February 06, 2004
By ANNA JAFFE, Contributing Writer
People often pretend to be what they’re not. It’s a phenomenon known as passing.
And it’s the subject of a new book by Kansas City native Brooke Kroeger.
“Passing: When People Can’t Be Who They Are,” published in 2003 by PublicAffairs, looks at the act of passing in the context of escaping injustice. Kroeger, an associate professor of journalism at New York University, weaves together the real-life stories of six young Americans with expert analysis from psychologists and ethicists to explore the societal implications of passing.
“I was interested in environments and social situations where people passed to get around blocks that shouldn’t be there,” Kroeger said. “I wanted to explore real people up against those issues and see what happened to them and how we all felt about it.”
Each case of passing presented in the book is slightly different. The stories include a black man passing for a white Jew, a working-class Hispanic woman passing for privileged and a gay seminary student passing for straight.
There is a good deal of Jewish content in the book, which was not Kroeger’s original intent.
“It just happened,” said Kroeger, who is Jewish and who grew up at Congregation Beth Shalom. She’s the daughter of Helen and the late David Weinstein. “But of course, nothing is by chance. It’s probably because of who I am.”
What ties the individual stories together is that each person “… was fulfilling reasonable, honorable aims and ambitions,” Kroeger said. “And what was blocking them didn’t make sense.”
Each of the people profiled had a choice – forfeit his/her dreams or “pass” for a period of time.
“There you are on that precipice, and what decision do you make?” Kroeger said. “What do you do? I don’t want to supply an answer. But I do want to raise questions.”
Passing in our time Kroeger became interested in the subject of passing while working on a biography of writer Fannie Hurst. Hurst is known for her novel “Imitation of Life,” which tells the story of a black woman who passes for white in the 1930s.
“I got very interested in passing in a pre-civil rights context,” Kroeger said. “I found myself asking the questions: Would anyone do this today? And under what circumstances would they do it?”
Kroeger helped organize a conference at Princeton University to explore passing. She also started to do a great deal of reading on the subject.
“Passing shows up in a lot of academic arenas, but not really for popular consumption,” Kroeger said. “Virtually all of the writing on the subject dealt with literature or film. It never dealt with real people in real situations.”
This convinced Kroeger that passing was a subject worth pursuing. She set out to find real-life examples of the phenomenon to include in a book that approached passing from a contemporary perspective.
“I wanted stories that were fresh and that we could relate to as happening in our time,” she said. “The only stories that really moved me were those that had to do with instances of unjust exclusion, where the passing was done to get around unfair prejudice. People’s prejudices had nothing to do with the situation at hand, but simply required the person to use stealth to get beyond someone else blocking them at the starting gate.”
To Kroeger’s surprise, she had close to 30 possible subjects to choose from and settled on the six she felt told the story the best.
“There was always the question: Would anyone cooperate and could I do it without their names?” Kroeger said. “I wanted to tell stories on the record as much as possible. In the end, I had to leave out two names. But I think the stories are complete otherwise.”
Kroeger said she was surprised by how many people were willing to cooperate.
“People wanted to share their stories,” she said. “In at least three cases, they wanted to because they felt it would be helpful to others. They felt they had a story to share that would save someone else from their pain or would expose to others what they do to people unwittingly.”
Eye of the beholder The publication of “Passing” coincided with the release of the Miramax film “The Human Stain.” Based on a novel by Philip Roth, it tells the story of a classics professor who hides the fact that he is black.
“Even though the movie didn’t do well, it did raise the specter of this often not talked about subject,” Kroeger said. “I got a lot of attention that I wouldn’t have ordinarily gotten because of the film.”
Responses to “Passing” vary.
“It’s very much in the eyes of the reader,” Kroeger said. “You always bring your own stories and attitudes to the reading. So different stories resonate in different ways. … I wanted to present things so that people could examine their own attitudes and ideas and decide where they stand.”
©Kansas City Jewish Chronicle 2004
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.