Are People Still Passing?

The film is about a light-skinned African-American nursing student, played by Crain, passing for white.
Pinky is a 1949 American drama, directed by Elia Kazan, about a light-skinned African-American nursing student, played by Jeanne Crain, passing for white. The film also starred Ethel Barrymore and Ethel Waters. All three actresses were nominated for Academy Awards.

“Racial passing refers to a person classified as a member of one racial group also accepted as a member of a different racial group. The term was used especially in the U.S. to describe a person of mixed-race heritage assimilating into the white majority during times when legal and social conventions of hypodescent classified the person as a minority, subject to racial segregation and discrimination.”Wikipedia

When some people learn that characters in my novel, Provenance,  are “passing” they ask, “Do people still do that?” Sometimes I want to respond, “Is there still racial discrimination against people of color?” or “Do you think people with white skin color have a social, professional and economic advantage over people who are black, brown or Asian?” If the answer to either question is yes, and it is; then yes, people still pass.

In the 21st century, passing is not the past. Examples: Filmmaker Lacy Schwartz, recently profiled in an article in the New York Times, shares her remarkable story of passing in her 2014 film, Little White Lie; Bliss Broyard’s 2007 best seller, One Drop, was about the revelation that her father, former New York Times literary critic Anatole Broyard, was passing; Stanford professor Allyson Hobbs’ new book, A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life was just released today. I did a  Google search on the word “Passing” and the first two terms that came up were “passing racial identity,” 588,000 results and,  “passing for white,” 86,300,000 results. In 1929, Nela Larson published her novel, Passing; it is still in print today and available through all major book retailers and as Kindle and audio editions. As of 2007, Passing is the subject of more than two hundred scholarly articles and more than fifty dissertations.

Yes, passing is still something people do and just like race, it is something we still talk about.

Throughout Provenance my characters pass in the traditional way, pretending to be white; but they also pass by rejecting their history and heritage, though they are clearly identified as a person of color. As I wrote and researched the book, I learned what it was like to pass in the early 20th Century, when the novel begins, and into the 21st Century as race relations in America evolved. I realized that passing is as much about how you see yourself as it is about how others see you. Yet, is it okay to embrace an identity that enables you to live out the dreams you have for yourself – regardless of the skin you’re in? I can’t answer that. However, I suspect that until we rid ourselves of the construct of race, people continue to pass in one way or another.

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