The funny thing about race is that it was never intended to be a subject of debate or question, rather an obvious identifier of “who you are.” If you look ‘white,’ people assume you are white; if you look ‘black,’ people assume you are black. Race, however, as we all know, is not that simple. More often, people’s phenotypes express a mix of genetic traits that make it harder for the human brain to categorize. Race is not a science and its ambiguity allows for some flexibility as to how we see ourselves and others. In this gray space, we have seen people “pass” for one race or another. I introduce this topic of “racial passing” in this blog post today, as it is the subject of a book that I recently finished reading by Gail Lukasik called White Like Her: My Family’s Story of Race and Racial Passing.
Racism in America was codified in the constitution, reinforced in state Jim Crow laws, and normally practiced by citizens for the overwhelming majority of this country’s history and even earlier. From the docking of the first British slave ship, the Isabella, with 150 Africans on board to the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 that prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, religion, and national origin, it was simply better to white in this country than it is has been to be of any other race. Lukasik’s story of racial passing centers around her mother’s decision to pass as a white woman. Alvera Frederic was born in Louisiana in 1921 when the ‘one-drop rule,’ which asserted that any person with any trace of African descent was considered black, was the law of the land, making non-white persons subject to institutional discrimination.
Frederic was an olive-skinned woman with wavy, raven-black hair and deep brown eyes. Although Frederic’s ancestry was mostly European and she “looked white,” others in her family had a darker complexion and more predominately African features. So, in this way, Frederic could pass for white amongst a group of total strangers, however, in her own community, acquaintances would be aware of her mixed racial heritage. As a young adult, Frederic made the decision to move away from Louisiana and start a new life as a ‘white woman.’ She kept up the charade her entire life, even when her daughter Gail, stumbled upon some information, while doing genealogical research to suggest that Frederic’s father was, in fact, black.
To learn that a belief that you hold about yourself is untrue can be life alternating. Although Gail harbors no prejudices, she was shocked to learn that her mother was hiding an essential piece of her identity from her and promoting an incomplete narrative of her family history. Invigorated by this discovery, Gail set out to learn more about her ancestry and confront her mother. Frederic, however, was deeply troubled by her daughter’s discovery and swore her to secrecy about their ancestral past until the day she died. Although Gail’s curiosity had already been piqued, she stayed faithful to her mother and did not reveal the secret to anyone outside of her family until after her mother’s passing.
White Like Her is Gail Lukasik’s story about her family’s history of racial passing in America and about her personal quest to uncover this information and share it with the world. Through the book, the reader will learn more about racial passing in Louisiana through tales of her long-ago ancestors. Through this historical narrative, events like the Civil War are examined, as well as slave laws, and segregation laws in Louisiana. The story is told through four alternating timelines: 1. The story of Lukasik’s great ancestors, 2. Frederic’s story of passing and key points in her life, 3. Gail Lukasik’s quest to uncover family records in the near present, and 4. the release of Lukasik’s ancestry story on the PBS show “The Genealogy Roadshow” and after.
If you want to learn about the history of racial passing in the United States, you may take some interest in this book, however, please note that this story is personal to the author and will not satisfy your curiosity on the subject. Frankly, I would rate this book just over three stars (let’s say 3.15 stars). There were some parts that I was interested in—learning about Frederic’s life and Lukasik’s reaction to the information—however, there were plenty more parts that I was uninterested in. In particular, Lukasik devotes much time to explaining the history of certain family members, slave laws, and New Orleans in encyclopedic detail. While this was certainly informative, it made the memoir feel less like a ‘story’ and more like a history textbook. Additionally, Lukasik devotes a lot of her book to the discussion of her genealogical research, which I found to be 25% interesting/ helpful and 75% exhaustive.
With these caveats, only check out White Like Her if you are interested in historical memoirs, race in America, and (super in-depth) genealogical research.