Racial Passing

Racial Passing

Ohio State Law Journal
Ohio State University Michael E. Moritz College of Law
Vol. 62: 1145 (2001)
Frank R. Strong Law Forum Lecture

Randall Kennedy, Michael R. Klein Professor of Law
Harvard Law School

I. Passing: A Definition

Passing is a deception that enables a person to adopt certain roles or identities from which he would be barred by prevailing social standards in the absence of his misleading conduct. The classic racial passer in the United States has been the “white Negro”: the individual whose physical appearance allows him to present himself as “white” but whose “black” lineage (typically only a very partial black lineage) makes him a Negro according to dominant racial rules. A passer is distinguishable from the person who is merely mistaken—the person who, having been told that he is white, thinks of himself as white, and holds himself out to be white (though he and everyone else in the locale would deem him to be “black” were the facts of his ancestry known). Gregory Howard Williams was, for a period, such a person. The child of a white mother and a light-skinned Negro man who pretended to be white, Williams assumed that he, too, was white. Not until he was ten years old, when his parents divorced, did Williams and his brother learn that they were “black” according to the custom by which any known Negro ancestry makes a person a Negro. Williams recalls vividly the moment at which he was told of his “new” racial identity:

I never had heard anything crazier in my life! How could Dad tell us such a mean lie? I glanced across the aisle to where he sat grim-faced and erect, staring straight ahead. I saw my father as I had never seen him before. The veil dropped from his face and features. Before my eyes he was transformed from a swarthy Italian to his true self—a high-yellow mulatto. My father was a Negro! We were colored! After ten years in Virginia on the white side of the color line, I knew what that meant. When he held himself out as white before learning of his father’s secret, Williams was simply mistaken. When he occasionally held himself out as white after learning the “true” racial identity of his father, Williams was passing. In other words, as I define the term, passing requires that a person be self-consciously engaged in concealment. Such a person knows about his African American lineage—his black “blood”—and either stays quiet about it, hoping that silence along with his appearance will lead observers to perceive him as white, or expressly asserts that he is white (knowing all the while that he is “black” according to ascendant social understandings).

Estimates regarding the incidence of passing have varied greatly. Walter White claimed that annually “approximately 12,000 white-skinned Negroes disappear” into white society. Roi Ottley asserted that there were five million “white Negroes” in the United States and that forty to fifty thousand passed annually. Professor John H. Burma’s estimates were considerably lower. He posited that some 110,000 blacks lived on the white side of the color line and that between 2,500 and 2,750 passed annually. Given its secretive nature, no one knows for sure the incidence of passing. It is clear, however, that at the middle of the twentieth century, large numbers of African Americans claimed to know people engaged in passing…

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