Passing Revisited: Racial Passing and White Supremacy

Jennifer Rittner
Sep 4 · 6 min read

In the wake of the white supremacist marches in 2017, I wrote a short reflection on racial passing. In that essay I wrote about my Black mother, my white son, and the absurd mythologies of racial purity needed by white supremacists to support their beliefs. Those marchers surely counted among them many who had direct African American heritage as a result of near ancestors who had passed for white in the inhospitable environments of legal slavery and Jim Crow.

The White Supremacy of Masquerading as Black

White supremacy rears its head again in another form of passing, as men and women who have grown up as white children in white families have taken to masquerading as Black adults in order to achieve personal success as race warriors. Jessica Krug and Rachel Dolezal, two sisters-in-deceit, both manipulated their ways to success by passing as a Black woman, and in the process, denying actual women of color the opportunities they took for themselves. Their behavior should cause us to reflect on our United States of Racial Anxiety as we are all, in fact, oppressed by our nation’s historical, collective weaponization of race. While adamantly censuring both of these women, we can use their deceptions as opportunities to reflect on how the social conditions we construct and perpetuate demand certain forms of racial authenticity, often built on the anxieties we all feel about passing as something.

First, two resources for anyone interested in the history of passing:
Allyson Hobbs, A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life is a well-researched and beautiful read on the topic. James Baldwin, Another Country was one of the first books in which I felt seen around the question of passing as a social act.

Passing is in our DNA as a country. Historically, racial passing was an act of radical survival in response to the barbarities of black enslavement at the hands of anti-monarchy, freedom warriors. Children of black parents who could credibly pass as white did so in order to be perceived as whole. Paradoxically, they had to negate their past in order to create a future. The act of passing was the act of social and emotional scarification. Imagine Janus with its backward face permanently mutilated. Un-healable wounds that bound the actor to a lifetime of deceit at the risk of their own freedom, and the expense of truly belonging anywhere.

Ancient coin with two faces connected but looking in opposite directions, one backward (left), and the other forward (right).
Ancient coin with two faces connected but looking in opposite directions, one backward (left), and the other forward (right).
The sustaining myth of Janus reinforces our need to reflect our history while looking toward the future.

When racial identification is the difference between struggling, surviving, and thriving, we need to grapple with our own complicity in upholding systems that force us to claim, perform, and authenticate racial identity.

That said, I want to offer my own reflections as a light-skinned, Biracial woman with a Black Mother and a white Father. For over fifty years, I have had to navigate the neither/or-both/and nature of biracial identity.

Growing up Biracial: Observation and Experience

Growing up in a mixed household meant observing the dynamics of racial complexity and the clear fallacies of reductionist views of race up close. There is no one way to be Black. My mother’s Blackness is informed as much by other people’s experiences of her as any internal sense of Black identity. She is Black because her skin demands that she be seen that way. She reminds me that her Mother is Tupinamba, and so dark-skinned but indigenous. She reminds me that her Father was of African descent, although no one remembers which ancestors endured the middle passage or where, specifically, they left the Continent. By Brazilian standards, she is not Black (Negro, in the Portuguese language) but Morena (mixed but dark-skinned). By American standards, she is Black because that is how she is seen, not because that’s how she sees herself. It all matters; and it’s all nonsense. (Another important reading that explores this theme: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.)

As a child, I witnessed my Mother’s experience of Blackness. Watched the way she was treated by others because of her Blackness, but also because of her foreign-ness, and her unique Her-ness. My experience of her, a lifetime of being her daughter, informs who I am in relationship to her and to the world around us both. But I am not her. I am light-skinned and American-born. My own experience of race is informed by how people perceive me — perceive my particular light-skinnedness, and white-featured-ness, because I am also the child of a white Father. I have experienced colorism, as some people assign my racial presentation with more value that it deserves. The entirety, the lifetime of my experience of racial negotiation is critical to how I view the world.

As almost any biracial person will affirm, we are often asked to choose a racial identity because the history of passing is in our DNA, and choosing means either affirming Blackness or negating it. That choice is painful to confront because it forces the question of authenticity. What is my authentic self if I choose one over the other? What is my authentic self if Blackness is an option, but not the only one? That choice situates itself squarely within our national, social anxiety around race, authenticity and passing.

But importantly, I could not invent my own experience out of wish fulfillment, just as I could not for a second step into my own mother’s experience and claim to know what it was like to grow up as her. To masquerade as her would be to negate her very particular experience. In fact, I have many strong feelings about my connection to Brazil that are for me to negotiate and work through on my own and with my family. They are complex and filled with a sense of loss. But even though I claim that heritage through my mother, I can also not claim to be culturally Brazilian.

Silenced by Their Deceit

These women — Dolezal and Krug — their claims of Blackness offend because they are shallow, self-serving, and negating of those who actually experience life as Black or Biracial people and are often working through, and negotiating real complexity. They have every right to admire the women around them who have those true experiences. But they do not have the right to claim those experiences as their own, and to therefore negate the experiences of others.

Krug, a published professor at George Washington University, masqueraded as a Black women, took grant funding and professional posts by claiming to be Black, and allegedly berated and marginalized Black women in her orbit. Her lies and her toxic behavior are creating a situation wherein actual light-skinned Black and Biracial people are now faced with a new anxiety — having to prove our backgrounds as people of color. Having to credential our Blackness to both white and black colleagues, friends, and community members. We have to prove our truth because of someone else’s lies.

As these cynical, racial trolls make their hair curly and achieve perma-tans, they are pushing more of us to the margins, silencing us. Using their privilege as white women to pass, using our collective racial anxieties about authenticity against us. They banked on the fact that white colleagues would not question them. And that’s a real shame because we actually do have something of value to offer that is particular to our experience.

We can embrace the complexities of racial experience, we should interrogate the dynamics of racial anxiety, we must all, collectively, dismantle systems of white supremacy. But we must do that work from the honesty of our lived experiences, not by living a lie. For now, I’ll be carrying pictures of my complex, biracial family with me to credential my past knowing that because of the Krugs of the world, I’ll be asked.

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