional intelligence; insisting otherwise is ableist, full stop. So long as we continue to prioritize “subtle, nonverbal cues”, we will ostracize autistic and other neurodivergent/ disabled people and perpetuate the ableist myth that someone must produce and read a certain type of body language to be able to communicate well with others.

Clinging to socially accepted nonverbal cues also adversely affects nonwhite people in the West. In many other cultures, it is offensive to look elders or superiors in the eye. Speaking as a Black person, our cultural idioms and body language are often read by non-Black people as “aggressive” or “threatening”, even though it’s how we’d interact with loved ones.

Prioritizing “subtle, nonverbal cues” hinders the development of the ability to make explicitly clear our feelings, frustrations, and discomfort. Being able to communicate these things in a way that everyone can understand is far more important than producing them in possibly unreadable ways. Being able to tell someone – in language they understand – that they’re harming you or making you uncomfortable is a very important part of emotional intelligence. Insisting that someone communicate in a certain “normal” way is not empathetic or emotionally intelligent.

In Chapter 3: “Turning Gender Inside Out”, the author presents a dialogue between her and Serena Bhandar, a transgender woman. Bhandar critiques parts of the book by saying “we reproduce this assumption that there is a cis[gender] audience that is primary and a trans[gender] audience that is secondary. We should be prioritizing them differently.” (p. 53) Mainstream society reproduces the assumption that there is a primary able-bodied population and a secondary disabled population. This is demonstrated when organizations ask people to convey their access needs after the event is already planned, or when we refer to certain methods of communication used by disabled people as “augmentative and alternative communication.” Augmentative and alternative in relation to what? Why are we saying that ablebodiedness is “normal” and that anything else is an “alternative”? Why do we ostracize certain ways of existing?

I want to give the author the benefit of the doubt; I really do. Disabled people are often perceived as “unlikeable” for pointing out everyday ableism like what I have pointed out in this review. On page 106, Samaran asks: “How long…would you retain your sanity while speaking kindly and asking for harm to stop and having it seem as though you had not spoken at all?” I’d like to flip that question for able-bodied/neurotypical readers: how long would you continue to be “likeable” while asking people to stop being ableist and they make it seem like you’re being disagreeable? How long would you keep being “likeable” if your identities weren’t even an afterthought – if they weren’t a thought at all? How long would you try to be “likeable” if people acted like you were an asshole simply for existing?

I believe that if someone were to read this book and implement its practices without the knowledge and lens of disability justice, they would inadvertently reproduce ableist maxims about which methods of communication are “normal” and “right”. They might think a neurodivergent person is harmful because they cannot read and reflect their nonverbal cues or because they communicate in scripted phrases, repetition, or “abnormal” physical action such as stimming.

We need to keep in mind that disabled people are not harmful simply because we move through the world differently than most people expect. Disabled people have a culture all our own, complete with the expectation that communication styles work for everyone, or as many people as possible. Saying that our methods of communication are not valid or emotionally intelligent is not nurturing – it is ableist and harmful. In social justice work, we cannot leave anyone behind; disabled people must be included and listened to in bringing about the emergence of nurturance culture.

Supplementary readings:

  1. Piepzna-Samarasinha, Leah Lakshmi. Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, (2018).
    1. Chapter 2, “Crip Emotional Intelligence”, pp. 69-73 (can also be read here)
    2. Chapter 7, “Cripping the Apocalypse: Some of My Wild Disability Justice Dreams”, pp. 122-135
    3. Chapter 8, “A Modest Proposal for a Fair Trade Emotional Labor Economy (Centered by Disabled, Femme of Color, Working-Class/Poor Genius)”, pp. 136-148
    4. Chapter 17, “Protect Your Heart: Femme Leadership and Hyper-Accountability”, pp. 213-224
  2. Brown, Lydia X. Z. “Ableist bullshit targets nonspeaking autistics/autistics of color. Also, the sky is blue.Autistic Hoya. (29 April 2017.)
  3. Berne, Patty. “Disability Justice – a working draft.” Sins Invalid. (9 June 2015.)
  4. Sequenzia, Amy. “Non-speaking Self Advocate on Communication.” Autistic Women & Nonbinary Network. (2 August 2012.) 
  5. Brown, Lydia X. Z., et. al., eds. All the weight of our dreams: on living racialised autism. DragonBee Press, (2017).
  6. Mingus, Mia. “Access Intimacy, Interdependence and Disability Justice.” Leaving Evidence. (12 April 2017.)

Violent Delights Have Violent Ends

From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,

Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.

Romeo and Juliet, Prologue

Racism and racial tension are the undeniable issues at hand in Spike Lee’s seminal feature Do the Right Thing, which culminates in a race riot between Black residents of a Bed-Stuy block and a white business owner in the area. Much has been written on the more blatant displays of these themes, such as police brutality against residents of the block or hostility between non-Black business owners and their Black customers. But what about more subtle interactions which heighten racial tension and eventually lead to the film’s violent climax? A flirtatious exchange between Sal, the Italian-American owner of Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, and Jade, a young Black woman and sister to the only Black employee of Sal’s, is one such subtle example.

It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night

As a rich jewel in Ethiope’s ear.

Romeo and Juliet, Act I, scene 5

The Bed-Stuy block which serves as the setting for Do the Right Thing is a veritable hurricane of activity. A cast of characters with larger-than-life personalities, funny names, and signature habits lend the neighbourhood its rich, if eccentric, personality. Jade – sister and sometimes sidekick to protagonist Mookie – is the tranquil eye of this storm. It seems easy to overlook her stability; after all, she is one of few “normal” people in the film. However, Jade’s apparently straightforward character does not make her flat – in fact, it makes her a force in and of herself.

Jade seems to serve as a foil to her older brother; she rarely and briefly takes center stage. One such instance is when she pays a visit to Sal’s: Mookie’s place of employment and the only white-owned business viewers see on the Black residential block. She dresses for the oppressive heat of the day, wearing a pink wide-brimmed hat and a brightly colored sundress. When she enters, it seems as though (almost) the entire establishment breathes a little easier – especially Sal, the restaurant’s white, middle-aged owner.

Thy beauty hath made me effeminate

And in my temper softened valor’s steel.

Romeo and Juliet, Act III, scene 1

Sal is more than a little hotheaded. He harasses Radio Raheem about his omnipresent boombox and gets into it with Buggin’ Out over the restaurant’s all-white “Wall of Fame”. He keeps a baseball bat behind the counter, yells at his sons-slash-employees to complete tasks, and speaks sternly to Mookie about slacking off on the clock.

When Jade enters, Sal’s rough exterior immediately softens. In the screenplay, it says that “a very noticeable change comes over him”. He stands up straight, his voice gets quiet and calm, and he speaks graciously of Mookie as an employee. Sal, who up until this point remained unfazed in the face of the block’s oddities, cannot seem to hide his infatuation – and the entire shop notices.

As Sal talks to Jade (“I’m gonna make you somethin’ special, somethin’ very special”), Mookie and coworker Pino share an exasperated side-eye; it seems that this flirtation is a pattern. Pino, Sal’s violently racist son, has been at odds with Mookie (and every Black character) throughout the film. Here, though, they are united: this little romance violates not only moral, but racial boundaries; it cannot and will not happen.

We eventually see Sal sitting in a booth with Jade, where he compliments her on her eyes. (From the screenplay: “Vito, Pino, and Mookie look on, watching Sal have the time of his life.”) After a while, Mookie grabs Jade and all but drags her outside and around the corner, where he tells his sister that he doesn’t want her in Sal’s anymore. She insists that her interactions with Sal are “completely innocent”, and Mookie responds with “All Sal wants to do is hide the salami.” Much like a Shakespearean play, desire is a point of contention and an exacerbation of existing tension that leads to the climax. In Do the Right Thing, all interactions are racialized; it is only natural that desire is racialized as well.

O me, what fray was here?…Here’s much to do with hate, but more with love.

Romeo and Juliet, Act I, scene 1

White people love to claim that their romantic/sexual desire for or relationship(s) with nonwhite people makes them progressive and anti-racist; however, Sal’s thirst for Jade is an exemplary refutation of this claim. Sal still calls Black people “nigga”, antagonizes Black customers, allows his son to be violently anti-Black, and is friendly with the white cops who aggravate the block’s tensions. Sal, despite being mostly genial, is still unquestionably a racist white man.

Every interaction in the film is portrayed as a splash of gasoline on the neighbourhood’s unrest and therefore as another reason for the eventual race riot. At first glance, the interaction between Sal and Jade seems like a random, relaxed interlude in an otherwise uneasy atmosphere. Upon further study, it becomes clear that this scene is much like the others: a compounding factor in the racialized disquiet of the block.

In media about racial tension, interracial desire is often utilized as a catalyst for racial violence. How is the exchange between Sal and Jade any different? Their flirtation may not have caused the riot that left Radio Raheem dead and Sal’s Famous Pizzeria a burned-out husk, but it certainly did not help the existing tension that manifested itself as uneasiness at best and outright hostility and physical violence at worst. The dalliance between Sal and Jade was a minor scuffle, yes; but it was still part of the larger war.