By JONATHAN GRONER
The concept of “passing” has not been in the news much recently, nor has it enjoyed a particularly good reputation of late.
These days, when people think at all of passing, they think of inauthenticity, of efforts to game the system by pretending to be what one is not. Among Brooke Kroeger’s purposes in writing this book is to consider with compassion, understanding, and even some humor a subset of people whose lives, at root, involve deception.
Kroeger, a journalism professor at New York University and accomplished biographer and foreign correspondent, points out that even Webster’s dictionary conveys a hint of the pejorative, defining “to pass” as “to gain acceptance as a member of a group by assuming an identity with it in defiance of one’s ancestry or background.” Kroeger’s own definition of “passing” is more nuanced: “presenting oneself as other than who one understands oneself to be.” The book’s subtitle – “When People Can’t Be Who They Are” – emphasizes her view that there are times in some people’s lives when they simply cannot be open about their identity, and that we should try to understand the choice they have made.
The classic example of passing is a black person who, by virtue of his or her appearance, can pretend to be white and does so. People of all races may criticize such a person’s life as inauthentic. Yet passing, Kroeger says, can have a multitude of purposes and results.
Kroeger cites the famous critic Anatole Broyard, whose African-American background was not revealed until after his death, as an example. Didn’t Broyard succeed in achieving recognition as a brilliant literary figure as opposed to a brilliant black literary figure? In a world that attaches undue significance to race, Broyard decided to make his race invisible.
What about a Jew in a Nazi-occupied country who pretends to be a gentile to save his life? Is this a reprehensible instance of passing? Clearly not; it is a life-saving strategy, a lie that all of us would tell.
What of a lesbian in today’s US Navy, or a gay rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, which does not ordain openly gay individuals? In Kroeger’s terms, they “can’t be who they are.” They can’t project publicly the understanding that they have of themselves.
Kroeger’s book is largely composed of a series of six accounts of actual individuals who have successfully “passed” for a good portion of their lives. One is a lesbian officer who was never “outed” in her naval career, another is a gay Conservative Jew who successfully hides his sexual orientation through his seminary graduation. These accounts engender real sympathy for their protagonists, who have very little choice but to “pass” if they are to attain their goals.
One of Kroeger’s accounts involves a white woman who discovers to her surprise that she has been unintentionally passing as black in the small Virginia town in which she lives. The problem is not with whites, but with African Americans, who incorrectly identify her as one of them.
Embarrassed and perplexed, she soon leaves the community. Another account tells the poignant tale of a young Hispanic woman who becomes an Orthodox convert to Judaism yet finds, despite the Torah’s commandments to love and cherish converts, that many doors in Orthodoxy remain effectively closed to her. This account reads more like an indictment of a subgroup in the Jewish community, or an instance of mixed or conflicting identity, than a real example of passing.
Although Kroeger’s reporting is thorough and fair, and her perspective original and thought-provoking, her narratives are sometimes flat. Readers looking for real character development or dramatic climaxes will not find them in this book. Kroeger is more interested in what the phenomenon of “passing” says about all human beings than in what it says about those people who choose to pass.
This book is not an expose; it’s a philosophical reflection on the role group identity plays in society, the malleability of identity, and the relationship between one’s self-perceived identity and the identity that society imposes.
As Kroeger says about writers who themselves “passed” in some way and then wrote about the experience, “in the act of posing as other than who they understood themselves to be, the authors run smack into themselves. In our own reaction to their reactions, we learn something about who we are as well.”
The writer is the editor of Legal Times
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For National History Day contestants. Upcoming — January 30: Iona College. February 4: Sagamore Hill. March 27: Ephemera Society of America. April 4: Avon-on-Sea Public Library, Avon CT June 4-6: “Métiers et professions des médias (XVIIIe-XXIe siècles),” Université de Lausanne. Link to past appearances.
Coming March 2020: Front Pages, Front Lines: Media and the Fight for Women’s Suffrage, Linda Steiner, Carolyn Kitch, Brooke Kroeger, eds.