Passing as Black: Racial Identity Work among Biracial Americans

Passing as Black: Racial Identity Work among Biracial Americans

Social Psychology Quarterly
Volume 73, Number 4 (Published online 2010-12-13)
pages 380-397
DOI: 10.1177/0190272510389014

Nikki Khanna, Associate Professor of Sociology
University of Vermont

Cathryn Johnson, Professor of Sociology and Director of Graduate Studies
Emory University

Drawing on interview data with black-white biracial adults, we examine the considerable agency most have in asserting their racial identities to others. Extending research on “identity work” (Snow and Anderson 1987), we explore the strategies biracial people use to conceal (i.e., pass), cover, and/or accent aspects of their racial ancestries, and the individual and structural-level factors that limit the accessibility and/or effectiveness of some strategies. We further find that how these biracial respondents identify is often contextual—most identify as biracial, but in some contexts, they pass as monoracial. Scholars argue that passing may be a relic of the past, yet we find that passing still occurs today. Most notably, we find a striking reverse pattern of passing today—while passing during the Jim Crow era involved passing as white, these respondents more often report passing as black today. Motivations for identity work are explored, with an emphasis on passing as black.

…Characteristics of Respondents

Our data collection efforts resulted in a sample of 40 black-white biracial individuals. The ages ranged from 18 to 45, with the average age a little over 24 years of age. More than half of the respondents, 57.5 percent, fell between the ages of 18 and 22, which is typical college age; this is not surprising considering that our recruitment efforts began at local colleges and universities. Of the remaining respondents, 27.5 percent fell between the ages of 23 and 30, and 15 percent were over the age of 30. Regarding gender, 22.5 percent are men and 77.5 percent are women…


Given the nature of the study and the characteristics of the sample, there are several limitations to be discussed. First, this study examines the phenomenon of passing (among other forms of identity work), yet if biracial people are passing for one race on a day-today basis, they likely would not have answered the advertisements to participate in this study. Hence, we examine those who pass as white or black on an intermittent basis, but not those who may be passing on a continuous basis.

Second, this sample is heavily female, and Storrs (1999) suggests that racial identity may be more salient for women than men; men’s self-concepts may be more tied to other identities, such as those based on occupation rather than race. If racial identity is indeed less salient for men (more work is needed here), then racial identity work and passing may be less frequent for men than women.

Third, these respondents were, for the most part, middle- to upper-middle class and often embedded in predominantly white settings. They were more likely to pass as black rather than white, but it is plausible that working-class biracials may be more motivated to pass as white (if their physical appearance allows it) or, at the very least, they may be more motivated to highlight their white ancestry than their middle-class counterparts; disadvantaged by social class, they may draw on white privilege (if they can) to access opportunities for upward social mobility. Conversely, because of their lower social class status, they may be even more likely than these respondents to present themselves as black. As will be discussed, these middle-class respondents passed as black to fit in with black peers, to avoid what they perceived as a stigmatized white identity, and to benefit from affirmative action programs. It is plausible that working-class biracials are more likely to live and work in minority/black settings and hence pass as black to fit in with black peers and neighbors; in minority/black settings, whiteness may be even more stigmatized as compared to white settings, and hence working-class biracials may feel more pressure to conceal their white ancestry; finally, because they are more disadvantaged financially than their middle class counterparts, affirmative action opportunities may be more crucial to moving up the socioeconomic ladder and so biracial people may be more likely to present themselves as black on admissions, employment, and scholarship application forms…

Strategies of Identity Work

…Factors limiting the accessibility/usefulness of identity strategies. Respondents draw on various identity strategies, and clearly these findings indicate that biracial people have considerable agency with regard to how they identify themselves. We find, however, that these options are not without limits. Extending previous research on identity work (Snow and Anderson 1987; see also Killian and Johnson 2006; McCall 2003; Storrs 1999), we discover several factors that limit the accessibility and/or effectiveness of these strategies—one’s phenotype, social class background, and racial networks. For instance, race in American society is intertwined with phenotype (i.e., we are often raced by how we look); depending upon which identity one is presenting, manipulation of one’s phenotype may or may not be an option. The majority of respondents cannot modify their phenotypes to pass as white, and some respondents have difficulty in altering their physical characteristics to pass as black. However, given the phenotypic variation among blacks (due to centuries of mixing with whites), passing as black is arguably less complicated than passing as white. Having light skin or straight hair, for instance, is not unique to those defined as biracial today; many individuals classified as black also share these traits. In contrast, those wanting to pass as white may face more challenges (e.g., hair cannot always be styled straight, skin tones are not easily lightened)…


…Most interesting, however, are not the few respondents who passed as white, but the many that passed as black. Scholars understand the motivations of passing as white in a society dominated by whites, but less is known about motivations for passing as black. We find that biracial people pass as black for several reasons. Most notably, we argue, because they can. While passing as white is difficult for most, passing as black is less difficult given the wide range of phenotypes in the black community regarding skin color and other physical features. 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. Hence, there is little difficulty when many biracial people conceal their biracial background; this is because many ‘‘blacks’’ also have white phenotypic characteristics (because they, too, often have white ancestry). 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)…

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