Passing (sociology)

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Passing is the ability of a person to be regarded as a member of social groups other than their own, such as a different race, ethnicity, caste, social class, gender, age and/or disability status, generally with the purpose of gaining social acceptance [1] or to cope with difference anxiety. In the article Passing, Posing, and "Keeping it Real", Kimberlyn Leary notes "[p]assing occurs when there is perceived danger in disclosure" as a form of self-protection or self-preservation. [2] This may take the form of changing only one group from the person's own, such as a person's dressing so as to pretend to be of a higher social class.

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.[3]

Social class[edit]

Class passing, analogous to racial and gender passing, is the concealment or misrepresentation of one’s social class. Whereas racial and gender passing is often stigmatized, class passing is generally accepted as normative behavior.[4] Passing in the context of caste, as prevalent in the Indian sub-continent, is also called Sanskritization. Class passing is common in the United States and is linked to the notion of the American Dream and of upward class mobility.

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 and Andy Hardy Meets Debutante.[5] 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.[6]

Ethnicity and race[edit]

The origin of the term passing stems from mixed-race Americans, most often black, identifying as other ethnicities, most often white. The term has been expanded to include other ethnicities and situations. 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.[7][8]

The 1929 novella Passing helped to establish the term after several years of prior usage. The writer and subject of the novel are mixed African-American/Caucasian who pass for white. The novella was written during the Harlem Renaissance, when passing was very common in both reality and fiction. Since the movements for civil rights 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.[9][10]

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.


Passing as a member of a different religion or as not religious at all is not uncommon among minority religious communities.[citation needed]

Gender and sexual orientation[edit]

Main article: Passing (gender)

Passing as a different sexual orientation has traditionally been an action taken by homosexual men and women who pretend to be heterosexual to avoid unwarranted hostility.[citation needed] The phrase "in the closet" is often used for someone attempting to hide or conceal their sexual orientation.

Within the transgender community, "passing" is used to mean when a transitioned or transitioning trans man, trans woman or non-cisgender person is recognised as their transitioned gender in everyday life without giving away their birth-assigned sex, i.e. when they are assimilated with the majority of those who are not transgender.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Daniel G. Renfrow, "A Cartography of Passing in Everyday Life," Symbolic Interaction, Vol. 27, Issue 4, pp. 485-506; Maria C. Sanchez, Passing: Identity and Interpretation in Sexuality, Race, and Religion, NYU Press, 2001.
  2. ^ Leary, Kimberlyn (March 1999). "Passing, Posing, and "Keeping it Real"". Constellations: An International Journal of Critical & Democratic Theory. 
  3. ^ Nella Larsen, Passing, 1929. Caroline Bond Day and Earnest Albert Hooton, A Study of Some Negro-White Families in the United States (Cambridge MA: Harvard University, 1932). Melville J. Herskovits, The Anthropometry of the American Negro (New York: Columbia University, 1930). Cheryl I. Harris, "On Passing: Whiteness as Property," 106 Harvard Law Review, 1709-1795, 1710-1712 (1993)
  4. ^ Foster, Gwendolyn Audrey. Class-passing: Social Mobility in Film and Popular Culture, Carbondale, Il: Southern Illinois University Press, 2005, pp. 1-5.
  5. ^ Foster, Gwendolyn Audrey. '',Class-passing: Social Mobility in Film and Popular Culture, Carbondale, Il: Southern Illinois University Press, 2005, pp. 6-13
  6. ^ Foster, Gwendolyn Audrey. Class-passing: Social Mobility in Film and Popular Culture. Carbondale, Il: Southern Illinois University Press, 2005, p. 6.
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