The idea of passing is fairly common in the United States. A common American refrain is fake it till you make it, an idea that you can pretend to be something until you become that thing in reality. For white people in the United States this is a common strategy, especially among young or entrepreneurially ambitious individuals. In my own life, I have been guilty of passing to try to fit in with the cool kids in high school, as passing for someone who knows more than they do to try to get a job, and of passing to try to impress elders with deep knowledge when I only have surface deep knowledge. However, this kind of passing is different than racial passing, a type of passing that many people in the United States have turned to in order to get by. I was using passing to try to hide weaknesses and to try to impress others in an effort to improve my social status. I was not passing to try to avoid discrimination and prejudice.
Racial passing includes elements of trying to improve ones social, economic, and political status as I was trying to do, but not in the same fake it till you make it way. I was trying to work my way into social groups and jobs that I was mostly qualified for, but for which I might have some weaknesses. Racial passing is not about hiding weaknesses or being unskilled, it is about hiding ones racial background to prevent others from discriminating against you for no reason other than your skin color. Throughout American history, racial passing has also been a way to avoid violence against oneself and to preserve ones life, very different from any passing experiences I have had.
The book Krazy by Michael Tisserand is a biography of cartoonist George Herriman who spent most of his life in a state of racial passing, hiding his family heritage from everyone he knew. In the book he writes about Herriman’s passing in the following paragraph:
“Racial passing was – and remains – a controversial practice. Only a select number of blacks had the opportunity to pass. Although there are no existing photographs of George and Clara Herriman [George Herriman the cartoonist’s parents], photos of George Joseph Herriman reveal a shade of skin and general physical characteristics that might, to some eyes, render him racially ambiguous. Members of the Herriman family, it appears, were what some Creoles called nations able to present themselves in many different lights.”
Herriman’s family tree included Creole, black, and white people from New Orleans in the decades before the Civil War. This unique racial background created the ambiguous racial appearance of George Herriman, allowing him to engage in racial passing.
Without being able to pass as white, Herriman would not have been able to get a job at a nation-wide newspaper and would not have had a nation-wide circulation for his comics. His art and skills were fantastic, but never would have been possible if he had not been able to hide his family background and pass as white. He found a lot of success as a cartoon artist and newspaper illustrator, allowing him to buy a home in a good neighborhood in Los Angeles. If he appeared more black or Creole he would not have been able to attain the same level of career success, would not have been able to buy a home and begin building wealth to pass along to his children, and might have been at risk of violence in an unlucky police encounter. This has been the cost of not being able to pass for many people throughout American history. On one hand for those who do pass, they risk alienation from their family and friends who cannot pass, having to hide their association with anyone who was not white out of fear of discovery. On the other hand, passing opened up a world free from discrimination and full of career, wealth, and general life possibilities. Passing has been much more than just trying to impress people to get ahead or be popular, it has been about living a life that would not be possible if one was identified differently based on their skin color.