Racial passing is the act or condition of classifying oneself as white, even when not actually fully white. This is especially the case of multi-racial persons whose skin color is not easily identifiable as non-white. For example, mulattos or white-Latinos sometimes have fair skin. This means that it is relatively easy for them to pass as whites. However, African Americans were mainly the ones involved in the historical use of racial passing.
The Practice of Racial Passing
Some authors include racial passing as part of their works to emphasize the issue of race and racial discrimination to the target readers. This practice was notable in the 1700s, 1800s, and even in the early to mid-1900s. It was also during these times when racial discrimination was very strong and widespread in America. James Weldon Johnson’s 1912 “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man” is a good example of this kind of literary work showcasing racial passing. In this fictional autobiography, Johnson’s narrator/main character argues that racial characteristics “dictated […] actions” (p. 21). The interpretations of a person’s actions depend on that person’s race. Considering discrimination, Johnson’s statement is an indicator of the benefits of passing as white, rather than as mulatto or of mixed racial descent. For instance, if a person were black, his act of communicating with a little girl in an alley would be viewed with suspicion of harassment or solicitation for sex/prostitution. If that person were white, he would be viewed as trying to help the little girl. Racial discrimination was ingrained in the American mindset, such that race was a major factor affecting people’s perspectives. This use of race as a factor in interpreting actions agrees with research showing that passing illustrates “how race affects one’s chances of success” (Rottenberg, 2004, p. 308).
Reasons for Using Racial Passing
Why do these characters pass as white, anyway? The answer lies in the perceived benefits of doing so. Because of widespread racial discrimination, people saw racial passing as a way of avoiding discrimination. Discrimination brings problems and difficulties in life. The narrator in Johnson’s work says that, even when he was still young, he already had a “strong aversion to being classed with [black children]” (p. 23), thereby pointing to the difficulties of being classified as a black person. The narrator also describes how a white girl could not marry a black man despite supposed changes in American society (p. 163). In passing as white, a non-white effectively assumes a “more American identity” (Rottenberg, 2004, p. 308), but this comes with the price of disowning one’s racial heritage.
In using racial passing, authors like James Weldon Johnson also show that non-whites, especially blacks, faced extreme difficulties that prevented them from actually succeeding. In Johnson’s book, the unnamed narrator says with seeming remorse, “I have sold my birthright for a mess of pottage” (Johnson, 1989, p. 154). A mess of pottage here refers to just a pot of soup, which has very little value. Thus, the narrator passed as white to supposedly improve his situation. While his situation has improved, the improvement is very small compared to the value of his birthright or the recognition of his real race. Thus, this narrator is like many other people who passed as white and “ended their lives unhappily” (Bucholtz, 1995, p. 359).
Some authors include racial passing in their works to show the difficulties of non-whites, especially mulattos, in fulfilling their goals. In the real world, racial passing was rampant among mulattos because it benefitted them in avoiding discrimination and improving social status. However, despite such benefits, they also gave up their racial heritage and identity. Thus, these literary works like James Weldon Johnson’s “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man” show the difficulties that have compelled many non-whites to abandon their racial identity and heritage for supposed benefits of being classified as white.
- Bucholtz, M. (1995). From Mulatta to Mestiza: Passing and the Libguistic Reshaping of Ethnic Idenity. In Kira Hall and Mary Bucholtz (Eds.). Gender Articulated: Language and the Socially Constructed Self (pp. 351-373). New York: Routledge.
- Johnson, J. W. (1989). The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man. Vintage.
- Rottenberg, C. (2004). Race and Ethnicity in ‘The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man’ and ‘The Rise of David Levinsky’: The Performative Difference. MELUS, 29(3/4), 307-321.