What Is the Definition of Passing for White?

How racism fueled this painful practice

Actress Rashida Jones
The daughter of a White Jewish mother, Peggy Lipton, and a Black man, Quincy Jones, biracial actress Rashida Jones is light enough to pass for White. Digitas Photos/Flickr.com

What is the definition of passing, or passing for White? Simply put, passing occurs when members of a racial, ethnic, or religious group present themselves as belonging to another such group. Historically, people have passed for a variety of reasons, from gaining more social clout than the group into which they were born to escaping oppression and even death.

Passing and oppression go hand-in-hand. People would have no need to pass if institutional racism and other forms of discrimination did not exist.

Who Can Pass?

Passing necessitates that one lacks the characteristic traits most associated with a particular racial or ethnic group. Accordingly, Black people and others who pass tend to be biracial or have mixed racial ancestry.

While many Black people of mixed racial origin are incapable of passing for White—President Barack Obama is a case in point—others may easily be able to do so. Like Obama, actress Rashida Jones was born to a White mother and a Black father, but she looks much more phenotypically White than the 44th president does. The same goes for singer Mariah Carey, born to a White mother and a father of Black and Hispanic origin.

Why Black People Passed

In the United States, racial minority groups such as African Americans historically passed to escape the virulent oppression that led to their enslavement, segregation, and brutalization. Being able to pass for White sometimes meant the difference between a life in captivity and a life of freedom. In fact, the enslaved couple William and Ellen Craft escaped from bondage in 1848 after Ellen passed as a young White planter and William as her servant.

The Crafts documented their escape in the enslaved narrative "Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom," in which William describes his wife's appearance as follows:

"Notwithstanding my wife being of African extraction on her mother's side, she is almost white—in fact, she is so nearly so that the tyrannical old lady to whom she first belonged became so annoyed, at finding her frequently mistaken for a child of the family, that she gave her when eleven years of age to a daughter, as a wedding present."

Oftentimes, enslaved children light enough to pass for White people were the products of miscegenation between enslavers and enslaved women. Ellen Craft may very well have been a relative of her enslaver. However, the one-drop rule dictated that any individual with the slightest amount of African blood be deemed a Black person. This law benefited enslavers by giving them more labor. Deeming biracial people White would have increased the number of free men and women but done little to give the nation the economic boost that free labor did.

After the end of the system of enslavement, Black people continued to pass, as they faced stringent laws that limited their ability to reach their potential in society. Passing for White allowed African Americans entry into the upper echelons of society. But passing also meant that such Black people left their hometowns and family members behind to ensure that they could never come across anyone who knew their true racial origins.

Passing in Popular Culture

Passing has been the subject of memoirs, novels, essays, and films. Nella Larsen's 1929 novel "Passing" is arguably the most famous work of fiction on the subject. In the novel, a fair-skinned Black woman, Irene Redfield, discovers that her racially ambiguous childhood friend, Clare Kendry, has crossed the color line—leaving Chicago for New York and marrying a White bigot to advance in life socially and economically. But Clare does the unthinkable by entering Black society once again and putting her new identity at risk.

James Weldon Johnson's 1912 novel "Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man" (a novel disguised as a memoir) is another well-known work of fiction about passing. The subject also emerges in Mark Twain's "Pudd'nhead Wilson" (1894) and Kate Chopin's 1893 short story "Désirée's Baby."

Arguably the most famous film about passing is "Imitation of Life," which debuted in 1934 and was remade in 1959. The film is based on the 1933 Fannie Hurst novel of the same name. Philip Roth's 2000 novel "The Human Stain" also addresses passing. A film adaptation of the book debuted in 2003. The novel has been linked to the real-life story of late New York Times book critic Anatole Broyard, who hid his Black ancestry for years, although Roth denies any connection between "The Human Stain" and Broyard. 

Broyard's daughter, Bliss Broyard, however, did write a memoir about her father's decision to pass for White, "One Drop: My Father's Hidden Life-A Story of Race and Family Secrets" (2007). Anatole Broyard's life bears some resemblance to the Harlem Renaissance writer Jean Toomer, who reportedly passed for White after penning the popular novel "Cane" (1923).

The artist Adrian Piper's essay "Passing for White, Passing for Black" (1992) is another real-life account of passing. In this case, Piper embraces her blackness but describes what it's like for White people to inadvertently mistake her for White and for some Black people to question her racial identity because she's fair-skinned.

Do Black People Need to Pass Today?

Given that racial segregation is no longer the law of the land in the United States, Black people don't face the same barriers that historically led them to pass in search of better opportunities. That said, blackness and "otherness" continue to be devalued in the U.S.

As a result, some people may think it beneficial to downplay or hide aspects of their racial makeup. They may not do so to land employment or live where they choose but simply to avoid the discomforts and hardships that accompany life as a Black person in America.