Sunday, March 7, 2010

Passing: Definition and Commentary

In today’s world, it seems as though everyone “passes” as something different from what they truly are. However, in reference to the “passing” described in Nella Larson’s novel, the concept challenged the rigidly defined racial boundaries of American Society. Thus, racial passing was defined as a person belonging to a specific racial group (usually African- American) choosing to identify with another group (Caucasian). With this definition established, it is interesting to see how the concept of “passing” correlates with the general theme of our class, “queer modernism”. In the early 20th century, people who escaped the structure of defined racial categories by switching between various groupings were very similar to those who resisted sexual orientation classification. This is an interesting way to relate two of the major terms in our course.

With the tense race relations in the South, it was common for African Americans to claim their unique features as being attributed to Mediterranean, Arab, or Native American heritage. Segregation laws as well as the “one-drop rule” caused light skinned African Americans to pass into white society. While searching for examples of “passing” on the Internet, I found a very interesting link to the Moritz Law Journal that discussed former professor and Dean Gregory Howard Williams. At the age of 10, he became aware of his father’s African- American heritage. An interesting quote from the moment when he found out that his father had been passing from his autobiography entitled, Life on the Color Line: The True Story of a White Boy Who Discovered He Was Black, is as follows:

I never had heard anything crazier in my life! How could Dad tell us such a mean lie? I glanced across the aisle to where he sat grim-faced and erect, staring straight ahead. I saw my father as I had never seen him before. The veil dropped from his face and features. Before my eyes he was transformed from a swarthy Italian to his true self—a high-yellow mulatto. My father was a Negro! We were colored! After ten years in Virginia on the white side of the color line, I knew what that meant.

Gregory Howard Williams was the Dean as well as distinguished professor at Moritz Law School at The Ohio State University. He also helped the school gain national recognition and prestige. Former President Bill Clinton has nationally recognized him as an advocate for diversity in many universities and law offices nationwide.

Author Randall Kennedy argues that the concept of passing involves a person fully aware of his African-American heritage in which he or she is consciously trying to hide it. Kennedy’s listed statistics range greatly from 5 million to 110,000 people who would pass into white society during the middle twentieth century.

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* Image and Info from :


  1. This makes me think of a series on on "The Illusion of Race." The website explores the facets of human diversity and shows how race is really an arbitrary thing among humans, but society creates constructs to regulate and acknowledge race besides just a difference in skin color. There is also a game of "Sorting People" into different categories based on their appearance alone, which shows us how we classify people on a first glance, and then it goes on to explain how this process was how the US government classified people up until 1965. It's a very difficult "game," and I was wrong for about 75% of people on the first try. This man discovered that he actually had an African American heritage even though he had thought he was white. It's impossible to believe how many people this must be the case for, with the huge numbers of people who "passed" who never revealed their true racial identity to their spouses or children.

  2. The previous comment was by Rachel (masterswarm).

  3. Rachel,

    I am pretty sure we used that website in a sociology class I took freshman year! I also took a class on Brazilian Politics, and it is very interesting because in Brazil they have about 100+ categories of racial classification. Thanks for your comments! "Passing" is a very interesting topic!


  4. We used that website in my 463 Soc class last quarter. And I was in Mack Hall today and they had pictures from that website up on their first floor bulletin board.

    In more direct response to the post, I did Passing for my Annotated Bibliography and one of my favorite essays I read was about how interpretations of the book and use of the word passing have changed as our perceptions of the word passing has changed. For example, the tendency to read passing in reference to sexual identity has only come about because that's how we most commonly use the word now. I thought that was really interesting and Foucault-ish.
    Thoughtful post, Laura.

  5. There were pictures from that website on the first floor bulletin board in Mack because I'm the RA on that floor. Hahaha thanks for noticing, Meg! :)