The Anatomy of Grey: A Theory of Interracial Convergence

Posted in Law, Media Archive, Papers/Presentations, Passing, United States on 2011-12-19 01:30Z by Steven

The Anatomy of Grey: A Theory of Interracial Convergence

College of Law Faculty Scholarship
Paper 74
January 2008
56 pages

Kevin Maillard, Associate Professor of Law
Syracuse University

Janis L. McDonald, Professor of Law
Syracuse University

This article offers a theory of racial identity divorced from biological considerations. Law fails to recognize the complexity of racial performance and identity, thus categorically simplifying a perceived polarity of black and white. Ground-breaking scholarship addressing racial boundaries, as written by Randall Kennedy, Elizabeth Bartholet, and Angela Onwuachi-Willig, generally focuses on the enduring legacy of race discrimination. We approach these boundaries from a different angle—whites who become “less white.” We bring together the challenges of passing and adoption to offer a theory of fluid racial boundaries.

Transracial adoption provides one viable channel to discuss the possibilities of white-to-black racial identity transformation. By confronting the meaning of white identity in relation to their black surroundings, adoptive parents may engage along a continuum of what we term “interracial convergence.” Parents who adopt transracially potentially face some of the pressures of being black in the United States. The Interethnic Placement Act forbids the consideration of race in adoption placements, but white adoptive parents nevertheless receive sharp criticism from black social workers for lacking the ability to teach “survival skills” necessary for the child’s racial identity development. We argue, alternatively, that it creates a grey space where racial convergers—adoptive parents and racial passers—can challenge the stability of racial boundaries.


  • I. Introduction
  • II. Invisible Racial Connections
    • A. Racial Defection
    • B. Racial Intentions And Performance
    • C. The Performativity Of Passing
  • III. White Racial Identity Development
    • A. Colorblindness
    • B. Willful Racial Ignorance
  • IV. White Parents: Black Children: Racial Performativity
  • V. Transformative White Identity: Interracial Convergence
    • A. The Pre-Encounter Stage
    • B. Encounter and Disorientation
      • a) Initial Racial Disorientation
      • b) Awareness of Repetitive Racial Incidents
      • c) Reckoning with Privilege
    • C. Augmenting a White Racial Identity
  • VI. Conclusion: Interracial Convergence


In 1998, Boston city authorities terminated the eleven-year employment of two firefighters who had falsified their employment applications. Twin brothers, Philip and Paul Malone, transformed themselves from white to black on their applications in order to benefit from a federal diversity program. Although their family had identified as white for three successive generations, the brothers claimed their black ancestry from their maternal great-grandmother. They relied on the traditional, although controversial rule in law and social practice of hypo-descent, or the “one-drop” rule, to justify their status. A hearing officer held that the twin brothers, who had lived most of their lives as white, “willfully and falsely identified themselves as black in order to receive appointments to the department.” The officer based her determination of their racial identity on three criteria: visual observation of facial features, documentary evidence, and social reputation of the families. Under this test, the Malones failed to qualify as “black.” In a different case, a Pennsylvania social service agency failed to approve a potential adoption placement for Dante, a biracial black/white child, with his white foster parents, Victor and Mary Jane DeWees. Before the family accepted Dante as a foster child Mrs. DeWees expressed to a social worker that she preferred a white child because she “did not want people to think that [she] or her daughter were sleeping with a black man.” The social service agency based their denial on the DeWees’ negative racial attitudes, which they believed conflicted with Dante’s best interests. In return, the foster parents argued that their views had changed in the two years that they fostered Dante and they were ready to “accept [him] as any other child.” Nevertheless they did not view race as important to Dante’s upbringing: they informed the social worker that race had “no impact” on the self-esteem and identity of minority children, and refused “to manufacture black friends.” Challenging the relevance of the child’s racial identity, Mr. and Mrs. DeWees brought suit against the agency in federal court.

Both Malone and DeWees demonstrate the inherent difficulties of rigid racial categorization. The two forms of racial subversion we examine here, passing and transracial adoption, effectively question the rigidity of racial boundaries. While passing facilitates the secret transference of racial membership, adoption across the color line compels an open form of interracial kinship. Both require a journey into unfamiliar racial territory which reorients racial identity from a biological status to a performative measurement based on the choices made by the individuals involved…

…Both cases present potential situations where transracial adoption and racial passing intersect in some ways. Passing, for those persons born as white, means confronting unearned racial privilege inherited at birth. This article seeks to expand on traditional discussions of passing by offering a theory of racial identity divorced from biological considerations. Law fails to recognize the complexity of racial performance and identity, thus categorically simplifying a perceived polarity of black and white. While the majority of passing scholarship focuses on the enduring legacy of white supremacy, much less work focuses on whites relinquishing the trappings of race privilege—whites who become “less white.” This discourse, as it stands, lacks a rigorous examination of the ways that whites might join this destabilization of racial boundaries…

…This Article proceeds in four parts. Section One addresses traditional racial “passing,” where necessary subterfuge and identity performance undermined socially identified and controlled racial divisions. In this cautious challenge to the biological essence of white identity, passers expose the different ways that white identities could be performed. Section Two introduces the continuum of white identity development, beginning with a “pre-encounter,” stage of racial awareness. The section examines the contributing role of colorblindness and racial recklessness in supporting the existence of a pre-encounter stage. Section Three introduces the application of interracial convergence into the transracial adoption debate as it relates to considerations of the child’s need to develop a healthy black racial identity. Recent changes in federal adoption law require a colorblind placement process, which eliminates scrutiny of the racial attitudes of the adoptive parents. The DeWees parents, despite their deliberate ignorance of their foster child’s racial needs, might have been approved under these new interpretations of the law. Section Four identifies the potential stages of a transformative white identity for adoptive parents. Our model identifies stages that progress from a colorblind, preencounter stage, followed by a disorienting racial encounter stage, to various stages that recognize the role of white privilege, progressing toward a stage of interracial convergence and, perhaps, a new, transformative white identity…

Read the entire paper here.

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