“Passing” and the American dream

These days we're supposed to think race doesn't matter. But as "The Human Stain" and a raft of recent writing makes clear, we're just as fascinated by its slippery boundaries as ever.

Topics: Philip Roth, Nonfiction, Books,

Every now and then, cultural and social critics fashion an axiom that’s flippant, succinct and thus darling enough to render its truth value irrelevant. Such is the case with a phrase coined by culture-mongers in the 1960s that’s finding new currency today: “Passing is passé.”

“Passing” is shorthand for “racial passing,” and “racial passing” means people of one race (generally African-American) passing for another (usually white). Anybody who’s surprised that there’s a shorthand terminology for what might seem a pretty unlikely scenario will be more surprised that the phenomenon, with its lengthy history in American culture, isn’t all that unusual. Some of the earliest stories about passing reach back to the 19th century, when slaves — like Ellen Craft, who penned a mesmerizing slave narrative — used their light skin to escape, and novelists from Mark Twain to Charles Chesnutt mined the subject for their oeuvre.

Passing was a much-hyped subject during the Harlem Renaissance, which produced a plethora of rich fiction about it: Nella Larsen’s “Passing,” Jessie Fauset’s “Plum Bun,” Walter White’s “Flight.” The subject had its Hollywood heyday; melodramatic passing flicks from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s include “Pinky,” “Lost Boundaries” and two big-screen versions of “Imitation of Life” (the latter version, directed by Douglas Sirk, probably still delights the Kleenex industry).

But along came the ’60s. And with it, Black Power and other ideologies that made the saga of passing — and the act of passing itself — soppy, weak-kneed and thus unhip. Passing was passé, critics said, because racial pride was where it’s at. Whether prophecy or prescription, their words proved accurate, for a while, at least: The subject never vanished from public or private sectors, but it did step aside for a hot minute or two.

That hot minute is over. Passing, these days, is anything but passé. This week Anthony Hopkins, neither a black man nor a Jew, saunters onto the big screen to play a black man passing as a Jew in the long-awaited screen version of Philip Roth’s “The Human Stain.” Last month, journalist Brooke Kroeger’s collection of case studies, “Passing: When People Can’t Be Who They Are,” earned solid reviews and prompted a National Public Radio program on passing. Brent Staples recently penned a series of New York Times editorials on the subject.

All this is the crescendo of a passing wave that’s been approaching for several years now: In the late ’90s, two highly touted novels — Danzy Senna’s “Caucasia” and Colson Whitehead’s “The Intuitionist” — featured passing plots, and as race-based memoirs became practically the only memoirs worth publishing, real-life passing narratives (like poet Clarence Major’s “Come by Here: My Mother’s Life”) resurfaced on shelves.

This passing renaissance — no pun intended — represented something rare: A trend that germinated in the ivory tower was trickling down to the masses (not, as is usually the case, vice versa). It began in the mid-’90s, with cultural-studies academics who gave renewed attention to passing narratives, got them reissued in snazzy Penguin editions, and wrote occasionally readable, theoretical books about them. The best of these was a 1996 Duke University Press anthology, “Passing and the Fictions of Identity,” which Kroeger — who’s clearly done her academic homework — cites.

Kroeger cites it because this anthology, like her book and “The Human Stain,” embodies racial passing, new-millennium style: Among other things, it isn’t limited to black-as-white. “Passing puts us in touch with the wondrous ability each person has to create and recreate the self,” Kroeger writes. Her book includes blacks passing as white, yes, but also a gay man passing as straight, a white woman passing as black, and a Jewish Latina (her richest subject, because it encompasses the theoretical trinity of race, class and gender).

There’s passing that Kroeger aptly deems “good-guy adventuring,” which is really just disguise: Frank Abagnale in “Catch Me If You Can,” or Joshua Clover, a poet whose writing persona was Jane Dark — Village Voice music critic, feminist and high-lowbrow aficionado. Kroeger offers a sketch of passing’s progressive arc: “from inadvertent passing to passing for fun to passing part time or full time to passing all the way or breaking the cycle at any point.”

Kroeger’s broad definition of passing is really too broad, however, so broad as to render the term almost meaningless. Refusing to allow for historical differences between forms of passing, her definition also isn’t precise enough: Though Jane Dark’s public “outing” may have ruffled few feathers, the public fuss over the young “Latino” writer Danny Santiago’s 1983 memoir “Famous All Over Town” (Santiago was really a white man named Dan James), or Binjamin Wilkomirski’s 1994 Holocaust memoir “Fragments” (Wilkomirski was neither a Jew nor a survivor), proves that even in the literary world, not all passing is equal. We have long guarded the gates into some identities more closely than others.

But even without its necessary distinctions — between passing that’s based on physical traits (black-white) and passing that isn’t (gay-straight), between the slippery categories called “ethnicity,” “race” and “nationality” — Kroeger’s definition gestures toward an America that’s finally giving due attention to racial binaries other than black/white. It’s in line with the sort of passing narratives making rounds nowadays: gender passing in “Boys Don’t Cry” and “The Crying Game,” Jewish-Gentile passing in the 1990 film “Europa, Europa” and books like Stephen Dubner’s “Turbulent Souls,” Susan Jacoby’s “Half Jew” or the 2000 anthology “Suddenly Jewish.” Name the category — Latina? Italian? Senior citizen? — and odds are someone’s written about passing for it.

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So what to make of this passing fad? Here’s the simplest explanation: It goes hand-in-hand with new-and-improved notions about race and identity. Passing “upends all our tidy little methods of recognizing and categorizing human beings,” writes Kroeger, and “makes us wonder what exactly makes an identity authentic, or if and how authenticity matters.”

Bingo: In the context of race, “authenticity” and “identity” have truly begun to unravel. This began when biologists, finding more variations than commonalities among so-called races, debunked race altogether. First for the highbrow and then for the masses — increasingly informed that multiracialism is our destiny, glimpsing the “new face of America” on the cover of Time — race became the emperor’s new clothes. The public imagination slowly began coming to grips with an idea voiced half a century ago by Walter White, the blond-haired, blue-eyed “black” man who once ran the NAACP: “We do not see color. We think it.”

Nothing embodies this notion — race is an idea, not a physical truth — like passing. If color is thought and not reality, why, after all, can’t a blue-blooded Welshman named Hopkins play Coleman Silk, American black-cum-Jew? And why can’t Wentworth Miller, an actor of mixed heritage, play the young Silk? More broadly, why should someone whose father is black and mother is Jewish, who looks “white as snow” (as Coleman’s mother describes him), be bound to any single race?

He shouldn’t. And that — insist Kroeger’s book, Benton’s film and most other contemporary passing narratives — is precisely what separates new-school passing stories from old-school ones. Back in the Jim Crow days, Nella Larsen or Douglas Sirk delivered punishment — usually death — to passers, whom we were meant to believe had overstepped “natural” boundaries. Sure, passers offered a revolutionary moment or two, a scene in which they radically questioned rigid racial lines. But in the end, melodramas like “Showboat” and “Pinky” upheld such categories. Passers were deemed to be essentially black, via the slavery-era “one-drop rule,” and the scene in which they owned up to this one drop was their moment of undoing and the narrative’s climax.

According to Kroeger, the contemporary passer’s unmasking doesn’t produce this sort of tear-jerking drama. “It usually provokes some surprise, no doubt some gossip,” she writes, “but then what ordinarily follows is a big ‘So what?’” Savvy postmodern minds — critical of race as a category and thus too sophisticated for its unyielding distinctions — empathize with and often champion passers, Kroeger argues. We don’t chastise them for committing the great sin of denying some true, essential self; what’s a “true self,” anyway?

Kroeger’s point — her “so what?” — is at the heart of “The Human Stain,” which — like Roth’s novel, first conceived during the ’50s but set in the ’40s and the ’90s — is really two stories sewn together. One is a traditional passing narrative of the American 1940s, when a young Coleman Silk breaks his mother’s heart by electing to pass for white and date Steena Paulson, the very embodiment of white womanhood (Danish and Icelandic — do they come any whiter?). Upon discovering that she’s fallen in love with a “black” man who only looks white, a shocked Steena tearfully exits the film and Coleman’s life.

The unraveling of this love story is set in deliberate contrast to that of the other film embedded in “The Human Stain.” Set in the contemporary moment and thus pervaded by our modern-day dysfunctions (race-, class- and gender-related), this film is a May-December romance between Coleman and Faunia Farley, played by a Nicole Kidman who looks more emaciated than ever (representing her frailty, perhaps? Her un-bootylicious whiteness?). Though viewers never witness Faunia’s reaction to Coleman’s confession about his past and his race, the film’s opening scene — Faunia resting peacefully on Coleman’s shoulder — establishes her reaction as indeed somewhere along the lines of “so what?” The point is obvious, but Coleman’s sister spells it out for us: “Nowadays it’s hard to imagine that anyone would do what Coleman felt he had to do.”

Via different mediums and different tones — “Passing” has moments of uplift while “The Human Stain” is all tragedy — Kroeger and director Benton are really making the same point: Passing is passé not as a topic, but as an activity. At a time when we’ve supposedly reconsidered race and outgrown Jim Crow-era racism, there’s no reason to pass anymore. The impetus for producing movies and books about passing is thus to insist on a paradox: We ought to talk about passing again in order to assert that it’s a dead issue. Passing, the thinking goes, isn’t passé as a subject — precisely because it is passé as a course of action.

But there’s the rub. Can we really suggest that passing has passed, a casualty of older-and-wiser theories about race?

Tell that to the woman who, empathizing with one of Staples’ New York Times editorials, described growing up in “a ‘passing’ family” and had her letter published under the heading “Black, White and in Pain.” Tell it to some of my blunt college students, who deem the benefits of passing alluring as ever (“Hell, I would if I could,” one of them sighed after class, speaking with more than a measure of envy about a passing co-worker). To say that passing is passé is to say that racism, which produces passing, is passé. And that’s one of the Great American Fantasies.

As long as there’s white privilege, as long as there’s racism of the “but would you let your daughter marry one?” variety, passing will exist and “so what?” won’t be the most frequent reaction to it. Offensive racial ideologies are like roaches: Just when you think you’ve eradicated them, they crop up again and your apartment looks just the way it did a week ago. Until we come up with a magical race-equalizing version of Raid, black-to-white passing won’t, practically speaking, have its last stand.

Neither will it vanish, theoretically speaking. Here’s where things get slippery: Though it seems to undermine essential racial categories — when someone who looks white isn’t white, then who is? — passing ultimately reinforces them, because talking about passing from one race to another assumes that there are distinct races to pass in and out of. Despite her well-meaning claims about the elusive qualities of identity, Kroeger serves up a title as essentialist as they come: “When People Can’t Be Who They Are” insinuates that there’s indeed a true self, a certain racial “are” whom passers can’t “be.” Most of her subjects, usually in the process of finding a racially appropriate mate, ultimately locate this “are” and thus settle into a “true” self, much as old-school passing figures did.

Kroeger, hip to passing paradoxes, tries to find an out by tinkering with the definition of “passing,” which produces another mess: If passing is race-based, and race, as progressive minds know, doesn’t actually exist, then no one can be a passer; if passing is about identity-shifting more generally, then everyone is a passer. So Kroeger distinguishes passing from everyday identity-shifting by claiming that only a passer doesn’t “recognize the persona she assumes as her own.” But this isn’t fully convincing, and neither is the lip service she pays to the artificiality of race.

Any truly anti-essentialist framework must embrace a technical truth: Despite the legacy of the “one-drop rule,” someone who’s both black and white is passing for black as much as he’s passing for white. “The Human Stain” sidesteps this issue because Coleman’s parents are both defined as black, but Coleman’s white ancestry is written all over his face — so why can’t he claim it?

“The Human Stain,” like “Passing,” ultimately can’t buck the essentialist conventions of the passing story. Not only does it begin with tragic death for the passer — his punishment? — but the film is described by Benton as modern-day Greek tragedy. And what is Greek tragedy if not didactic, eager to render retribution to those who hubristically overstep natural boundaries? The film employs almost every stock element in the classic passing-narrative book, most notably a long-suffering black mother who — standing in for the African-American race — endures the sting of her son’s rejection.

So essentialism wins out in the end. It does in my classroom, too: With their proclivity for statements about being “essentially” black or “really” white, my students — wise and insightful in so many respects — remind me that claims about how racially progressive we’ve become are overstated and optimistic. So does another recent letter to the Times, which asserts — in terms to make racial theorists cringe — that “being black is not something you can teach or mimic … it’s simply who you are.”

We like our solid selves. How, after all, does one actually live in a racial free-for-all, a world in which all identity is (to quote Samira Kawash’s study of passing) “not what we are but what we are passing for”? Even Harvard race guru Randall Kennedy, whose “Interracial Intimacies” argues for a choose-your-own-race approach (he calls it “free and easy entry into and exit from racial categories”), admits that such a world could produce “some racial fraud, or even a considerable amount of it.” Such a world also runs contrary to our passion for security, for the type of identity comfort zone that even Kroeger’s shifting subjects stake out in the end.

More than anything else, today’s passing fad is about the gulf between theory and practice. Yes, race is dead and passing passed with it — but no, they’re not. Academic jive about race as a “disproved” concept is, well, jive; good old Race, rigid and old-hat, lives on in our hearts and minds. Slay something — blackness, whiteness, Latino-ness — in concept and you haven’t slain it in the flesh.

So where does the solution lie? For “The Human Stain,” in language. The film is structured on the struggle of blocked writer Nathan Zuckerman (Roth’s alter ego, played with understated pathos by Gary Sinise). Nathan finds his story in Coleman; he finds it, then, in passing. To clean the human stain of racism — to out that damned spot — is to make narrative about it. Talking is the cure.

Thing is, that produces yet another paradox: The more we talk about the end of race (or of passing), the more it thrives in our discourse and thus in our consciousness. The article you’re reading, which objects to our fixation on race, ironically perpetuates this same fixation. Does this mean we — I — ought to shut up? That’s a tall order, considering that the subject is as eternally hot (if not quite as steamy) as Ben and J.Lo.

It’s also a tall order because we hold dearly to at least one Freudian tenet: In knowledge lies healing, and analysis extricates us from quagmires, racial and otherwise. It’s hard to dispute that — but as contemporary chatter about race and passing makes clear, it’s also easy to overstate it. The wisest move is the most obvious one: Take talk with more than a few grains of salt. Keep theorizing about the passing of passing — as Kroeger, Roth and others do — and hope that time will make theory and practice, the real and the ideal, better bedfellows.

Baz Dreisinger, a freelance journalist, teaches English and American Studies at the City University of New York and is writing a book about racial passing in American culture.

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