‘Passing’ means to transform, to cross a line into a different category, to present to the wider world as something other than the identity assigned to you by society.
An example of racial passing would be a person with Black heritage claiming a white identity because they have lighter skin, or other features that would allow this claim to be convincing.
It happens the other way as well – remember Rachel Dolezal, the American college professor known for identifying as a Black woman despite having been born to white parents?
Passing is a deliberate, usually secret act, a conscious shifting of identity in order to seamlessly assimilate with another group. Historically, it was used as a tactic for slave descendants with lighter skin to escape to freedom by hiding their Blackness.
In subsequent decades, it was used to avoid the cultural and legal oppression of the post-slavery era in America and beyond.
Popular culture has been repeatedly drawn to the concept of ‘passing’ over the last century. The term was first popularised by the 1929 novella of the same name written by Nella Larsen. A new film adaptation of this story is set for release this year, showing how these themes continue to resonate with modern audiences.
Lipika Pelham – a writer and documentary filmmaker who has written a powerful exploration of the history and implications of passing – says the nuances of passing as a different ethnicity in the modern world can be deeply complex and varied.
‘Passing is a process of crossing over from one identity to another, usually a higher status identity. Mostly, this is done to achieve safety and opportunity,’ Lipika tells Metro.co.uk.
‘It has been around since the beginning of our history.’
Lipika explains that racial theory was introduced to the world in the late 18th century, but before that, passers of different kinds existed. She makes it clear throughout her book that passing is not a phenomenon that is limited to crossing the boundaries of race.
‘Gender passers existed from the beginning of humanity,’ she explains.
‘People who were born between genders, or who identified as one or the other when socially, they were assigned a different gender or a different entity, those that passed as the gender society assigned to them and hid their own identification with a particular identity.’
Within her writing, Lipika explores what is a legitimate identity and what is not, when it comes to passing. She says that what Dolezal did is not the same as concealing your racial identity in order to avoid persecution.
‘When racial passers or sexual minorities perform an identity – they do that in order to survive,’ she explains. ‘But when someone who is doing it the other way around, “passing down” – that is an illegitimate form of identity.
‘Colonial explorers were known to “pass down”, like Richard Francis Burton, the Victorian explorer went to Mecca and performed Hajj, dressed up as an Arab, which was illegal. He would have been sentenced to death had he been caught.
‘And then in modern times, we know the infamous story of Rachel Dolezal who trespassed into the Black identity. I call this “trespassing” when passing is not legitimate.’
Lipika says we are living in a time when identity has never been more fluid. Changing how we present ourselves, both online and in person, is easier than ever, and is even rewarded. White influencers who ‘pass’ as Black or racially ambiguous gain likes and interactions by capitalising on the ‘trendy’ elements of Blackness that appeal to their followers.
This phenomenon, known as ‘Blackfishing’, is arguably one of the most contemporary examples of racial passing. However, where passing is usually a definitive transformation into an alternate racial category, people who Blackfish walk a more ambiguous line and will often deny any attempts of imitating a different race if they are called out.
The blurry lines between identities, and how and why people step between them, means we need to be even more aware of the implications of ‘trespassing’ and cultural appropriation. Spotting this behaviour can be incredibly tricky.
‘If you think about it, we are all somehow passing. We are all performing an identity,’ says Lipika. ‘In modern popular culture, identity performance is still sort of allowed and is even rewarded in many instances.’
Modern thinking tends to conflate identity labels with old-fashioned limitations on individuality, but Lipika says that just because racial categories are not grounded in science, that doesn’t mean the real-world impacts of these labels can be disregarded.
‘Dolezal once said in an interview, that she doesn’t believe there is anything inherent about race, so she identifies as an African American and thinks she should accepted as an African American,’ says Lipika.
‘And then the interviewer, who was a Black woman said, “Well, I can’t do the same.” So that’s the difference. That’s when it becomes identity trespass rather than a legitimate identity.
‘Anybody can perform any identity, you can put on any accent, wear any hairstyle, give yourself any name. But then, of course, the concept of cultural appropriation enters into the discussion. That is when you have to ask what is allowed and what is not allowed. This takes us back to the history of colonialism, imperialism, and global migration.’
Passing becomes problematic, or a form of appropriation, when an identity performance is a choice by someone who inherently has more privilege than whoever they are imitating.
Like Rachel Dolezal’s Black interviewer made clear – she could never choose to present to the world as anything other than a Black woman. Lipika says having choice is in itself a privilege.
Lipika’s identifies cultural appropriation as a form of ‘reverse passing’ – where people cherry-pick the elements of a minority heritage or identity to suit their narrative, before whitewashing the rest in order to appeal to a wider audience.
‘Somehow, amidst the growing outcry against dominant groups performing the identities of the dominated,’ writes Lipika in Passing, ‘society continues to largely overlook – and frequently reward – inappropriate identity transfer and identity imitation, so long as it is done in the name of professional performance art.’
Lipika references Ben Kingsley wearing brownface to be cast as Gandhi in the 1982 film, and Angelina Jolie wearing a wig of tight curls to portray a woman with mixed Afro-Cuban Chinese origin in the 2007 film A Mighty Heart.
See also the whitewashing of Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton cast as Moses and Ramesses respectively in the 2014 film Exodus: Gods and Kings, and Emma Stone playing a woman of Chinese and Hawaiian heritage in 2015 film Aloha.
For Lipika, these are all explicit examples of ‘trespassing’, and she says the world of performance and art is still far too accepting of this behaviour, at the cost of performers and creators of colour, but also at the cost of diverse audiences.
There is a power dynamic at play when it comes to passing – particularly racial passing. This is why it is not the same thing when a minority chooses to pass as white to escape oppression, as when a white person adopts ethnic minority traits for their own gain.
In 2018, British theatre-maker Anthony Lennon was accused of ‘Black-passing’ for personal gain after participating in a scheme for ethnic minorities in theatre, despite having two white parents. However, his case shows up the complexity of this issue, and the complexity of using race as a marker of identity.
A DNA test found that Lennon had ‘32% African’ ancestry, and he continued to insist that he was of mixed Black heritage, stemming further back than his parents. It was a confusing case that, if nothing else, highlights the many blurry intersections between the neat boxes of identity that we carve out for ourselves.
‘Identity trespassers are those who are privileged, and can always go back to their so-called original identity,’ says Lipika.
‘These people can darken their skin, because they are privileged enough to do that. They can always go back to their white background, their white families, their white world. So this is illegitimate identity performance. And that’s something we have to understand is no longer acceptable.’
With identity politics at the heart of so many contemporary narratives – around not only race, but also gender, class and socio-cultural positions – passing, and the idea that identity can be fluid and changeable, is an important part of this conversation.
This is not a frivolous or superficial issue – for many people, all over the world, passing is still their only strategy of survival amid intolerance and oppression.
Passing: An Alternative History of Identity by Lipika Pelham (Hurst, £25) is available to buy now.
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