How biracial individuals identify is often contextual — most self-identify as biracial, but in some contexts, they "pass" as monoracial. Some scholars argue that "passing" is a relic of the past, yet passing still occurs today. Most notably, there is a striking reverse pattern of passing today — while passing during the Jim Crow era involved passing as white, many individuals now report passing as black.
The way the US Census has referred to Africans Americans has changed repeatedly over the decades. The evolving category names often reflected the current public attitudes of the time. For example, the term “colored” became “black” and then “Negro,” with “African American” added later. The term “mulatto” appeared in every census until 1920. The definition varied over the decades, but generally referred to a person who is black and at least one other race. Up until 1950, census takers would determine the race of the people they counted. From 1960 on, Americans could choose their own race. By 2000, Americans could include themselves in more than one racial category.
The concept of “passing” within such a frame comes from the sociological and social psychological traditions that explore the mechanisms through which people manage identities in order to be accepted as a member of a particular group. For example, the anthropomorphic androids in Dick’s (1968) novel "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" were able to pass as human so long as they concealed their true nature, took part in mundane human activities, and avoided the scrutiny of bounty hunters.
The infamous “one drop rule,” condemned those with observable Negroid features to a life of greater hardship. Unlike Brazil, which had a larger black slave population than the United States, there was no “mulatto escape hatch,” as historian Carl Degler termed it, that permitted those with the taint of slavery in their family history to be accepted across the spectrum of society.
Relative to Whites, African Americans of all socioeconomic levels report more frequent and intense exposure to the stress of racism. Direct and vicarious racism can range from hate crimes to systematic discrimination in the legal, educational, housing, and medical systems. Whites harbor preconscious or unconscious negative racial feelings and beliefs toward people of color, while perceiving themselves as being fair, egalitarian, and thus nonracist. In aversive racism, both liberal and conservative Whites discriminate against African Americans (and probably against other visible people of color) in situations that do not implicate racial prejudice as a basis for their actions.
In contrast, immersed in the White society through mass media exposure, most Blacks find themselves in unavoidable hierarchical social interactions with Caucasians, and thus are less likely to engage in avoidant racism. Microaggressions consist of assaults that visible people of color confront due to their race and color—such as being ignored by clerks in favor of White customers, being mistaken as service personnel, and other racial injuries.
In the fictional account by Mark Twain, Pudd’nhead Wilson, two brothers, one slave and one free, are switched at birth.
Passing as White
A quadroon — a Black with one White grandparent, might be a “high yellow” African-American, able to pass as White. Light skin can be a cause of envy and resentment from other African Americans. Racial backgrounding is the ability to blend with the race of the people in the background. Whites accused someone who is "passing" of being an impostor, Blacks see them as a traitor - a racial trauma as being neither “White enough or Black enough.”
In W.E.B. DuBois’ phrase, many of the “talented tenth,” were mulatto and could trace their station to white relatives. Some of these people were “too white” and could not easily merge with darker-skinned blacks from other classes, but that “passing” as white for these upperclass blacks was also considered a form of racial “treason.”
Hair issues are extremely sensitive and complex among African-American women since “good” (straight) hair often denotes attractiveness and “bad” (kinky) hair signifies unattractiveness. The complexity of hair texture also involves internalized racism in that “good” hair implies White beauty standards, while kinky hair relates to African beauty standards.
Charles Victor Roman wrote in 1912: "The mixing of the whites and blacks is an accomplished fact. It is estimated that the white blood infused into the Negroes of this country is equivalent to the blood of half a million white people; and that there is in the white race, through mixed bloods passing as white, the equivalent of fifty thousand full-blooded black people."
When Anita Hemmings applied to Vassar College in 1893, Vassar did not know she was an African American passing for white. In August 1897, the college discovered that she was black, and it took another 40 years for Vassar to open its doors to another African American student.
In 1924 the New York Times called Harney "a white man who had a fine Negro shouting voice, [who] probably did more to popularize ragtime than any other person." He had heard the "new music" in Louisville, became "adept at it," and brought it to New York, where he appeared at the Weber and Fields Music Hall, introducing it in a "first-class theater". Harney's racial origins have long been debated. In recent years ragtime pianist Eubie Blake asserted that Harney was actually an Afro-American who succeeded in "passing" as white. Harney died in poverty in 1938.
Acting White is one of the most negative accusations an African American adolescent can receive from another. The accusation can either be made directly or indirectly. Black adolescents have learned a well-defined fear of "acting white": a fear of excelling in academic arenas which traditionally have been defined as the prerogative of white Americans. Some black students experience inordinate ambivalence and affective dissonance around the issue of academic excellence in the school context.
Some individuals who take an oppositional stance often engage in actions (low effort) incompatible with educational success. They do not trust schools or believe that education will result in the same payoffs as it does for others. They see doing well in school as acting White or betraying their cultural heritage (I can, but do I want to). Parents with these beliefs give mixed messages about benefits of education.
Racial judgments are often based not just on skin color, but on how a person conforms to behavior stereotypically associated with a certain race. Acting Black includes acting ghetto; being dumb, stupid; speaking non-standard English; and dressing urban (e.g., sagging). Racial inequality lives on because white advantage functions as a powerful self-reinforcing monopoly, reproducing itself automatically from generation to generation even in the absence of intentional discrimination. But racial dog whistles help generate working class and middle class populist enthusiasm for policies that are actually injurious to their own interests.
Passing as "Cherokee"
The majority of family stories of "Cherokee blood' are incorrect. The truth is, when someone has a family story about a Cherokee ancestor, and can't find clear proof that the person was actually Cherokee, it's because they were probably mulatto (the term of the time for a bi-racial person) who was passing as "Cherokee" because indian blood was slightly more socially acceptable than black blood.
Passing as Black
True stories of whites passing as African Americans that have been bestsellers are Black Like Me (1962) by John Howard Griffin; The Color of Water (1996) by James McBride; and Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line (2010) by Margaret A. Weiss.
The Sisters of St Joseph (SSJs) from Rochester, New York, confronted racism in the American South in Selma AL from 1940 to 1972. It is a story of religious women who initially advocated for the sick from Catholic traditions but whose efforts evolved over time to promote the economic and social development of African Americans in the health professions. Selma is the county seat and major town of Dallas County, and in the 1940s, its racially exclusionist policies necessitated separate facilities for blacks and whites in all areas of life.
The SSJs learned to manipulate the ambiguity of their racial position, sometimes passing as “black” when they thought it would help African Americans, and other times strategically maintaining their whiteness, such as when acting as professional nurses and teachers. The designation as “black sister,” however, did not mean that tension was totally absent at Good Samaritan Hospital. The sisters’ racial ambiguity confounded the binary classification of black and white and challenged neat categorizations of segregation.
In June 2015 Rachel Dolezal resigned from her post as president of the Spokane, Washington, NAACP. The Couer d’Alene Press published a report raising questions about her background, and the Spokane Spokesman-Review picked up its claims that she had “been falsely portraying herself as black for years.” Dolezal, who grew up with adopted black siblings, said a major shift in her identity came when she was doing human rights work in Idaho and newspaper stories described her as transracial, biracial and black. Dolezal said she began portraying herself as black as early as age 5 and that her identity was "not some freak ... mockery black-face performance."
In "Near Black", Dreisinger explores the oft-ignored history of what she calls "reverse racial passing" by looking at a broad spectrum of short stories, novels, films, autobiographies, and pop-culture discourse that depict whites passing for black. The protagonists of these narratives, she shows, span centuries and cross contexts, from slavery to civil rights, jazz to rock to hip-hop. Tracing their role from the 1830s to the present day, Dreisinger argues that central to the enterprise of reverse passing are ideas about proximity. Because "blackness," so to speak, is imagined as transmittable, proximity to blackness is invested with the power to turn whites black: those who are literally "near black" become metaphorically "near black."
In the specialization department, Music City had WVOL, a strong Negro station which was a constant contender in the ratings and apparently used to black-ink bookkeeping. But Hoss Allen and John R. [pronounced as “John Arrah”] programs on WLAC shaped an entire generation of black entertainers and listeners, and was largely responsible for the evolution of rock and roll’s emergence out of the blues from poverty stricken areas of the South.
John R. was pushing Royal Crown Hair Dressing; Hoss Man Allen was selling velvet prayer cloths for $1.99 each, your choice of red or black; and Gene Nobles was peddling 1,000 baby chicks delivered to your front door for $2.05. The Hoss Man constantly pitched for his advertiser, Randy’s Record Shop in Gallatin, Tennesse. He would do spots selling everything from Bibles & baby chicks to Royal Cream (a hair- dressing) and a corn remedy for those “aching feet”. At one point, Earnie’s Record Mart, located at 179 3rd Ave. S., brought in John R. and Bill “The Hoss Man” Allen. Randy’s Record Mart in Gallatin countered with Gene Nobles and Ironing Board Sam. Buckley’s Record Store had a heavy hitter with Herman Grizzard.
Some were taken for black by a given community for a period of time. This was the experience of Jewish critic Waldo Frank during his travels with Jean Toomer, as well as that of disc jockey Hoss Allen, ["the Hoss Man"] master of R&B slang at Nashville's famed Clear Channel WLAC 1510 AM radio.
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