Passing (racial identity)

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Main article: Passing (sociology)

Racial passing occurs when a person classified as a member of one racial group is also accepted as a member of a different racial group. The term was used especially in the U.S. to describe a person of mixed-race heritage assimilating 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.

Examples in the United States[edit]

In the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, some Americans of mixed European and African ancestry passing for white often claimed Southern European, Eastern European, Arab, or Native American ancestry to explain skin color and features differing from typical White Americans of British, Irish or German descent. They were trying to find a way through the binary racial divisions of society, especially in the South, where slavery became closely tied in the colonial era to the foreign status of people of African descent, which prevented them from being considered English subjects. In the 18th and 19th centuries, most free people went by appearance. If they looked white, were accepted by neighbors and fulfilled community obligations, they were absorbed into white or European-American society. Late 19th-century Jim Crow state laws establishing segregation in public facilities, and early 20th-century state laws establishing the "one-drop rule" for racial classification (as in Virginia in 1924), were examples of whites attempting to impose regulations of hypodescent, that is, classifying someone as black based on any black ancestry. Then someone who identified by appearance and majority ancestry might be described as "passing" for white. In Louisiana, people of color who passed as white were referred to as "passe blanc".

The US civil rights leader Walter Francis White (who was blond-haired, blue-eyed, and very fair) was of mixed-race, mostly European ancestry, as 27 of his 32 great-great-great-grandparents were white; 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 (of partial African-American ancestry) 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 blacks, 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.

Barack Obama's maternal grandmother, Madelyn Payne, probably was partially descended from African John Punch, who was an indentured servant/slave in seventeenth-century colonial Virginia. Some of his descendants gradually married white, as was the case in Payne's line. [1][2]

Passing as indigenous Americans[edit]

Portrait of 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.[3][4][5] The environmentalist Grey Owl was a white British man named Archibald Belaney, rather than First Nations as he claimed to be. He claimed he was half Apache and half Scottish to explain European aspects of his appearance. He learned the Ojibwa languages and ways, and lived fully with them as a man of nature.

The United States actor Iron Eyes Cody, who was of Sicilian descent, created a niche by playing roles of Native Americans. He had claimed American Indian heritage to get work.[6] European-American authors and artists who have notably attempted to pass as being Native American include Asa Earl Carter, who claimed to be Cherokee;[3][7] Ward Churchill, who claimed to be Cherokee-Muscogee Creek;[8][9][10] Jamake Highwater, who claimed to be Cherokee-Blackfeet;[11][12][13] and Yeffe Kimball, who claimed to be Osage.[14]

U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren, a former law professor at Harvard, has claimed some Native American ancestry. It is disputed as to whether she used this to pass as Native American to claim any status or advantage.[15]

To address the issue of non-native peoples posing as Native American artists, the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 was passed in the United States, requiring artists to be enrolled in a state or federally recognized tribe to make the claim of being a Native American artist.

During the New Age movement, non-native peoples sometimes passed as Native American medicine people. The pejorative term for such people is "plastic shaman."

Other examples[edit]

During World War II in Nazi Germany and the rest of Europe, some Jewish people who looked "Aryan" (based on fair coloring and other features) passed as "Aryan" to save their lives, and to avoid shipment by the Nazis to concentration and death camps. An extreme example is the story of Edith Hahn Beer. Hahn 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.[16]

Examples of racial passing have been used by people to assimilate to groups other than European, but does not have the same history. For example, 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."[17][18]

Treatment in American literature and popular culture[edit]


  • 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 for who he is, and dies of tuberculosis and despair.
  • 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 only one-sixteenth black; in order to avoid being sold down the river, she decides to switch her own baby (who is only 1/32 black) and a white baby she is caring for. Her own baby, Tom, who passes for white, is raised as a spoiled aristocrat, but when his true identity becomes known, 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 of slaves, many of whom were mixed race because of white men having taken sexual advantage of slave women.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • The Human Stain (2000) is a novel by Philip Roth featuring a professor of classics, a man of Creole mixed-race ancestry, who spent his adult professional life passing as a European-American Jewish intellectual.
  • 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.
  • 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".[citation needed]
  • 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.


  • 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 is accepted 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.
  • Pinky was a 1949 Academy Award-winning film on the topic.
  • The 1959 remake of the 1934 film, Imitation of Life, featured the character Sarah Jane, who has mixed ancestry and is accepted as white.
  • The 1960 film I Passed for White features an African-American character who is accepted as white because of her appearance (related to 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.
  • 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 undergoes racial transformation 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 where her race is an important factor.
  • The 2000 TV movie, A House Divided, tells about a mixed-race woman in the South who could pass as white, and whose mother was a slave. When her white father tries to will his property to his mixed-race daughter, the family ran afoul of local laws forbidding property ownership by blacks (the younger woman became defined by her mother's slave status and racial caste).
  • 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 accepted 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, and using a rape defense to the accusation of murder.
  • The 2007 documentary short, Black/White & All That Jazz, tells the story of singer-actor Herb Jeffries, who identified as "a man of color"; 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 whom the audience believed was 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 went in Europe, passing as white, fact that enrages 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",[19] 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 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", 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, PA. He has not told them he is a Louisiana Creole.[20]
    • Similarly, the third season episode "Colors" (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 titled "Blood" features a rich African-American who has been passing for white for his entire life in order to enter the most elitist circles 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.

United States: Tri-racial isolates[edit]

Many communities of mixed-racial heritage are scattered throughout the eastern United States. They were called tri-racial isolate groups by anthropologists because in some areas they had quite cohesive group identities and for decades married within the community. They were always formed in relation to the larger communities, however. Members often claimed to have Amerindian/Native American and European ancestry, although some were also identified in early years as Arab to explain physical characteristics that made them look different from mostly European neighbors. Myths arose about their origins, including links to Turks, the Lost Colony of Roanoke, and early Native American tribes. Most of the stories have not been supported by any historic documentation.

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 and 1810 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 American 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 after 150 years had generations of descendants by 1800, the turn of the 19th century.[21]

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:[22] listed:

Most of the above names were labels given by whites or blacks, not terms created by the multiracial communities. 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". Members increasingly married into and identified with the European-American majority community in the area.

Creoles and mixed race[edit]

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. 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. This enabled them to have their children educated.

Certainly there were many generations of mixed-race people in the American South. In the later 18th and 19th centuries, they were often the children of white planter fathers and enslaved women. Among the most famous were the multiracial slave children born to Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings from their long relationship after he became a widower. Hemings was mixed-race, as was her enslaved mother Betty Hemings. The daughter of a slave woman and an English sea captain, Betty became the longtime mistress of Jefferson's father-in-law John Wayles after he became a widower for the third time, and had several children with him.

In 1998, DNA studies showed that the descendants of Eston Hemings, Sally's youngest son, were related to the Jefferson male line. Most historians, the National Genealogical Society, and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation of Monticello believe that the weight of historical evidence suggests Jefferson was the father of Eston and all of Hemings' children (who were thus seven-eighths European by ancestry and legally white under Virginia law at the time). The historian Annette Gordon-Reed was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 2010 for her work on the history of the Jeffersons and the Hemings families (which won a Pulitzer Prize and 15 other major awards), and for "changing the course of Jeffersonian scholarship" by showing how earlier historians had disregarded or discounted important evidence from slave testimonies.[23]

The Civil War did not end relationships across color and ethnic lines. Although during the Jim Crow era, southern legislators created strict segregation between whites and blacks and anti-miscegenation laws, people made their own arrangements. As under slavery, relationships often developed out of white social dominance. For instance, as a 22-year-old young man, segregationist 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 financial support for his daughter and paid for Butler's education, but kept her existence a secret. His daughter did not discuss their relationship until after his death.

More than one[edit]

New waves of immigration and people's desires to embrace all of their heritage are causing attrition of single "racial" categories. Responding to citizens, the United States Census Bureau since 2000 allows people to check off "more than one" ethnic group with which they identify, and more responses are falling into that category.[24] Younger people are especially claiming all their multi-racial heritage.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Press Release: Discovers President Obama Related to First Documented Slave in America: Research Connects First African-American President to First African Slave in the American Colonies.
  2. ^ Harman, Anatasia; Cottrill, Natalie D.; Reed, Paul C.; Shumway, Joseph (2012-07-15). "Documenting President Barack Obama’s Maternal African-American Ancestry:Tracing His Mother’s Bunch Ancestry to the First Slave in America" (PDF). Retrieved 2013-09-10. Most people will be surprised to learn that U.S. President Barack Obama has African-American ancestry through his mother. 
  3. ^ a b Nolan, Maggie and Carrie Dawson, ed. Who's Who? Hoaxes, Imposture and Identity Crises in Australian Literature. St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2004: 16–17. (retrieved through Google Books, 26 July 2009) ISBN 978-0-7022-3523-8.
  4. ^ Valaskakis, Gail Guthrie. Indian County: Essays on Contemporary Native Culture. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2005: 221. (retrieved through Google Books, 26 July 2009) ISBN 978-0-88920-479-9.
  5. ^ Root, Deborah. Cannibal Culture: Art, Appropriation, And The Commodification Of Difference. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996: 102. (retrieved through Google Books, 23 July 2009) ISBN 978-0-8133-2089-2.
  6. ^ "Iron Eyes", Snopes
  7. ^ Bataille, Gretchen M. American Indian Representations. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001: 49. (retrieved through Google Books, 26 July 2009) ISBN 978-0-8032-1312-8.
  8. ^ Richardson, Valerie. Report on Conclusion of Preliminary Review in the Matter of Professor Ward Churchill. University of Colorado at Boulder. 2005 . Retrieved 26 July 2009.
  9. ^ Brown, Thomas. "Is Ward Churchill the New Michael Bellesiles?" George Mason University's History News Network. 14 March 2005 . Retrieved 26 July 2009.
  10. ^ Harjo, Suzan Shown. "Ward Churchill: The White Man's Burden." Indian Country Today. 3 August 2007 . Retrieved 26 July 2009.
  11. ^ Nagel, Joane. American Indian Ethnic Renewal: Red Power and the Resurgence of Identity and Culture. Oxford: University of Oxford Press, 1996: 238. ISBN 978-019512063-9.
  12. ^ Hoxie, Frederick E. Encyclopedia of North American Indians: Native American History, Culture, and Life From Paleo-Indians to the Present. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006: 191–2. (retrieved through Google Books, 26 July 2009) ISBN 978-0-395-66921-1
  13. ^ Weaver, Jace. Other Words: American Indian Literature, Law, and Culture. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2001: 138. (retrieved through Google Books, 26 July 2009) ISBN 978-0-8061-3352-2
  14. ^ Anthes, Bill. "Becoming Indian: The Self-Invention of Yeffe Kimball." Native Moderns: American Indian Painting, 1940–1960. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006: 117–141. ISBN 0-8223-3866-1.
  15. ^ Everything you need to know about Elizabeth Warren’s claim of Native American heritage)
  16. ^
  17. ^ "A Tribe of One". Government of Canada. National Film Board of Canada. 2009. Retrieved July 26, 2009. 
  18. ^ Stephen Hui (May 26, 2003). "4, vol 114 - film: The story of the smallest tribe". Simon Fraser University. Retrieved July 26, 2009. 
  19. ^ The title refers to Black Like Me (1961), a book by the journalist John Howard Griffin who temporarily passed as black to learn about racial segregation.
  20. ^ "Cold Case: Libertyville (2009)". Retrieved 2011-03-22. 
  21. ^ Paul Heinegg, Free African Americans of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland and Delaware, 2005, accessed 15 Feb 2008
  22. ^ Gilbert1948 |
  23. ^ "Annette Gordon-Reed", MacArthur Foundation, accessed 9 February 2011
  24. ^ David L. Brunsma, "Public Categories, Private Identities: Exploring Regional Differences in the Biracial Experience", Social Science Research, Vol. 35, No. 3, Sept 2006, pp. 555–576, accessed 22 February 2011

Further reading[edit]

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

External links[edit]