October 24, 2003
By TRACIE POWELL
The term “passing” is most commonly associated with black people who successfully present themselves as white in order to gain acceptance or access to places and things that otherwise would escape their reach because of skin color.
But what about a working-class Puerto Rican woman who becomes an Orthodox Jew and passes for privileged? A lesbian naval officer hiding in the closet? A prize-winning poet who masks his real identity in order to write rock music reviews?
Author Brooke Kroeger uses these cases and more to update the traditional definition in Passing: When People Can’t Be Who They Are ($25, Perseus Books).
“People think of it as a pre-Civil War phenomenon. It’s still quite common and it takes many, many forms,” she says. “There’s class passing, gender passing, sexual-oriented passing, black for white and white for black, and religious passing.”
“I wanted to write about this subject because it seemed such a dated concept,” she adds during a telephone interview from her home in New York. “I wanted to find out if anyone did it anymore, and why, and what that told us about our times.”
Ms. Kroeger, an associate professor of journalism at New York University, is best known for chronicling the lives of reporter Nellie Bly in 1994 and novelist Fannie Hurst in 1999. Hurst wrote the book Imitation of Life, and Ms. Kroeger’s research of the novelist’s life gave birth to Passing.
In it, Ms. Kroeger assembles six profiles of young contemporary Americans, mixing personal interviews with academic commentary from psychologists and sociologists, then sprinkles references to other stories – details about Brandon Teena, the cross-dressing drifter whose murder became the basis for the movie Boys Don’t Cry, and Imitation of Life, a 1934 tear-jerker, in which a fair-skinned black daughter disowns her dark-skinned mother.
Ultimately, all the stories are about choice. One can argue whether the choices are good, bad or outright lies.
“Being inauthentic is very dilemmatic for people,” Ms. Kroeger says. Her point is to not judge the people who are passing but the society that forces them to hide who they really are. In other words, don’t hate the player, hate the game.
The book challenges belief systems that historically, Ms. Kroeger contends, judged the passer as the problem. “There’s a social shift now where we’re judging the situation rather than the individual. We now judge the environment that makes the passing necessary.”
Passers still pay a price, she adds: Passing “has a way of eating away at the soul.”
David Mathews, the black man who passes as a white Jew in Ms. Kroeger’s book, acknowledges not being able to bring white friends or even girlfriends home to meet his father, for fear of being exposed. The lesbian naval officer in the book is afraid to let her name be used and worries about the “web of dishonesty” that taints her relationships.
So what is the difference between passing and lying? To Ms. Kroeger, the answer is complex. But Dr. Theman Taylor Sr., a professor at the University of Central Arkansas who lectures on the topic, says there is no difference.
“The whole thing is a form of deception,” he says. “It’s a deceptive measure to avoid persecution or to achieve a personal gain. I’m not making a distinction between a good or a bad lie; both are wrong.”
Dr. Taylor’s lectures mostly focus on passing during the early part of the 19th century, when black people passed for white. But he also talks about how the concept has changed during the past years. Lately, he’s noticed that Arabic students on his campus are changing physical features – cutting facial hair and balding their heads – to look more Latino or Anglo.
“They want to look more acceptable,” he says. “They’ll change their names, their looks, change their accents, and have surgeries to look differently in order to pass. The idea is still deceptive.”
Dr. Taylor holds individuals responsible for their choices. But Ms. Kroeger contends that society is to blame.
“It’s outrageous that people have to go through any of this. And that’s my whole point,” she says.
Tracie Powell is a freelance writer based in Dallas.
Video, event summaries from recent talks in Reports from the Road.
2021 Events: “The Branded Journalist: Nellie Bly Changes the Game.” [VIDEO of TALK] Ephemera Society of America, Jan. 14, 2020, 3pm. Nellie Bly: Pioneer of Investigative Journalism.” American Woman Writers National Museum, March 10, 2021, at noon. Empire State Center for the Book, March 18, 2021, 7pm.