In Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel Passing, adapted by Rebecca Hall and distributed on Netflix last fall, Clare Kendry—a light-skinned Black woman—decides to pass as white. Clare grows up poor in Chicago; after her alcoholic father dies, she is taken in by her racist white aunts. When she turns eighteen she marries a rich white man who assumes she is white. Clare makes a clean escape until, some years later, she runs into her childhood friend, Irene Redfield, at a whites-only hotel; Irene, it turns out, sometimes passes herself, in this case to escape the summer heat. The storyline traces their complex relationship after this reunion and ends in tragedy for Clare.
Hall’s film adaptation joins several other recent representations that dramatize the lived experience of passing. The protagonist of Brit Bennett’s best-selling novel The Vanishing Half (2020), for example, decides to start passing as white in the 1950s at age sixteen after responding to a listing in the newspaper for secretarial work in a New Orleans department store. Much to her surprise, after excelling at the typing test, Stella is offered the position; her boss assumes she is white. Initially Stella keeps up the ruse just to support her and her sister, but passing also becomes a way for her to escape the trauma of her father’s lynching and the prospect of her own.
A rather different depiction of passing features in HBO’s Lovecraft Country. In the fifth episode of season one, “Strange Case” (2020), Ruby Baptiste—a dark-skinned Black woman—undergoes a metamorphosis, waking up one morning to find herself in a white body. She is startled at first but after some time adjusts and is empowered by her experience. Though racial passing is often linked with the so-called “tragic mullato”—typically a sad or suffering character, depicted as torn between two worlds, who experiences a personal or familial downfall—Ruby turns this narrative arc on its head: anything but tragic, she is portrayed as self-confident and self-possessed. Ruby initially uses her newfound power for personal gain—like Stella, she secures a managerial position in a department store—but she slowly discovers that she has won the power to do much more than get a job; indeed, she can now move as she pleases in the world. The episode comes to a climax when she wields the trust her white boss affords her to exact revenge—and reveal her true identity—when he attempts to rape Ruby’s Black colleague, Tamara. Bennett has written that she views Stella as a kind of “fugitive, always hunted, always hiding,” worrying about being found out; Ruby, by contrast, hunts rather than hides. Indeed she is more like Clare, who does the very things a passing character ought not do—maintaining relationships that might leave her vulnerable to being found out—if she wants to pass “successfully.”
Racial passing is not just a fictional device for interrogating the social construction of race and the cruelty of racism, of course; as historian Allyson Hobbs documents in A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life (2014), it has a long legacy in the United States. At a moment of debate about the ethics of “trans” identifications across race, reflecting on examples of racial passing, both in fiction and from history, helps illuminate its complexity. The line between Black and white was, as Hobbs says, by no means imaginary; crossing over had profound, life-changing consequences. These consequences ought to be understood not merely as a function of individual choice but also as part of a collective method to correct racial injustice—a method that too often comes with its own set of burdens and sacrifices.
One striking case of historical passing that is little-discussed today but was remarkably influential in its time illustrates how an individual act of passing can extend beyond private gain to have large public implications. In 1943, thirty-seven-year-old Reverend Jesse Routté, a Black Lutheran minister living in Queens, visited Mobile, Alabama, to officiate his brother’s wedding, where he encountered the degrading racism of the South. As historian Paul A. Kramer has documented, when Routté returned to Mobile four years later, he decided to represent himself as South Asian in order to escape the same treatment and expose the cruelty and absurdity of Jim Crow, recruiting his close friend Norman Newhouse, editor of the Long Island Daily Press, to publicize his experience. Donning a turban and affecting an accent, Routté said, he was viewed as a “visiting dignitary” and treated with courtesy and respect.
The story took off: it made the front page of the New York Times in November 1947 and soon was covered across the country, Kramer notes. “Race prejudice has been denounced for its injustice, cruelty, and stupidity,” wrote Theophilus Lewis, a prominent writer and editor of the Harlem Renaissance, for the Interracial Review. “Rev. Routté has proved that it is also silly.” Kramer observes that civil rights leaders continued to enlist Routté to tell his story into the 1960s. As it happens, Routté is not the only person to have passed using a turban: John Roland Redd, a Black musical entertainer born in 1921 (in Missouri, just as Routté), also passed as South Asian, becoming nationally famous as the organist Korla Pandit. His passing was not revealed until a 2001 Los Angeles Magazine essay by RJ Smith. There is no evidence that Redd knew Routté or was directly inspired by his story, but it is clear that, like Routté, Redd was attempting to make a political statement through this very public form of passing. Many Black Americans were aware of the Indian human rights advocate Madam Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit. Smith suggests that Redd chose the name “Pandit” for himself purposefully, as a way of communicating to other Black Americans that crossing the color line was possible; passing could be an opportunity for Black Americans to secure personal freedom and justice for themselves and their families.
Other historical instances of passing are more straightforward paths to ensuring greater freedom and justice for Black Americans. In 1906, during race riots in Atlanta, Walter White’s home was set on fire. He escaped the violence of the day only because he was light-skinned, with blonde hair and blue eyes; people mistook him for white. As White details in his autobiography, A Man Called White (1948), he went on to become secretary of the national NAACP in 1931 and served at this post until his death in 1955. Like Routté, White passed and then made his story public. As journalist A. J. Baime notes, White thought of himself as “the enigma of a Black man occupying a white body.” Mistaking him for a white person, white people knowledgeable about lynching would “gabble on ad infinitum.” White used his ability to pass to gain inside information and to develop theories of mob psychology and mob violence. Baime argues that publicizing this information—in W. E. B. Du Bois’s magazine, The Crisis, for example, where White’s story was a “mini-sensation”—became essential to the NAACP’s campaign against lynching.
Perhaps the most discussed historical case of racial passing—a prominent example in Chosen Exile and one of the few that is regularly covered in elementary classrooms today—took place in 1848, when Ellen and William Craft passed as white in order to escape slavery in Macon, Georgia. Ellen scrupulously disguised herself as a white man, while William, her husband, pretended to be her dutiful servant; fleeing North, they traveled in first-class trains, dined with a steamboat captain, and stayed in hotels. Upon arriving in Philadelphia, they worked with abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison, the long-tenured editor of the Liberator, and William Wells Brown, the lecturer and novelist, to tell their story of escape. As William Craft puts it in Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom (1860), “through the untiring, uncompromising, and manly efforts of Mr. Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Theodore Parker, and a host of other noble abolitionists of Boston and the neighbourhood, public opinion in Massachusetts had become so much opposed to slavery and to kidnapping, that it was almost impossible for any one to take a fugitive slave out of that State.” Following the advice of their good friends in Philadelphia, the Crafts eventually moved to Boston but fled to England after Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850.
These examples undermine the tendency to evaluate cases of racial passing solely in individualistic terms—as a matter of purely personal choices, entitlements, or transgressions. In his study An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (1944), sociologist Gunnar Myrdal argues that passing can be ensured “only by the deception of the white people with whom the passer comes to associate and by a conspiracy of silence on the part of other Negroes who might know about it.” But any ethical analysis of passing must take into account far more than its deceptive nature.
In a recent essay discussing Booker T. Washington’s “ethics of ambivalence,” for example, political scientist Desmond Jagmohan argues that although “we value truthfulness and sincerity and condemn deceit,” “these moral judgments hold true in a community of social equals. . . . the Jim Crow South was far from being such a place.” Washington believed that aggressive protest of Jim Crow would likely fail because of the economic, political, and ideological entrenchment of white supremacy; this is why, according to Jagmohan, Washington sought a more accommodationist route to achieving his ends: “that way forward required the use of concealment and dishonesty, political necessities of the dispossessed and powerless.” While Washington explicitly preached accommodationist policies in public, he defended ambivalences about them in private correspondence.
In a similar fashion, evasion and deceit about one’s ancestry or family background arguably serve just ends when they function as ways of challenging or escaping racial oppression, of contesting or correcting racial injustice. Such a view would help to explain what so many find morally objectionable about cases of “racial fraud,” whereby people misrepresent their relationship to marginalized racial identities. In those cases, what is missing is a link between the insincerity and the remediation of injustice.
Conversely, it is essential to recognize that passing can take on an ethical and political significance by exposing the internal contradictions and contingency of seemingly totalizing systems of oppression, revealing gaps and openings for liberation and working to create and exploit them. Black success—in the skillful work of passing itself as well as in endeavors passers pursue once they access opportunities they had been denied—disrupts the ideological backbone of racial injustice, enacting a reductio of white superiority and revealing whites to be easily fooled. Successful acts of fugitivity achieved by passing also serve to undermine the hegemony of oppression, disrupting its ideological functioning as a natural or inescapable condition.
Of course, passing also often entails a change in an individual’s material well-being: passers gain access to opportunities, resources, wealth, and spaces that they otherwise would have been denied or excluded from—and that many others still remain unjustly deprived of. This pursuit of equal opportunity is a common theme in both historical and literary cases of passing; as the narrator of James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912) puts it, “to forsake one’s race to better one’s condition was no less worthy an action than to forsake one’s country for the same purpose.” The same is true of Larsen’s Clare: by passing, she ensures greater freedom, material resources, and opportunity for herself and her daughter.
Unlike White or Routté, Clare explicitly passes for personal gain, not policy change; her actions have little impact on the political structures and policies that cause or preserve racial injustice, and, for much of, her life, she is cut off from solidarity or even routine connection with darker-skinned bodies and the wider Black community. In her powerful 1992 essay “Passing for White, Passing for Black,” philosopher and artist Adrian Piper acknowledged that “trying to forgive and understand those of my relatives who have chosen to pass for white has been one of the most difficult ethical challenges of my life,” since passing may force one “to sacrifice the history, wisdom, connectedness, and moral solidarity with their family and community.” At the same time, Piper acknowledged that the situation is not so ethically straightforward. Hundreds of thousands of Black Americans have passed as white in the United States—the cumulative effect of which has helped to ensure some measure of material improvement in the lives of generations of Black Americans. As Piper put it:
Once you realize what is denied you as an African American simply because of your race, your sense of the unfairness of it may be so overwhelming that you may simply be incapable of accepting it. And if you are not inclined toward any form of overt political advocacy, passing in order to get the benefits you know you deserve may seem the only way to defy the system.
Long-term passing is not without costs: it takes a significant emotional and psychological toll, both on individuals who pass and on the friends and family they may leave behind. In her prologue to A Chosen Exile, Hobbs notes that “historians and literary scholars have paid far more attention to what was gained by passing as white than to what was lost by rejecting a black racial identity.” Hall’s adaptation of Passing ends with a striking scene of disorientation: Black shadows blur into white snow, suggesting things aren’t as clear as we might like them to be. Racial passing, the film shows, isn’t without personal costs; it requires sacrifice. For all the opportunity Clare discovers by passing, she feels socially isolated and fears being found out, returning to Irene’s family and friends time and again for relief, acceptance, and security. (As Irene’s husband says, those who pass always return.) In Bennett’s novel, Stella too becomes estranged from her family, never recovering relationships with her sister and mother. Focusing on the narrative arcs or internal lives of individuals and their political implications can obscure the larger communal and social implications of passing. As Hobbs argues, “black family life exposes the keen sense of loss and the painful ruptures that passing left in its wake”—including “no longer belonging as a family member and no longer sharing experiences, stories, and memories of times past.”
In light of this fraught intersection of personal and political struggle, racial passing might best be thought of ethically as what philosopher Lisa Tessman calls a “burdened virtue.” One of the more insidious effects of racial oppression is that it can lead the oppressed to engage in practices that may bring some measure of personal or familial liberation and help to expose or undermine injustice but that also carry moral, psychological, and even social costs—only compounding the harm already visited upon the oppressed. A just world, passing itself helps to make clear, would be one where people don’t have to struggle with the prospect of passing in the first place as a way of ensuring personal freedom or racial justice.