Passing (racial identity)  

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Racial passing occurs when a person classified as a member of one racial group is also accepted as a member of a different racial group. The term was used especially in the United States to describe a person of multiracial ancestry assimilating into the white majority during times when legal and social conventions of hypodescent classified the person as a minority, subject to racial segregation and discrimination.


Examples in the United States

In the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, some Americans of mixed ancestry passing for Caucasian often claimed Native American, Slavic, or Southern European ancestry to explain skin color and features differing from Caucasian Americans of Northern European (Germanic or Celtic) descent. They were trying to find a way through the binary racial divisions of society, especially in the South, where slavery became closely tied in the colonial era to the foreign status of people of African descent, which prevented them from being considered English subjects. In the 18th and 19th centuries, most free people were classified by appearance and actions. If they looked white, were accepted by neighbors and fulfilled community obligations, they were absorbed into Caucasian or European-American society. Late 19th-century Jim Crow state laws establishing segregation in public facilities, and early 20th-century state laws establishing the "one-drop rule" for racial classification (as in Virginia in 1924), were examples of Caucasians attempting to impose regulations of hypodescent, that is, classifying someone as black based on any black ancestry. Then someone who identified by appearance and majority ancestry might be described as "passing" for Caucasian. In Louisiana, people of color who passed as white were referred to as "passe blanc".

The US civil rights leader Walter Francis White (who was blond-haired, blue-eyed, and very fair) was of mixed-race, mostly European ancestry, as 27 of his 32 great-great-great-grandparents were Caucasian; five were classified as black and had been slaves. He grew up with his parents and family in Atlanta in the black community and identified with it. He served as the chief executive of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from 1929 until his death in 1955. In the earlier stages of his career, he conducted investigations in the South, during which he sometimes passed as white to gather information more freely on lynchings and hate crimes, and to protect himself in socially hostile environments.

In the 20th century Krazy Kat comics creator George Herriman was a Louisiana Creole (of partial African-American ancestry) who claimed Greek heritage throughout his adult life. The 20th-century writer and critic Anatole Broyard was a Louisiana Creole who chose to pass for white in his adult life in New York City and Connecticut. He wanted to create an independent writing life and not be classified as a black writer. In addition, he did not identify with northern urban blacks, whose experiences had been much different from his as a child in New Orleans' Creole community. He married an American woman of European descent. His wife and many of his friends knew he was partly black in ancestry. His daughter Bliss Broyard did not find out until after her father's death. In 2007 she published a memoir that traced her exploration of her father's life and family mysteries entitled One Drop: My Father's Hidden Life - A Story of Race and Family Secrets.

Missouri-born African-American musician John Roland Redd spent his career (from the 1950s unto his death in 1998) passing as an Indian. Reinventing himself as Korla Pandit and fabricating a romantic history as a baby born in New Delhi, India to a Brahmin priest and a French opera singer. Two years following his death, his actual identity was revealed in an article by Los Angeles magazine editor R. J. Smith.

Passing as indigenous Americans

In a limited reversal of the usual pattern, some people of European ancestry have chosen to pass as members of other races. The environmentalist Grey Owl was a white British man named Archibald Belaney, rather than First Nations as he claimed to be. When asked to explain his European appearance, he lied and claimed he was half Scottish and half Apache. Belaney learned some of the Ojibwe language and wilderness skills, and attempted to live by his anachronistic idea of what makes someone Native American.

The United States actor Iron Eyes Cody, who was of Sicilian descent, created a niche by playing roles of Native Americans. He had claimed American Indian heritage to get work. European-American authors and artists who have notably attempted to pass as being Native American include Asa Earl Carter, who claimed to be Cherokee; Jay Marks (Jamake Highwater), who claimed to be Cherokee-Blackfeet;

U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren, a former Harvard Law School professor, has claimed Cherokee ancestry. Genealogists were unable to find any Native ancestors for Warren. It is disputed as to whether she officially identified as Native American to claim any status or advantage.

Professor and activist Ward Churchill, who advocated for American Indian rights, claimed to be Cherokee-Muscogee Creek. He was fired from the University of Colorado.

Similarly, civil rights activist Rachel Doležal, then president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, was described in a February 2015 profile as having been born in a "Montana tepee" and having hunted for food with her family as a child "with bows and arrows".

The Wall Street Journal reported on 5 October 2015 that Dartmouth College fired the Director of its Native American Program, Susan Taffe Reed, "after tribal officials and alumni accused her of misrepresenting herself as an American Indian." She previously taught at Dartmouth, Bowdoin College, and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

To address the issue of non-Native peoples posing as Native American artists, the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 was passed in the United States, requiring artists to be enrolled in a state or federally recognized tribe to make the claim of being a Native American artist.

In the New Age and Hippie movements, non-Native people sometimes have attempted to pass as Native American or other Indigenous medicine people. The pejorative term for such people is "plastic shaman".

The Native American and Indigenous Studies Association's Statement on Indigenous Identity Fraud says:

If we believe in Indigenous self-determination as a value and goal, then questions of identity and integrity in its expression cannot be treated as merely a distraction from supposedly more important issues. Falsifying one’s identity or relationship to particular Indigenous peoples is an act of appropriation continuous with other forms of colonial violence.

Other examples

In Nazi Germany and in areas controlled by Germany before and during World War II, some Jewish people who looked "Aryan" (based on appearance, head dimensions and body physical features) passed as "Aryan" to save their lives, and avoided deportation by the Nazis to concentration and death camps. Edith Hahn Beer was Jewish and "passed" as "Aryan"; she survived the Holocaust by living with and marrying a Nazi officer. Hahn-Beer wrote a memoir called: The Nazi Officer's Wife: How One Jewish Woman Survived the Holocaust.

Examples of racial passing have been used by people to assimilate into groups other than European. Marie Lee Bandura, who grew up as part of the Qayqayt First Nation in New Westminster, British Columbia, was orphaned and believed she was the last of her people. She moved to Vancouver's Chinatown, married a Chinese man, and raised her four children as Chinese. One day she told her daughter Rhonda Larrabee about her heritage: "I will tell you once, but you must never ask me again."

Mindy Kaling's brother Vijay Chokal-Ingam says he pretended to be black to get into medical school.

Treatment in American literature and popular culture


  • Frank J. Webb's 1857 novel, The Garies and Their Friends, explores the choices in the racist antebellum north (Philadelphia) of three mixed-race characters who could pass for white: George Winston, who opts to leave the United States rather than be subjected to discriminatory laws; Emily Garie who marries into the coloured society that she identifies with and defends; and her brother, Clarence Gary, who secretly passes after attending a white boarding school, falls in love with a white woman, is exposed as being part black, and dies of tuberculosis and despair.
  • Kate Chopin's 1893 short story, The Father of Désirée's Baby, tells the story of an abandoned baby raised by a wealthy French Creole family. The baby (Désirée) grows up to marry a wealthy man of good name. When their baby is born, in a few months it becomes apparent the child is part black. The husband, Armand, sends her and the baby away. The final scene reveals that Armand knew that he was the part-black one.
  • Mark Twain's 1894 novel, The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson, is a scathing satire of passing in the antebellum south. Roxy, a slave, is one-sixteenth black; in order to avoid being sold down the river, she decides to switch her own baby (who is 1/32 black) and a white baby she is caring for. Her baby Tom, who passes for white, is raised as a spoiled aristocrat, but when his true identity becomes known as the child of a slave and thus born into slavery, he is sold down the river.
  • Writing in the late 19th century, Charles W. Chesnutt explored issues of mixed-race people passing for white in several of his short stories and novels set in the South after the American Civil War. It was a tumultuous time, with dramatic social changes following the emancipation of slaves, many of whom were mixed race because of generations of white men having taken sexual advantage of slave women or having more conventional liaisons with them.
  • In 1912, James Weldon Johnson anonymously published The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, which depicts the life of a biracial man who, after witnessing a lynching, chooses to live as white. Doing so causes him to lose his connection to and dream of making music steeped in African-American roots.
  • Jessie Redmon Fauset published Plum Bun in 1928, a novel in which the African-American protagonist, Angela Murray, tries to leverage her light skin tone to gain social advantage, but she discovers a deeper need for honesty than for societal acceptance.
  • Nella Larsen's 1929 novella, Passing, deals with two biracial women's racial identities and their social experience: one generally passes for white and has married white; the other is married to a black man and lives in the black community of Harlem. She occasionally passes for white for convenience, as it was a time of social segregation in some public facilities.
  • Langston Hughes wrote several pieces related to passing, including two relevant short stories. One, titled "Passing" in the 1934 collection The Ways of White Folks, concerns a son who thanks his mother for literally passing him on the street as he is passing for white. The other, titled "Who's Passing for Who" (1952), portrays a couple whose racial ambiguity leads to questioning whether they are passing for white or for black.
  • Unpublished in Regina M. Anderson's lifetime, the one-act play The Man Who Passed narrates the plight of Fred Carrington, a former Harlem resident who, after years of passing as white, returns to the friends he has abandoned to face the many consequences of his leaving.
  • Black Like Me (1961) was an account by journalist John Howard Griffin about his experiences as a Southern white man passing as black in the late 1950s to explore how blacks were treated.
  • The Human Stain (2000) is a novel by Philip Roth featuring a professor of classics, a man of Creole mixed-race ancestry, who spent his adult professional life passing as a European-American Jewish intellectual.
  • Danzy Senna's 1998 novel, Caucasia, features Birdie, a biracial girl who looks white and accompanies her white mother as they go into hiding. Her sister, Cole, looks black and goes with their black father into a different hiding place.
  • Eric Jerome Dickey's 1999 novel Milk in My Coffee features a biracial woman who has been traumatized by the black community and her family; she moves to New York City and passes for white.
  • Mat Johnson and Warren Pleese's graphic novel, Incognegro, is inspired by Walter White's work as an investigative reporter for the NAACP on lynchings in the South in the early 20th century. It tells of Zane Pinchback, a young, light-skinned, African-American man whose eyewitness reports of lynchings are regularly published in a New York periodical under the byline "Incognegro".
  • Harlan Ellison, the speculative fiction writer, examines the emotional impact of passing in his allegorical short story, "Pennies, Off a Dead Man's Eyes". In it, a white man (secretly an alien non-human who was stranded on Earth as a child) attends the funeral of a beloved black man who raised him, and who taught him how to blend in and appear human.
  • Nell Zink's 2015 novel Mislaid is told in the voice of a white Southern lesbian who pretends to be heterosexual to marry, eventually leaving her husband and assuming a new African-American identity for herself and her daughter.


  • In the 1930 film Murder!, by Alfred Hitchcock, the murderer turns out to be Handel Fane, a performer who is "half-caste" but passes as white, and cannot bear to lose the privileges this has given him.
  • The 1934 film, Imitation of Life, featured the character Peola, who has mixed ancestry and passes as white.
  • The films of Show Boat, 1936 and 1951, based on a musical of the same name and set in the segregated South, feature a character Julie who is of mixed race, and accepted as white. The discovery of her partially African ancestry sets off a crisis, legally and interpersonally.
  • Lost Boundaries (1949) features a black couple passing for white in New Hampshire, who become pillars of the community, the husband the esteemed town doctor. Upon being commissioned in the United States Navy, his racial identity is revealed upon investigation, which he has kept hidden from his children. It is based on the account of an actual family.
  • Pinky was a 1949 Academy Award-winning film on the topic.
  • The 1959 remake of the 1934 film, Imitation of Life, featured the character Sarah Jane, who has mixed ancestry and is accepted as white.
  • In the film Band of Angels (1957), starring Clark Gable, Yvonne de Carlo and Sydney Poitier, Martha Starr grows up as a privileged white southern Belle in the ante-bellum South, but after her father dies broke, her world is destroyed when it is revealed that her mother was black
  • In Sapphire (1959) there is a British look at the problems of passing.
  • The 1960 film I Passed for White features an African-American character who is accepted as white because of her European-American ancestry).
  • Melvin Van Peebles' 1970 film, Watermelon Man, tells the story of a casually racist white man who wakes up black, and the effect this has on his life.
  • The 1973 film, The Spook Who Sat By The Door, features a bank robbery conducted by an African American underground guerrilla group. Lighter skinned members, who with hair wigs pass as white, are purposefully used. Witnesses to the crime describe them as Caucasian males, deflecting suspicion from the guerrillas.
  • In the 1979 movie, The Jerk, Steve Martin's character explains in the introduction that "It was never easy for me. I was born a poor black child". He was raised by the black family that had adopted him and identified as black.
  • Julie Dash's Illusions (1982), set in 1942, featured a woman in a Hollywood film studio who had passed as white to gain her position. It was named one of the decade's best films in 1989 by the Black Filmmakers Association.
  • The 1986 film, Soul Man, features a white man who wears blackface to qualify for an African American-only scholarship at Harvard Law School.
  • The 1995 film, Panther, features a black Federal Bureau of Investigation agent named Pruitt, who passes for white when among African Americans.
  • The 1995 film, Devil in a Blue Dress, features a mixed-race woman, light-skinned enough to pass, who becomes embroiled in a mystery in which her race is an important factor.
  • The 2000 TV movie, A House Divided, is based on Kent Anderson Leslie's non-fiction book Woman of Color, Daughter of Privilege: Amanda America Dickson, (1849-1893), about a mixed-race woman in the South whose mother was a slave. When her wealthy white father tries to will his property to her, the family is challenged by his white relatives for control of the estate. They cite local laws forbidding property ownership by blacks (legally the younger woman is defined by her mother's slave status and racial caste). Amanda Dickson succeeded in inheriting her father's fortune.
  • The 2003 film, The Human Stain, stars Anthony Hopkins as an African American man of mixed-race ancestry, a professor of classics who has passed as white for most of his adult life to achieve his professional and academic goals. (It is adapted from Philip Roth's novel of the same name, discussed previously.)
  • In 2004, Marlon and Shawn Wayans were featured in the movie, White Chicks. Two black FBI agents go undercover as rich white girls, and are accepted by the white people they encounter, including the girls' friends.
  • The 2005 film Slow Burn has themes of interracial dating, "passing" or pretending to be a member of another race, stereotypes included.
  • The 2007 documentary short, Black/White & All That Jazz, tells the story of singer-actor Herb Jeffries, who identified as "a man of color" in order to be accepted as a singer; he was of Irish and Sicilian ancestry.
  • In the 2008 film Tropic Thunder, Robert Downey Jr plays a blue-eyed, blond-haired Australian method actor who undergoes plastic surgery to portray an African-American soldier in a Vietnam War movie within the movie.


  • Rock band Big Black released a song on this subject called "Passing Complexion" on their 1986 album Atomizer.


  • On the soap opera One Life to Live, the character of Carla Gray was introduced in 1968 as a traveling actress presented to viewers as Italian-American. She had dalliances with both white and black doctors (scandalizing television viewers when Gray, whom they believed was white, finally kissed that black doctor). Her true racial heritage was revealed when maid Sadie Gray, a black woman, claimed Carla as her daughter.
  • On the last episode of the first season of the sitcom The Jeffersons (1975), Andrew Rubin played Tom and Helen Willis' son Allan, who left the family for two years and traveled in Europe, passing as white. This enraged his sister Jenny, who looks black.
  • On the December 15, 1984 episode of Saturday Night Live, the black actor Eddie Murphy appeared in "White Like Me", a sketch in which he used theatrical make-up to appear as a white man.
  • In 1985, actor Phil Morris played black attorney Tyrone Jackson on the soap opera The Young and the Restless. He uses make-up to pass as a white man and infiltrate Joseph Anthony's crime organization.
  • In November 2005, Ice Cube and Emmy Award-winning filmmaker R. J. Cutler teamed to create the six-part documentary series titled Black. White., broadcast on cable network FX. Two families, one black and one white, shared a home in the San Fernando Valley for the majority of the show. The Sparks and their son Nick, from Atlanta, Georgia, were made up to appear to be white. The Wurgels and their daughter Rose were transformed from white to black. The show premiered in March 2006.
  • In "Libertyville", an episode from the sixth season of Cold Case set in 1958, the actor Johnathon Schaech portrays Julian Bellowes, who's just married into a wealthy family in Philadelphia. He has not told them he is a Louisiana Creole of color.
    • Similarly, the third season episode "Colors" (set in 1945) includes Christina Hendricks and Elinor Donahue playing a dancer who passes as white for at least sixty years.
  • A Season 8 episode of Law & Order, titled "Blood," features a rich African American who has been passing for white for his entire life in order to enter the most elitist circles. He is accused of killing his white girlfriend in order to give away their dark-skinned newborn baby that would expose him as being of African-American descent.

Creoles and mixed race

In Latin America, generational acculturation and assimilation took place via intermarriage. Medium-brown offspring of even dark parents were no longer "black", but were labeled with any of a half-dozen terms denoting class as much as skin tone. Descendants who were European-looking were accepted as white.

This was somewhat similar to the growth of a mixed-race Creole class in Louisiana, especially in New Orleans before the US purchased the territory. In the early years of the French and Spanish colony, men took enslaved or Native American women as wives or mistresses. In the Latin culture, the wealthy men often had their mixed-race sons educated in Europe or trained in skilled trades. Gradually a third caste developed, made up of free people of color, or mixed-race Creoles. Creoles were often educated, and many became wealthy property owners. They also formed a community of artisans in New Orleans. Beautiful young Creole women often became the official mistresses of white French colonists, who provided financial settlements for them and their children in a system known as plaçage. This enabled them to have their children educated.

Certainly there were many generations of mixed-race people in the American South. In the later 18th and 19th centuries, they were often the children of white planter fathers and enslaved women. Among the most famous were the multiracial slave children born to Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings from their long relationship after he became a widower. Hemings was three-quarters white, as her mother was mulatto. Betty Hemings was the daughter of a slave woman and an English sea captain; she became the longtime mistress of Jefferson's father-in-law John Wayles after he became a widower for the third time, and had several children with him. Sally was the half-sister of Jefferson's late wife Martha Wayles Jefferson.

In 1998, DNA studies showed that the descendants of Eston Hemings, Sally's youngest son, were related to the Jefferson male line. Most historians, the National Genealogical Society, and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation of Monticello believe that the weight of historical evidence suggests Jefferson was the father of Eston and all of Hemings' children (who were thus seven-eighths European by ancestry and legally white under Virginia law at the time). The historian Annette Gordon-Reed was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 2010 for her work on the history of the Jeffersons and the Hemings families (which won a Pulitzer Prize and 15 other major awards), and for "changing the course of Jeffersonian scholarship" by showing how earlier historians had disregarded or discounted important evidence from slave testimonies.

The Civil War did not end relationships across color and ethnic lines. Although during the Jim Crow era, southern legislators created strict segregation between whites and blacks and anti-miscegenation laws, people made their own arrangements. As under slavery, relationships often developed out of white social dominance. For instance, as a 22-year-old young man, segregationist US Senator Strom Thurmond had an affair with Carrie "Tunch" Butler, the 16-year-old black maid to his family. She bore his daughter Essie Mae Washington-Williams. Thurmond provided financial support for his daughter and paid for Butler's education, but kept her existence a secret. His daughter did not discuss their relationship until after his death.

See also


Further reading

  • Jeffrey A. Brune and Daniel J. Wilson (eds.), Disability and Passing: Blurring the Lines of Identity. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2013.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Passing (racial identity)" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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