“Passing” in the Age of Anti-Black Racism
By Midori E. Hartman.
She wished to find out about this hazardous business of “passing,” this breaking away from all that was familiar and friendly to take one’s chances in another environment, not entirely strange, perhaps, but certainly not friendly. (Nella Larsen, “Passing,” 1929).
First there was Rachel Dolezal, then there was Jessica Krug, and now a doctoral student*: all three confess that they have been actively passing as black in the academy. What is it about higher education that invites this appropriative performance of other cultural ethnicities?
On social media, it is called “blackfishing,” the activity through which influencers try to accentuate or modify certain features (curly hair or braids, tanning, cosmetic surgery, and clothes) to imitate minority cultures, especially black culture. This ethnic appropriation for social media popularity is particularly pernicious in that ultimately, these people can stop the performance at any time and can flee the systemic racism that oppresses those who cannot escape it.
In what follows, I will explore the recent controversies concerning white Americans choosing to pass as other ethnicities by examining “passing” as it has been historically constructed as a product of slavery and Jim Crow racism. I argue that white choice to “pass” as a minority is a trauma for actual multiracial (biracial) Americans, who will now have to fight harder than ever to answer the question, “what are you?” Multiracial individuals and communities are a subset of those harmed by such acts. This is, of course, not an attempt to erase the reality that Karen Attiah points out, namely that “[b]iracial and light-skinned women have always been given more access, power and visibility than darker-skinned women, even within our own communities.” While I am not BIPOC, my own biracial experience in ethnic ambiguity has had me tuned into this recent pattern of “academic passing.” I see this situation as an invitation for us to consider the larger history of passing to provide context for what we are seeing happen in the academy.
Why is this a concern for us as feminist and womanist scholars and leaders of religion? This is a feminist and womanist concern because in our task to ensure equity amongst all, we are called to step up and address when appropriation leads to further discrimination. The recent cases above are evidence of opportunities being given to people claiming an identity that is not their own. In the context of the study of religion, perhaps we are being tasked with these cases to explore how religion can or cannot fill the void in those who want community and choose to appropriate ethnicity to gain it. In other words, if these people are not simply trying to take advantage of the system, but are also lacking community and connection, how might religion be the place they could find it without having to resort to appropriation to the point of self-destruction of their authentic selves?
Historically, passing meant that biracial black people gave up their ethnicity, family, and identity in order to pass as white people for benefits and privileges. As Allyson Hobbs (2014) argues, it was a “chosen exile,” one in which its participants ended up losing more than they gained. Hobbs shows us how, in the ante-Bellum south, passing was viewed of as subversive and an escape from slavery, but that after Emancipation, it became an act of betrayal—the selling of a birthright—for the black community. As Hobbs shared in her own research process: “writing a history of ‘passing’ is writing a history of loss.”
Harlem Renaissance authors captured this catch-22 exchange of gain and loss for those who embraced passing. For example, in James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), the biracial protagonist is awoken to his own racial identity by a classmate’s slur, which opened his eyes to his own blackness. After growing up and seeing a lynching in the south, this protagonist ends up embracing a passing identity in order to become an “ordinarily successful white man,” while retrospectively recognizing that his own people he abandoned were “making history and a race.” He ends the work with this lingering reflection: “I have sold my birthright for a mess of pottage.” Compare this with Nella Larsen’s short story “Passing” (1929), which shows us how this trauma of passing extends to every facet of a person’s life. Her heroine, Irene Redfield, bumps into an old friend Clare Kendry, who had left in her youth and was now passing as a white woman. As the two rekindle their acquaintance, we see how Clare is unable to keep the façade going, and, driven by her own sexual desires for Irene, commits suicide. In these stories, passing in the dominant white culture cost these characters their authenticity and communities.
Now, in light of such literary examples based in historical realities, how is passing playing out today? In Larsen’s short-story, she relays that it is easy for black people to “pass” as white, but that it would not be so “simple for a white person to ‘pass’ for coloured.” Recent examples seem to undermine this passing observation, such that the opposite feels true today.
Rachel Dolezal became a chapter president of the NAACP in Spokane (2014-2015) and was a part time instructor in the Africana Education program at Eastern Washington University (2007-2015) before she was outed as passing as black. She still continues to self-identify as black, despite admitting she was born white to white parents, and has been removed from the above-named positions.
Jessica Krug of George Washington University held an affiliated position in the Africana Studies program as historian until she outed herself as passing as Black Caribbean ahead of the threat of being outed by another party. Krug gave up her own Jewish identity, a point that should cause scholars of religion to take her case into serious consideration. She has resigned from her position at GWU.
*And while the doctoral student (they/them) has outed themselves in their multiple apologies, I have chosen to leave them unnamed, as I do not seek to punch down on those who still have the chance to learn from their mistakes as students. Perhaps we can use their story to explore how graduate students can be particularly vulnerable in establishing and shaping their “identity” as something marketable for increasingly fewer jobs. This is not an excuse, but perhaps a sign of more acts of passing to come.
What is common to these three people? All three of these individuals have hurt their colleagues, students, and the public’s trust in the authenticity of academics and the role they serve us. However, they have also hurt POC and multiracial Americans who cannot simply choose to turn on or off identity with cosmetics and mimicry. Now that we are hyper-aware of these cases of “passing,” those who are actually multiracial must deal with the extra baggage of proving their multiraciality as authentic and not faked. Since multiracial people often feel like they are straddling a divide between identities—never fully in either/any identity—these individuals who are appropriating other cultures will force them to feel discomfort in how racial appropriation is something that people feel they can put on and take off at the end of the day. Multiracial people will feel continue to feel silenced by racial impostor syndrome while real imposters get ahead.
In conclusion, what is important here to note is that passing both in the past and today involves the participation of others in acceptance that the individual in question is the ethnic identity they are presenting. It is here that we as scholars must consider seriously the way in which the academy, as fraught and tenuous as it is, contributes to the ability and desire of such individuals to appropriate the identity and opportunities of others for self-promotion. This is something that scholars of religion who are invested in feminism and womanism must consider, namely what kinds of communities—religious, gendered, and professional—we are creating and how might we better serve helping such people find strength in their own selves and not in the appropriation of others.
Midori E. Hartman is a Visiting Assistant Professor in Religious Studies at Albright College. She holds a PhD in Historical Studies with an emphasis on Christianity in Late Antiquity from Drew University. Her primary research interests are Augustine of Hippo, ancient slavery, and rhetoric as it intersects with issues of gender, ethnicity, and animality.