White Passing: A historical means of survival

ok so Kae reblogged something stupid but she mentioned how the person clearly didn’t know what white passing meant.  Um so I thought “hey why not make a post about how I have always interested the term to mean?”  so…discussion is welcome as usual.

So, the term White Passing is directly related to oppressed people living a white supremacist society, specifically american soceity.  That is, it only holds meaning when whiteness is possessed and being white is demarcated from being non-white and being white puts you on the top.  if we are talking about other historically white supremacist societies they may use other terms to talk about a similar phenomenon  especially in places and times where whiteness is not defined specifically by white skin.  

It arose during a time when being white held very clear social status (today it is much easier to blur social distinctions in part because of the onslaught of colorblind ideology which serves to make it more difficult for participants to navigate a racist society but does not eliminate racism).  Meaning to be White one was allowed to possess several things you just couldn’t possess when you were not white like: citizenship  land, freedom, education, political office, recognized relationships, recognized heirs, general concession to your own authority over your life’s trajectory (gender not included of course; we know for much of the history these gains were reserves for white men in particular). This list is clearly not exhaustive.

So, if you were not white in a white supremacist society, you were firmly placed in a submissive and inferior social position.  Your options to gain status, and improve life were to change the system (a very long, very difficult, very dangerous route that most likely would end in your death rather than in much change that you would experience) or find a way to cheat the system.  If the thing that barred you from these social and economic benefits was your ability to be white well…it was very simple who could and could not cheat the system.  

Thus, non-white people (we are usually talking about black people but we can also talk about native americans) who were not only light but also “white in features” could effectively fool white americans into believing they too were white people.  white features could be hair texture, nose shape and width, lip fullness, bone structure, body type, eye shape….  That isn’t to say that a black person with features we typically associate with white people is “less black”  but that at this particular time (and it is still true in many cases), race was essentialized and believed to present itself in these features.  One could and would grow up with “white features” and still be coded for non-white because their community associated them with non-white people and their social position (be it their work or their housing or their school) placed them in dominated circles.

So for passing to work a non-white person had to leave their communities and mingle with strangers and hide their identities.  They could not divulge personal information like which neighborhood they grew up in, or what school they attended, or keep photos of their parents; otherwise these new communities they were working into would be able to place them as a non-white person.  Silence and isolation was essential for passing to work.  If they broke their silence they could pay with their lives.  those are incredibly high prices to pay in exchange for the benefits given to white people (really this should give you an idea of how prized these benefits were).  

Today we seem to be using it in a different way.  It seems to mean that the interest has reduced the meaning of white passing to either a) having white skin (but not having to commit to the silence and isolation from one’s community that was required prior for white skin alone to be sufficient for passing) or b) to align one’s self with whiteness (what many would call white washed).  

now, it is true that white passing people in the past would have to align themselves with whiteness (even when they hated to).  but again it was in an attempt to survive in a hostile situation.  one could make the argument that when you forfeit your community in exchange for the social benefits afforded to white people that you already have bought into whiteness.  And I think there is merit to this (looking at paper brown tests, colorism and the commodification of “high yella” all support this view).  But i would argue that in a white supremacist society with ridged boundaries that white passing was a survival tactic born out of desperation to free oneself from the squalid conditions of subjugation.  to live a life with minimal options and opportunity can not be dismissed.  

As for the first modern interpretation, I think I have a problem with it.  I feel it is losing meaning in a society that is less ridged in many ways and culturally less equipped to vocally place race as a valid social marker.  Simply put, our society, though still steeped in white supremacy, is more fluid and murky than it was in jim crow times or in slave times.  Thus, talking about white passing has lost the aspect of survival and the personal cost taken by the victim.  Only the white gaze remains and it leaves it open to be a snide insult against a person that may not have gone through the trauma of severing pieces of their identity for the sake of a better life.  And to tell them they have, is fairly offensive and dismissive.  

So…Thats my take on the term…feel free to add or expand or whatever…

  1. ninjaruski reblogged this from ghost-of-algren
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