Free Pass

Free Pass

Passing for an Ethnicity that is Not Your Own


Almost 29 years ago, little girl was born to a white mother and black father. The maternal grandmother told her daughter that if the child came out “any other shade than white” she did not want a relationship with either of them. “Luckily” for all three of them, the child came out white. At twelve I learned of this and ceased all contact with my grandmother.

I have learned a great many things about my black heritage; things I was not afforded the opportunity to learn while growing up. One of the more fascinating aspects of my unknown heritage is the ability to pass. Passing is something I have the ability to do well as I have a very fair complexion.

Historically, passing has been a source of scrutiny because it is having the ability to pose as a member of another race because of the shade of one’s skin. The scrutiny came from choosing to masquerade as a member of another race and because it was perceived that someone who decided to pass, disowned their own race. Typically, someone of African descent would attempt to pass as someone of European descent because, well let’s face it, being white has its benefits.

Some of you may be too young to remember him, but Phil Donahue had a talk show for 26 years ago. One of the topics he addressed is passing. I’ve embedded the part one of the video above.

Passing has always been more of an “intra”racial issue than an “inter”racial issue. In “The Color Complex: The Politics of Skin Color Among African Americans” by Kathy Russell, Midge Wilson, PhD., and Ronald E. Hall, the authors address this issue in-depth and explain how those of darker complexion bleached or “white-washed” their skin in order to pass. Actually, many people believed the “King of Pop”, Michael Jackson did this; his explanation was that his lightened skin was due to a genetic condition.

Conversely, there are those who are “dark enough” to pass for black. A great example of this is President Obama. While he doesn’t deny that he has a white mother, there are people who perceive him as black instead of mulatto or mixed. I will address this in-depth in my next article.

Other notable names associated with passing are Singer Mariah Carey, Actress Halle Berry, Singer Phoebe Snow, Actress Linda Carter (Wonder Woman), Singer/Songwriter Alicia Keys, Actress Cree Summers, Basketball Player Grant Hill, and many more.

What I have found so interesting about passing is the reactions I receive when I reveal my heritage. Keep in mind, my passing is absolutely unintentional. While at a college function, I revealed my heritage and was flabbergasted by the responses I received.

I was at an African-American Student Union event and introduced myself and mentioned my heritage only to be told moments later that I was not black and did not belong there. It is quite difficult to render me speechless, but she did. I did not understand her reaction or why she reacted that way. I never have… and that is okay.

It is okay because I know I do belong no matter how many or who discriminate against me. It is okay because I am proud of who I am, as everyone should be. It is okay because I know that while people may see the color of my skin, I make them see there is more to me than that. I hope that holds true for all; everyone should be true to who they are and embrace each and every piece of their heritage. People should see color, but not pass judgment because the cover of the book does not express its full content. Choose to see the true depth of the soul rather than surface of the skin.

For more information, you can read Near Black: White-to-Black Passing in American Culture by Baz Drei­singer.

Here’s a review of Baz’s book by the New York Times for more information.


The Color Complex: The Politics of Skin Color Among African Americans by Kathy Russell, Midge Wilson, Ph.D., and Ronald E. Hall