To Pass or Not To Pass

The longing to belong to a certain group, social class, or race, can make people act drastically. In life, people always want to come out on top and pass as better people when compared to the next person. It is just human nature and the constant need to be admired and marveled at promotes this tendency and feeds the soul and depth of wanting to be better than everyone else around. Many studies have associated this behavior with man’s big ego that never gets satisfied (Allport). Such tendencies have caused numerous rifts and feuds throughout history and even more now in the 21st century. This paper will review both the works of Larson and Hobbs and have an in-depth discussion centered on Racial Passing (racial identity).

What is Racial Passing?

Racial passing is an act that goes back to the 1920s, a period marked with deep anxiety, racial boundaries and unfair treatment, all promoted by the “color line” between Blacks and Whites in the USA. During this period, there was a great migration as hundreds of thousands of Blacks left the rural South for urban northern and mid-western cities. For them to be accepted as part of the communities they moved to, Blacks had to identify as White like the rest of the people around them. Thus, this practice of passing the ‘color line’ and attempting to claim being recognized in another racial group that was different from the one the person was believed to belong to became known as ‘passing’.

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The main question might arise as to what made “Passing” so popular and appealing to many. The main culprit behind this might be the one-drop rule. The one-drop rule states that any person who had even one ancestor of Sub-Saharan-African ancestry is considered to be Black.

In 2008, the USA got its first ever African-American president Barack Obama. Racially, Obama is classified as a Black person. Originally, he is of mixed lineage, born of a White mother and a Black African father. According to classifications and biology, Barack Obama should rightfully be a Mulatto. In her book, A Chosen Exile: History of Racial Passing in American Life, Hobbs states that those “who were able to pass for Whites used this strategy to escape the bondage they were born into- by ‘performing’ Whiteness.”

The book written by Hobbs does not trade carefully but it rather opens a can of worms in its exploration. A study conducted by Jones includes six biographical chapters written after a deep research work. Jones notes that these biographies presents the “myth of race”, which “can be best understood through an examination of the lives that have been defined by it” (299).

Based on a review of American history and the book written by Jones as well as the article “A Dreadful Deceit: The Myth of Race from the Colonial Era to Obama’s America” in the The American Historical Review, one can say that there are presently extremely different arguments that currently circulate in American history. A large number of research work has been done founded upon these different arguments. The two arguments stand as follows. The first argument is that America relies on race heavily. Based on this argument, the issue of racial passing is a serious one, and it is far from ending. The traditional contrary indications that stand in racial categories will be questioned from time to time but they remain unchanged. In Hobbs’ book, the reader is to understand that America is based on the teachings and beliefs of the founding fathers. The colonial era is what started and set the racial bar to begin with. Thus, the color determined how one lived. It was the color of the skin that determined the respect one would receive and give, types of work eligible for, and status in society as well as the day to day survival. The reader must understand that it was through racial passing that people of color where able to escape from the dire background and poor conditions.

Hobbs states that, “passing was imbricated with strivings for freedom.” This was done during the pre-civil war era where a significant number of mixed-race Americans ‘passed’ as Whites. With this freedom of being ‘passed’ as White, many mulattos found out that they could escape their dire living conditions and poor backgrounds. This was a ticket to a better life. Today, the argument still stands as whether racial passing is a ticket to a better life-style.

Hobbs conducted deep research for her book. During the research, she found out that most of those who decided to ‘pass’ as White often lived in abject anger, regret and, at times, with emotional scars from having to changed their entire lifestyles. According to Shook, Catherine Clinton found out that “those who masqueraded as White, scarred more than just themselves.” This is true even today due to the fact that when one ‘passes,’ they live behind their former identity, life, and family.

Although most can easily argue that no one is forced to ‘pass’, the process goes deeper than that. Due to the one-drop rule, as a mulatto person, when one is brought up, one’s paternal or maternal family would have already chosen which racial side they fall under. Thus, it makes it hard for the one who ‘passes’ to just cut ties with their former family and lifestyle. Many things happen when one leaves one’s family, roots, and traditions behind and go out to start another.

In the 21st century, this is still a big matter because of the fact that people still have to come to terms with the fact that races are still unequal in a so called equal country. Wald explains that even in the 20th century, there remains a very strong racial order in the USA, a country that is supposedly a world leader and powerhouse. Kennedy argues that ‘passing’ was not a favor done to anyone or a good thing to be envious of as most people saw it and still see it today. If anything, ‘passing’ is a deceptive self-belittling move that allows one to adopt roles and certain benefits initially barred by social standards in a broken setup set by oppressive people.

Racial passing can qualify as being suddenly White with numerous complications to one’s life. In the book, Hobbs tells a story of Harry Murphy, a cadet who enlisted with the University of Mississippi in 1945 and the recruiter ticked White under the racial box for Murphy. The entire year, Murphy attended an all-White school but no one knows the battles he had to go through in such a setting. The book goes on to give motivational stories about great people, including Albert Johnstone who decided to keep his racial background private; thus he and his family were able to live a peaceful and meaningful life in their New Hampshire home.

The stories documented in Chosen Exile are able to give the reader a glimpse of what life was like for those who had decided to change their racial status from Black to White. A not so distance story of a chosen exile is that of Michael Jackson (Anton). Michael Jackson did not have the option to pass as White because he was not born as White but he was full Black African-American. As the Jackson 5 lead vocalist and performer, he outgrew the group and became his own person. As Michael Jackson the artist became a sensational household name, however he was still Black. Thus, he underwent several plastic surgeries in order to become White. According to Anton, Jackson story is that of an artist limited to race and ethnicity. Michael Jackson story is documented as a story of racism and discrimination. With the help of money and advanced technological surgeries, Jackson underwent numerous surgeries so that he could ‘pass’ as White despite the success he had already made as a Black pop artist.

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The story of Michael Jackson and those like him can be best explained and revealed by the novel Passing written by Larsen. The novel draws its theme and name from the common practice of racial ‘passing’. The novel is based on two childhood friends Clare Kendry and Irene Redfield both of mixed-raced origin. The novel is marred with tragic events that follow after Clare Kendry ‘passes’ as White after getting married to Jack Bellew, a White man. Although the story of the two mulatto friends in Passing can be classified as a work of fiction, there is no denying the fact that the relationship between Clare Kendry and Jack Bellew is highly similar to that of Alice Beatrice Jones, a mulatto woman married to Leonard Kip Rhinelander.

After being legally married for a while, Rhinelander sued his wife for failure to reveal her ‘colored’ blood. Jones had never seen it as an issue for her to discuss her race beforehand. This might have been hugely depended on the fact that interracial dating was marked as a taboo during the colonial era (“Interracial Relationships”). This was also the period when most colored people crossed the color line. Thus, Jones might have been afraid of facing either rejection or having to cross the color line. Supported by his family, Rhinelander filed for divorce, thus making himself and his wife go through a lot of public scrutiny.

In Larson’s novel, passing has several different fronts and it is presented in different roles. The two friends Clare and Irene who both grew up together in Harlem meet at the Drayton Hotel, Whites only hotel. Both ladies are light-skinned and they can pass for White people. For Clare, being White is not just anything that she picks up on the street and wears when she feels like it. She has built here entire life on the lie that she has managed to skip, she is under the illusion that she is all-White. Irene occasionally passes as White when the time, opportunity, and benefits are just right. During a tea chat with both Clare and her husband Jack, Irene finds out that Clare has hidden her ‘colored’ blood line entirely. The husband is a raging racist who will not go anywhere near anyone who is not pure-bred White. Together with Gertrude, Irene’s other friend, Clare and Irene pass as White and start spending more time together. The novel Passing becomes more of a thriller as the adrenaline is in the ladies not allowing Jack to check on their ‘Black’ ancestry. Clare starts spending more time with Irene and her Black friends, and she enjoys this and gets in touch with her Black side.

This ‘cursed’ secret becomes difficult to spend, given that the book is set during the times when the Whites fought against the mulattos passing as White. Clare and the girls attend a party, and Jack comes charging down seeking to talk to Clare. Left alone in a room with Jack, Clare falls through a window and plunges to her death. Clare’s death in the book is of great significance. The significance is that once one ‘passes’ as White, there is no going back. In Clare’s case, once she was discovered and associated as being Black, there was no going back. The ‘no-going-back’ point is clearly indicated by her untimely death.

Being mulatto and having to ‘pass’ for White has tragic consequences. In the novel, these consequences are depicted by having Clare Kendry to ‘pass’ as White. Just as expected, Clare has to ‘pass’ as White in order for her and her husband to be officially recognized as a couple.

Larson uses Clare’s character to discuss the betrayal and feeling of betrayal, disappointment, anger at having to turn one’s back on their black identity. Racial passing is the biggest form of going against the status quo. When the status quo states that one can have what one wants in limitations set by those in power, the only way to be able to enjoy the socio-economic benefits is to evade the status quo and leave one’s Black identity behind for the White one which comes with significant benefits. Racial passing can be seen as an act marked by sadness and loneliness since one leaves their family and former identity behind. However, for those who do not get emotionally involved easily, racial passing can be the best way of leaving behind the previous garbage and starting from clean slate.

The issue of racism and oppression has never favored the Black race; hence those who decide to ‘pass’ as Whites think for their future generations and the benefits ahead. It will already be half way done when one decides to get a new identity. The concept of racial ‘passing’ is one that most people can easily ignore and say that America is now an equal country. This is far from the truth. The issue of racial ‘passing’ is not a simple racial matter. It goes beyond the depth of one’s thoughts about their race and lies more within their psychological status. In modern America, the issue of ‘passing’ has shifted from that mostly focused on race, and has moved to that of homosexuals ‘passing’ as straight people. It is still a big issue to come out and admit that one is a homosexual person, even more so as a person of color (Dunn).

According to Pepomint, there are very few benefits associated with being a homosexual in America, and these benefits are even fewer for people of color. This has seen a new wave of people changing and moving from being homosexual behind closed doors to being straight out in the open. The pain and being made subject that comes along with being a homosexual is too much for most people and thus they chose to ’pass’ as straight. Therefore, it is incorrect to attribute ‘passing’ to racism but rather it should be attributed to prejudice and human ego. The main reasons for speaking about ‘passing’ are based on social economic factors. However, ‘passing’ is more than socio-economic factors. It is the components that holds one’s family tree in heritage together or destroys it fully.

In the novel Passing the issue of homosexuality is briefly touched on. The relationship between Irene and Clare is hinted on as being more than just childhood friends. Irene has a sparkle in her eyes each time she talks about Clare and the way that she describes Clare’s beauty shows that there is more than just friendship between the ladies. Thus, the novel depicts Irene as having to ‘pass’ under a different identity not just with her race but also sexual orientation.

In conclusion, people are bound to ‘pass’ for a higher economic class, better social status and even a readily accepted sexual orientation due to several factors. The most delicate and ever present factor is an individual’s physicality. The subject of ‘passing’ is a raw one that keeps on changing faces. The most notorious forms of ‘passing’ being homosexuality and racial ‘passing’. The dire socio-economic conditions and other factors contribute to one having to ‘pass’ as being who or what they are not but ultimately, it is the human conscious and ego which drives people to ‘pass’.

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