I Am (Curious) White

By Damian Duffy on

Several times in my life, I have been mistaken for black.


I’m guessing this story doesn’t make it into the Netflix series.

I’m white, just for the sake of context. Like, really white. Irish, Swedish, German, maybe even some French in there…?

Not only that but, in terms of skin tone: I once had a white British dude tell me I needed some sun. Fucking pale, is what I’m saying.

And yet, mistaken for black, multiple times. Usually (but not always–I’ll get back to that) this happens sight-unseen, because unless someone was instantly blinded by sunlight reflecting off my pastiness, my melanin deficiency is as plain as the skin on the nose on my face. (Or so I thought–Again, I’ll get back to that). If I had my own Crayola color, it would be called, “Just Enough to Discourage the Coroner Beige,” after all. (Except even the pigment doesn’t always matter–back to that, I will get).

One of the first people to mistake me for black was basing it mostly on my relatively uncommon first name, and maybe my taste in music. (This was a coworker of mine in the music department of Barnes & Noble, who assumed blackness when “Damian” recommended ATLiens by Outkast and bought a Curtis Mayfield box set.)

The other instances of mistaken blackness have all been tied to my work with the J2 to my D2, the Andre 3000 to my Big Boi, John Jennings. Working with John, I’ve curated comics art exhibitions and art books devoted to comics made by and/or populated by and/or somehow associated with people who are darker than blue. In my comics-making with John (and Stacey Robinson, and Robert Love), I’ve co-created a couple graphic novels explicitly about race, representation, and media. And as a result, it’s assumed that I’m black since these issues seem to more obviously impact black people than white. (Which I would argue is bullshit, but that’s a blog ramble for another time.)

So, for example, on the now-defunct, oft contentious, but once thriving Herotalk forums of blacksuperhero.com, a photo of John and I at a convention led some forum participants, (who only knew me through John’s promoting our book The Hole on the site), to post in surprise, like, “Um… He’s white.”

Similarly, at least twice I’ve had a comics creator who e-mailed me based on something posted on the Black Comix facebook page and referred to me in that e-mail as black. Leading me to clarify, somewhat awkwardly, that–just in case we ever met at a convention or some such–I am, in fact, quite white.

Even a (white) friend of the aforementioned Professor Jennings confided in me, after seeing us give a lecture, that when John talked about me, he’d always assumed that I was African American.

Which, by the way, I am not.

And, if you don’t believe me, this review of John and my first graphic novel from Amazon:

‘Just so you know, this graphic novel is written by a Euro-American (Damian Duffy) with assistance from a token lightskin guy name Jennings, who gives him “cred.” Think Justin Timberlake and Timbaland. Next.’

And, while I am indeed a Euro-American, and while the phrase “token lightskin guy” pretty much tells you all you need to know about Amazon user The Sesh, the Timberlake thing still seems like kind of a cheep shot. And this was before JT was inappropriately “#inspired”. Because, between me and John, I’m not the one who was in a boy band. And, no offense Sexyback fans, if we have to have a interracial music partnership analogy, please make it Run the Jewels.

Speaking of sexy backs, I’ve been saying I’d get back to something, and so, here we are, awkward segue and all.

I’m bringing awkward back. Yeah!

What I wanted to get back to is this: Sometimes I’m mistaken for black even after people have seen me. And that’s because of where they see me.

#BLMSDCC2016 Black Lives Matter event at San Diego Comic Con 2016. I... I don't know why I'm standing like that.

#BLMSDCC2016 Black Lives Matter event at San Diego Comic Con 2016. I… I don’t know why I’m standing like that. Bringing Awkward Back!

(shout out to Lawrence Brenner!)

More often the conversation has come up that, pale as I am, I could be black. As in, there are plenty of multiracial people who are as light as me, people who self-identify as black. As I’ve been told more than once, many black families have at least one cousin at the family reunion who looks like I do. Combine that with the fact that a white dude working to showcase black artists’ work is seemingly atypical, or at least against expectations, and a number of people have told me they just assumed I was black but didn’t look it.

But I’m not black. I’m white. And, while I do my best to empathize with people whose backgrounds are different from my own, I work even harder to keep in mind that true empathy with a black person, in the definitional sense of “empathy” as “sharing the exact same experiences as another human,” is impossible. As a heterosexual white cis dude, I can’t truly “know” the experiences of  life as a black person in the United States. I was born out of pasty genes that leave me immune to that particular constellation of institutional prejudices. I can sympathize, I can do my best to be a good and supportive friend/ally/coworker/colleague/whatever-the-relationship-may-be, but I can’t lay fictional claims to the fact of blackness. Because the truth is, in America, in 2016, when you’d think we’d goddamn know better, I still get to walk down the street, and it’s much less likely I’ll be stopped, frisked, choke held, and/or shot by police without cause.

I’ve tried to write this blog post a few hundred times at this point. Because I feel like, who cares that I’m white.  So much of my art, curating, and editing isn’t meant to be about me personally, but about the work I’m trying to highlight, the awareness I’m trying to encourage.  I don’t want to make a big show of me being white, like that makes me a special little snowflake.



Having your alien boyfriend pop you in his race flip flop sarcophagus thing that very specifically lasts 24 hours: This is what white privilege looks like.


But at the same time, I don’t want to misrepresent.

I want my voice to be an honest expression of the types of stories I value, the multifaceted views of the world I want to see.


Of course this raises all these other questions of whether it is my place to do this work, write these stories, be a cis hetero white male telling stories with and about black folk. And… well, I’m only on the first fifty or so drafts of that blog post.