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 as members of groups that give them more social clout than the group into which they were born.

Passing and oppression go hand-in-hand. People would have no need to pass if society valued all groups equally and gave them the same access to education, employment, housing and so forth.

If institutional racism and other forms of discrimination did not exist, passing would cease to exist also.

Who Can Pass?

Passing necessitates that one lack the phenotypical traits most associated with a particular racial or ethnic group. Accordingly, blacks and other people of color who pass tend to be biracial or have mixed racial ancestry.

While many blacks 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 Blacks 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 slave 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 slave 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, slave children light enough to pass for white were the products of miscegenation between slave owners and slave women. Ellen Craft may very well have been a relative of her mistress. However, the one-drop rule dictated that any individual with the slightest amount of African blood be deemed black. This law benefited slave owners by giving them more labor. Deeming biracial people white would have expanded the number of free men and women but done little to give the nation the economic boost that free labor did.

After slavery's end, blacks 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 blacks left their hometowns and family members behind to ensure that they'd 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, and a film adaptation 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 whites to inadvertently mistake her for white and for some blacks to question her racial identity because she's fair-skinned.

Do People of Color Need to Pass Today?

Given that racial segregation is no longer the law of the land in the United States, people of color 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 person of color in America