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Passing For White

By David Crary
The Associated Press

November 1, 2003

America is more diverse than ever and racial pride is strong, yet a new movie and book are highlighting a phenomenon that seems like a relic of the segregationist past -- black people passing as white.

The film, The Human Stain, is an adaptation of Philip Roth's novel about a classics professor, played by Anthony Hopkins, who conceals his racial background.

The book, Passing: When People Can't Be Who They Are, by Brooke Kroeger, includes a sympathetic profile of a black man who passed as a white Jew during the 1980s and '90s.

Kroeger, a New York University journalism professor who spent four years researching her book, said passing has a profound resonance for many black Americans.

"Over and over, I'd hear personal stories about members of their family who didn't return for reunions, who led clandestine lives," she said.

"Traditionally, the attitude toward passing was you accepted it, you never exposed a passer. Post-1960s, when people are so proud of their racial and ethnic identities, it seems more like cultural treason, yet still people don't give passers up."

Paul Johnston, a retired X-ray technician, knows of passing firsthand. His parents, Albert and Thyra Johnston, passed as white along with Paul and his three older siblings while the family lived in two New Hampshire towns during the 1930s and '40s. Albert was a physician in the community.

The truth of the Johnstons' background came out in 1941, when Albert was rejected as a Navy officer. But despite the family's fears, townspeople in Keene, N.H., were generally receptive to them even after the news spread, and the Johnstons' experience was movingly depicted in a 1949 film, Lost Boundaries.

Paul Johnston, 68, is now married to a woman of Irish descent who has nine children from a previous marriage.

"Some of the kids were pretty prejudiced, but they grew to like me," he said in a telephone interview. "They thought it was quite fascinating that something like this [his family's passing] would happen."

Johnston, who says some of his relatives continue to pass for white, lives in a predominantly white town on Cape Cod.

"Almost nobody knows of my background, not because I've kept it a secret, just because I haven't talked about it much except to a few people in my church," he said. "I don't think it would make any difference to people, but you never can tell."

Like Johnston, psychologist Juanita Brooks lived for years in a predominantly white community, knowing that most of her acquaintances in Melbourne Beach were unaware of her background.

The daughter of a white woman and black man, Brooks describes herself as a biracial person with a white appearance; she has been married to a white man for 16 years.

Though she is proud of her heritage, and once rejected a prospective employer's offer to classify her as white, Brooks didn't make her background widely known until 2001. Then, she decided to cooperate with a local newspaper that wrote about how the 2000 census had given her the option -- for the first time -- of listing herself as both African-American and white.

"It felt like I was coming out," she said. "Not that I ever passed for white, but there were assumptions my acquaintances made … I was allowing people to believe whatever they wanted to believe, unless race came up in a conversation."

Brooks, 56, said she grew up assuming she had no choice but to consider herself black.

"The word 'multiracial' was not in our vocabulary back then," she said. "You had to choose -- society made you choose." Now racial lines are less stark, she said, and it "feels wonderful."

Some other Americans prefer an element of ambiguity when it comes to their racial identity.

Hollywood action star Vin Diesel, for example, says he doesn't know who his biological father is. Many moviegoers assume he is white, and he declines to elaborate on what he calls a complex racial background.

His first big hit, The Fast and the Furious, catered to multiracial audiences with white, black, Asian and Latino characters.

Diesel's stance has frustrated some blacks.

"Black folks aren't offended by the fact that Diesel can play multiple ethnicities on screen," wrote James Hill, a producer with BET, on the network's Web site. "It's when he's not being paid to pretend that we want him to assert his blackness, or his half-blackness -- or something … We don't like watching anyone deny their brown or black parents."

In The Human Stain, Roth's fictional protagonist, Coleman Silk, was loosely modeled on the late Anatole Broyard, for many years a prominent literary critic for The New York Times.

Broyard was born to a black family in New Orleans and grew up in a black section of Brooklyn, but as a young man stopped seeing relatives and friends from his past and lived the rest of life as white. A handful of people knew the truth, but even his own adult children were not among them.

In a 1996 magazine article detailing Broyard's deception, black scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., suggested that the critic wanted to escape racial labeling -- to avoid being typecast as a "black" writer.

However, Gates made a powerful case that Broyard's decades-long repudiation of his background was the pivotal factor in his inability to complete the novel he long dreamed of writing.

Anna Deavere Smith, a black actress, plays the mother of the young Coleman Silk in the film, which intrigued her partly because she had a light-skinned great-aunt who occasionally passed for white.

"She told me she had passed as Spanish so she could be a dancer," Smith said. "Even in the segregation era, she never sat in the colored section. She used it to get ahead."

Smith said her judgment of "passers" depends in part on what they do with their lives, and whether they work for social justice.

"Lying about your identity is very disturbing to many of us," she said. "I don't think Coleman Silk should have done what he did. He was needed in the black community."

Vertamae Grosvenor, a National Public Radio correspondent who has frequently reported about racial identity, was raised in the Gullah community of South Carolina's low country.

"I'm a person who could never pass, but we certainly knew of people who did," said Grosvenor, who is black. "There were always rumors -- 'You know, so-and-so's colored.' It must have been terrifying to be found out."

Grosvenor said she was reluctant to judge those who passed.

"They had to survive in their skin," she said. "You used to hear all kinds of sad stories about people who would come in the night to visit their relatives, who would not come to their relatives' funerals. There's a legacy of grief from the whole question."

Passing may also have a positive legacy, according to Kroeger, who writes in her book that it "upends all our tidy little methods of recognizing and categorizing human beings."

"If revealed, an act of passing can force those in the passer's wake to rethink what made the passing necessary in the first place," Kroeger writes. "It's not too much of a stretch to see passing as an instrument of social change."

Copyright © 2003, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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