Twitter Recap: What Does 'Passing' Look Like Today? : Code Switch As our country continues to become more multiracial, the mechanics behind passing become increasingly complex.
NPR logo Twitter Recap: What Does 'Passing' Look Like Today?

Twitter Recap: What Does 'Passing' Look Like Today?

John D. Kisch/Separate Cinema Ar/Getty Images
In the 1934 film Imitation of Life, Fredi Washington (right) plays the role of Peola, an African-American woman who decides to pass as white.
John D. Kisch/Separate Cinema Ar/Getty Images

In her book A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life, Allyson Hobbs delves into the personal histories of light-skinned African-Americans who, because of their fair complexions and social circumstance, were able to "pass" as white. Code Switch's Karen Grigsby Bates spoke with Hobbs, who explained that, in the past, passing was really a group effort that involved the complicity of a person's family and community. We wondered what passing means now, not just for African-Americans but for others who want to live beyond the social boundaries of group identity.

Passing today, many folks explained, was less about accurately identifying themselves as one race versus another than giving other people one identity to wrap their minds around.

Three different themes came up in our discussion:

  • People choosing to pass, depending on the situation.
  • People who identified as multiracial sometimes presenting one aspect of their multiethnic heritage, while being encouraged to hide others.
  • Strangers assuming that a person has a racial identity that he doesn't have.