Covering, Passing, and Belonging

Uncovering identity as a biracial, disabled woman

When the word ‘diversity’ comes up, what comes to mind? For many of us, there are a few ideas that immediately pop up: gender, race, ethnicity. However, the reality for a large percentage of the population is that diversity is not always so easily defined. Diversity is a multi-layered, deeply complicated concept, and may not always be apparent or visible to the casual observer.

I think about the invisible or hidden aspects of life a great deal, since I am constantly experiencing identity and diversity on a deeply personal yet semi-invisible level. I am biracial, half white and half Indian. I am also deaf. I was born with a genetic disability that has left me with profound hearing loss. I’m very lucky that I can actually speak coherently given that my disability was not discovered until long after language and speech patterns are set. Every day I wear hearing aids that are essential so that I can approximate what most others would consider ‘normal’ hearing.

For me, identity stems not only from my personal truths and how I view myself, but it’s also about how others view me and how I choose to interpret their gaze. I grew up feeling torn between two worlds. My mother immigrated from India to the United States in the 70’s, where she met my father, an American of Polish descent.

Author’s parents

At family gatherings, I wasn’t Indian enough to understand what my Indian relatives were saying when conversation shifted over to Hindi. At the same time, I wasn’t Polish enough to feel like I was part of my dad’s blonde-haired, blue-eyed clan. I’m not completely deaf, so I don’t need to know or use sign language, but I’m deaf enough that if one or both of my hearing aids malfunctions, I’ll have a hard time following along.

We all go through life with labels, and constantly search for ways to neatly define ourselves. Black, white, Latinx, married, single, student, short, woman, young, old, able-bodied, parent… the list goes on and on. There are three issues here:

  1. Our lists of labels aren’t always as comprehensive as they could be.
  2. Sometimes undue weight gets placed on some labels versus others.
  3. The very act of labeling means that we’re not allowing for the complexity that is a natural result of life.

One label that I am very familiar with is that of the Other. As a child, I have a distinct memory of looking at myself in the mirror. I was a skinny kid with dark hair and a perpetual tan, and I used to think, I’m so lucky that I look white. This feeling of Otherness and feeling that I had to conform, cover and pass began very early for me. Covering and passing are terms that overlap but are not necessarily identical in meaning. When someone covers, they have disclosed their identity but are attempting to downplay that identity. In contrast, passing is an attempt to make sure that others do not know that someone possesses a certain identity. As authors Christie Smith and Kenji Yoshino explained in their white paper Uncovering Talent: A New Model of Inclusion, “covering is a much more universal dynamic — while only some groups have the capacity to pass, all groups have the capacity to cover.”

Author with violin, pre-hearing aids

For a long time, I did my best to pass, not just cover. As young as age 6, I had a feeling that being myself was dangerous, and I should try my best to blend in. When I was 7, I was diagnosed with both hearing loss and poor eyesight. I still remember the despair I felt upon being fitted for both a hearing aid and glasses at the same time. How unfair life was, to hit me with two glaringly obvious symbols of difference all at once! I’d unhook my dark brown hearing aid with its plastic ear mold from behind my ear, and squint hard. If only my hair were straight and yellow instead of black and curly, and if I weren’t deaf and blind, I’d think dramatically, then, life would be perfect.

To me, my hearing aids are the first things that my eyes are drawn to when I look at myself in pictures or in the mirror. They are large and ugly reminders of my disability, and I assume that when I interact in public with people, they too see these devices in my ears straightaway. What I’ve found is that most people never notice my hearing aids, and so I am able to pass as an able-bodied person. However, another area in which I unintentionally pass is my looks. I’m a short brown woman of indeterminate origin. People walk up to me in the street all the time, speaking Spanish or Portuguese (I speak neither). And, although I am named after my Polish great-grandmother, ‘Felicia’ also happens to be a name that is popular in the Hispanic culture and community. I am no stranger to introducing myself to people using the (Polish) pronunciation of my name (“Fuh-lish-ah”), only to have them repeat my own name back to me with the Hispanic pronunciation (“Fell-eesh-ah”), as if I had just mispronounced my own name.

I live with this constant tension of dealing with microaggressions, passing and covering. Growing up, I was very aware that not everyone experienced the world the way that I did. My classmates didn’t have to visit special doctors and force themselves to sit still while cold plastic foam was pumped deep into their ear canals. Waiting for my hearing aid molds to set, I would pretend that I was an underwater explorer, experiencing new worlds. My friends didn’t have to have a conversation with their parents on how to racially and ethnically define themselves when they started sitting for standardized tests. Every time I fill out a demographic survey I have to state in writing that I am literally an OTHER. And, I am reminded of this fact every time I reply to someone’s question with a cheerful ‘Yes!’, only to see confusion cross their face as they say, ‘That wasn’t a yes or no question I just asked you.’

For a long time I would say that everything was OK. I didn’t mind it when people mangled my name. I didn’t mind growing my hair out so I could strategically cover my ears. I didn’t mind always sitting in the front row of class, and I especially didn’t mind having to go up to instructors and bosses and colleagues and telling them that my hearing aid battery just died and I’d forgotten to bring fresh ones with me, so I would not be able to participate fully, as I would not be able to catch all of the conversation.

But guess what — it’s not OK. I shouldn’t have to feel guilty or ashamed of who I am. And to be clear, I don’t. But the balance between covering/passing and being true to myself is constantly shifting, and for me (I don’t pretend to speak for anyone other than myself), figuring out my identity and embracing it has very much been, and continues to be, a work in progress.

As I have tried to better understand my own identity, I’ve started to uncover and be more open about my ethnicity and disability. I’ve come to realize that these two aspects of who I am are most of the time overlooked or not noticed by the greater public. Most people just assume that I am (insert ethnicity of choice here) without even considering that I might be biracial or multiracial. And surprisingly few people realize that I’m not able-bodied. This fact was driven home to me the other day when I was meeting with a group of people whom I’ve known for years. I made an offhand comment about my deafness and was surprised to see shocked looks on most of the faces around the table. These colleagues and friends had no idea. I suppose I could feel glad that I was able to pass so easily, but recently I’ve been feeling frustrated and annoyed by these societal assumptions about my identity.

I’ve always felt different. But the way that I’ve acknowledged and owned this difference has shifted over the past few decades. Part of this shift is due to realizing that authenticity and openness are concepts that I highly value. Part of the shift has been because I’ve come to learn and accept that I don’t need to be part of a certain group or have a label to still have a voice, or be valued, or be loved. Many of us make a real choice to tone down our identity and fit into the mainstream, whatever that means in your particular situation or context. Being authentic and making the decision to purposely uncover can be an act of resistance. It can be an act of rage, of power, of assertiveness, of confidence, and it can also be extremely frightening.

Presenting a talk at VMware RADIO 2016

I question whether being authentic and open is a positive or negative choice for me. If I give a talk that shows vulnerability, it may result in someone else having a shared experience, and/or cause them to connect with me and think of me outside of my preconceived or visible labels. But on the flip side, will it cause others to think of me differently, or perhaps run a story in their mind when thinking of me for a job or case or project? Or am I actually doing myself a disservice if I don’t uncover? I’ve always been able to slip in and out of identities, but perhaps by not aggressively stating my labels to the world, I am allowing the outsider’s gaze to cover for me.

I’ve been told that I’m a ‘triple threat’ — I’m a woman, I’m biracial, and I’m disabled. This is my reality. But has it really ever helped me? Does it even matter at all? I’ve felt over and over again that I’m not enough: not ethnic enough; not deaf enough. I’m stuck in this weird middle space, which is my entire world. For others, they may never understand or even comprehend that there can be a middle space. Last year I was on a panel at a women in tech conference, and someone called me a woman of color. I accepted the designation, but I felt that I was being disingenuous.

VMware WT2 Conference, 2016

Yet, if I am not a woman of color, what am I? Does it matter how I view myself, or is it more important how others view me? Many of us who identify as being part of an underrepresented group are familiar with this concept — having to overachieve just to achieve parity. Having to hide. Feeling exposed.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers to my questions. With my recent transition from working full time for a large software company to running a company (She Geeks Out) as an entrepreneur and co-founder, I have been thinking a lot about what my personal role and identity is. I’m a minority leader, a woman, a disabled person, single, someone who is living off savings, and a renter. I’m also the daughter of two loving parents, a sister, a business owner, a friend, an artist, and cat-mom to an adorable grumpy cat.

Jean-Luc Picat

All in all, I’m pretty sure that despite my best efforts I’m a total hipster. And that’s OK! I want to tell my story because all of these aspects make up who I am. I can be defined by my race and ability, but those are just two small pieces of the puzzle. And, although they may be sources of frustration for me from time to time, unlike my 7 year old self I love and accept my dark curly hair and (yes!) my hearing aids. I don’t wish to be other than what and who I am.

My company offers diversity and inclusion training for corporations, and one question we always ask is ‘how do you define diversity and inclusion?’ An attendee recently gave a great answer which has stuck in my mind: diversity is like being asked to the party, and inclusion is being asked to dance. I know what it is to perpetually feel like I’m on the outside, looking through the windows. Well, I’ve decided that I’m tired of waiting and I’m going to invite myself to the party and if I have to I’ll dance by myself. We shouldn’t always be complacent when it comes to things like assigning identity or making assumptions about someone’s background or experience. Only by allowing myself to feel empowered to tell the whole of my collective story am I able to push this feeling of non-belonging aside, uncover, and hopefully help others appreciate that there is no normal in today’s world.