Why Do People Pass?: The Complex Journeys of Belonging and Identity in America
November 07, 2017
By Brando Skyhorse and Lisa Page
America has a long and complicated history of passing. We’re familiar with the stories of African Americans who passed as white in the past in order to improve their social mobility. Nowadays, we are hearing a variety of personal experiences about passing that transcends additional modes of identity—class, religion, gender, sexuality, and more. Writers Brando Skyhorse and Lisa Page have brought together some of these stories in their new essay anthology We Wear the Mask: 15 True Stories of Passing in America. As they point out in the introduction of the book, excerpted below, there have always been many ways in which people pass, and many reasons to do so.
In June 2015 a surprising number of Americans stopped to gawk at a thirty-seven-year-old “African American” woman named Rachel Dolezal who, after an almost decade-long act, was outed by her parents as a white woman who chose to pass as black. The national response, culminating in a Today show appearance, was extreme. Some were outraged by her deception, while others drew parallels between her right to live her “truth” the same way Caitlyn Jenner embodies hers.
Rachel—or “#BlackRachel” as she trended online—never once “broke character.”
Later that month, the Daily Beast reported on Andrea Smith, an Anglo woman and esteemed professor of Native American studies at the University of California, Riverside, who presented as Cherokee for over twenty years. She had a long history of American Indian activism and published articles and books purporting to speak on Indian issues as an American Indian despite not a trace of Indian ancestry being found after two rounds of genealogical research.
If you’re looking for historical precedent, how about jazz clarinetist Mezz Mezzrow? A middle-class Jewish kid from Chicago, he married a black woman, moved to Harlem, self-identified in the 1940s as a “white Negro” and was listed by his draft board as “Negro.” His understanding of being a black American was an odd brew of sincere cultural musical appreciation and promoting the oversimplified “shuck and jive” stereotypes. Go back further and you’ll find Clarence King, a nineteenth-century blue-eyed white scientist and best-selling author who thrilled in “slumming.” For thirteen years, King passed as a black Pullman porter, complete with a black common-law wife and five mixed-race children.
American history is filled with innumerable examples like these. Why, then, did “#BlackRachel” fascinate and outrage so many of us? The answer lies in the complex phenomenon of passing.
“Passing,” as Brando Skyhorse notes in his essay, “is when someone tries to get something tangible to improve their daily quality of life by occupying a space meant for someone else.”
Many Americans believe—or insist—our country operates on a color-blind system of meritocratic fairness. Others feel they’ve been victimized by a system that belittles or erases them. Passing is problematic because it’s a hack on a racially biased societal construct that shouldn’t exist. People who can pass are racial “one percenters,” who by “cheating” the system win access to the specific life they want, the ultimate form of assimilation, the pure embodiment of the American Dream.
Why do people pass? The reasons are manifold: opportunity, access, safety, adventure, agency, fear, trauma, shame. Some pass to advance themselves or their loved ones to what they perceive is a better quality of life. Others are passed on by gatekeepers, who see in the person they’re passing some kind of kinship, an element that says, “You’re like me. And now, you belong.”
Passing is an intensely personal issue for both editors of this book. One of us, Brando Skyhorse, is a Mexican American who passed as an American Indian for over twenty-five years. He passed as an Indian because his mother, Maria Teresa, who was afflicted with borderline personality disorder, asked him to. Unlike Rachel and Andrea, who are white, his mother was a Mexican American woman who “reinvented” herself as an American Indian named Running Deer and lived that way for decades. He was her unknowing, and then, when he was old enough to understand the lie, willing accomplice in acting Indian.
Our other editor, Lisa Page, is a woman whose black great-grandmother passed for white in Mississippi, to get a college education. Lisa’s white mother also passed, as a woman without biracial children. She was ashamed of her interracial marriage and hid her children’s ethnicity during the last years of her life.
Each of the fifteen writers in this collection had to wrestle with serious questions in their own specific way: Have they passed as someone they were not? What was their agenda? What did they gain and lose from the experience? Were they worried about stoking feelings of resentment toward a specific community? Was it selfish pity by proxy? Were they mining the plight of other marginalized individuals or trying to rescue themselves from their own marginalized groups? How did each of these authors play on stereotypes (or sympathies) to pass? How did they feel about passing when they didn’t intend to? Have they written about passing before and, if so, has their thinking about it evolved over time?
Our writers have been fearless on these pages in how they explored fluid identities, code switching, and assimilation. They share how passing transcends race, religion, ethnicity, and various kinds of orientation. Patrick Rosal, who writes about being mistaken for the help at the National Book Awards, asked if we had considered disability passing. Ashamed of his hearing impairment, Rosal realized he was pretending his tinnitus didn’t exist and was passing as a man without hearing loss. Once you acknowledge how prevalent passing is, you’re liable to spot variations of it everywhere.
Since the 2008 economic downturn, class passing is rampant. Gender and sexuality passing continues to evolve. Racial and ethnic passing is far more complicated than the old stories of crossing the color line for a job opportunity. Passing is a part of how many Americans survive, but it also brings inherent risks. One of our favorite lines from this collection is from Gabrielle Bellot: “Passing, like prettiness, is a privilege; passing, like prettiness, can also be a peril, if someone believes we are deceiving them.” What we hope you’ll realize from these essays is that, whether you’ve been conscious of it or not, passing is a privilege all of us have indulged in at some point. People make assumptions about us based on stereotypes, context, environment. When we don’t correct these ideas, either because we genuinely like the assumptions someone’s made about us, or because explaining the truth could humiliate, or infuriate, whoever’s making these assumptions, we “pass.” We misrepresent ourselves in classrooms or at airports, on Facebook and at dinner parties. Maybe we haven’t reached Rachel Dolezal’s level of racial performance, which incorporated hair weaves and skin tanners, but each of us sometimes employs misdirection to let someone jump to a different conclusion about who we are.
“Passing,” Bellot observes, “is a thing with wings, fins, and ghost-light feet, a thing that follows me everywhere.” When someone asks one of our contributors—and it is a question each one of us has been asked—“What are you?” or “Who are you?”— you’ll see that “Who do you think I am?” isn’t a defiant or glib retort. Read these essays, then ask yourself: How would I answer?
About the Authors
Brando Skyhorse is the author of Take This Man: A Memoir and a novel, The Madonnas of Echo Park, which received the PEN/Hemingway Award. He is associate professor of English at Indiana University in Bloomington. Follow him on Twitter at @brandoskyhorse and visit his website.
Lisa Page directs the creative writing program at George Washington University where she is assistant professor of English. Her work has appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review, American Short Fiction, the Crisis, Playboy, and the Washington Post Book World.