May 4, 2022

The early twentieth-century act known as “passing” referred to light-skinned black Americans pretending to be white “in order to avoid discrimination and gain access to the privilege of whiteness.” It’s an archaic term that is no longer in use, but that doesn’t mean that it no longer occurs.  It just doesn’t occur in the manner that it did when the term was in common use.

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“Passing” has a unique historical significance in this country that I first came to know while in college and studying Nella Larsen’s simply titled novel, Passing (1929).  Larsen was a black author in the Harlem Renaissance that took place in the 1910s to the mid-1930s.  Other well-known authors, such as W.E.B Dubois and Langston Hughes, were also key players in this artistic movement that tended to focus on pride for black Americans’ ample contributions to society, especially in “cultural areas of life.” 

The idea of “passing” was generally viewed as a problematic for this group of artists who expressed immense pride in black culture, because “passers” were seen as Judases who publicly renounced their own race in order to uniquely take advantage of a system of racial prejudice against blacks.  

Worthy of note is that “passing” in America was a one-way phenomenon, in which a member of a societally oppressed group posed as a member of another group that is less societally oppressed.  Black Americans would often try to “pass” as white in order to gain privileges in a society which discriminated against blacks due to skin color.  White Americans of darker skin tone did not typically seek to “pass” as black in order to suffer discrimination.

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We don’t typically call pretending to be of another race in order to gain societal privileges “passing” anymore, but it certainly happens, and it’s similarly a one-way street.  What’s different is the system of societal discrimination that is being navigated by the “passers.”

Take Satchuel Cole, an Indianapolis “racial justice” hustler, who was exposed in the late summer of 2020 for having posed as a black woman.  “Friends, I need to take accountability for my actions and the harm that I have done,” she writes.  “I have taken up space as a Black woman while knowing I am white.”

She’s not alone.  Another left-wing race hustler on Twitter, Shaun King, a.k.a. Talcum X, has for years pretended to be a black man, and still maintains that he is black, despite the New York Times reporting in 2015 that both of the parents listed on his birth certificate are white.

It’s not limited to only the race hustling crowd, though.  Academics seem to find a lot of value in “passing,” but similarly, it’s never to pass as white.  University of Wisconsin grad student CV Vitolo-Haddad resigned from her teaching position, finally admitting that she is of Italian descent after years of claiming to be black.  George Washington University history professor Jessica Krug is a “white Jewish” woman who presented herself as black for years, only to later apologize and admit the lie.   

But who could mention this modern phenomenon without mentioning Rachel Dolezal?  In 2015, after serving as the president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, she finally publicly admitted that she’s white.  “I acknowledge that I was biologically born to white parents, but I identify as black,” she said.

Note that language — “I identify as black.”  Ms. Dolezal serves as a great segue to the next point, which is that not only does “passing” still exist in the twenty-first century, it’s evolved beyond race, and the logic behind it has become muddled.