The greatest gift parents can give their children is accepting them for who they are. Society is not a loving parent, however, and acceptance is a gift that it rarely bestows. There’s always a pecking order. For one group to be up, another group has to be down. People who are different are cast out, taunted, and molested. It’s like the high school mean girls all over again, except in the real world their vicious tongues and mastery of social exclusion have been enhanced with the power to create economic and political barriers and to enforce these artificial barriers with private and state-sanctioned violence.
The closet has existed for eons. It’s sheltered nominally converted Jews hiding from the Inquisition. It’s housed gays masquerading as straight. And during the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century, it was a refuge for blacks with light skin tones passing as white. Camouflage –racial, religious, social, and sexual—has been a strategy used by persecuted groups from time immemorial. It’s been effective in the sense that it’s kept people alive but at a terrible cost.
Before emancipation, escaping slaves sometimes passed as white to facilitate their journey North. The disguise led them to freedom, and they typically shed it once they reached safety. After Reconstruction and the hardening of the color line, passing became a means for blacks with lighter skins to avoid the onus of Jim Crow: the indignities and inequalities of segregation, daily slurs and taunts, closed economic opportunity, disenfranchisement, and threatened and actual violence. As blacks flowed into Northern cities during the Great Migration, the number of passers increased. Urban areas fostered anonymity, essential for maintaining secrecy and passing successfully. Estimates of the number of passers vary dramatically from a high of 30,000 passers per year to a low of 2,500 passers a year.
The urge to pass was fueled by a binary racial classification system. A person was either black or white, never mixed race. Some states adopted a one drop rule—one drop of black blood mandated a classification as black and an attendant loss of privileges. Other states used complex formulae.
Reactions to passing by those who remained in the black community were mixed. To some passing was a delightful prank played upon whites who insisted that they had foolproof methods for detecting race, including examinations of fingernails and palms. For others passing represented racial treachery.
Passing came with a costly price-tag: isolation, loss of community, ever-present fear of exposure, the strain of constant performance and never being oneself. Passing meant leaving black relatives behind. It meant worry that a child would be born with a darker skin tone. It meant silence in the teeth of racial slurs and jokes. It meant the surrender of black culture and hesitation about forming new relationships. As the twentieth century progressed, both black and white authors began to write about passing. In James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of An Ex-Colored Man, the eponymous character wonders whether by passing he has “sold his birthright for a mess of pottage.” In a poem entitled “Passing,” Langston Hughes sees the loss of community suffered by “the ones who’ve crossed the line to live downtown.” Nella Larsen explores racial identification, including passing, in her novel Passing. Edna Ferber’s Showboat features a biracial woman forced to leave the showboat after it is discovered that she has been passing.
After World War II, as focus shifted to the battle for civil rights, passing declined and disappeared. From 1949 to 1959, Hollywood rolled out three movies about passing: Imitation of Life, Pinky, and Lost Boundaries. Although ostensibly intended to highlight racial injustice, in each film, the passer is portrayed by a white or Hispanic actor. When you think about last year’s Oscars So White campaign, recall this fact, and remember that this slight followed decades of cinematic stereotyping, use of blackface, and depiction of blacks in subservient roles.
The current upsurge in bigotry diminishes hope that the mean girls, the ruling caste, will ever accept people for who they are. Prejudice begets many horrible consequences, and forcing people to deny themselves ranks high among them. The goal is acceptance. The obligation is to eliminate injustice. That starts with better understanding. Read The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. It’s eye-opening. It shouldn’t come as a surprise but, par for the course, the mean girls have gotten it wrong again.
For more, Allyson Hobbs, A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing In American Life (2014).
Thaddeus M. Davis, Introduction to Nella Larsen’s Passing, Penguin Books edition.