Vol. 110, No. 6, p. 46
By WILLIAM JELANI COBB
Time was when only mulattoes could be tragic. In the twisted taxonomy of race relations, there’s precious little room lor ambiguity and thus the particularly American genre of mixed-race tragedy. The archives of literature and film are filled with biracial victims failing at their anguished imitations of life. But to take the argument in Brooke Kroeger’s Passing: When People Can’t Be Who They Are at its face value is to know that tragedy has metastasized way beyond persons of mixed race. We have, in fact, become democratically
Passing reflects the growing postmodern fixation with the “fluidity” of identity and fake boundaries of race, sexual identity and gender. In 2003, nothing is what it appears to be, and certainly not what it once was. For Kroeger, “passing,” which she defines as presenting oneself to the world as something other than you understand yourself to be, is an American pandemic.
In these pages are gays who pass for straight, gentiles who pass for Jews, Whites who (kinda) pass for Black and men who pass for women. In this context, anything other than full disclosure of all elements of one’s identity to the world is passing – a definition so broad that it simultaneously encompasses almost everyone and nearly no one. Kroeger’s argument is fairly straightforward: We continue to live in a world in which gender, sexuality and race prejudices constrict the life options of far too many people. To subvert these kinds of bigotry, some people have learned to present themselves as closer to the society’s narrow concept of “ideal.” This observation is not new or revelatory, and the real question remains how significant this is to attempts to rectify those social wrongs.
To her credit, Kroeger, a professor of journalism at New York University, is willing to countenance the idea that such persons, by circumventing the prescriptions of race or religion or sexual preference, actually help oppressive traditions remain intact. “Passing is commonly regarded as a way of perpetuating a problematic status quo because the passer by slipping through an oppressive system helps keep that system in place.”
Nevertheless, she believes that passing may have a courageous cast. The six “passers” profiled in this book share the common trait of having been – or believing themselves to have been – painted into a corner by external social definitions. In some instances, these individuals and the dilemmas that confront them highlight serious concerns: One lesbian finds herself having to deny her orientation to avoid being ejected from the Air Force and a job at which she excels. A gay rabbinical student is forced to reckon with a religious tradition that will certainly exclude him if he comes out of the closet. The author is largely sympathetic to her subjects, going so far as to airbrush her definition of passing to “a kind of human ornamentation or embellishment, an elaboration on a life story.”
To be sure, the author presents a worthwhile observation when she points out that it is unfair to place the “blame” for passing solely on the shoulders of the passers when we live in a society steeped in unjust traditions and prejudices. At the same time, however, she fails to grapple with other, thornier implications of passing – the implicit statement it makes about the group-affiliation that is being essentially passed over. Earlier generations of Black people surmised that passing was a form of backhanded insult toward the race; one cannot pass for Black, despite the varying degrees of European ancestry among “Black” Americans. And thus, passing seemed to be an agreeing nod toward the idea that Blackness was a stain, a toxin of which a single drop would ruin an otherwise useful White person.
Kroeger seems unaware of the implicit statement that Black-White passing made, and this colors her understanding of other phenomena she sees as “passing.” In one instance, a male writer adopts the penname Jane Dark and denies that he’s a man when an editor speaks with him by phone. Writers have been adopting pseudonyms for centuries and lying to editors for even longer; it’s difficult to see how this story is socially significant. One might also make the argument for the other stories that there’s a difference between lying to one’s employers or professors and racial passing, which involved adoption of an entirely new identity and often severance of ties
with blood kin.
With the notable exception of sotermed “Voluntary Negroes” like Walter White, who used his light skin as racial camouflage when investigating lynchings, passing is essentially a sidebar in the history of African America. This book is useful insofar as it highlights the tortured lengths to which some people go to avoid discrimination, but ultimately, the informed reader will want to pass.
William Jelani Cobb is an assistant professor of history at Spelman College.
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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.