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Passing as Pass?
n rare occasions I nd an expression that is sassy, succinct,
and thus sexy enough to make its veracity inconsequential.
Such is the case with a phrase coined by historians decades ago:
Passing is pass.
Passing, usually understood as an abbrevia-
tion for racial passing, describes the fact of being accepted,
or representing oneself successfully as, a member of a different
Generally speaking, passing refers to the means by which
nonwhite people represent themselves as white. This kind of pass-
ingthough not the only type taken up in this projecthas been a
popular area of literary interest in the United States since the colo-
nial period, slavery, and Reconstruction.
The topic also enjoyed
attention from Hollywood in melodramatic issue lms from the
1930s through the 1950s.
Then came the 1960s and 1970s and
with them a cultural shift through which many nationalist ideolo-
gies belittled passing and its narratives, hoping to make them a
relic of the past and less a part of mainstream racial narratives.
According to the critics of the 1960s and 1970s, passing was an
antiquated practice that ew in the face of burgeoning racial and
ethnic pride as well as institutional and attitudinal change.
addition, the taboo of heterosexual interracial romantic relation-
is said to have eased somewhat with the Supreme Courts
2 Clearly ln\isible
1967 Loving v. Virginia decision.
America and Americans were
growing more acquainted with diversity, and, for a while, passing
became decidedly pass in U.S. literary and political cultures.
This book is evidence that passing is neither a historical artifact
nor a simple habit that expresses a superior-subordinate social rela-
tionship. It is for this reason that a new passing renaissance has
emerged. Revived in the 1990s, narratives of passing and politics
of multiracial identities resurfaced when updated models of racial
identication offered alternatives to past models that hypothesized
a marginal existence for passers as multiracial individuals.

Though described as a precursor to these new and positive mod-
els of biracial identity development, passing took center stage.
such, there has been much scholarly discourse around passing and
its inuences on the construction of identities in a variety of cul-
tural, legal, and political contexts.
Most notably, the New York
Times Best-Seller List has been ooded with multiracial autobiog-
raphies and stories about passing.
Mainstream media outlets also
participate in the discussion with reports on 2010 Census results,
stating that when it comes to identifying racially today more
young Americans choose not to pass and instead choose all racial
categories that apply.
One explanation for the current multiracial
generations choice not to pass is interpersonal family interaction.

Many interracial and multiracial families advocate against passing
as a viable form of identity work.
Because of the popularity of rendering passing pass in litera-
ture and media, its persistence is often explained as evidence of
poor mental health due to confusion stemming from multiracial
individuals struggles with the decision of how to identify racially.

Hence, the call for measuring multiracial and monoracial groups
by unique standards to explode the myth that multiracials are con-
fused freaks of nature.
But research reveals that multiracials do
not appear to be any more or less decient, deviant, or confused
than their monoracial counterparts.
The many contrary scenar-
ios presented in media can be explained by a general confusion
about racial passing and about how to identify racially that seem
to be creeping into mainstream consciousness, as many people
from many walks of life are becoming increasingly protective of
their rights to racial privacy.
Increasing discomfort with racial
identication suggests that some declarations of multiracial iden-
tities could really be the latest incarnations of passing. What is
lntrc1ucticn 1
more, growing color-blindness and color-mute-ness could indi-
cate a growing hostility toward any use of racial identication.

As a late entry into the discourse of passing and its renaissance,
this book explores the old limits and new possibilities of passing
for the twenty-rst century. For one, the analysis is not restricted
to traditional notions of bypassing racial boundaries. Rather, the
case studies include Sophists passing as rhetors, women passing
as men, able-bodied persons passing as disabled, enslaved persons
passing as free, sinners passing as saints, octoroons passing and
then outing themselves as insurgents, siblings who are passing
unknowingly as white and then as black, black classics professors
passing as Jewish, and white supremacists passing as white.
These untraditional acts of passing are about much more than
mere disguise. Untraditional acts of passing are about rhetoric
the symbolic social construction and reconstruction of identity
within particular situational constraints and social networks. And
rhetoric includes verbal and nonverbal symbols such as speech,
clothing, skin color, tattoos, performances, Facebook posts, physi-
cal and social mobility, and many other symbolic exchanges that
inuence thought and behavior in the interests of identication
and social action.
My rhetorical focus suggests an updated tech-
nology of passing that allows it to move beyond bipolar racial
terms of black and white to address issues of gender, religion, class,
ability, health, crime, and punishment. We will see that in some
ways this updated technology of passing is like being airbrushed in
Photoshop. Passing is an artistic technology that creates a smooth
gradation of color used to cover so-called imperfections. When
we airbrush others (i.e., say someone is one thing when they say
something else), we are creating a safety net for ourselves so that
we know how to communicate with and around that person. We
airbrush ourselves (i.e., say we are one thing instead of another or
instead of however else we would otherwise identify) to be more
accepted interpersonally and socially and to ensure that our goals
can be achieved. To take the analogy of passing and airbrushing
a step further, we can say that passing is all about who has the
airbrush and who has the latest version of Photoshop.
The need to explore the updated technology of passing and
its contributions to an ongoing conversation about rhetoric is why
my focus is on acts of successful passing that have been sustained
either part-time or full-time, and on those that broke the cycle
1 Clearly ln\isible
of silence to argue for social and institutional change and/or for
the privilege of self-determination.
I also intend to show how
acts of successful passing operate rhetorically. I strive to analyze
passing from a rhetorical perspective that pays attention to what
people say and do in order to understand some of the dilemmas
of identication and representation in our present historical and
cultural moment. Thus, I will explore whether passing can be a
rhetoric of empowerment even though it suggests secrecy, how
passing complicates a politics of visibility, if passing is one of the
rst expressions of multiracial identity in the United States, and
whether passing has been appropriated to serve the interests of
white supremacy in the twenty-rst century.
My focus on passing considers perspectives of past generations
and applies them to present and future generations, who yearn
for the possibility of liberation from the burden of older racial
Because passing capitalizes on the absence of reliable
evidence of difference, it begs the question of whether we know
anything about race now that differs substantially from what we
have known about it historically.
Thus, passing has not passed
on. Despite todays newer and better theories about racial forma-
tion, racial prejudice, and multiracial identication and market-
ing, some individuals still benet from passing. To say that passing
is pass is to presuppose that the concepts of race and racism that
beget passing are also pass. The wishful thinking that declares
race and racism dead will not be supported in this book.
With the above in mind, I want to make clear that, especially
because this is a book rmly grounded in the discipline of rheto-
ric, words matter. With the constructivist turn in critical race and
rhetorical studies, many scholars have abandoned the idea that
race is biological and instead have endeavored to explain that it
is conjectural, a symbolic social construct.
To note this episte-
mological shift and to argue against the historical concept of race
as organic and inherent, some scholars have taken to inserting
the term race in quotation marks.
Issues of how to express
these ideas become more complex when dealing with jargon for
multiracial identities and passing.
Several ethnic studies schol-
ars argue that terminology like hybrid, mestiz@, interracial, and
mixed race does not challenge historical denitions of race at all
and even promotes an antiblack agenda.
Mainly, these labels are
imprecise and uncritical, for how persons identify as multiracial
lntrc1ucticn 1
depends largely upon how they dene race in general and white-
ness and blackness in particular. While I agree with the argument
that many monoracial people can claim multiracial ancestry and
choose not to, I am more interested in those who choose to do so
and how they have communicated those choices in passing and in
particular rhetorical situations.
In light of these critiques, I have chosen to use the following
terms when discussing the narratives and characters who are the
subjects of this analysis: multiracial, referring to people who are
of two or more racial heritages
and somehow identify them-
selves as such regardless of how they are identied by law or social
network or whether they are considered rst generation or of mul-
tigenerational multiracial ancestry; and biracial, referring to the
act of passing itself as a comment on instabilities. First, biracial
passing underscores epistemological instabilities of thinking about
racial passing (from black to white) as the principal form of passing
or as the most meaningful or authentic type of passing.
biracial passing accentuates the social and historical instabilities
of monoracial identities and the black-white historical contexts
presented herein.
To be clear, in using these terms I am not argu-
ing that such groups or phenomena exist due to biological makeup
or socialization. Nor am I making a historically revisionist asser-
tion to belittle the effects of racism and domination by referring to
everyone as multiracial or by referring to every multiracial person
as black and/or white.
Rather, I am seeking to provide a rhetori-
cally driven account of the ways in which such distinctions have
been drawn and challenged and can be overcome.
To that end, the analysis unfolds in six chapters. The rst,
Passing as Persuasion, situates passing in historical and rhe-
torical terms, develops a new critical vocabulary for its analysis,
and is summarized by ve passwords. Chapter 2, Passing as
Power, uses the vocabulary developed in the rst chapter to treat
Ellen and William Crafts passing as an act of powerful rhetoric
that transforms identities by teaching audiences to engage criti-
cally with the world and abandon the notion that passing is simply
someone elses racial problem. Chapter 3, Passing as Property,
builds on the preceding chapters and considers whether the pass-
ing of Homer A. Plessy, the plaintiff in the infamous Plessy v.
Ferguson case, was the rst recorded case of what we now call
identity theft. Chapter 4, Passing as Principle maps the logic
c Clearly ln\isible
of Plessys passing onto Frances E. W. Harpers passing narrative
Iola Leroy, or, Shadows Uplifted, frames passing as a problem
of ethical difference, and reveals a newly discovered rationale for
passing as black. Chapter 5, Passing as Pastime, focuses on the
lm and novel The Human Stain and assesses why passers must
fail in order for passing to entertain. The nal chapter, Passing as
Paradox, explores the case of Leo Felton, the black-white white
supremacist, as an example of how todays increasing fascination
with multiracial identities and passing can express a racism that
is, paradoxically, supported by a contemporary craving for multi-
racial identities to represent a beautiful post-racial society.
conclusion, Passing as Progress?, moves beyond the black-white
racial binary and extends the vocabulary of passing developed
throughout the chapters, in which passers come out of the closet
to assert their rightful places in the elds of rhetoric and critical
(mixed) race studies, and offers insight into how passing continues
to shape racial discourse and multiracial identities today.