Try Topic’s new streaming service for free.

Topic is a First Look Media company

Nella Larsen—Harlem Renaissance novelist, nurse, and the first African American woman to be admitted to the library school of the New York Public Library—in the 1930s. Photograph by Carl Van Vechten, used with permission of the Van Vechten Trust.

Passing, in Moments

The uneasy existence of being black and passing for white.

When I was 12, my Aunt Margaret told me, “You got straight hair, you got pale skin. If people don’t know you’re colored, don’t tell them.”

Aunt Margaret was black, but if you said “black” and not “colored,” she would go off on you. I was black too—still am—but I look white. Or I look whitish; it depends on the viewer. My father’s white and my mother is black, but high yellow and racially ambiguous. Though my mom insisted I was black too, I found a strong argument against that every time I looked in the mirror. And I grew up cut off from my extended black family, which just added to that feeling of disconnection. Sometimes I’d tell other kids I was black, and until they saw my mom, they wouldn't believe me.

One time I told Aunt Margaret, “Nobody at school knows I’m black—”

Colored.”

“Nobody at school knows I’m colored.”

She looked at me like I’d lost my mind. That’s when she said it, holding one of my flaccid brown curls in her hand like it was a piece of gold. “You got straight hair, you got pale skin. If people don’t know you’re colored, don’t tell them!”

At 12 years old, I thought Aunt Margaret was confused. I thought her response was antiquated, ridiculously old-fashioned, like how she insisted on using the word “colored” instead of “black.” I thought it was cute. I thought it was funny.

Advertisement

At 19, radical as all undergraduates should be, I thought that, despite how much I loved Aunt Margaret, that she was a color-struck sellout for telling me to live my life as a white man. That, in essence, she was encouraging me to abandon my roots, to reject the black community, in exchange for complete access to white privilege.

At 49, I think she told me what she told me because she loved me. Because she’d been black in America for 80-some years and she didn’t want me to have to endure the way she did. That she wanted the safety of whiteness for me. That she wanted me to thrive, but also to have the full force of America’s wind at my back, instead of getting hit with it head-on.

That Aunt Margaret was expressing what generations of black mothers sometimes told white-appearing children, particularly boys: escape from blackness for your survival.

(And, also, she was color-struck.)


The author’s International Student Identity Card, 1993. Courtesy of Mat Johnson.
The author, at right, with college friends at Swansea University in Wales, circa 1990. Courtesy of Mat Johnson.

Like many African American families, mine is pale as hell. Always has been, going back over a century. Most of my ancestors passed the notorious “brown paper bag test,” used by social clubs within the black community to discriminate against any person darker than a literal brown paper bag. My relatives were pale enough that, to people outside the black community, they might be confused for Latino or Native or mixed. But while genetically they were mixed with a combination of mostly African and European ancestry, ethnically and racially, they were black. It’s just that some didn’t look it. Because they were all descendants of generations of nonconsensual sex between the slave-owning class and their slave captives.

With the energetic discussion of mixed-race identity in the modern era, it’s important to point out that there’s not a damn thing new about mixing between black and white people. Not only is it not a new phenomenon, it was a primary feature of American slavery. As a result, on average, African Americans have up to 24 percent European ancestry. By the end of America’s 246 years of slavery (1619–1865), there was so much generational intermixing, that there were a small minority of black slaves who, in all appearance, who looked 100 percent European.

In 1864—in response to the New York draft riots and general white resistance to fighting in the Civil War—the Union’s Department of the Gulf, along with the American Missionary Association and the National Freedman’s Relief Association, presented a national campaign using white-presenting former slave children to solidify support for the war effort. In the January 30, 1864, issue of Harper’s Weekly, readers were presented with the images of seemingly white children, dressed elegantly in the manner of wealthy family portraits. In some of the photos, the white-looking children were posed with brown-skinned ones, the cherubs serving as an empathy conduit for the darker children as well.

The captions for the photos announce, repeatedly, “Slave children.”

Cards depicting white-appearing slave children, 1860s. Photograph by Kimball, courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Photograph by Charles Paxson, courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Photograph by Whitney & Paradise, courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Photograph by Charles Paxson, courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Cards depicting white-appearing slave children, 1860s. Photograph by Kimball, courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Photograph by Charles Paxson, courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Photograph by Whitney & Paradise, courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Photograph by Charles Paxson, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

African American family stories of the distant relatives who ran away to pass for white have been a common part of black folklore since at least the 19th century. And, sometimes, it really happened. Not enough to be a regular occurrence: there simply aren’t enough white-looking black folks for it to have ever been commonplace.

The ability to pass oneself off as white—to choose between living with their existing identity or adopt the dominant racial identity—is the most extreme colorism privilege. It’s not an option to which the vast majority of black Americans has access. In an ethnic group in which “selling out” or being an “Uncle Tom” are major taboos, it’d be understandable if the discussion of passing focused on the supreme selfishness of the act. Passing is, at its essence, abandonment of the group to better the individual. And yet, the intra-community discussion about passing tends to avoid the question of the morality of the act. Instead, within the black community, family passing stories often serve other purposes: as a way of emphasizing the absurdity of race; as an example of a family’s access to the privileges of colorism; as a trickster performance of the ultimate racial transgression.

For most Americans, the issue of passing was not one they encountered through family lore, but as a literary device. Since the 19th century, placing black characters in a white bodies was used a fiction empathy aid for those white audiences hampered by the fact that they were racist.

In Fannie Hurst’s 1933 paperback bestseller, Imitation of Life, the protagonist Peola, a white-presenting daughter of the maid in a wealthy white household, is raised alongside the owner of the house’s daughter. Determined to escape the stigma and limitations of blackness, Peola passes for white, despite her mother’s pleas. She marries and moves abroad, and effectively kills her mother by breaking the old lady’s heart. Here, the “tragic mulatto” stereotype—of a biracial person caught between two worlds—is the star. Hollywood agreed: the novel, made into films in both 1934 and 1959, is to this day probably the most influential story about passing in American popular culture. And both the book and the movies are campy and melodramatic and center the entire experience toward a white audience.

Nella Larsen, date unknown. Courtesy of Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
Larsen, center, with author and filmmaker Sidney Peterson and Dorothy Peterson, in Carl Van Vechten’s apartment, 1932. Photograph by Carl Van Vechten, used with permission of the Van Vechten Trust.

By contrast, the literary author most associated with passing, Nella Larsen, brought sophistication and experience to the issue. Larsen published two novels which dealt directly with the subject—1928’s semi-autobiographical Quicksand, and Passing the following year—and never published another novel afterward. Both of her novels used the “tragic mulatto” structure of a mixed woman caught between the black and white romantic worlds, epitomized by love interests in both chocolate and vanilla.

But Larsen’s work added the depth of a writer who’d negotiated the same issues in reality, not as a plot device. Larsen, the daughter of a black American man and a Danish mother, doesn’t so much use the tragic mulatto narrative device as hijack it. Her work re-centers the issue away from larger racial conflict and toward a more personal, realist focus on the emotional frustrations of her female protagonists—steering the issue of passing away from being a tool with which to engage a white readership in a body swap. Larsen was concerned with the more complicated problems of passing: living a life based on lies, the ethics of racial duplicity. The doomed fruit of deception.

Jean Toomer with his wife Margery, Carmel, California, 1930s. Photographs courtesy of the Bettmann Archive via Getty Images.
Jean Toomer, author, essayist, and psychologist, 1932.

In 1923, Jean Toomer published Cane, a collection of poetic short stories about the black pastoral South, a work that still stands as one of the greatest works of 20th century literature. Toomer was born Nathan Pinchback Toomer in 1894, to two African American parents. Toomer’s grandfather, P.B.S. Pinchback, was the first governor of Louisiana of African American descent. As a member of a prominent African American family that was also, visually, a racially ambiguous one, Toomer himself slipped easily between the black and white worlds for most of his life. After Cane’s success, Toomer was heralded as a central figure of the Harlem Renaissance, but it wasn’t long before Toomer actively rejected the notion of being categorized as black, insisting his racial classification was, instead, “American.” As UNC-Chapel Hill professor William L. Andrews said of Toomer’s racial status, “If people didn’t ask … I expect he didn’t tell.”

Writer and critic Anatole Broyard’s decades of passing for white became one of the most famous cases of the 20th century. To avoid having his work ghettoized by the white literary world, Broyard, a native of New Orleans and New York City, passed for white for his entire career. Broyard’s evasion of his racial background was not limited to his professional life. Broyard kept the information from even his own children, who weren’t told the larger truth until shortly before their father’s death, in 1990, when they were adults.


Dr. Albert Johnston and his family lived in Kenne, New Hampshire, where for 20 years they passed as white, until their secret was revealed. Courtesy of the Historical Society of Cheshire County.
Publicity still from the 1933 film Emperor Jones, featuring Paul Robeson and Fredi Washington. Washington would go on to star as the “tragic mulatto” character in the 1934 film Imitation of Life. Photograph by John D. Kisch/Separate Cinema Archive via Getty Images

There seems an inherent cruelty inflicted upon the offspring of people who chose a life of passing. The lies, the subterfuge. The disconnect from heritage, not just for the passer, but for their children as well. It may be seen as a gift from the passing parents: the bounty of white privilege, without the guilt. But on some level, it’s an unwitting enrollment in a lie. A denial of access to family, loved ones—aunts, uncles, cousins—whose visual presence would immediately expose the truth.

The benefit of passing in American history was the chance to live a life with the full rights of an American citizen, social and economic. An escape from the threat of racial violence in all its forms, from powerlessness and political disenfranchisement. The price, however, was total exile. Also, a soul, possibly.

There have been people of African descent throughout American history who have used their ability to pass for white in ways that benefited the larger African American community, as opposed to abandoning it. Walter Francis White, former head of the NAACP, joined the organization as an investigator. In his early years at the organization, he investigated lynchings of black men that were ignored by the national white press, by using his ambiguous appearance to infiltrate white spaces. After one such investigation in Arkansas, rumors that local whites were on the lookout for him sent White fleeing town. On the train, waiting to leave, the conductor told him:

“But you’re leaving, mister, just when the fun is going to start.”

Asked what fun, the conductor replied, “There’s a damned yellow nigger down here passing for white and the boys are going to get him.”

“What’ll they do with him?”

“When they get through with him he won’t pass for white no more!”

Decades later, in a performance of passing as anti-passing, African American artist Adrian Piper created “My Calling (Card) # 1 (for Dinners and Cocktail Parties), 1986–90.” Piper’s piece, inspired by her own experience as a black woman of ambiguous racial presentation, consists in part of a literal “race card,” meant to be handed to a white person after a racist interaction. In simple, typewritten font, its message begins: “Dear Friend, I am black. I am sure you did not realize this when you made/laughed at/agreed with that racist remark …” Handed to an unsuspecting offender, the card turns her unintentional act of passing—just not looking black—into means to expose the casual racism of white spaces.

At the 2004 Tony Awards, Broadway legend Carol Channing rapped on stage with hip-hop legend LL Cool J. They were funny and relaxed and Channing seemed incredibly spry and unburdened for an 83-year-old. When LL suggested they get on with announcing the nominees, Channing’s response was declaring, in African American vernacular, “Well, I’m down with that!”

LL Cool J and Carol Channing perform together during the Tony Awards, 2004. Photo by Frank Micelotta/Getty Images

Behind the laughter of the black-tie audience was unsaid context. A year before, Channing—an avatar of blonde, ultra-white womanhood for most of her career—revealed that she was, in fact, black. Specifically, the daughter of a man who had relocated and passed for white for the rest of his life, not even telling her until she was 16. Promoting her new memoir in a 2002 interview with Larry King, Channing gleefully declared, “No white woman can do it like I did!”

Channing’s secret, which she kept for almost 70 years, was revealed to a world very different from the one in which she had started her career in the 1940s. So much about racism and white supremacy in America hasn’t changed, but a lot, still, has. Over a decade after Channing’s revelation, actress Liv Tyler, appearing on the TV show Who Do You Think You Are?, discovered she was the direct descendant of a former slave who relocated to pass for white. The televised reaction of her father, Steven Tyler of Aerosmith, was palpable, lottery-winning joy: “I’ve always felt akin to black people. Always.”


We all have personal stories we retell over and over, even long after we’re bored of them, because they’re the ones that define us. For me, Aunt Margaret telling me to pass for white is one of those. Other people, over the years, have offered up modern variations of Aunt Margaret’s “if they don’t ask, don’t tell them” sentiments. Other black and mixed people, too. If you don’t have to deal with being black, why bother? But passing for white would have meant rejecting my own family. My own mom. Taking Aunt Margaret’s advice would mean rejecting Aunt Margaret. I wasn’t going to do that. It’s hard enough to feel whole in this world without trying to erase parts of yourself.

But the truth is, I do pass for white. Sometimes.

The author, age two, with his parents in Philadelphia, 1972. Courtesy of Mat Johnson.

When my wife and I were looking for apartments in Houston, I sometimes went alone at first—so if we wanted it, I could rent it, even if the owners or landlords were racist.

On road trips with my family, if we have to stop for gas in a white, rural area, I’m the only one who gets out of the car.

And when I get pulled over by a cop, or have really any interaction with an armed person in a uniform, you have never seen such a magnificent performance of whiteness. My voice changes, my posture changes, my mannerisms—basically, I impersonate my dad. My dad’s whiteness is so complete that I’ve actually seen the man yell at a cop once, right next to me in the passenger seat; I thought he was going to get me shot.

I pass, in moments. And I feel a bit of guilt when I do it, and after, because I know that it’s something the vast majority of my friends and family members can’t. Not even my children. But hell, it’s not my fault so many white people are racist. When they cut it out, I will, too.

Share this story