Skip to main content

Passing

Passing

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Passing refers to a person changing his or her racial or ethnic identity. The term entered the common vocabulary under Jim Crowthe regime of racial segregation in the United States that emerged in the late nineteenth century and lasted into the 1960s. During this time period, many U.S. states and communities adopted the one drop rule, which held that a person with any African ancestry whatsoeverno matter how remotewould be classified as Negro. Under Jim Crow, many people with one drop of black blood chose to identify as white to evade racial discrimination. Numerous novels and films of this period portrayed the phenomenon, usually in the form of a tragedy.

Two types of individual passing occurred under Jim Crow. In situational passing, a person of color presented a white identity only in certain situationsfor example, to obtain employment in a white-only workplace or to gain entry into a white-only public facility such as a theater or train car. The situational passer retained his or her minority identity at home. The temptation of situational passing was generally understood and tolerated among the African American population.

Some people engaged in full-time passing, commonly referred to as crossing over or passing over. A person who permanently crossed over the color line into a white identity cut most social ties with African American family members and friends. Avoiding contact with other blacks was necessary to prevent arousing suspicions within a new, white social milieu. Because people who crossed over were lost to the African American community, this type of passing was widely condemned by black editorialists and political activists.

In the United States, the Jim Crowera conception of passing implied some degree of subterfuge, in which the person who passed was seen as an impostor who deceived his unsuspecting audience. This conception of passing emerged in the historical context of scientific racism and the one-drop rule, which made the color line seem a rigid boundary based on science rather than a social construction.

In other times and places, changing racial-ethnic identity was commonly done out in the open, often in the court system or as part of a public appeal. Caribbean and Latin American countries did not develop the rigid, one-drop conception of nonwhiteness that existed in the United States under Jim Crow. The saying money whitens is a bit of folk wisdom that observes the conflation of class with race, that a rich man is more likely to be accepted as an honorary white than a poor man. In the Spanish colonies, it was possible to purchase through the court system a cédula de gracias al sacar an expensive document that was valuable because it officially removed legal disabilities from the documents bearer, such as illegitimate or multiracial birth status.

Such passing by permission was possible in situations where the color line was less clearly defined and thus more permeable. Passing by permission was occasionally available in the United States prior to the Jim Crow era. Some courts granted status as an honorary white to individuals of sufficiently light complexion and sufficiently respectable social status. However, this type of passing became rare in the post-Civil War era. By the early twentieth century, as the one-drop rule gained sway, passing by permission was mostly defunct in the United States.

Although individuals could not pass by permission in the United States under Jim Crow, group passing by permission did occur. In rural areas of the southern Atlantic seaboard, communities of mixed ancestry who had been free before the Civil War were occasionally permitted to convert to an American Indian identity and given a slightly higher status than freed slaves (Berry 1963). The motivation for the white community was to pretend that racial mixing between whites and slaves had never occurred by recategorizing the offspring of such unions as Indians. Another motive for conservative white politicians prior to black disfranchisement was that they were able to co-opt lighter-complected voters by making them honorary Indians, thereby gaining support for Jim Crow from a portion of the nonwhite population.

As the Jim Crow era ended in the 1960s, racial-ethnic identities became seen more as an option that each individual could choose for him or herself (Waters 1990). For people of mixed ancestry, self-identification became an acceptable standard, replacing the rigid one-drop system to some extent. As a consequence, reports of African Americans passing as white have mostly disappeared today.

By the late twentieth century, a new phenomenon had emergedreverse passingin which people raised with a white identity would claim a minority identity to benefit from minority set-asides in business, education, or government. For example, a federal court determined that the Malone brothers of Boston had falsely claimed to be African American to gain employment in the citys fire department under affirmative action criteria (Ford 1994).

More common is the phenomenon of the white wannabe passing as American Indian. In one notable case, a former white segregationist politician named Asa Carter adopted a new identity as Forrest Carter and achieved best-seller status as a Cherokee author. In the academy, Ward Churchill was exposed as having falsely claimed to be enrolled in the Keetowah Cherokee Nation in order to advance his career as an ethnic studies professor at the University of Colorado. Genealogical research revealed no evidence of Churchills claimed American Indian ancestry. After complaints by a group of American Indian professors in the early 1990s, some universities now require that applicants must show proof of tribal enrollment when requesting affirmative action review as American Indians. However, racial-ethnic self-identification remains the de facto standard in most workplaces today, which makes passing mostly a thing of the past.

SEE ALSO Acting White; Blood and Bloodline; Race; Whiteness

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Berry, Brewton. 1963. Almost White: A Study of Certain Racial Hybrids in the Eastern United States. New York: Macmillan.

Burma, John H. 1946. The Measurement of Negro Passing. American Journal of Sociology 52 (1): 1822.

Day, Caroline Bond, and Earnest Albert Hooton. 1932. A Study of Some Negro-White Families in the United States. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.

Dominguez, Virginia R. 1986. White by Definition: Social Classification in Creole Louisiana. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Ford, Christopher A. 1994. Administering Identity: The Determination of Race in Race-Conscious Law. California Law Review 82 (5): 12311285.

Waters, Mary C. 1990. Ethnic Options: Choosing Identities in America. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Thomas F. Brown

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Passing." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. 25 Apr. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Passing." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 25, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/passing

"Passing." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved April 25, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/passing

passing

pass·ing / ˈpasing/ • adj. 1. going past: passing cars. 2. (of a period of time) going by: she detested him more with every passing second. ∎  carried out quickly and lightly: a passing glance. 3. meeting or surpassing the requirements of a course or examination: a passing grade. • n. [in sing.] 1. the passage of something, esp. time: with the passing of the years she had become a little eccentric. ∎  the action of throwing, kicking, or hitting a ball or puck to another team member during a sports match: his play showed good passing and good control | [as adj.] a good passing movement. 2. used euphemistically to refer to a person's death: her passing will be felt deeply by many people. ∎  the end of something: the passing of the Cold War and the rise of a new Europe. PHRASES: in passing briefly and casually: the research was mentioned only in passing.DERIVATIVES: pass·ing·ly adv.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"passing." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. 25 Apr. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"passing." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 25, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/passing-0

"passing." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved April 25, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/passing-0

passing

passing •waxing •passing, surpassing •Lancing, Lansing •blessing, distressing, dressing, Lessing, pressing, unprepossessing •hairdressing •bracing, casing, facing, lacing, placing, self-effacing, spacing, tracing •steeplechasing • interfacing •unceasing • Gissing • unconvincing •unpromising •enticing, icing •self-sacrificing • crossing •kick-boxing •rejoicing, voicing •conveyancing • embarrassing •videoconferencing •dashing, flashing, lashing, thrashing •square-bashing • tongue-lashing •lynching, unflinching •garnishing • furnishing • ravishing •Cushing •Flushing, gushing, unblushing •inrushing • onrushing

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"passing." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Encyclopedia.com. 25 Apr. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"passing." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 25, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/passing

"passing." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . Retrieved April 25, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/passing