Passing as Black: How Biracial Americans Choose Identity

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The practice of passing — identifying with and presenting oneself as one race while denying ancestry of another — reached its peak during the Jim Crow era. Needless to say, the notion of having to “pass” as white is outdated and offensive, but as sociologists Nikki Khanna and Cathryn Johnson report in a new study, passing is still alive and well today. It just happens in the other direction.

For their study, Khanna and Johnson interviewed 40 biracial American adults about their racial identity, and were surprised by what they found: most people tended to suppress or reject their white ancestry altogether and claim to be entirely African American. It wasn’t simply about calling oneself black, but also aggressively changing one’s behavior, looks and tastes to appear more “black.” (More on Who’s White? Who’s Black? Who Knows?)

In the segregated landscape of the late 1800s and early 1900s, the “one-drop” rule labeled as black any person who had mixed blood. Those with more white ancestry than black, and who therefore looked whiter, were the ones who tended to pass. As Olivia, 45, explained during her interview with the researchers:

My father has sixteen brothers and sisters and … a lot of them used to pass as white … I mean it’s easier if you can go to any movie theater you want. … [A] few of my aunts told me about a place they used to go to and eat all the time that was “whites only” … they did it as a joke … they did it because they wanted to show how stupid [segregation] was.

But in many instances, passing went further. People passing for white broke all ties with family and friends, and left their communities — a sacrifice deemed necessary to get jobs and education that were not available to members of the black community.

Since the 2000 U.S. Census, Americans have no longer been forced to check only one box for race. Nor are they compelled to deny their racial ancestry in order to succeed — at least less so now than in the past. (More on They All Look the Same: How Racism Works Neurologically)

Yet passing may still be widespread in an era that, for the most part and at least institutionally, embraces multiethnic identities. Why? The researchers found that the motivations for passing are very different today. They write:

We find that biracial people pass as black for several reasons. Most notably, we argue, because they can. … With generations of interracial mixing between blacks and whites and the broad definition of blackness as defined by the one-drop rule, Khanna (2010) argues that most Americans cannot tell the difference between biracial and black.

Further, we find that biracial respondents pass as black for additional reasons — to fit in with black peers in adolescence (especially since many claim that whites reject them), to avoid a white stigmatized identity, and, in the post–civil rights era of affirmative action, to obtain advantages and opportunities sometimes available to them if they are black (e.g., educational and employment opportunities, college financial aid/scholarships).

Khanna and Johnson also found that their interviewees, who had an average age of 24, lived in the Atlanta area and were primarily from middle- and upper middle–class families, having grown up in “predominantly white settings,” tended to manipulate their racial identities aggressively. They not only introduced themselves as black, but also often changed their physical characteristics — tanning and treating their hair — to appear more black. They also aligned themselves with cultural markers like clothing, language and food that were blacker, and rejected others that were perceived to be symbols of whiteness. The authors write:

While Anthony and Denise highlight black cultural symbols (via clothing and language) to manage their black identities, Stephanie managed her black identity in school by distancing herself from cultural symbols of whiteness: “[I attended] an all black school and so all my friends were black then. … I remember NSync being out … and my friends listened to them and I hated that. I hated any music that wasn’t black. I hated any clothes that black people didn’t wear. … I felt like I had to stress to people that I was black … So I felt like “I hate NSync. I hate this white music.”

Black identity extended to dating choices and organized socializing — many of the women interviewed reported dating dark-skinned black men and joining exclusively African-American organizations like the sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA) or Jack and Jill of America. “I can’t imagine a life where I wasn’t part of Jack and Jill and I wasn’t in AKA … things that are exclusively black. … I feel like I’m pretty segregated. I kind of segregate myself and I pretty much just hang out with black people,” said Olivia. (More on The Authentic Self: How Do You Know If You’re ‘Really’ Racist or Sexist?)

The question is whether strongly identifying with a racial minority really qualifies as passing. The researchers argue that it does, because it involves a concerted effort to reveal one portion of ancestry while concealing and rejecting another. The volunteers in the study also behaved strategically to project their race — something that sociologists call “identity work.” The authors of the current study prefer to call it “performing race”: they characterize the racial identities of their subjects as a strategically constructed, outwardly projected performance, and in this sense they liken it to the behavior of those who passed during the Jim Crow era.

One essential element of passing involves deception. In order to pass, a person has to self-identify differently than his or her public presentation. In Khanna and Johnson’s study, only six of the biracial volunteers self-identified as black; the other 33 self-identified as multiracial or biracial, but pursued black identities in public. This additional aspect of identity disconnect was further evidence that their identity performance approximated passing.

Further, Khanna and Johnson point out that passing isn’t limited to race. Throughout history, communities of Jews have passed for Protestant or Catholic to avoid persecution. And today, gays often pass for straight — most notably in the military, which continues to operate under the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy.

This is all another way of saying that intolerance continues to impel certain groups to conceal their true identities. The study of how those groups may perform identity is perhaps to understand where society needs to go in order to build a culture of inclusivity and awareness.

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