December 7, 2003
By TONYA JAMESON
Nick Goings didn’t grow up hearing the term “passing.”
As a ’90s baby raised in Ohio, he knew people who did it, but he and his friends called it acting white.
He remembered a grade-school girlfriend who had a black mother and a white father but didn’t correct friends who thought she was white. Nor would she challenge a racial slur. She would tell Goings it was easier to just let it go.
Goings didn’t let it go then. He doesn’t now.
The son of a black father and white mother, the Carolina Panther running back has had plenty of opportunities to act white or even Italian or Hispanic. He’s been called Italian, Hispanic and more. But Goings doesn’t lie about his heritage. On forms, he checks African American and Caucasian.
“People have said if you have a little bit of black blood you should put down black,” said Goings, 25. “I am what I am. I’m proud to be from both.”
His fiancée is Lebanese and white, and he plans to tell their children about their ancestry. Goings reflects a growing number of young Americans who don’t choose one race over the other, or pass to escape prejudice and discrimination.
Celebrities such as Tiger Woods and Halle Berry lead the charge in refusing to allow outdated ethnic categories define them. Woods calls himself Cablanasian. Berry is proudly black and white.
In today’s multiracial culture, when there are more than 2 million interracial marriages, passing seems like a flashback to sit-ins, water hoses and lynchings.
Interest in the topic has been revived in recent months. The film “The Human Stain,” an adaptation of the novel by Philip Roth, features Anthony Hopkins as a black professor who passes as white.
A nonfiction book, “Passing: When People Can’t Be Who They Are,” by Brooke Kroeger, a New York University journalism professor, profiles a variety of contemporary passers. One is a black man who passes as a white Jew in the ’80s and ’90s, another is a lesbian naval officer who passes for straight.
Literature and movies have often examined this phenomenon, but mostly before the civil rights movement, when blacks were blatantly denied equal access to justice, housing, education and other liberties. Back then, passing could be considered a matter of survival. In 1959, the film “Imitation of Life,” a remake of a ’30s film, told the story of a woman who passes for white and how it affected her relationship with her mother.
“The Human Stain,” set more recently, in 1998, examines the life of a black literary scholar, Coleman Silk, who grew up during segregation. The character is loosely based on New York Times literary critic Anatole Boyard. Still, the most interesting parts of the story are set in the past, when young Silk decides to deny his race and, by extension, his family.
In one scene, Silk shows his mother a photograph of his white fiancée, who’s unaware that he’s black. Silk’s mother asks if the couple will have children. If so, she asks, what will he do if the children aren’t light-skinned — accuse his wife of adultery?
“You think like a prisoner,” she tells him. “You’re white as snow and you think like a slave.”
The scene offers a poignant look at the emotional toll of passing. Kroeger, the author of the nonfictional “Passing,” takes a more political position with regard to the act. In some situations, she said, the sacrifices of passing can help others.
“It’s really a way of infiltrating an institution that needs change,” she said.
In a post-civil rights era, ethnic passing is inexcusable. Racial discrimination still exists, but minorities have more opportunities than were available during segregation.
Thankfully, the millions of multiracial children growing up today have similar role models who openly embrace their rich heritages. Tiger Woods, Halle Berry and Nick Goings refuse to allow skin color to imprison them; they are free to be who they are: golfer, actress, football player.
Copyright © THE CHARLOTTE OBSERVER, 2003.
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For National History Day contestants. Upcoming — January 30: Iona College. February 4: Sagamore Hill. March 27: Ephemera Society of America. March 30: TBA 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.