Passing is a process by which an individual crosses over from one culture or community into another undetected. The historical connotation of the term, however, is intimately connected with black America, and “passing,” ”crossing over,” or ”going over to the other side” typically refers to a black person whose appearance is such that they can pass for white. The vivid language of the term itself evokes many images: passing one’s self off as white; choosing to pass over into white society; the passing away of a person’s black identity, reborn as white. As drastic a choice as this ”social death” may seem, for some blacks in segregated America, there was little choice (Gaudin n.d.).
Homer Plessy, an American man, seven eighths white (and one eighth black), sued the state of Louisiana in 1892 for being jailed for sitting in a ”whites only” railroad car. Plessy’s argument was that he should be legally identified as white and thus allowed all the usual civil liberties and privileges of his white peers as stated under the 13th and 14th amendments of the US Constitution (Cozzens 1999). The judge, John Howard Ferguson, ruled against Plessy. Plessy then took his case to the Supreme Court, where the historic 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision upheld Ferguson’s ruling, ushering in over 60 years of legally sanctioned segregation, commonly referred to as the Jim Crow Era. This ”separate but equal” ideology represented a period of extreme oppression for blacks, socially, economically, and even physically, as many were victims of mob violence. Rather than endure the racist and segregated world that blacks were subjected to at this time, in some instances those who were able opted to pass for white.
In the slave era preceding Jim Crow significant race mixing had occurred. Through rape, forced breeding, and a host of other coercive means, several generations later, the concept of ”colored” had developed into a social construction which no longer strictly represented one’s phenotype. Though passing and segregation were not new developments of the twentieth century, the dawn of the 1900s saw a definite rise in the number of light skinned ”blacks” passing for white as they particularly felt the sting of segregation.
In order to fully exploit economic, social, and educational opportunities, some blacks, who were able, generally passed into white society on three levels: basic, complex, and fundamental. At the basic level of passing, an individual might occasionally accept the mistaken assumption that she or he is in fact white. This allows black citizens certain freedoms that they would otherwise be denied, such as moving about the cities where they live without fear of violence, shopping in any store, and eating at any lunch counter.
The complex level of passing is more purposefully planned. Individuals might work on one side of town under the premise of being white, where they could earn money and advancement, or even attend a university as white students. Yet when they return home at night or during holidays, they resume their black lives. This level is quite complicated and dangerous. In order for individuals to navigate this dual reality, they must move seamlessly from one world into another, all the while keeping their two worlds – one black and one white -completely separate.
The fundamental level of passing sees the black person actually casting off his or her entire black reality in favor of a white identity. They may choose to move away from family and friends; they might even pass them on the street and look the other way in the interest of committing to life as a white person. Often times they marry whites, falsify documents, and never offer any reasonable doubt as to their ”race.” The changes one makes for this level of commitment are not merely cosmetic. Instead, one must make profound changes to one’s thoughts, memories, beliefs, history, culture, language, politics, ethics, etc.
Each level of passing offers its own dangers, as at any time anyone could be discovered. An acquaintance from childhood, a family member who will not be ignored, even a black stranger embittered by the passing person’s choices, could be one’s downfall. Anything could betray one’s black secret. Blacks at the basic and complex levels of passing could be discovered with a little research, while those at the fundamental level may prove to be their own worst threat. Choosing to have children is a 9 month experiment in torture for a person who is passing for white, as very few whites could justify a brown skinned child to their white spouse.
Living in fear that one’s own genes may betray one’s entire life leads to two other significant issues inexorably linked to passing: internalized racism and the color complex. In order to survive as a white person in a white dominated world in an era when the black person is commonly disdained, it stands to reason that the person passing could come to hate blackness. This may include their black family, former black community, and everything reminiscent of that life. Du Bois (1996) asserts that black Americans suffer an internal clash of ideals versus reality that keeps blacks forever at war with themselves. For people passing, this awareness – or double consciousness, as Du Bois references it – may lend itself to bitterness. Black acquiescence coupled with the shame of going over to the other side may result in feelings of disgust towards the struggles of black America, promoting a general feeling of self loathing as individuals internalize the symptoms of racism. This antipathy for the race often manifests itself as an abhorrence of blackness. When Larsen’s (1997) character, Gertrude, states, ”nobody wants a dark child,” she is not concerned with keeping a secret – she has a white husband, but is not passing, herself. Instead, she is simply verbalizing a commonly held sentiment within black communities: the color complex.
Though the term passing is commonly used as a reference to a long ago era it is important to note that in the multicultural polyethnic new millennium, color, and now culture, is as ambiguous as ever. Thus, one cannot ignore other populations for whom passing remains a viable option, such as gays and lesbians, Latinos, and people of Middle Eastern descent. In a post 9/11 world, amid a culture of ”don’t ask, don’t tell,” many populations other than blacks are employing various elements of pas sing in order to navigate the rough waters of inequality.
- Cozzens, L. (1999) Plessy vs. Ferguson. African American History. http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/plessy-v-ferguson
- Du Bois, W. E. B. (1996 ) The Souls of Black Folk. Penguin, New York.
- Ellison, R. (1952) Invisible Man. Vintage, New York. Gaudin, W. A. (n.d.) Passing for White in Jim Crow America. The History of Jim Crow.
- htm. Golden, M. (2003) Don’t Play in the Sun: One Woman’s Journey Through the Color Complex. Doubleday, New York.
- Hall, R. E. (2003) Discrimination Among Oppressed Populations. Edwin Mellen Press, Lewiston, NY.
- Johnson, J. W. (1989) The Autobiography of an Ex Colored Man. Vintage, New York.
- Larsen, N. (1997 ) Penguin, New York.
- Russell, K. Y., Wilson, M., & Hall, R. E. (1992) The Color Complex: The Politics of Skin Color Among African Americans. Anchor Books, New York.
- Washington, B, T. (1995 ) Up From Slavery. Dover Publications, Minneola, NY.
- Wright, R. (1937) Black Boy. Harper & Row, New York.
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