Background and Summary
In the racial politics of North America, racial passing refers to a member of a racial group being accepted by others of a different race as one of their own, especially in the case of a person of mixed race being accepted as a member of the racial majority. It is usually used derisively and is not considered politically correct to aspire or attempt to pass or to accuse another person of aspiring or attempting to pass. The term has, therefore, been used rarely in recent years. It is also used in the homosexual community for pretending to be heterosexual. United States civil rights leader Walter Francis White, the chief executive of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People from 1929 until 1955, was of mixed race; five of his great-great-great-grandparents were Black and the other 27 were White. When he went out to investigate lynchings and hate crimes he passed as White for his own safety. Krazy Kat creator George Herriman was a Creole of partial Black ancestry who instead claimed Greek heritage throughout his adult life. Other light-skinned Blacks of mixed race, such as Fredi Washington, chose not to pass.
Some darker-skinned people of European ancestry have chosen to pass as members of other races. Environmentalist Grey Owl was actually a White British man named Archibald Belaney, rather than the First Nations-Canadian that he presented himself to be. Another similar activist was Iron Eyes Cody, who is actually of Sicilian descent. University of Colorado Professor Ward Churchill claims to be a Native American, but the tribe in which he claims membership says his affiliation is only "honorary." It was also common in the 19th and early 20th-centuries for some American Blacks to claim Hispanic or Native American ancestry to seek greater acceptance in White society. While it is extremely uncommon for dark-skinned Europeans to aspire to pass as Black, at some stages in history, some Caucasian peoples living in the United States, who may have at one time or another been excluded from White-American society and categorized as non-Whites, allied themselves with Blacks and other races for common causes such as civil rights. Some White jazz musicians, such as Johnny Otis, have opted to pass as Black for career purposes.
Blacks passing as White in the United States took the risk of running afoul of anti-miscegenation laws in several states in the 19th and early 20th centuries. If asked today, most Americans would say it is unlikely or even “genetically impossible” for a purely Black mother to have a purely White child. If pressed, some might admit that several generations of out-marriage to Whites might produce a child that superficially looks White, but that this would be an exceedingly rare occurrence. Of course in literal terms it would only take one White parent to make a child that looks and it is able to pass as white.
Measuring the Occurrences
Frank Sweet estimates that as of the 2000 census, between 35,000 and 50,000 young adults every year, who previously were identified by their parents as Black, switch to identifying themselves publicly as White or Hispanic. However, his statistical extrapolations are not conclusive. There are several ways of measuring this, but the most straightforward is simply to ask large numbers of people how they "racially" self-identify, repeat the question every few years, and then count how many changed their answer from a person of color to something else. The Departments of Labor and of Health and Human Services do precisely this in longitudinal studies meant to track life-long earnings and health, respectively, of large numbers of Americans. For example, the Department of Labor's NLS79 National Longitudinal Survey has interviewed 12,686 young men and women yearly since 1979 to measure their career progression. Each year they are asked the same hundred or so questions. Between 1979, when they were 14 to 22 years old, and 1998, when they were in their forties, 1.87 percent of those who had originally answered "Black," switched to answering the interviewer's "race" question with either "White," "I don't know," or "other." This comes to 0.098 percent per year. Extrapolated to the Black census 2000 population of 36 million, this comes to about 35,000 individuals per year. But with the statistical margin of error, the true figure could be as low as zero.
Another approach is to start with the 0.7 percent African admixture found in the White U.S. population today. Compared to other First World nations, the United States has been astonishingly successful at preserving two distinct genetic populations: one of mostly African ancestry, the other overwhelmingly European, though this is now changing to include the rapidly growing Hispanic population. All other First World nations that imported African slaves have Afro-European genetic admixture scatter diagrams. Indeed, two-thirds of White-Americans have no detectable African ancestry at all other than prehistoric African ancestry that all humans possess. But some argue that one-third of White-Americans do have detectable African DNA, averaging 2.3 percent. Yet scholars question the validity of assigning racial labels to DNA.
A third approach in determining or calculating the amount of “passing” that occurs would be to use the Philadelphia rate: the rate at which European-looking children are born into the Black community. This has come to one out of every 500, and then extrapolated to the national Black yearly cohort. This yields about 72,000 individuals per year as of census 2000. Most of these, of course, might choose not to switch. Once again, though, the margin of statistical error could bring this figure down to zero or less.
Finally, Joel Williamson suggests yet another approach. It is based on the assumption that women are less likely than men to cross the color line permanently. Approximately equal numbers of male and female infants are born. But from age 16, millions of Black men disappear from the census but women do not. In 2000, this came to 2.77 million individuals. Where did they go? The assumption of this method is that they redefined themselves as White. This approach yields 0.1019 percent per year or about 37,000 individuals per year as of census 2000. The statistical margin of error once again could bring this figure down to zero or less. This methodology was refuted on additional grounds in the 1940s by several scholars, who argued that the number of Blacks "passing" from 1930 to 1940 was very small, probably less than 2,600 per year.
Most Americans know that Black-White intermarriage has become more common since the Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court ruling in 1967 that anti-interracial marriage laws were unconstitutional. And most historians know that British North American intermarriage was far more common between 1607 and 1691 than in the centuries since it was first outlawed. So it is fair to ask whether the African DNA admixture found in White-Americans today is merely the result of recent intermarriage or perhaps just an echo of the intermarrying 17th century, rather than evidence of the continual, steady passing of biracials into White society in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.
There are three reasons to think that the African admixture found in today's White-Americans is the result of an ongoing process and not the remnant of a one-time event, either recent or long ago. First, as mentioned above, longitudinal studies show that the current rate of openly avowed Black-to-White identity-switching would suffice to yield the observed admixture only if it had always been going on. Second, Americans tend to label first-generation children of interracial marriages as "Black." Consequently, each such child introduces a half-person's worth of White genes into the Black community. If this White-to-Black gene flow that we know has been going on for 400 years, in the form of the children of interracial unions, had not been balanced by an equal Black-to-White flow, Blacks would have visually vanished by genetic assimilation, as did Afro-Mexicans by 1800.
The third argument comes from molecular anthropology. It comes from observing linkage disequilibrium. This term denotes the extent to which European and African genetic markers are randomly scattered throughout a person's DNA. The DNA of a first-generation biracial child, a child with one European parent and one Sub-Saharan African parent, will have African markers in large clumps, separated from equally large clumps of European markers. But with each subsequent generation of intermarriage, the African and European markers become more mixed and scattered until, after several generations, they are thoroughly mixed. A recent one-time wave of interracial marriage (since the 1955 to 1965 Civil Rights Movement, say) would result in uniformly high linkage disequilibrium in admixed Americans (clumped markers). This is not observed. An ancient one-time wave of intermarriage—as in the 17th century—would result in uniformly low linkage disequilibrium in admixed Americans (scattered markers). This is not observed either. An ongoing slow but steady Black-to-White genetic leakage across the color line for 400 years would result in a distinctive pattern of linkage disequilibrium distribution that is clumps of every size occurring with equal frequency. This, in fact, is what is observed.
Some people are startled by what to them seems a high rate of Black-to-White endogamous-group switching over the past four centuries, a rate that is still going on. They ask, "How can so many people falsify their paper trail and cut all family ties like that?" First, a paper trail indicating "racial" identity was a transitory phenomenon in U.S. history, lasting only from about 1880 to about 1965. Most 19th century births were not recorded on civil birth certificates, but rather with local churches. Only five states: Connecticut, Hawaii, Mississippi, North Carolina and Texas put infant "race" on birth certificates today. Some states never did so, and most stopped doing so in the late 1960s. Similarly, neither driver's licenses nor voter registration cards record "racial" identity in most jurisdictions today. This is precisely why "racial" profiling is so controversial. In Florida, for example, neither the state voter registration web site nor the Flagler County voter registration card has any entry for "race," while the Alachua County card does. The few civil records today that capture one's "race," that being jobs, school matriculation, etc., are voluntary. One can check off or write in whatever and, with the one exception of EEOC claims, a person will face virtually no scrutiny or favoritism.
As discussed below, Americans associate Black-to-White passing with deceit or pretense. It has been considered wicked or reprehensible for over a century. And yet, as far as anyone can tell, most of the individuals who redefine themselves from Black to White or Hispanic make no secret of their partial African ancestry. They just do not feel that this trivial fact should stop them from adopting a "racial" self-identity that matches their appearance. There is no need to "cut all family ties and walk away." In fact, given that all of the methods of estimating the rate of Black-to-White passing converge on the same 0.10-to-0.14 percent per year figure, legendary tales of "cutting all family ties" and deception more likely belong to the realm of fictional "passing" novels than to the reality of the country's notoriously mobile society. Except perhaps during the Jim Crow period and, even then, apparently only Whites were deceived regarding ongoing family contact. As Maria P.P. Root put it, "It is not uncommon that many individuals emerge out of college years with a different resolution to their racial identity than when they graduated high school." Even during the Jim Crow wave of White-on-Black terror and oppression, it was possible for Americans to pass through the color line via the “maroon communities” of the Cumberland Plateau.
Many communities of mixed genetic heritage are scattered throughout the eastern United States. The anthropological term is triracial isolate groups, the historical term is maroon communities, and the sociological term is mestizos. All descend from Europeans, Africans and Native Americans in a mixture and many who escaped involuntary labor in colonial plantations and formed their own communities on the fringes of civilization. The first comprehensive survey of these groups listed such communities: The Brass Ankles, Red Bones, Red Legs, Turks, and Marlboro Blues of South Carolina; The Cajans (not the Cajuns, Acadians of Louisiana) and Creoles of Alabama and Mississippi; The Croatans (called Lumbees since 1953) of Robeson County North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia; The Guineas, West Hill Indians, Cecil Indians; The Issues (now called Monacans) of Amherst and Rockingham Counties, Virginia; The Jackson Whites of the Ramapo Mountains of New York and New Jersey; The Melungeons of the Southern Appalachians, centered on Hancock County Tennessee; The Redbones of Louisiana and Texas; The Wesorts of southern Maryland.
Today, the two largest maroon communities are the Seminoles of Florida, who were not in the original survey, and the Melungeons, the only large group to have self-identified as White over the centuries, rather than as Native Americans. Most of the above names were derogatory epithets given by Whites, not self-labels adopted by the maroon communities themselves, and many still consider them offensive. In making the above list, it was reluctantly necessary to use the terms found in the anthropological literature.
The maroon communities are important to the study of people switching from Black to White because "racial escape hatches" may be formed. In 1971, Carl Degler coined the term “mulatto escape hatch” to describe how Brazil differed from U.S. customs. According to Degler, White-Brazilians enjoy the privileges of Whiteness, including that of looking down with disdain upon Black-Brazilians. According to Degler, this “colorism” resembles White-American customs during the Jim Crow era. On the other hand, most White-Brazilians have Black parents or grandparents and are proud to acknowledge their fractional African ancestry. This is different from White-American customs during the Jim Crow era. The U.S. tradition of hypo-descent made it unlikely for any non-Hispanic of known African ancestry to be socially welcomed as White in America for a time. In Latin America, in contrast, 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. Their European-looking descendants, in turn, were accepted as White.
Something similar may have operated in the United States during the Jim Crow era through the maroon communities. Today's Melungeons, for instance, consider themselves White but are proud of their tiny—about 5 percent—African ancestry. Three points suggest this. First, the groups have unusually high fractions of African genetic admixture for non-Black Americans. Second, inflow into the groups from those designated "free people of color" has been steady in years past. Third, outflow to the “White” mainstream has also been steady.
The point is that, although the U.S. color line has been far less permeable than any other Afro-European social barrier anywhere else on earth, it has not been perfect. And so, it is a straightforward task to compute the actual rate of Black-to-White passing over the past 400 years of American history—about 0.10-to-0.14 percent per year, or 35,000 individuals per year as of the 2000 census.
Deception or Inception? Passing in Literature
Attitudes towards the idea of someone redefining himself or herself as White despite having been born into the Black community changed around 1840 as a consequence of the 1830s invention of the “One-Drop Rule.” This is because the concept of passing for white is an inseparable aspect of the One-Drop Rule.
In this context, passing literature refers to novels, plays or short stories in which a European-looking character pretends to be a member of the White endogamous group but is "really" of Black heritage. All three elements are essential: one, some African ancestry, two, predominantly European appearance, and three, pretense or concealment. Similarly, an African slave who wears a mask or otherwise disguises as European-looking person in order escape captivity does not fall within the scope of “passing”—only characters who already look European. Finally, the tale of a European who is accepted without pretense or concealment as fully White, even though everyone around knows of the person's publicly acknowledged African ancestry like John James Audubon or Alessandro de' Medici, say is not a tale of passing in this context.
Literature about passing can exist only within a readership market that accepts the One-Drop Rule. Cultures, such as Hispanic or Muslim societies, where a European-looking person with an African-looking grandparent is considered legitimately White, lack literature on passing in their social context. The earliest non-fictional usage of the concept of passing, as defined by the above three elements was in advertisements for runaway slaves.
The earliest fictional use of the three-part concept was in the French novel Marie from 1835 by Gustave de Beaumont. It is apparently the first novel ever published about passing. Ludovic falls in love with the title character, which turns out to have a touch of African ancestry through her Louisiana colored Creole grandparent.
In Marie, the author does not agree with the views of his characters. The characters are immersed in a society that enforces the One-Drop Rule. The author, on the other hand, considers the notion to be an inexplicable Americanism. Marie's characters are portrayed as struggling for acceptance, not as engaging in malicious pretense. The novel was written by a Frenchman and published in France for a French readership. Its tone is that of "look at the bizarre customs of those strange Americans," rather than, "look at these people pretending to be White." Nevertheless, Marie is important because it is the first literary indication that a unique and unprecedented social ideology, the One-Drop Rule, had recently arisen in the United States.
The first two American-written novels about passing in the above sense are Clotel, also known as The President's Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States from 1853 by William Wells Brown and The Garies and Their Friends from 1857 written by Frank J. Webb. Brown was a former slave and an established author who had published the autobiographical Narrative of William Wells Brown, a Fugitive Slave in 1847. Webb, a freeborn Black man, was a newcomer to the writing industry. The two novels differ in several ways.
Clotel is essentially about slavery. Its protagonist, Thomas Jefferson's slave daughter, escapes captivity, passes for White in the North, but then returns to the South to rescue her own daughter but dies in the attempt. Most of the novel does not focus upon the pretense of Whiteness, but is instead a pastiche of slave tales culled from the author's own experiences, hearsay, journalism and other fiction. Clotel lacks the unity customary to novels and seems disjointed to the modern reader. Nevertheless, it is the first known piece of literature depicting a society that considers Blackness to be an intangible trait. It is the first to portray people both Black and White, it turns out who believe that a European-looking person of undetectable African ancestry is a member of the Black endogamous group nonetheless. That the book was a success is persuasive evidence that most of its readers felt the same way. The Garies and Their Friends is about life in freedom in the North, not about slavery in the South. The tale focuses on passing by its title couple, and its sub-plots depict different forms of passing, accidental, deliberate, through ignorance, etc. Although it was published four years after Clotel, The Garies and Their Friends is credited by most scholars with inventing the literary theme of passing.
Clotel and The Garies and Their Friends are similar in that they were the first successful fiction novels published by Blacks, and yet they are almost universally ignored in Black studies departments today. This is because, as suggested above, their ideology is repellent to most modern Blacks. None of the characters who engage in passing in these two novels feels any guilt or remorse for the act. Some usually delicate Victorian females like Clotel herself sincerely want to be accepted as White there in being considered a racial traitor. Others consider it a justified deceit upon an unjust society. Modern critics see the characters' lack of guilt as a symptom of a "psychology of imitation and implied inferiority," and that it reveals the authors' "unconscious desire to be White" and "unabashed allegiance to Anglo-Saxon lineage."
Attitudes towards Black-to-White passing changed after the Civil War. The number of "passing" novels written by Blacks soared in the last quarter of the 19th century. Although often set in the Deep South, they were almost invariably written by Northerners and, in contrast to antebellum passing novels, they invariably portray endogamous-group switching as morally reprehensible.
Among these are: Passing, a 1929 novel by Nella Larsen about a light-skinned Black woman posing as White. Jessie Redmon Fauset's novel Plum Bun of the same year and Fannie Hurst's 1933 novel Imitation of Life featured similar plots to Passing, and the latter was made into successful films by Universal Pictures twice. A recent passing narrative is Philip Roth's novel The Human Stain from 2000. To be sure, some characters, such as Clare Kendry in Larsen's Passing, seem comfortable with their position on the White side of America's endogamous color line, but in the end, they receive their comeuppance for their transgression. As one scholar explains it, "Passing for White has long been viewed as an instance of racial self-hatred or disloyalty. It is predicated, so the argument goes, on renouncing Blackness—an 'authentic' identity, in favor of Whiteness, an 'opportunistic' one."
The oddity is that class mobility and mobility among ethnic groups is a fundamental component of the "American Dream." If anything, the early 20th century—the time of Horatio Alger stories and the assimilationist "melting pot" paradigm—saw heightened enthusiasm towards self-improvement. The notion of the "self-made man" was a fundamental component of the "American Dream." In point of fact, Americans born into the Black endogamous group were mobile. Black-to-White endogamous group mobility was and is a hallmark of American society. As explained above, the step has been taken by one Black youngster out of every thousand in every year of the nation's history.
One would therefore expect critiques of the passing novel genre to notice that authors' hostility to group switching actually denigrates acceptance and embraces intolerance. As one scholar puts it, "The paradoxical coexistence of the cult of the social upstart as 'self-made man' and the permanent racial identification and moral condemnation of the racial passer as 'imposter' constitutes the frame within which the phenomenon of passing took place." The fact is that, since the turn of the 20th century, scholarly interpretations have almost universally supported the authorial consensus that switching from a Black ethnic identity to, say Irish-American, Italian-American, or Hispanic, is akin to treason. Another analyst puts it, "Though assimilation is hardly an uncontested component of ethnic identity, the assimilated ethnic rarely faces the kind of hostility—either within the narrative itself or in the critical discourse surrounding it—faced by the passing character." As an educator of the time wrote in her diary, "the unwritten law was that Negroes should form a solid unit against the white man. ... Passing over to whites was regarded as betrayal."
The hatred and revulsion towards passing that was expressed by both Blacks and Whites of the early 20th century is thought-provoking. You would think that color-line permeability would be embraced and encouraged by those wishing to oppose racism. As one scholar puts it, "Understood in [the light of history], passing offers a problematic but potentially legitimate expression of American individualism, one that resists segregation's ‘one-drop’ logic and thereby undermines America's consciously constructed ideology of racial difference." Apparently, however, this has not been the case in the States since the Civil War.
Attitudes towards Black-to-White passing are different in other countries due to the lack of an endogamous color line. For example, the 1948 Mexican film Angelitos Negros was also a remake of Fannie Hurst's novel Imitation of Life. The Mexican version more closely reflects pre-“one-drop” attitudes that were common in the antebellum South and the North before 1829, and in other countries today. The U.S. versions of the film, in contrast, reflect the One-Drop Rule, which appeared in the North after 1830.
Other recent passing narratives include: The Sweeter the Juice: A Family Memoir in Black and White by Shirlee Taylor Haizlip, Life on the Color Line: The True Story of a White Boy Who Discovered He Was Black by Gregory Howard Williams, and Love on Trial: An American Scandal in Black and White by Earl Lewis and Heidi Ardizzone are other non-fiction books on the topic.
Pinky was a 1949 Oscar award-winning film on the topic. Black Like Me is an account by journalist John Howard Griffin about his experiences as a Southern White man passing as a Black in the late 1950s. Rock band Big Black released a song regarding this subject called “Passing Complexion” on their 1986 album Atomizer. The 2000 TV movie A House Divided told the story of a mixed-race woman who was light-skinned enough to pass, but whose mother was a Black slave. When the woman's White father attempted to will his property to his mixed-race daughter, the family ran afoul of local laws forbidding property ownership by Blacks. In 2004, the Wayans brothers were featured in the movie White Chicks two Black policemen who go undercover as two rich, White girls, and are accepted by the white people they come into contact with, including the girls' friends.
In November 2005, Ice Cube and Emmy Award winning filmmaker R. J. Cutler teamed to create the six-part documentary series titled, Black. White., which was broadcast on cable network FX. Two families, one Black and one White, share a home in the San Fernando Valley for the majority of the show. The Sparks, who are Black and hail from Atlanta, are transformed from Black to White, while the Wurgels are transformed from White to Black. "I'm really excited to be a part of a show that explores race in America," Ice Cube said. "Black. White. will force people to challenge themselves and really examine where we stand in terms of race in this country." The show premiered in March of 2006.
Sources: Wikipedia.com; Naomi Zack, Thinking About Race, Belmont, CA, 1998 116; Scott L. Malcomson, One Drop of Blood: The American Misadventure of Race, New York, 2000, 356; Werner Sollors, Neither Black Nor White Yet Both, Cambridge, 1997, 247; Hilary Beckles, "Black Men in White Skins: The Formation of a White Proletariat in West Indian Society," The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, October, no. 15, 1986; F. James Davis, Who is Black?: One Nation’s Definition, University Park PA, 1991, 13-34; Carl N. Degler, Neither Black nor White: Slavery and Race Relations in Brazil and the United States, New York, 1971; A.D. Powell, Passing for Who You Really Are: Essays in Support of Multiracial Whiteness; Dr. Mark Shriver, “Steve Sailer, Analysis: Race Now Not Black and White,” UPI, May 8, 2002; Mark D. Shriver, "Skin Pigmentation, Biogeographical Ancestry, and Admixture Mapping," Human Genetics, 112, 2003; Heather E. Collins-Schramm, "Markers that Discriminate Between European and African Ancestry Show Limited Variation Within Africa," Human Genetics, 111, September 2002; Esteban J. Parra, "Estimating African American Admixture Proportions by Use of Population-Specific Alleles," American Journal of Human Genetics, 63, 1998; Frank W. Sweet, Legal History of the Color Line: The Rise and Triumph of the One-Drop Rule, Palm Coast FL: Backintyme, 2005, Chapter 2. "Afro-European Genetic Admixture in the United States." Legal History of the Color Line p. 49-51; John G. Burma. "The Measurement of Passing," American Journal of Sociology, 52, 1946: 18-22; E. W. Eckard, How Many Negroes "Pass?" American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 52, No. 6, May, 1947, pp. 498-500; Scott L. Malcomson, One Drop of Blood: The American Misadventure of Race, New York, 2000, 356; Naomi Zack, Thinking About Race, Belmont, CA, 1998, 5; Curt Stern, Principles of Human Genetics, 3d ed., San Francisco, 1973, 443-65; L. L. Cavalli-Sforza and W. F. Bodmer, The Genetics of Human Populations, Mineola NY, 1999, 527-31; Richard A. Sturm, Neil F. Box, and Michele Ramsay, "Human Pigmentation Genetics: The Difference is Only Skin Deep," BioEssays, 20, 1998, 712-21; B.K. Rana, "High Polymorphism at the Human Melanocortin 1 Receptor Locus," Genetics, 151, no. 4, 1999, 1547-48; R.M. Harding, "Evidence for Variable Selective Pressures at MC1R," Journal of Human Genetics, 66, no. 4, 2000, 1351; P.A. Kanetsky, "A Polymorphism in the Agouti Signaling Protein Gene is Associated with Human Pigmentation," American Journal of Human Genetics, 70, 2002, 770-75; Gary B. Mills, The Forgotten People: Cane River’s Creoles of Color, Baton Rouge, 1977, 193; Carl N. Degler, Neither Black nor White: Slavery and Race Relations in Brazil and the United States, New York, 1971, 101; Joel Williamson, New People: Miscegenation and Mulattoes in the United States, New York, 1980, 2; James Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name, New York, 1962, 19.
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Tuesday, January 8th 2008 at 1:05PM