1959 – “A fierce, bald, very dark Negro – glared at me from the glass. He in no way resembled me,” wrote reporter John Griffin as he looked in the mirror. A white man, he took pills and laid under ultraviolet light to brown his skin and travel the segregated South. Afterwards he wrote the famous 1961 book Black Like Me.
2015 – “I identify as black,” admitted Rachel Dolezal, now former N.A.A.C.P. chapter president after years of telling co-workers, she was physically black just very light-skinned. Her parents publicized a photo of her as a blue-eyed, straight haired, teenage white girl. “She’s clearly our birth daughter,” they said, “And we’re clearly Caucasian.”
Fifty-six years separate these two whites who passed as black. The first was celebrated for his courage in crossing the deadly color-line. The latter, critiqued for her lying. Their intents differed but they showed a truth that erodes the very categories of race. Passing is only possible because as Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Man is an imitative animal.” We are living mirrors, reflecting each other within the same species. So however flawed the “passing” person is, within their cracked image is a glimpse of a post-racial world.
“Passing is a deception,” wrote law professor Randall Kennedy, “That enables a person to adopt certain roles or identities from which he would be barred by prevailing social standards in the absence of his misleading conduct.” A bit of a dry definition but yes, the elements of passing, whether gay passing for straight, a person of color for white or immigrant for a native means concealing one’s origins and playing the role of another. And it usually it’s an attempt to “move on up” as they sang on The Jeffersons.
In America’s racial history, the most common form of passing was light-skinned blacks hiding in whiteness. The “tragic mulatto” stereotype, a half white, half black woman who was torn by her desire to be herself (black) but also to be free (white) was a stock character. She appeared in antebellum narratives like Lydia Maria Child’s 1842 story The Quadroons or William Well Brown’s 1853 novel Clotel. In film, male and female “passers” span from Imitation of Life to the novel and film The Human Stain. Tortured by their exile in the white world, the “passing” character often succumbed to death, addiction or perversion.
The other form was reverse-passing defined by scholar Phillip B. Harper as “when a person legally recognized as white, effectively functions as a non-white person in any quarter of the social arena.” The most resonate acts of reverse-passing were whites acting as spies to expose racial violence. The 1947 novel and film Gentleman’s Agreement highlighted anti-Semitism. Griffin’s Black Like Me was the most famous act of reverse racial passing, followed by Grace Halsell’s 1969 book Soul Sister. Sadly there is the god awful 1986 comedy Soul Man and the more recent 2006 Fox reality show Black.White. Reverse racial passing shares with the first version of being disguised as another and concealing one’s origins. But unlike the first, it was not meant to gain majority-status privilege or be permanent but to experience and testify to the horror of racism.
But what of whites who pass as black not to bear witness but to actually become black? How do we read musicians like Mezz Mezzrow or Johnny Otis, two white men who did not physically pass as black but culturally passed, to the point of embracing a public black identity? Their love for black musical culture was genuine but choosing a race rather than having it branded on your skin is already a sign of white privilege.
It is this third category of cultural reverse passing that when done by a member of a dominant group, overlaps uneasily with cultural appropriation. They can profit from their “exoticism”. And since it’s a choice, they don’t feel the weight of stigma on their bodies. They will never live with the permanent danger that black people are vigilant about.
Today very few people, pass as another race in the biological sense but cultural reverse passing is all the rave. When whites use black cultural forms, the reflexive question as comedian Paul Mooney asked is “did they pay their dues?”
Everything but the Weight
“Did you hear about Rachel Dolezal,” I asked my friend. She nodded, “Isn’t she that white lady who tripped black.” I nodded, “Yeah, she went all in. Got a black husband and had two kids. Then he abused her. She left him and ascended to N.A.A.C.P. royalty.” My friend cackled, “He beat her? She got the full black experience! She’s a sistah!”
Going further than whites who culturally pass for black, Dolezal at first, claimed to be physically black. Posing with an older black man in photo, she suggested he was her father. She filled job applications, saying she was Native American, white and black. It was only after intense Internet derision and pointed TV interviews that she backtracked and said, “I identify as black” rather than “I am black.”
Some said that she got entangled in her guilt. Activist Ali Michael wrote in “The Rachel Dolezal Syndrome” that her bid for blackness was part of the alienation that some whites undergo. Faced with their own brutal history, they distance themselves by being as racially Other as possible. They talk black, dress black, date black and travel to Africa to learn something cool. They fill in the blanks of their own severed culture to escape the responsibility of racism. Michael wrote that whites can’t heal themselves by running but must, “Own our role in oppression.”
In running from her whiteness, Dolezal may have missed a rueful accounting of her place. And it’s true that reverse passing whites will never know the absence of choice that defines part of the black experience. But what’s also true is that she will never again be that white, teenage girl in the photo.
Focusing on privilege heals our vision, by showing how status shapes us. The premise is that freedom is a collective act that comes from accountability to others. True that. But zeroing in on privilege can at the extreme, entrap us by preserving it in the reverse form of guilt. Many radical acts of solidarity come through identification with the Other. Which is why, regardless of intent those who are passing, experience a deep human truth.
Identity is not stone, it is water. Flowing though others, it reflects their faces and slakes our thirst for recognition. From psychologist Charles Cooley’s Looking Glass Self to W.E.B. Du Bois’ concept of Double-Consciousness to psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s Mirror Stage; a theme of human development theory is that each of us are living mirrors. No one comes into the world with a fully formed identity but continuously re-emerges out of their relationships with others. Reflectivity is a permanent dimension of our lives. And when we love, the mirror inside us opens and receives the Other into our depths.
Is Dolezal culturally black? No doubt. Can she ever feel the forced choice of blackness? Not for herself but to a degree, yes, through her children. Seeing her on TV, it was obvious that she loves her brown skinned sons. And not just as individuals but as people of color who lock her into the collective black consciousness. When they leave her arms and go into the world, she sees the danger they face and feels it as if she were the target to. One of her sons told her, “Mom, you’re racially human but culturally black.” Her passing took her a long way from whiteness but where she ended is where some others begin.
When Keeping It Real Goes Platinum
“There are white niggers,” rap artist Fat Joe said in a VladTV interview. He was talking about Oakland, white female rapper V-Nasty, who dropped nigga so much you’d think she was Richard Pryor in whiteface. Quickly, a firestorm in Hip Hop brewed. Can white rappers now say the most famous, deadly, overused, sold and bought racial slur in American history? So far, no. In an interview, a chagrined V-Nasty said she stopped using it in her music. Long before her, Eminem, the popular white rapper, made it a point not to say nigger. “Yeah it’s just a word I don’t feel comfortable with,” he said to Rolling Stone, “It just doesn’t sound right coming out of my mouth.”
The line dividing whites who can or cannot say nigga overlaps Du Bois’ color-line. It’s not a question of reverse cultural passing but of the solidarity of mirroring. Whites inside the black experience, can say it and those outside of it, cannot. In a Howard Stern interview, rapper 50 Cent said, “There’s white guys born in my neighborhood, they say ‘what’s up nigga’ cause you grew up with him.” He was echoed by Oakland rapper, Mistah F.A.B. who said about V-Nasty, “We grew up in the same neighborhoods.” He blinked dramatically to show incredulousness. “V-nasty is really mobbing yo, that’s like little sis,” he said, “She just got out of jail for robbery. Like come on dog, this is public information. She’s in the shit.”
And that is where the color-line overlaps the class line. Race is not a genetic reality but it is a social one and it’s forced on brown skinned people. What Mistah F.A.B. is saying is he accepts that poverty is also a forced life. Trapped in the same ghetto, whites who share the weight of oppression are seen as more down than black people who have “coin”. They deal with the same pressures that breaks poor black families apart. Driving some to numb their pain with drink or drugs. They deal with the same poverty that forces youth to sell sex and the same boiling rage that explodes and leaves blood cooling on the sidewalk.
“You got white people in Oakland who don’t know they white,” rapper Too Short said on VladTV, “They look in the mirror and they don’t see, they don’t act it; they don’t feel it.” He made a distinction between culture and one’s physical looks, saying a lot of black people aren’t really black. But he warned them that saying nigga is intimate. Don’t say it around folks who don’t know you or you will be checked. Why? Nigger was created to be a weapon, a linguistic knife that we use to slash ourselves and each other. But when shared, it means I trust you with the thing that caused my scars.
It this intimate culture of shared obscenity that makes this genre of white person, not a culturally reverse passing white. They are family. Like V-Nasty or 50 Cent’s friend, they aren’t beginning outside of black culture but inside the poorest part of it. Their self-image is mirrored back to them from the black people that are their world. It’s when they leave that cloistered space that the dynamics of white privilege intensifies, elevating them or crushing them for not being their proper race. In this brief, ephemeral Eden of solidarity in the ‘hood is a glimpse of a post-racial world.
It’s not post-racial because they stop using racial language or that they stretch racial slurs to mean anything or nothing at all. It’s that they are surviving separate but overlapping and sometimes shared oppression. Their names are written in scar tissue on the skin and like Braille they know how to read it by touch. It’s a pain only half translated by Hip Hop, obscured as it is by braggadocio and bling. But when it ignites in a riot or protest, everyone becomes silhouettes jumping through fire.
The Mirror Age
Passing, once a secret practice of those desperate to escape their lives is today a base metaphor for the world. As capitalism widens the global, class divide, people everywhere are aching to be someone else. Immigrants buy fake diplomas or fake names. Skin lightening cream is used. And like the first version of passing, it is driven by a desire to escape into privilege.
Against passing is the solidarity of mirroring where we see our struggles reflected in each other. In his 1952 trip to Poland, Du Bois revised his statement that the problem of the 20th Century was the problem of the color line. He wrote, “My view of the Warsaw ghetto, was not so much clearer understanding of the Jewish problem in the world as it was a real understanding of the Negro problem…the race problem cut across lines of color and physique and was a matter of cultural patterns, perverted teaching and human hate and prejudice, which…caused endless evil to all men.”
The lines Du Bois saw then no longer need to be drawn. At our fingertips is the infrastructure for equality. Industrial technology exists for a sustainable world. Communication technology exists for an interconnected world. Science exists to debunk and if learned, end racism, homophobia and nationalism. Yet we live stranded in silo like identities even as TV, cellphone, movie and computer screens pour the world into our eyes. The problem of the 21st Century is not the color line, it is the broken mirror.