Newsday – “Taking the Passing Lane”

October 5, 2003, Queens Edition, p. A2
By by Ellis Henican

All of a sudden, everyone is passing for something they’re not.

Here are Simon and Garfunkel, heading out on tour this fall, pretending they actually like each other. There’s Mike Bloomberg, passing for a regular guy — $5 billion and all.
And look, it’s radio moralist Rush Limbaugh. He’s been making the whole world believe that he hates drugs. Other people’s drugs, anyway.

And I’m no better than any of them. For years, I’ve been trying to pass myself off as an urbane New York guy, street-smart and keen-eyed all at once.

And what have I discovered along the way? You can fool some of the people some of the time. You really can. Even if you come originally from a place like Louisiana, even if you didn’t quite finish at the top of your high-school class.

I’m still working in the big town, you might have noticed.

Not much longer, you say?

Only recently has it struck me: This whole idea of passing is a lot more common and a lot more fascinating than most people think. People, lots of people, in all walks of life, are passing for things that they’re not.

In major ways.

Light-skinned blacks passing for white people. Gay people getting over as straight. God knows, we have some well-plucked men in the Meatpacking District who are pretending, quite believably, not to be men at all.

That whole idea — call it biographical reinvention — is the backdrop for a big fall movie from Miramax, “The Human Stain.” Anthony Hopkins plays a 70-year-old classics professor with a terrible secret about to be revealed, shattering life as he knows it in a small New England town. He falls in love with the much younger Nicole Kidman, a university janitor — and nothing is the same again.

The movie isn’t in theaters yet, so I can’t speak to its power. But I am halfway through a eye-opening, taboo-shattering book. “Passing: When People Can’t Be Who They Are” is just out from Public Affairs. The author is Brooke Kroeger. Finally, someone is pulling the curtain back on a subject almost no one has been willing to face.

It’s the fakery at the center of so many of our lives. And this deception, Kroeger shows, is not necessarily such a bad thing.

She is a veteran reporter and foreign correspondent. She did time at Newsday many years ago. These days, she teaches journalism at NYU.

In six intimate portraits, she takes us into the lives of people who, for understandable reasons, have fundamentally revised who they are.

There’s a black screenwriter from Baltimore who passes as a white Jew. There’s a gay conservative Jewish seminarian who pretends to be straight. There’s a lesbian Naval officer who makes a similar choice for similar reasons. There’s a striving Puerto Rican publisher who feigns an upper-class upbringing. There’s a white teacher in the South who finds the students react a whole lot better when they think their teacher is black.

And honestly, who can blame any of them?

Not Kroeger. She lets them explain themselves instead.

“They are good-hearted people who decided to buck the status quo for earnest reasons,” she said when we spoke the other day about her book. “Because they wanted to be in the military. Because they wanted to have friends. Because their livelihoods and their natural associations depended on it.”

Through different routes, they all reached the same place. “Somehow or another, they are all the victims of unjust exclusion, and they ask themselves, ‘Why should I accept this?’ ”

Why indeed?

Most people think of passing as a phenomenon of the bad old days.

But personal reinvention didn’t end with the light-skinned mammies of the Reconstruction South, slipping quietly into the big white world and breaking their own mothers’ hearts.

“People often think of this as cowardly or deceitful or betrayal of someone’s heritage,” Kroeger said. “But often, there are really good reasons for the choices these people have made.”

Writing the book, Kroeger said, she’d even looked in the mirror once or twice. She’d found some passing in her own life.

“When I worked as a reporter in the Middle East,” she said, “people didn’t always know that I was Jewish.” She didn’t lie, exactly. Not exactly.

“People made assumptions that I didn’t correct,” she said. “I certainly didn’t bring it up. Who needs the extra baggage in a place like that?”

Yes, she passed.

Like Simon and Garfunkel and Limbaugh and Bloomberg and urbane me.

Copyright © 2003, Newsday, Inc.

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