Sil Lai Abrams Facilitates Discussion of Race

Alex Howard, News Editor

In her talk “Passing Strangely: An In-Depth Look at the Phenomenon of Passing for White,” empowerment specialist and domestic violence awareness advocate Sil Lai Abrams shared her childhood experience of believing the lie her family told her that she was white, and she led a group discussion among students and community members about different issues surrounding race.

Abrams defined the term “passing” as “when a person of one racial group chooses to identify themselves as a member of another racial group rather than face social prejudice.” According to statistics by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, approximately 12,000 blacks “vanish into white society” on an annual basis.

The first part of her talk was spent discussing the phenomenon of passing generally —what would cause a person to do it, what it is that makes a person black in the United States, and different stereotypes perpetuated by Hollywood. Abrams discussed celebrities and historical figures who passed like author Alexandre Dumas, actress Jennifer Beals and actor Vin Diesel.

Abrams did not simply offer a speech about these issues, but facilitated a group discussion where audience members shared personal experiences when their race was questioned, stories about people they know who have passed, and what they think about living in a post-racial nation— the idea that the United States has reached a point where it is void of racial discrimination and prejudice.

“Once we embrace the idea of diversity and respecting diversity and then seeing people for who they are, integrating their respective identities with interaction with them, then we will enter a post-racial society. But I don’t think we are there yet at all,” said College senior Thalia Harris.

Abrams shared a story about working in the coatroom at a nightclub in New York City when she was 19 years old. When people left at the end of the night, they would say things to her like, “Well, you’re real cute. You’re really pretty. What are you?” Abrams expressed disdain at being asked this question, but she always felt obligated to respond to these questions by saying that she was black. She said these people would not accept this response, and they would say, “No, no there is something else going on with you.”

“So I’d say, well my father is black and my mother is Chinese,” said Abrams. “And they would say, ‘So why do you say that you’re black; why don’t you say you are Chinese? You are just as much Chinese as you are black.’ This whole argument would ensue between me, the 19 year old, and the 34-year-old drunken person who is trying to define my race, because for some reason they felt more comfortable with the idea of me being Chinese.”

Audience members who were black and mixed race expressed similar frustrations, agreeing about the invasiveness and disrespect of the question, “What are you?” A distinction was made that the question was even more hurtful when the person followed it by complimenting attractiveness and subsequently inquiring if the person in question was mixed race. Students held that this was somehow implying that if a person is pretty, they have to be something more than “just black.”

“I’m proud of who I am as a black American woman, and people should see that and not be offended by it. People should see that and not be afraid of it,” said Harris.

Abrams continued her talk by sharing more of her story. She was born in Hawaii, lived for a short time in southern California and then after her parents’ divorce moved to Orlando, FL with her white father and siblings.

“It’s amazing how denial can kick in especially if your parents want you to believe something,” said Abrams. “When I asked my father, ‘Why is my skin tone different?’ what he told me seemed to make sense. I was born in Hawaii on the island of Maui, so what they told me was, ‘Sil Lai, your skin is brown because you are Hawaiian,’ and it made sense to me.”

Abrams revealed how she finally found out her true ethnicity as an early teenager. She and her sister were reading a book of “tasteless jokes,” and after reading a particularly offensive joke about black people, her father furiously burst into the room.

“‘I don’t know why you’re laughing Sil Lai. You’re one.’ My mouth hung wide as we watched him stalk out of the room without glancing back, and with those few words my father stripped me of my identity and place as his daughter. That was it. That was the conversation. That was how he told me,” said Abrams.

Her father told her that he and her family lied to her for so long out of love. Abrams found out that her mother had an affair with a black airplane pilot, and she was the result. Abrams said that after finding out, she became a social misfit and a part of the alternative culture inside her high school. She ignored her racial identity and her biggest fear was anyone finding out that she was black. At 17, her Florida driver’s license indicated her race as white.

Abrams was offered a modeling job in New York City at 18, which is when she says she escaped. Abrams said she finally felt free, and that she loves New York because “the color of your skin is less important than your hustle.” In New York, away from the predominantly white community she grew up in where diversity was punished, Abrams says she was finally able to fully immerse herself in her own personal black experience.

“What I’ve learned from this entire experience is nobody can define me, no one will define me, but me. And it doesn’t matter if you’re not comfortable with the color of my skin or the texture of my hair. That’s irrelevant,” said Abrams. “What is important to me is being honest and being authentic and to stand proud and to love every drop of blood that’s in my body be it black, be it white, be it Puerto Rican, be it Chinese.”