Passing (sociology)

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Passing is the ability of a person to be regarded as a member of an identity group or category, often different from their own, which may include racial identity, ethnicity, caste, social class, sexual orientation, gender, religion, age and/or disability status.[1][2][3][4] Passing may result in privileges, rewards, or an increase in social acceptance,[1][2] or be used to cope with stigma. Thus, passing may serve as a form of self-preservation or self-protection in instances where expressing one's true or prior identity may be dangerous.[4][5] Passing may require acceptance into a community and may also lead to temporary or permanent leave from another community to which an individual previously belonged. Thus, passing can result in separation from one's original self, family, friends, or previous living experiences.[6] While successful passing may contribute to economic security, safety, and avoidance of stigma, it may take an emotional toll as a result of denial of one's previous identity and may lead to depression or self-loathing.[4]

Etymologically, the term is simply the nominalisation of the verb pass in its phrasal use with for or as, as in a counterfeit passing for the genuine article or an impostor passing as another person. It has been in popular use since at least the late 1920s.[7][8][9][10]

Ethnicity and race[edit]

Anita Florence Hemmings, the first African-American woman to graduate from Vassar College, who passed as white for socioeconomic reasons

Historically and genealogically, the term passing has referred to mixed-race, or biracial Americans identifying as or being perceived as belonging to a different racial group. In Passing and the Fictions of Identity, Elaine Ginsberg cites an ad for escaped slave Edmund Kenney as an example of racial passing; Edmund Kenney, a biracial person, was able to pass as white in the United States in the 1800s.[2] In the entry "Passing" for the GLBTQ Encyclopedia Project, Tina Gianoulis states, "for light-skinned African Americans during the times of slavery and the intense periods of racial resegregation that followed, passing for white was a survival tool that allowed them to gain education and employment that would have been denied them had they been recognized as "colored" people." The term passing has since been expanded to include other ethnicities and identity categories. Discriminated groups in North America and Europe may modify their accents, word choices, manner of dress, grooming habits, and even names in an attempt to appear to be members of a majority group or of a privileged minority group.[11][12]

Nella Larsen's 1929 novella, Passing, helped to establish the term after several years of prior use. The writer and subject of the novella is a mixed African-American/Caucasian who passes for white. The novella was written during the Harlem Renaissance, when passing was commonly found in both reality and fiction. Since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, racial pride decreased the weight given to passing as an important issue for black Americans. Still, it is possible and common for biracial people to pass based on appearance or by hiding or omitting their backgrounds.[13][14]

In "Adjusting the Borders: Bisexual Passing and Queer Theory," Lingel quotes bell hooks' discussion of racial passing.[6]

Romani people have a history of passing as well, particularly in the United States, often telling outsiders they belong to other ethnicities such as Latino, Greek, Middle Eastern or Native American.

Social class and caste[edit]

Class passing, similar to racial and gender passing, is the concealment or misrepresentation of one's social class. In Class-Passing: Social Mobility in Film and Popular Culture, Gwendolyn Audrey Foster suggests racial and gender passing is often stigmatized, while class passing is generally accepted as normative behavior.[15] Class passing is common in the United States and is linked to the notions of the American Dream and of upward class mobility.[13]

Popular culture[edit]

English-language novels which feature class passing include The Talented Mr. Ripley, Anne of Green Gables, and Horatio Alger novels. Films featuring class-passing characters include Catch Me If You Can, My Fair Lady, Pinky, ATL, and Andy Hardy Meets Debutante.[15] Class passing also figures into reality television programs such as Joe Millionaire: contestants are often immersed in displays of great material wealth or may have to conceal their class status.[15]

Sexuality and gender[edit]

The perception of an individual's sexual orientation is often based on their visual identity. The term visual identity refers to the expression of personal, social, and cultural identities through dress and appearance. In Visible Lesbians and Invisible Bisexuals: Appearance and Visual Identities Among Bisexual Women[16] it is proposed that through the expression of a visual identity, others 'read' our appearance and make assumptions about our wider identity. Therefore, visual identity is a prominent tool of non-verbal communication. The concept of passing is showcased in the research done by Jennifer Taub in her work Bisexual Women and Beauty Norms.[17] Some participants in the study stated that they attempted to dress as what they perceived as heterosexual when partnered with a man while others stated that they tried to dress more like a 'lesbian'. This exemplifies how visual identities can greatly alter people's immediate assumptions of sexuality. Therefore, by presenting oneself as 'heterosexual' one is effectively 'passing'.[17]

Passing by sexual orientation occurs when an individual's perceived sexual orientation or sexuality differs from the sexuality or sexual orientation with which they identify. In the entry "Passing" for the glbtq Encyclopedia Project, Tina Gianoulis notes "the presumption of heterosexuality in most modern cultures," which in some parts of the world, such as the United States, may be effectively compulsory[citation needed], "most gay men and lesbians in fact spend a great deal of their lives passing as straight even when they do not do so intentionally."[4] The phrase "in the closet" may be used to describe an individual who is hiding or concealing their sexual orientation.[3][4] In Passing: Identity and Interpretation in Sexuality, Race, and Religion, Maria Sanchez and Linda Schlossberg state "the dominant social order often implores gay people to stay in the closet (to pass)."[3] Individuals may choose to remain "in the closet," or pass as heterosexual, for a variety of reasons. Examples of such reasons include a desire to maintain positive relationships with family and policies or requirements associated with employment. "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was an example of a policy that required passing as heterosexual within the military or armed forces.[3][4]

Gender passing refers to when an individual is perceived as belonging to a gender identity group that differs from the gender with which they were assigned at birth.[2] In Passing and the Fictions of Identity, Elaine Ginsberg provides the story of Brandon Teena as an example of gender passing in the United States. He was assigned female at birth, but lived as a man. In 1993, Brandon moved to Falls City, Nebraska, where he initially was able to pass as a man; however, when community members discovered that Brandon had been assigned female at birth, two men in the community shot and murdered Brandon.[2] Ginsberg further cites Billy Tipton, a jazz musician who was also assigned female at birth, but lived and performed as a man until his death in 1989, as another example of gender passing. Within the transgender community, passing refers to the perception or recognition of a trans individual as belonging to the gender identity to which they are transitioning rather than the sex or gender they were assigned at birth.[2][4]


Passing as a member of a different religion or as not religious at all is not uncommon among minority religious communities.[citation needed] In the entry "Passing" for the GLBTQ Encyclopedia Project, Tina Gianoulis states "at times of rabid anti-Semitism in Europe and the Americas, many Jewish families also either converted to Christianity or passed as Christian" for the sake of survival.[4] Circumcised Jewish males in Germany during World War II attempted to restore their foreskins as part of passing as Gentile.[citation needed] The film Europa, Europa explores this theme. In Shia Islam there is the doctrine of taqiyya, whereby one is lawfully allowed to disavow Islam and profess another faith (whilst secretly remaining a Muslim) if one's life is at risk. The concept has also been practised by various minority faiths in the Middle East such as the Alawites and Druze.[18][19][20]

Ability or disability[edit]

Disability passing may refer to the intentional concealment of impairment in order to avoid the stigma of disability; however, it may also describe the exaggeration of an ailment or impairment in order to receive some benefit, which may take the form of attention or care. In Disability and Passing: Blurring the Lines of Identity, Jeffrey Brune and Daniel Wilson define passing by ability or disability as "the ways that others impose, intentionally or not, a specific disability or non-disability identity on a person."[21] Similarly, in "Compulsory Able-Bodiedness and Queer/Disabled Existence," Robert McRuer argues that "the system of compulsory able-bodiedness...produces disability."[22]

Passing as disabled[edit]

People with disabilities may exaggerate their disabilities when being evaluated for medical care or accommodations, often for fear of being denied support. "There are too many agencies out there with the ostensible purpose of helping us that still believe that as long as we technically can do something, like crab-walking our way into a subway station, we should have to do it," writes Gabe Moses, a wheelchair user who has a limited ability to walk.[23] These pressures can result in disabled people exaggerating symptoms or tiring out their body before an evaluation so that they are seen on a "bad day" instead of a "good day."

Passing as non-disabled[edit]

Individuals whose disabilities are "invisible," such as people with mental illness, intellectual or cognitive disabilities, or physical disabilities that are not immediately obvious to others such as IBS, Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis, may choose whether or not to reveal their identity or to pass as "normal." While passing as non-disabled may protect against discrimination, it could also result in lack of support or accusations of faking.

Autistic people may employ strategies known as "masking" or "camouflaging" in order to pass as non-disabled. This can involve behavior like suppressing or redirecting repetitive movements, avoiding talking about one's interests, or faking a smile in an environment that feels uncomfortable or distressing. Masking may be done to reduce the risk of ostracism or abuse.[24] Autistic masking is correlated with a higher risk of depression and suicide.[25][26] It can also lead to exhaustion.[27]

Individuals with visible physical impairments or disabilities, such as people with mobility impairment, including individuals who use wheelchairs or scooters, face greater challenges in concealing their disability.[21]


Though passing may occur on the basis of a single subordinate identity such as race, often people's intersectional locations involve multiple marginalized identities. Intersectionality provides a framework for seeing the interconnected nature of oppressive systems and how multiple identities interact within them. Gay Asian men possess two key subordinated identities which, in combination, create unique challenges for them when passing. Sometimes these men must pass as straight to avoid stigma but around other gay men they may attempt to pass as a non-racialized person or white to avoid the disinterest or fetishization often encountered upon revealing their Asian identities.[28] By recognizing the hidden intersection of the gendered aspects of gay and Asian male stereotypes, these two distinct experiences make even more sense. Gay men are often stereotyped as effeminate and thereby insufficiently masculine as men. Stereotypes characterizing Asian men as too sexual (overly masculine) or too feminine (hypo-masculine) or even both also exhibit the gendered nature of racial stereotypes.[29] Thus, passing as the dominant racial or sexuality category also often means passing as gender correct. When Black transgender men transition in the workplace from identifying as female to passing as cisgender males, gendered racial stereotypes characterizing Black men as overly masculine and violent[30] can affect how previously acceptable behaviors will be interpreted. As one such Black trans man discovered, he'd gone from "being an obnoxious Black woman to a scary Black man", and therefore had to adapt his behavior to gendered scripts to pass.[31]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Renfrow, Daniel G. (2004). "A Cartography of Passing in Everyday Life". Symbolic Interaction. 27 (4): 485–506. doi:10.1525/si.2004.27.4.485. JSTOR 10.1525/si.2004.27.4.485.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Ginsberg, Elaine (1996). Passing and the Fictions of Identity. Duke University Press.
  3. ^ a b c d Sanchez, Maria C.; Schlossberg, Linda (2001). Passing: Identity and Interpretation in Sexuality, Race, and Religion. New York University Press.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h Gianoulis, Tina (2010). "Passing". glbtq Encyclopedia. glbtq, Inc.
  5. ^ Leary, Kimberlyn (March 1999). "Passing, Posing, and "Keeping it Real"". Constellations. 6: 85–96. doi:10.1111/1467-8675.00122.
  6. ^ a b Lingel, Jessa (2009). "Adjusting The Borders: Bisexual Passing And Queer Theory". Journal of Bisexuality. 9 (3–4): 381–405. doi:10.1080/15299710903316646. S2CID 144917927.
  7. ^ Larsen, Nella (1929). Passing. Alfred A Knopf.
  8. ^ Day, Caroline Bond (1932). A study of some Negro-white families in the United States. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.
  9. ^ Herskovits, Melville J. (1930). The Anthropometry of the American Negro. New York, NY: Columbia University.
  10. ^ Harris, Cheryl I. (1993). "Whiteness as Property". Harvard Law Review. 106 (8): 1707–1791. doi:10.2307/1341787. JSTOR 1341787.
  11. ^ "The trouble with 'passing' for another race/sexuality/religion …". The Guardian. 2014-01-02. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2016-03-27.
  12. ^ Arsenault, Raymond (2011-02-25). "Book Review - The Invisible Line - By Daniel J. Sharfstein". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2016-03-27.
  13. ^ a b Dreisinger, Baz (2003-11-04). ""Passing" and the American dream". Salon. Retrieved 2016-03-27.
  14. ^ Sloan, Nate (2013-12-18). "Stanford historian re-examines practice of racial 'passing'". Stanford University. Retrieved 2016-03-27.
  15. ^ a b c Foster, Gwendolyn Audrey. Class-passing: Social Mobility in Film and Popular Culture, Carbondale, Il: Southern Illinois University Press, 2005, pp. 1-5.
  16. ^ Hayfield, Nikki (October 2013). "Visible Lesbians and Invisible Bisexuals: Appearance and Visual Identities Among Bisexual Women" (PDF). Women's Studies International Forum. 40: 172–182. doi:10.1016/j.wsif.2013.07.015.
  17. ^ a b Taub, Jennifer (October 2008). "Bisexual Women and Beauty Norms". Journal of Lesbian Studies. 3 (4): 27–36. doi:10.1300/J155v03n04_04. PMID 24786422.
  18. ^ John L. Esposito, ed. (2014). "Taqiyah". The Oxford Dictionary of Islam. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195125580. Precautionary denial of religious belief in the face of potential persecution. Stressed by Shii Muslims, who have been subject to periodic persecution by the Sunni majority.
  19. ^ Paul E. Walker (2009). "Taqīyah". In John L. Esposito (ed.). The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford: Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/acref/9780195305135.001.0001. ISBN 9780195305135. Taqīyah is the precautionary dissimulation of religious belief and practice in the face of persecution.
  20. ^ Stewart, Devin. "Islam in Spain after the Reconquista". Teaching Materials. The Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at New York University. Retrieved 30 September 2015.
  21. ^ a b Brune, Jeffrey A.; Wilson, Daniel J. (2013). Disability and Passing: Blurring the Lines of Identity. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Temple University Press. ISBN 978-1-4399-0979-9.
  22. ^ Hall, Donald E.; Jagose, Annamarie; Bebell, Andrea; Potter, Susan (2013). "Compulsory Able-Bodiedness and Queer/Disabled Existence". The Routledge Queer Studies Reader. New York City, New York: Routledge. pp. 488–497. ISBN 978-0415564113.
  23. ^ Moses, Gabe. "Forced to Fake It: How the System forces Disabled People to Lie". The Body Is Not An Apology.
  24. ^ Haelle, Tara (2018). "The Consequences of Compensation in Autism". Neurology Advisor.
  25. ^ Cage, Eilidh (2017). "Experiences of Autism Acceptance and Mental Health in Autistic Adults". Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. 49 (2): 473–484. doi:10.1007/s10803-017-3342-7. PMC 5807490. PMID 29071566.
  26. ^ Cassidy, Sarah; Bradley, Louise; Shaw, Rebecca; Baron-Cohen, Simon (2018). "Risk markers for suicidality in autistic adults". Molecular Autism. 9: 42. doi:10.1186/s13229-018-0226-4. PMC 6069847. PMID 30083306.
  27. ^ Russo, Francine (2018-02-21). "The Costs of Camouflaging Autism". Spectrum News.
  28. ^ Han, Chong-suk; Proctor, Kristopher; Choi, Kyung-Hee (May 2013). "I Know a Lot of Gay Asian Men who Are Actually Tops: Managing and Negotiating Gay Racial Stigma". Sexuality & Culture. 18 (2): 219–234. doi:10.1007/s12119-013-9183-4. S2CID 145758850.
  29. ^ Espiritu, Yen (2008). Asian American Women and Men: Labor, Laws, and Love. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. p. 179.
  30. ^ Belton, Don (1997). Speak my name: Black men on masculinity and the American dream. MA 02108: Beacon Press. p. 315.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location (link)
  31. ^ Schilt, Kristen (August 2006). "Just One of the Guys? How Transmen Make Gender Visible at Work". Gender & Society. 20 (4): 465–490. doi:10.1177/0891243206288077. S2CID 144778992.