Passing (racial identity)

Wayback Machine Cherokee Métis

Racial passing occurs when a person classified as a member of one racial group is accepted ("passes") as a member of another. Historically, the term has been used primarily in the United States to describe a person of color or of multiracial ancestry who assimilated into the white majority to escape the legal and social conventions of racial segregation and discrimination.

In the United States

Passing for white

James Weldon Johnson, author of the Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

Although anti-miscegenation laws outlawing racial intermarriage existed in America as early as 1664,[1] there were no laws preventing the rape of enslaved women. For generations, enslaved black mothers bore mixed-race children who were deemed "mulattos", "quadroons", "octoroons" or even "hexadecaroons" based on their percentage of "white blood".[2]

Although these mixed-race people were often half white or more, institutions of hypodescent and the 20th-century one drop rule in some ⁠ ⁠— ⁠ particularly Southern ⁠ ⁠— ⁠states  classified them as black and therefore, inferior, particularly after slavery became a racial caste.[citation needed] But there were other mixed-race people who were born to unions or marriages in colonial Virginia between free white women and African or African-American men, free, indentured, or slave, and became ancestors to many free families of color in the early decades of the US, as documented by Paul Heinegg in his Free African Americans of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland and Delaware.[3]

Mixed-race African Americans sometimes used their racially ambiguous appearance (and often majority European ancestry) in order to pass as white and evade the restrictions against them to seek better lives. For some people, passing as white and using their whiteness to uplift other black people was the best way to undermine the system that relegated black people to a lower position in society.[4] These same people that were able to pass as white were sometimes known for leaving the African American community and getting an education, later to return and assist with racial uplifting. Although reasons behind passing are deeply individual, the history of African Americans passing as white can be categorized by the following time periods: the antebellum era, post-emancipation, Reconstruction through Jim Crow, and present day.[5]

Antebellum America

During the antebellum period, passing as white was a means of escaping slavery. Once they left the plantation, escaped slaves who could pass as white found safety in their perceived whiteness. To pass as white was to pass as free.[6] However, once they gained their freedom, most escaped slaves intended to return to blackness - passing as white was a temporary disguise used to gain freedom.[7] Once they had escaped, their racial ambiguity could be a safeguard to their freedom. If an escaped slave was able to pass as white, they were less likely to be caught and returned to their plantation. If they were caught, white-passing slaves such as Jane Morrison[8] could sue for their freedom, using their white appearance as justification for emancipation.[9]


Post-emancipation, passing as white was no longer a means to obtain freedom. As passing shifted from a necessity to an option, it fell out of favor in the black community. Author Charles W. Chestnutt, who was born free in Ohio as a mixed-race African American, explored circumstances for persons of color in the South after emancipation, for instance, for a formerly enslaved woman who marries a white-passing man shortly after the conclusion of Civil War. Some fictional exploration coalesced around the figure of the "tragic mulatta", a woman whose future is compromised by her being mixed race and able to pass for white.

Reconstruction through Jim Crow

During the Reconstruction era, black people slowly gained some of the constitutional rights of which they were deprived during slavery. Although they would not secure "full" constitutional equality for another century until after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, reconstruction promised African Americans legal equality for the first time. Abolishing slavery did not abolish racism. During Reconstruction whites tried to enforce white supremacy, in part through the rise of Ku Klux Klan chapters, rifle clubs and later paramilitary insurgent groups such as the Red Shirts.[10]

Passing was used by some African Americans to evade segregation. Those who were able to pass as white often engaged in tactical passing or passing as white in order to get a job, go to school, or to travel.[11] Outside of these situations, "tactical passers" still lived as black people, and for this reason, tactical passing is also referred to as "9 to 5 passing."[12] The writer and literary critic Anatole Broyard saw his father pass in order to get work after his Louisiana Creole family moved north to Brooklyn before World War II.

This idea of crossing the color line at different points in one's life is explored in James Weldon Johnson's Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man.[13] But the narrator closes the novel by saying "I have sold my birthright for a mess of pottage",[14] meaning that he regrets trading in his blackness for whiteness. The idea that passing as white was a rejection of blackness was common at the time and remains so to the present time.[15]

People also chose to pass for white during Jim Crow and beyond. The US civil rights leader Walter Francis White (who was blond-haired, blue-eyed, and very fair) was of mixed-race, mostly European ancestry: 27 of his 32 great-great-great-grandparents were white; the other 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 in order 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 cartoonist born to mulatto parents, 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 rejected being classified as a black writer. In addition, he did not identify with northern urban black people, 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.

The rise of the civil rights movement and the enforcement of voting rights for African Americans, particularly in the South, meant that political leaders called on all African Americans to unify in order to maximize their power.

2000 to present

Passing as white in the 21st-century is more controversial: it is often seen as a rejection of blackness, family and culture.[16][17]

A well-publicised modern example of "racial passing" is Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who worked for African-American rights and tried to pass as African American. She worked as a civil rights activist. Her attempt at passing was in order to gain the support of the black community. She became president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP before her parents identified her as white.[18]

Passing as Indigenous Americans

Portrait of Archibald Belaney, who 'reinvented himself' as Grey Owl. Photo by Yousuf Karsh, 1936. born in England, Belaney went to Canada and lived with First Nations people, passing as an indigenous person for many years.

Other persons have passed as Native American or First Nations people.[19][20][21]

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".[22]

The author and environmentalist Grey Owl was born in United Kingdom as a white man named Archibald Belaney; he made a life in Canada and claimed to be a First Nations person. When asked to explain his European appearance, he lied and claimed he was half Scottish and half Apache. (There are numerous Native American-identified persons of multi-racial ancestry.)[23] Belaney performed what he said were Ojibwe cultural practices and wilderness skills, and adopted an anachronistic and stereotypical lifestyle, as part of a persona which he was successful in marketing to non-Native audiences.[24]

The United States actor Iron Eyes Cody, who was of Sicilian descent, developed a niche in Hollywood by playing roles of Native Americans. Initially playing Indians only in movies and television, eventually he wore his film costumes full-time and insisted he was of Cherokee and Cree descent.[25][26]

In the visual arts and literature, other European-Americans have also attempted to pass as being indigenous. Ku Klux Klan leader and segregationist speech writer, Asa Earl Carter, attempted to reinvent himself as Cherokee author Forrest Carter, author of the novel The Education of Little Tree.[19][27]

Jay Marks, a man of Eastern-European Jewish ancestry, adopted the pen name of Jamake Highwater about 1969, claiming to be Cherokee-Blackfeet, and published numerous books under that name. He won awards and NEA grants.[28][29][30]

American-born sculptor Jimmie Durham was exposed as a man posing as a Cherokee.[31] Artist Yeffe Kimball claimed to be Osage.[32]

To try to protect Native American artists from the claims of non-Native impersonators, the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 was passed in the United States. It requires any visual artist claiming to be a Native American artist to be either an enrolled member of a state or federally recognized tribe, or for a recognized tribe to designate the artist as a tribal artisan.

In academia, due to non-tribal colleges' and universities' reliance on self-identification of tribal identity, non-Native people have sometimes passed as Native Americans.[33]

Professor and activist Ward Churchill, who advocated for American Indian rights, claimed to be alternately Cherokee, Muscogee Creek, and Métis.[33] His claims were eventually rejected by the tribes he claimed, specifically the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians.[34][35][36] Churchill was fired in 2007 from the University of Colorado for academic misconduct over his research and writings.[37]

The Wall Street Journal reported on October 5, 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".[38] She previously taught at Dartmouth, Bowdoin College, and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.[39][40]

Terry Tafoya (now going by the name Ty Nolan), a former psychology professor at Evergreen State College, passed as being Warm Springs and Taos Pueblo. The Seattle Post Intelligencer discovered that he was neither, and reported his deception.[33]

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.[41]

Passing as African American and other races

An early example was Vivian Liberto, the first wife of singer Johnny Cash. She was Italian-American but widely mistaken for African-American due to her appearance, leading to both of them receiving death threats from white supremacists. [42]

Rachel Dolezal in 2015

Civil rights activist Rachel Dolezal, then president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, claimed in a February 2015 profile to have been born in a "Montana tepee" and have hunted for food with her family as a child "with bows and arrows".[43] She primarily identified as African American and had established herself as an activist in Spokane.

In 2015 Dolezal's mother disputed her daughter's accounts, saying that the family's ancestry was Czech, Swedish, and German, with "faint traces" of Native American heritage. She also denied various claims made by her daughter about her life, including having lived in Africa when young, although the parents did live there for a time after Dolezal had left home.[44] Dolezal ultimately resigned from her position at the Spokane NAACP chapter.

In 2015, Vijay Chokalingam, the brother of Indian-American entertainer Mindy Kaling, told CNN that he had pretended to be black years before in order to take advantage of affirmative action to be admitted into medical school.[45] The medical school issued a statement that Chokalingam's grades and scores met the criteria for acceptance at the time, and race had played no factor in his admission.[46]

John Roland Redd was an African-American musician born and raised in Missouri. In the 1950s he assumed a new identity, claiming to be an Indian named Korla Pandit and fabricating a history of birth in New Delhi, India to a Brahmin priest and a French opera singer. He established a career in this exotic persona, described as an "Indian Liberace". Two years after his death in 1999, his true ethnic identity was revealed in an article by Los Angeles magazine editor R. J. Smith.[47][48][49]

In September 2020 African Historian Professor Jessica Krug admitted she had been passing as African-American[50]

Other countries

For Jews in Nazi Germany, passing as "Aryan" or white and non-Jewish was a means of escaping persecution. There were three ways to avoid being shipped off to the death camps: run, hide or pass. No option was perfect, and all carried the risk of getting caught. People who could not run away but wanted to maintain a life without hiding attempted to pass as "aryan."[51] People who were "visibly Jewish"[52] could try to alter their appearance to become "aryan", while other Jewish people with more ambiguous features could pass into the "aryan" ideal more easily. In these attempts to pass as "aryan", Jewish people altered their appearance by dying their hair blonde and even attempting to reverse circumcisions.[53] 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. Another such example is Stella Kübler, a Jewish collaborator who initially attempted to hide her Jewish background.

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."[54][55]

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.

Patrick O'Brian (1914 – 2000), born Richard Patrick Russ, an English novelist and translator, best known for his Aubrey–Maturin series of sea novels set in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, was for many years presumed by reviewers and journalists to be Irish,[56] and he took no steps to correct the impression, until a 1999 exposé in The Daily Telegraph[57] made public the facts of his ancestry, original name and first marriage, provoking considerable critical media comment.

Treatment in popular culture






See also


Racial groups


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