“What are you?” The question that has launched a thousand uncomfortable sighs. For me, a woman who identifies as multiracial or mixed race, this question always produces anxiety. Not only does it lack tact, but this seemingly innocuous string of words forces me to confront and re-contextualize my identity every time. However, as I’ve gotten older I’ve realized
that this anxiety is not one-sided; people ask me this because my ambiguity is uncomfortable. Before I can be put into a neat box, people tend to choose their words a little more carefully. In her book A Chosen Exile¸ Allyson Hobbs provides an excellent history of racial passing in America through a series of compelling narratives and an in-depth look at historical documents. Hobbs explores this anxiety caused by racial ambiguity, felt by whites, blacks, and those who fell in between, and the ways it morphed as the racial dynamics in this country began to change. Racial ambiguity is anxiety producing because it complicates the binary racial system established in the U.S. and all the social meaning and associations embedded within that dynamic.
Although it was by no means the only important element, racial ambiguity was an essential factor for an individual’s ability to pass as white. During the early nineteenth century, “passing for white” became meaningful because the nature of slavery had changed and black was now synonymous with enslaved, white with free.  Racially ambiguous slaves caused whites, slave owners in particular, a great deal of anxiety. Hobbs claims that, “racially ambiguous slaves on the run passed as white to ease the grueling journey to freedom. Their success flouted racial customs and undermined southern confidence in the certainty of racial identity.”  This was exemplified in the story of William and Ellen Craft, who passed as an injured white man accompanied by his slave in order to escape slavery.  For whites, not only was there a fear of losing valuable property, but the whole notion of a slave being able to pass for white severely problematized the whole notion of race to begin with. Slavery, being built on a foundation of white racial supremacy, depended heavily on the distinction between white and black.
The act of passing itself was also incredibly anxiety producing for those who attempted it as well as their families. Hobbs chose to focus not only on what could be gained by passing, but what was lost. She states that, “Passing offered much, but it could not mend splintered relationships with one’s family; it could not ease a deep-rooted sense of alienation and longing for one’s people.” . Individuals who passed often experienced severe psychological trauma such as Lieutenant William J. French, whose suicide demonstrated the mental strain of straddling two worlds. Passing also meant living in constant fear of being exposed.
The story of the Johnston family who passed as white for over twenty years and, “…been stalked by the constant fear that their racial identity would be discovered.”  Even after years of being careful, they were eventually exposed when Dr. Johnston attempted to join the Navy.
The anxiety caused by racial ambiguity felt by whites and blacks, did not end with slavery, Jim Crow, or even with the Civil Rights Movement. This anxiety and the legacy of passing changed many times as racial dynamics shifted and continues today. Nevertheless, as Hobbs points out, we are at a unique point in history because we are able to claim hybridity. To say, “I am multiracial” would have been impossible in the 1920s. However, the uncomfortable feelings still exist and I believe that we as a society need to lean into that discomfort to have productive conversations about the history and future of race in America.
 Hobbs, Allyson, A Chosen Exile, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014), 36
 Hobbs, A Chosen Exile, 30
 Hobbs, A Chosen Exile, 45-50
 Hobbs, A Chosen Exile, 132
 Hobbs, A Chosen Exile, 239