A recent story on NPR’s All Things Considered about a new non-fiction book, A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in America, by author Allyson Hobbs, discussed the practice of light-skinned blacks passing for white to circumvent entrenched racial discrimination. Hobbs focused her research for the book on personal stories from the past – before integration, Black Power and multiculturalism. Reporter Karen Grigsby Bates’ summary suggested that racial progress prompted by those movements had effectively made the act of passing irrelevant. I beg to differ – I believe these movements caused the evolution of passing but did not erase it or make it irrelevant.
Anyone of color who has ever worked within a majority environment such as corporate America, or in my case the cultural arts, knows that though your skin color may be evident – you are still required to negotiate the majority culture by not revealing too much of who you are. When your aspirations are constrained by how “acceptable” you are to the majority culture then you are effectively passing. If you subjugate or neglect your own culture to assume that of the predominate culture – it may not have the skin-deep appearance of passing but it has the same effect – isolation, loss of self and community. Passing in the 21st century has the added burden of the assumptions some people make because they can see your skin color; that can lead to further complications and indignities. For example, when I was a museum director, during an exhibition opening, an art patron, upon seeing my brown face near the entrance, walked up to me and handed me her coat, assuming I was the valet. She even offered me a tip.
I used these post civil rights movement experiences as well as the history of passing to inform the characters and their actions in my novel, Provenance. The main protagonist is a man who, like the people in Allyson Hobbs’ book, passes as white in the early 20th Century in order to access opportunities not available to a black man. Another character, a 21st Century millennial and a curatorial rising star at a major art museum, is passing culturally. Her expertise is in 20th Century Impressionist art belies the assumption that her discipline must be African or African-American art and, as she moves further up the professional ladder in the art world, she is distanced from her family’s cultural experience.
At its essence, similar to my novel, passing is about identity – who we are, and how others see us. The way my characters pass – racially and culturally – compares and contrasts what passing was then and is now.