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In the racial politics of the United States, racial passing refers to a person classified by society as a member of one racial group (most commonly Caucasian / Afro-American heritage) choosing to identify with a group other than that assigned by social prejudice. The term was used especially in the US to describe a person of mixed-race heritage assimilating to the white majority during times when legal and social conventions classified the person as minority.



In the 18th, 19th and early 20th-centuries, some Americans of mixed European and African ancestry claimed Mediterranean, Arab or Native American heritage to explain skin color and features differing from northern Europeans. They were trying to find a way through the binary racial divisions of society, especially in the South. Before 19th and 20th century laws on segregation and "one-drop rules", most free people went by appearance. If they looked white and fulfilled community obligations, they were absorbed into white society. Only in a place where the idea that any African ancestry marked a person as different, would this be called "passing" for white. In Louisiana, for example, people of color who passed as white were referred to as passe blanc.

US civil rights leader Walter Francis White (who was blond-haired, blue-eyed, and very pale skinned) was of mixed-race, mostly white ancestry. Twenty-seven of his great-great-great-grandparents were white and five were classified as black. He grew up in Atlanta in the black community. 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 did investigations in the South, where he sometimes passed as white to gather information more freely on lynchings and hate crimes, and to protect himself in socially hostile environments.

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, in part because he wanted to create an independent writing life and not be classified as a black writer. In addition he did not identify with northern blacks, whose experiences had been much different than his. 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.

Portrait of Grey Owl in 1936. Born in England, he was a white man who passed as part native North 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. Environmentalist Grey Owl was a white British man named Archibald Belaney, rather than the Native American-Canadian he claimed to be. He claimed he was half Apache and half Scottish to explain European aspects of his appearance. He learned Native American languages and ways, however, and lived fully as a man of nature.

A path of claiming Native American ancestry was taken by United States actor Iron Eyes Cody, who was of Sicilian descent. He had numerous roles as an actor playing parts in which he portrayed Native Americans.[1]

Racial passing may be used by people of other races to assimilate to groups other than European. For example, Marie Lee Bandura, who had been raised as part of the Qayqayt Indian Band near Vancouver, was orphaned and believed she was the last of her people. She moved to 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."[2][3]

Another example of passing: During World War Two in Nazi Germany and the rest of Europe, Jewish people who looked "Aryan" (had lighter hair and blue eyes) would pass for Aryan to avoid being shipped off to concentration and death camps by the Nazis. An extreme example is the story of Edith Hahn Beer; she was a Jewish woman who was able to “pass" as Aryan, and survived the Holocaust by living with and marrying a Nazi officer. Mrs. Hahn-Beer wrote a memoir called: The Nazi Officer's Wife: How One Jewish Woman Survived the Holocaust. [4]

Treatment in American literature and popular culture

  • 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 many social changes following the emancipation of slaves, many of whom were mixed race.
  • Nella Larson'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, because it was a time of social segregation in some public facilities.
  • The film Imitation of Life (1959) featured the character Sarah Jane, who has mixed ancestry and is accepted as white.
  • Rock band Big Black released a song on this subject called "Passing Complexion" on their 1986 album Atomizer.
  • The Human Stain (2000) is a novel by Philip Roth featuring a professor of classics who spent his adult professional life passing as a white Jewish intellectual. The story was inspired by the life of Anatole Broyard.


  • On the December 15, 1984 episode of Saturday Night Live, black actor/comedian Eddie Murphy appeared in "White Like Me",[5] a sketch in which he used heavy theatrical make-up to disguise himself as a white man.
  • 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.

Contemporary movies

  • The 1995 film Panther features a black FBI agent named Pruitt who passes for white in the presence of African Americans. A training montage for Black Panther members runs with one member telling new recruits "A slave hates himself, a slave hates his skin...." with Agent Pruitt appearing in the background.
  • The 2000 TV movie based on Charles W. Chesnutt's 19th c. novel A House Divided told the story of a mixed-race woman who was light-skinned enough to pass, but whose mother was a black slave. When the woman's white father attempted to will his property to his mixed-race daughter, the family ran afoul of local laws forbidding property ownership by blacks.
  • In 2004, Marlon and Shawn Wayans were featured in the movie White Chicks. Two black FBI agents go undercover as two rich white girls and are accepted by the white people they come into contact with, including the girls' friends.

American Tri-racial isolates

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 Indian and European ancestry, although some also were identified in early years as Portuguese or 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 were fantasies and 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.[6]

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: [7] 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". In 1971, Carl Degler coined the term "mulatto escape hatch" to describe how Brazilian customs differed from those in the U.S. According to Degler, white Brazilians enjoyed the privileges of whiteness, including looking down on black Brazilians. This "colorism" resembled that of white American supremacy in the South during the Jim Crow era. On the other hand, many white Brazilians have black parents or grandparents; some of these are proud to acknowledge their fractional African ancestry.

Creoles and mixed race

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 century, they were often the children of white planter fathers and enslaved women. Among the most famous were the 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 mother, the enslaved mistress of Jefferson's father-in-law John Wayles after he became a widower. Late 20th century DNA studies showed that at least one Hemings child was related to the Jefferson male line. Most historians, the National Genealogical Society, and the Monticello Foundation believe that the weight of historical evidence suggests Jefferson was the father of all of Hemings' children (who were seven-eighths white by ancestry). Some people still dispute that conclusion.

The Civil War did not end relationships across color and ethnic lines. Although southern legislators created strict segregation between whites and blacks and anti-miscegenation laws in the Jim Crow era, 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, 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. His daughter did not discuss their relationship until after his death.

More than one

New waves of immigration and people's desires to embrace all of their heritage are causing attrition of single racial categories. The Census Bureau now allows people to check off "more than one" ethnic group[citation needed], and more responses are falling into that category. Young people say they will insist on claiming all their ancestries[citation needed].

See also

External links




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