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Passing (racial identity)

Racial passing occurs when a person classified as a member of one racial group is accepted as a member of a racial group other than their own. Historically, the term has been used primarily in the United States to describe a person of color or multiracial ancestry who has assimilated 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.


In the United StatesEdit

Passing for whiteEdit

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

To fully understand how some black people are able to pass as white, one must acknowledge the rape of slave women at the hands of white plantation owners.[1] Although Anti-miscegenation laws outlawing racial intermarriage existed in America as early as 1664,[2] 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."[3] Although the aforementioned mixed-race people were often half-white or more, institutions of hypodescent and the one drop rule classified them as black, and therefore, inferior. This is where passing as white comes into play. Black people with lighter complexions and straighter hair sometimes used this racial ambiguity to pass as white and 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] Although reasons behind passing are deeply individual, the history of African Americans passing as white can be categorized into the following time periods: the antebellum era, post-emancipation, reconstruction through Jim Crow, and present day.[5]

Antebellum AmericaEdit

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, racial ambiguity acted as 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. And if they were caught, white passing slaves like 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. In "The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man," by James Weldon Johnson, the narrator closes the novel by saying "I have sold my birthright for a mess of pottage,"[10] 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 holds true to this day.[11]

Reconstruction through Jim CrowEdit

During the reconstruction era, black people slowly gained the constitutional rights of which they were deprived during slavery. Although they would not gain full constitutional equality for another century when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, reconstruction promised African Americans equality for the first time. However, abolishing slavery did not abolish racism. Reconstruction quickly ushered in the Jim Crow era and with it, segregation and the Ku Klux Klan.[12] Here, passing comes back into play because of 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.[13] 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."[14] 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.[15] People also chose to pass for good during Jim Crow and beyond. Becoming white is much more controversial now: it is often seen as a rejection of blackness, family and culture.[16] [17]

Present Day PassingEdit

The US civil rights leader Walter Francis White (who was blond-haired, blue-eyed, and very fair) was of mixed-race background, mostly European ancestry, as 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 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 not be 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.

In 21st-century intersectional discourse, the term "white-passing" refers to someone who identifies as a person of color but benefits from white privilege due to their appearance.

Passing as indigenous AmericansEdit

Portrait of Archibald Belaney, who reinvented himself as Grey Owl. taken by Yousuf Karsh in 1936. Born in England, he went to Canada and lived with First Nations people, passing as part Native American for many years.

In a limited reversal of the usual pattern, some people of European ancestry have chosen to pass as members of other races.[18][19][20]

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".[21]

The author and 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 performed what he said were Ojibwe traditions and wilderness skills, and adopted an anachronistic and stereotypical lifestyle, as part of a persona which he was very successful in marketing to non-Native audiences.[22]

The United States actor Iron Eyes Cody, who was of Sicilian descent, developed a niche in Hollywood by playing roles of Native Americans. Initially only playing Indians in movies and television, eventually he wore his film costumes full-time and insisted he actually was Cherokee and Cree.[23][24]

European-American authors and artists who have notably attempted to pass as being indigenous include Ku Klux Klan leader and segregationist speech writer, Asa Earl Carter, who attempted to reinvent himself as Cherokee author Forrest Carter, author of the novel The Education of Little Tree.[18][25]

In the United States, Jimmie Durham was exposed as a fraud who was posing as a Cherokee artist.[26]

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.[27][28][29]

Artist Yeffe Kimball claimed to be Osage.[30]

Professor and activist Ward Churchill, who advocated for American Indian rights, claimed to be Cherokee-Muscogee Creek. His claims were rejected by both tribes.[31][32][33] He was fired in 2007 from the University of Colorado.[34]

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".[35] She previously taught at Dartmouth, Bowdoin College, and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.[36][37]

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 artists to be enrolled members of a state or federally recognized tribe in order to claim to be a Native American artist.

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.[38]

Passing as African American and other racesEdit

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".[39] 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.[40] 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.[41] 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.[42]

John Roland Redd was an African-American musician who was 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.[43][44][45]

New Zealand actors of Māori descent working in the American film industry—such as Cliff Curtis and Temuera Morrison—are frequently called on to play Hispanic roles. Curtis has appeared as a Mexican or Latino characters in at least half a dozen feature films, among them Fracture, Colombiana, Last Knights, Runaway Jury, Blow, and Live Free or Die Hard.

Other countriesEdit

Passing as "Aryan"Edit

For Jews in Nazi Germany, passing as "Aryan" or white and non-Jewish was a means of survival. 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."[46] People who were "visibly Jewish"[47] 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.[48] 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."[49][50]

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.

Treatment in popular cultureEdit


  • 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 Proclamation; many of the slaves 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.
  • Fannie Hurst's 1933 bestselling novel, Imitation of Life, includes the character Peola, a light-skinned African-American girl who rejects her darker-skinned mother in order to pass for white. The novel became the basis for two major motion pictures of the same name (see Film).
  • Boris Vian's 1946 pulp fiction novel, J'irais cracher sur vos tombes, describes the story of Lee Anderson, a White passing African American man who infiltrates a White community by charm and seduction in order to take violent revenge for the lynching of his Emmett Till-like little brother. The novel was extremely controversial and even banned, and is quite an insightful window into US race relations.
  • Ray Sprigle, a white journalist, disguised himself as black and travelled in the Deep South with John Wesley Dobbs, a guide from the NAACP. Sprigle wrote a series of articles under the title I Was a Negro in the South for 30 Days. The articles formed the basis of Sprigle's 1949 book In the Land of Jim Crow.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • The Human Stain (2000) is a novel by Philip Roth featuring a professor of classics, a light-skinned African-American man, who spent his adult professional life passing as a Jewish-American intellectual.
  • 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".[51]
  • 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.
  • In the film Band of Angels (1957), starring Clark Gable, Yvonne de Carlo and Sidney 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
  • 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 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 1996 film, A Family Thing, features a white man Robert Duvall who finds when his mother dies that she was not actually his biological mother. His natural mother was black and died as she gave birth to him. He also finds he has a black half brother (James Earl Jones), who is a policeman, and maternal aunt. Everyone has a lot to come to terms with.
  • 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 seen as white 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",[52] 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 "Are You Now or Have You Ever Been", the second episode of season 2 of the television show Angel (October 3, 2000), actress Melissa Marsala plays Judy Kovacs, a bank robber on the lam who is passing.[53][54] The episode takes place in 1952 and introduces the Hyperion Hotel as a setting for the show.
  • 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" (March 29, 2009), 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.[55]
    • Similarly, the third season episode "Colors" (October 16, 2005) (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, entitled "Blood" (November 19, 1997), features a rich African American who has been passing for white for his entire adult life in order to first get a corporate job in the South and then to maintain his career. 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.
  • The sitcom Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (2015–present) features Jacqueline White, a Lakota Native American woman who passes for white. She is played by white actress Jane Krakowski, which has drawn some criticism.[56][57][58]


  • Racial passing is a recurring theme in American artist Adrian Piper's work. For example, in her 1988 visual performance piece Cornered, Piper states "I'm black" and explains that this statement may surprise her audience because Piper, who is a light-skinned African American, could pass as white.[59]

See alsoEdit


Racial groupsEdit


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  23. ^ "Iron Eyes", Snopes
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Further readingEdit

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

External linksEdit