Vaneeesa Blaylock and Sojourner Starship having dinner at Bella Bistro Restaurant in Vest-Agder, Norway

VEST-AGDER, NORWAY, 13 April — Vaneeesa Blaylock and Sojourner Starship had dinner at the Bella Bistro Restaurant here tonight. Two friends sharing a table and a meal. The most ordinary of circumstances. Yet who are they really? Do the masks they wear reveal more than they hide?

I had dinner with Sojourner last night. She was really stressed from a difficult week, I was monumentally tired from the crazy hour in CEST, yet we were both so happy to see each other that I think we ate a 20-course meal or something like that! Well, I suppose it could have been joy at being with someone special and the relentless pace at which the staff at Bella Bistro cleared plates you’d barely started eating. Apparently the lingo in the restaurant biz for an overeager busboy or busgirl is “temp rezzer.” And wow, that food is swept off the table so fast it’s almost like it wasn’t even your meal! Then again, I suppose it does allow Sojo and I to indulge in decadent treats and still keep our girlish figures! 🙂

Adrian Piper & Rob Rubinowitz
Edith Hahn Beer and her daughter Angela

Speaking of vocabulary terms, here’s two more, from the language of racial identity: “To Pass” and “Being Read.” To Pass or Passing means to present yourself as a member of a different racial group. The remarkably prolific artist and philosopher Adrian Piper (1948 – ) is a fair-skinned black woman whose oeuvre includes works exploring the theme of passing for white. During World War II the Jewish woman Edith Hahn Beer (1914 – 2009) passed for Aryan, and married a Nazi officer, to survive the Holocaust. More recently, and far less traumatically, the remarkable young Korean-American photographer Nikki S. Lee (1970 – ) has created a dramatic body of photographic works that explore cultural immersion and passing across many identity lines. Lee’s work is fascinating, humorous, and for me, ultimately quite hopeful.

Nikki S. Lee, "The Hip Hop Project"

To be read, is to fail to pass. A bit like being outed. Drag is not exactly passing, or you might say that Drag is passing where “the joke” is that you expect to be read. An artist like Ru Paul doesn’t really expect to pass, the joy of the performance is in the being read.

Vaneeesa Blaylock: "I'm an African Princess!"

Last night at dinner I found myself thinking about something Sojourner said a few weeks ago:

[2012/03/24 09:34] Sojourner Starship: was curious.. got the impression that RL .. not black.. but avi has dark skin

I’d been read. Not surprising considering all the crap I’ve strewn across the web, or perhaps it was simply my demeanor. Whatever it was, it made me think about why I’ve come to present myself this way. In VR space where you can be a cat or a dog, a vaporous apparition or the planet Saturn, having a slightly different skin tone doesn’t seem like something enormous, still, when you float around as Saturn, we take that in a given context, when you walk on two legs, right-or-wrong, we often do infer a Physical::Virtual indexical relationship.

Speaking of two legs, what would it mean for someone who walks on two legs to start rolling around in a wheel chair? It could be offensive. By “wearing” an “unearned” identity one could be said to trivialize a lifelong set of relationships that they hold little real knowledge of. Then again, however shallow the experience, one would still be having at least some experience of that identity. Being frustrated at the lack of wheelchair accessible ramps is far from all there is to know about life in a wheelchair, yet it is a start. And even such “false representation” could still be representation vis-a-vis the larger culture where people in wheelchairs have historically been little considered.

Sojourner Starship - she said she used 3 bottles of bleach to do her hair! IDK, I kind of thought maybe she was wearing a wig. But if it was, her roots were damn impressive - sometimes it's so hard to tell what is "real"!

So why does the pasty-white girl wear black skin? Am I trying to cheat my way out of my lower-class status and afford myself the rewards of Black Privilege? At least as a white woman I have the hope of marrying a black man and improving my lot in life. But wow, those poor white men, at the bottom of all of society. Certainly no black woman is going to touch them! What hope does a poor white male have for a better life in stratified Western culture?

In a (virtual) world where all of culture is an aesthetic choice, what is identity? In a world where you wear an arctic parka not because it is freezing, or a swimsuit not because of the humidity at the equator, but simply to suit your mood, does “identity” still exist?

Nikki S. Lee, "The Hispanic Project"

In Nikki S. Lee’s impressive body of work identity is indeed an aesthetic choice, or a cultural affordance, or an immersive experience. In the world of passing, across ethnic or gender or any other lines, the one ingredient that trumps all others is confidence. Lee is a small, Korean, remarkably confident woman. When you look at, for example, The Hispanic Project it is not hard to objectively realize that you are looking at a Korean girl standing with a bunch of Latinas, yet this isn’t really what we perceive. What we perceive is a self-aware person who is a confident member of her community.


R E L A T E D . M A T E R I A L S

Vanessa on Drag
Wikipedia on Black Privilege

Adrian Piper’s website
Edith Hahn-Beer’s obituary

Nikki S. Lee @ Sikkema Jenkins & Co. Gallery
Nikki S. Lee @ Leslie Tonkonow Gallery
Nikki S. Lee @ Museum of Contemporary Photography

As a virtual public artist my work invites avatar communities to express their identity, explore their culture, and demand their civil rights.

4 thoughts on “Passing

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