In the racial politics of North America, racial passing refers to a person classified by society as a member of one "racial" group choosing to identify with a different group, usually by appearance. The term was used especially in the US to describe a person of mixed-race heritage assimilating to the white majority.
US civil rights leader Walter Francis White (who was blond-haired, blue-eyed, and very pale skinned), the chief executive of the NAACP from 1929 until his death in 1955, was of mixed race and mostly white ancestry. Five of his great-great-great-grandparents were black and the other 27 were white. When he investigated lynchings and hate crimes in the South, he passed as white to gather information more freely and sometimes to protect himself in volatile environments.
Krazy Kat creator George Herriman was a Creole of partial African-American ancestry who claimed Greek heritage throughout his adult life. Other light-skinned African-Americans of mixed race, such as Fredi Washington, chose not to pass.
The writer and critic Anatole Broyard was a Louisiana Creole of mixed race, who chose to pass for white in his life in New York City and Connecticut. He married a woman of European descent. His wife and many of his friends knew he was partly black. In 2007 his daughter Bliss Broyard, who did not find out until after her father's death, published a memoir about her father and her exploration of family mysteries entitled One Drop: My Father's Hidden Life - A Story of Race and Family Secrets.
In the 19th and early 20th-centuries, some Americans of mixed race claimed Portuguese, Arab or Native American ancestry, to explain features and find a way through the binary racial divisions of society, especially in the South. In Louisiana, people of color who passed as white were referred to as passe blanc.
In a reversal of the usual pattern, some 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 he claimed to be. He claimed he was half Apache and half Scottish to explain European aspects of his appearance. A similar activist was Iron Eyes Cody, who was of Sicilian descent.
As of the 2000 census, one analyst has estimated that between 35,000 and 50,000 young adults who previously were identified by their parents as black, annually switch to identifying as white or Hispanic (Hispanic does not preclude identifying as black.) However, the statistical extrapolations are not conclusive.
There are several ways to measure such changes. The most straightforward is to ask high numbers of people how they "racially" self-identify, repeat the question every few years, and then count how many changed their answer from "Black" to something else. The Departments of Labor and of Health and Human Services do precisely this (along with many other questions) in longitudinal studies meant to track life-long earnings and health, respectively, of numerous 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 progress. Each year they are asked the same hundred or so questions. Between 1979 (when they were 14 to 22 years old) and 1998, 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 2000 census Black population of 36 million, this comes to about 35,000 individuals per year. 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 New World nations, the United States has more distinct populations genetically: one of mostly African ancestry, the other overwhelmingly European. All other New World nations that imported African slaves have unimodal Afro-European genetic admixture scatter diagrams. (Meaning that there is a range of different mixes of the two races showing frequent inter-group breeding, rather than the bimodal distribution wherein each group breeds only with other group members.)
Two-thirds of white Americans have no detectable African ancestry, chiefly because of the very high numbers of immigrants who arrived from the mid-19th century on. Also, the white population in the North was greater than that in the South, whereas the numbers of slaves were fewer. Some argue that one-third of white Americans do have detectable African DNA (averaging 2.3 percent). Other scholars question the validity of assigning racial labels to DNA.
A third approach is to use the rate found in Philadelphia at which European-looking children are born into the black community (one out of every 500). This could be 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. In addition, the margin of statistical error could bring this figure down to zero, or drive that number up even higher. Given the fact that numerous people in the black community of Philadelphia and other cities have some European ancestors, whose characteristics may become physically apparent in various generations, this seems a flawed exercise.
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 African-American 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 inflate the number to even higher levels. Several scholarsT refuted this methodology even in the 1940s. They argued that the number of blacks "passing" from 1930 to 1940 was very small, probably less than 2,600 per year. Mixed marriages have become more common as US society has become more diverse. And most historians know that in British North America, interracial marriage was far more common between 1607 and 1691 than in the centuries after 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, African Americans 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 intermarriage (since the 1955-65 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 seventeenth 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 (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 nineteenth-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" (jobs, school matriculation, etc) are voluntary. One can check off or write in whatever you want and, with one exception (EEOC claims), will face virtually no scrutiny.
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 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 USA's highly mobile society.
More notorious were the children born of white slaveholders or overseers and enslaved African American women. Southern states had ruled that children were born with the status of the mother, so unless the father took action to free the women and children, such children were born into slavery and stayed there. As social tensions increased about slavery, Southern society seemed more concerned with defining as black anyone who had any black ancestry, although even in the 1830s and 1840s, under some laws, such ancestry did not matter after the 4th generation. It was likely the linkage of race with slavery that made heritage such a concern. (See Who is African American?) People could not tell simply from appearances about a person's background, so they tried artificial means to determine "who they were".
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" on the Black side of the color line. All three elements are essential: (1) Some African ancestry, (2) predominantly European appearance, and (3) pretense or concealment of African ancestry. Stories about European slaves were not uncommon, even before the Reformation. But unless the character actually has some recent African ancestry, such stories are not of interest here. Similarly, an African slave who wears a mask or otherwise disguises as European-looking in order to escape captivity does not fall within this scope—only characters who 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, is not a tale of passing in this context.
Passing literature 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 "passing" literature (as defined by the three above elements) because they lack a one-drop rule of invisible Blackness. We shall return to this when we contrast U.S. and Mexican cinematic adaptations of Fannie Hurst's novel, Imitation of Life. The earliest non-fictional usage of the concept of passing, as defined by the above three elements (African ancestry, European appearance, pretense) was in advertisements for runaway slaves.
The earliest fictional use of the three-part concept was in the French novel Marie; ou, L'Esclavage aux États-Unis [Marie; or, Slavery in the United States] (Paris: 1835) by Gustave de Beaumont. It appears to be the first "passing" novel. Its narrator, Ludovic, falls in love with the title character, who turns out to have a touch of African ancestry through her Louisiana colored Creole grandparent. The novel describes the racial intolerance of the North with such lines as:
In Marie, the author does not agree with the views of his own 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 novels about passing in the above sense are Clotel; or, The President's Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States (1853) by William Wells Brown and The Garies and Their Friends (1857) by Frank J. Webb. William Wells Brown was a former slave and an established author who had published the autobiographical Narrative of William Wells Brown, a Fugitive Slave in 1847. Frank J. Webb, a freeborn African American, was a newcomer to the reading public. The two novels differ in several ways.
Clotel is 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 and 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 (including the acknowledged lifting of material from The Quadroons, an 1842 novel by Lydia Mary Child that is about miscegenation, not passing). Clotel lacks the unity customary to novels and seems disjointed to the modern reader. 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 nonetheless a member of the Black endogamous group. That the book was a success points at least to readers' anxiety about the issue.
The Garies and Their Friends is about life in freedom in the North, not about slavery in the South. Although it abounds in sub-plots (more than are customary in most modern novels), it is more tightly written than Clotel and its sub-plots either illuminate or advance the main narrative. 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 novels published by African Americans, 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 African Americans. 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. Others (usually defiant self-sacrificing Victorian men) 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." According to M. Giulia Fabi, the characters' lack of guilt "have had crippling repercussions on [the novels'] reception among scholars of African-American literature to this day." This is an example of using current attitudes and ideology to judge the past.
Southern attitudes towards Black-to-White passing changed after the Civil War, in part as conservative southern whites adopted stricter social rules and laws to try to restrict the newly freed slaves. They wanted to establish clear social dominance and white supremacy, which they succeeded in accomplishing by the end of the 19th century, with disfranchisement of most blacks and many poor whites.
The number of "passing" novels written by African Americans soared in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Charles W. Chesnutt, who was multiracial, explored issues in the lives of multiracial individuals with subtlety, showing how some were caught between societies, regardless of education and achievement. Although often set in the lower South, such novels were often written by northerners.
In the early decades of the 20th century, as millions of African Americans left the South in the extended Great Migration and became urban residents, there were new novels about passing. In a sense these reflected the social tensions of the uprooting and transfer of parts of southern society to northern and midwestern industrial cities. With everyone working to find new places for themselves, questions about who African Americans would become arose in the literature. Many portrayed passing as morally questionable, as if others in the community feared being left behind.
Among these are: Passing, a 1929 novel by Nella Larsen about a light-skinned African-American woman posing as white (ISBN 0-14-243727-1). (See Nella Larsen for a discussion.) 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 twice made into successful films by Universal Pictures, first in 1934, and later in 1959 (more about this later).
More than two generations later, and after the civil rights movement and many social changes, two recent novels explored issues of passing: Philip Roth's The Human Stain (ISBN 0-375-72634-9) (2000) and Scott Turow's Ordinary Heroes.
To be sure, some characters, such as Clare Kendry in Nella Larsen's Passing, seem comfortable with their position on the White side of America's endogamous color line. In the end, they received a 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 aspect of American life. The early twentieth 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 African-American 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 after the struggles of the civil rights movement and advances of the black community and individuals, scholarly interpretations have almost universally supported the authorial consensus that switching from an African-American ethnic identity to, say Irish-American, Italian-American, or Hispanic, is akin to treason. As one 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 dismay expressed by both Blacks and Whites of the early twentieth century toward passing is thought-provoking. Color-line permeability could be embraced by those wishing to oppose U.S. racialism. 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."
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 passing novel Imitation of Life. As mentioned above, the novel was filmed twice in the United States, in Imitation of Life (1934 film) with Claudette Colbert and again in Imitation of Life (1959 film) with Lana Turner. The 1948 Mexican version more closely reflects pre-one-drop attitudes that were common in the antebellum lower South, in the upper 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.
Angelitos Negros was directed by Joselito Rodríguez, starring Pedro Infante, Emilia Guiu, and Rita Montañer. The plot centers on a woman (Guiu), who does not know that she is actually the daughter of the maid (Montañer), who is visibly of part-African ancestry, and the wealthy European-looking landowner. Born blonde, she is brought up as the patron's daughter and never told the truth. Infante plays a famous, typically swarthy, Hispanic-looking singer who marries her. The crisis comes when their daughter is born with African features. She blames him and rejects the child. He raises the child on his own with the help of an Afro-Cuban female friend. In the end, the mother learns the truth of her own ancestry and the family is reconciled. According to Afro-Mexican director and scriptwriter Rodriguez, whose own daughter plays the child, the plot is based on the Fannie Hurst novel Imitation of Life.
Comparing Angelitos Negros with either U.S. version of Imitation of Life reveals why "passing" novels are unintelligible outside of the United States. In the American version of the story, the crisis comes when the "Sarah Jane" character faces a society (including her mother) who insist that she is "really Black". Her desperate attempts to re-define herself as White (she looks completely European, after all), drives her apart from her friends and family. The movie sees her as denying her "true heritage." After her mother's death she apparently comes to understand that she must be true to her "race," and abandon her life as a White woman to live among Blacks. This, in the United States, is presumably a happier ending than "living a lie", as one character puts it. The one-drop rule propaganda inherent in such an assumption belies all rational and quantifiable notions of racial classification.
In the Mexican version, no such issue ever arises. They are all Mexicans of varying degrees of genetic admixture, as most Mexicans are European and Amerindian. The crisis comes when a predominantly European-looking couple has a predominantly African-looking child. The plot plays out as a crisis of social status, not one of personal identity. The movie's theme, of course, is the colorism in Mexican society that makes a dark-complexioned, usually from Amerindian ancestry, child less welcome than one more fair. But no character ever questions his or her personal identity. They are all Mexicans. Everyone in the story knows and accepts that they are all of mixed heritage.
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 Academy 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.
Extensive research in the late 20th century in original colonial records has documented genealogies and migration patterns of many ancestors of these peoples. In work that has won awards, Paul Heinegg found that most free people of color in North Carolina in 1790 were descended from African Americans free in Virginia during the colonial period. Free African Americans, also called "free people of color" in early 19th century censuses (which had no designation for Indian) migrated to frontier areas in 18th century Virginia and other areas of the Chesapeake Bay Colony. Like their neighbors of European descent, after the American Revolution they migrated into North Carolina, Kentucky and Tennessee, and often further west. In frontier areas land was more affordable, and the people were often accepted by neighbors and were not as bound by racial divisions as in the plantation settlements. He found that 80 percent of the people listed as "other" or "free Negroes" and "free people of color" in North Carolina in censuses from 1790-1810 were descended from African Americans free in Virginia during the colonial period. Those were born mostly of relationships freely chosen between white women, free or indentured servants, and African or African American men, indentured servants, free or slave. Such relationships indicated the fluid nature of society before slavery became defined as a lifelong racial caste. Because the women were white, their children were born free. In addition, some slaves were freed as early as the mid-17th century, so had generations of descendants by 1800.
Early scholars of such groups thought they descended from Europeans, Africans who escaped from slavery, and Native Americans, who formed their own communities on the frontiers. The first comprehensive survey of these groups was made in 1948 and listed the following: listed:
Most of the above names were labels given by whites or blacks, not self-labels created by the multiracial communities themselves. Some members have considered such nicknames offensive.
The relatively isolated mixed-race communities are important to the study of people's moving from black to white across the color line because some formed a "racial escape hatch". In 1971, Carl Degler coined the term "mulatto escape hatch" to describe how Brazilian customs differed from those in the U.S. According to Degler, white Brazilians enjoyed the privileges of whiteness, including looking down on black Brazilians. This "colorism" resembled that of white American supremacy in the South during the Jim Crow era. On the other hand, many white Brazilians have black parents or grandparents and are proud to acknowledge their fractional African ancestry.
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.
This was somewhat similar to the growth of a mixed-race Creole class in Louisiana, especially in New Orleans before the US purchased the territory. In the early years of the French and Spanish colony, there were few European women. Men took enslaved or Native American women as wives or mistresses. In the Latin culture, the wealthy men often had their mixed-race sons educated in Europe or trained in skilled trades. Gradually a third caste evolved, of mixed-race Creoles. Creoles were often educated, and many became wealthy property owners themselves. They also formed a community of artisans in New Orleans. Beautiful young Creole women often became the official mistresses of white French colonists, who provided financial settlements for them and their children in a system known as plaçage.
Certainly there were many generations of mixed-race people in the American South. In the later 18th and 19th century, they were often the children of white fathers and enslaved women. Among the most famous or notorious were the slave children rumored born to Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, who herself was among the slave children sired by Jefferson's father-in-law John Wayles. Late 20th century DNA studies showed that at least one Hemings child was related to the Jefferson male line. Many historians believe that combined with other documentation, it is reasonable to believe that Jefferson sired all her children. Some people still dispute that conclusion.
The Civil War did not end relationships across color and ethnic lines. Although in the South, legislators created more strict legal divisions and segregation between whites and blacks in the Jim Crow era, people made their own arrangements. As under slavery, relationships often developed out of social dominance.
For instance, as a 22-year-old young man, US Senator Strom Thurmond had an affair with Carrie "Tunch" Butler, the 16-year-old black maid to his family. She bore his daughter Essie Mae Washington-Williams. Thurmond provided some support and paid for Butler's education. His daughter did not discuss their relationship until after his death.