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To those individuals who do pass, their experience has proved to be key in illuminating the overwhelming power of privilege – even as said privilege brushes up against other marginalisation.

— Koa Beck[1]

Maya Rudolph is a mixed-race person of colour; her father is an Ashkenazi Jew, and her mother was African-American. This allows her to pass as white, as well as a person of colour.

Passing is the state of being interpreted, accepted, coded as a certain identity by either another person or by society as a whole momentarily or permanently. The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology defines passing as "a process by which an individual crosses over from one culture or community into another undetected."[2]

For example, a lighter skinned person of colour may pass as white, a trans non-binary woman might pass as a cis woman, a bigender person might pass as a cis man on some days and others as a cis woman, or a cis man with long hair might pass as a cis woman from behind, and so on. Such situations can grant privileges, known as passing privileges, or they can remove or diminish privileges. This social acceptance or rejection will hold up until the moment the person who passes stops passing for whatever reason.

If a person always passes as a certain social-level grouping, e.g., a genderqueer person designated male at birth, who passes as a cisgender man, they will continue to receive certain, but by no means all, cis privileges and male privileges. If they start to discuss their gender, they will (for the duration of the the conversation and possibly longer) be more marginalised and oppressed than before, when they were passing as male. This phenomenon is known as cis passing and male passing. Similar phenomena exist for people of colour who pass as white. People of colour can sometimes be regarded as white people and given access to some white privilege, while also being cut off from their communities because of the perception they are an outsider. When lighter-skinned people of colour explain their identity, ethnic, cultural, and other heritage, their access to some white privileges is lost. Notwithstanding, passing by no means grants people who pass all the privileges that a person who both is perceived as and identified as a member of a dominant group.

The most benign form of passing is when one is described correctly by others as their own identities and their own communities accept them and society more broadly does not marginalise or oppress them for it. On the other hand, the most malign form of passing, is that in which the individual is suffering from internalised self-hatred of their heritage (e.g., antiblackness), their various communities reject and other them (e.g., both black and white communities), and society in general uses their various identities against them (e.g., phrases like "not white enough", etc).[3][4]


The historical connotation of the term, however, is intimately connected with black America, and “passing,” “crossing over,” or “going over to the other side” typically refers to a black person whose appearance is such that they can pass for white. The vivid language of the term itself evokes many images: passing one's self off as white; choosing to pass over into white society; the passing away of a person's black identity, reborn as white. As drastic a choice as this “social death” may seem, for some blacks in segregated America, there was little choice (Gaudin n.d.). Homer Plessy, an American man, seven-eighths white (and one-eighth black), sued the state of Louisiana in 1892 for being jailed for sitting in a “whites only” railroad car. Plessy's argument was that he should be legally identified as white and thus allowed all the usual civil liberties and privileges of his white peers as stated under the 13th and 14th amendments of the US Constitution (Cozzens 1995). The judge, John Howard Ferguson, ruled against Plessy. Plessy then took his case to the Supreme Court, where the historic 1896 Plessy vs. Ferguson decision upheld Ferguson's ruling, ushering in over 60 years of legally sanctioned segregation, commonly referred to as the Jim Crow Era.[2]

See also

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