It’s Time to Replace the Phrase “White-Passing”

I’m real tired of the phrase “white-passing.”

I’ve been over it for a long time. It feels like a lazy shorthand for an experience that should be discussed specifically and in detail. Besides that, people are using the idea of “passing” incorrectly and extrapolating it to other identities when it has a very specific origin.

The concept of “passing” was created during chattel slavery in the land now known as the United States to refer to mixed-race people with Black heritage who could move through the world as if they were white. People who passed received legal, economic, and social rights that were warranted simply by being white in America. Black people who were unable to pass could not access these rights or even a level of humanity that came with being perceived and received by society as white.

Passing as an idea specifically concerns Blackness in relation to whiteness. There was no such thing as any other race “passing for white” and there was no such thing as Black people “passing” for any other race. Passing for white had not only social benefits, but also institutional benefits: people who successfully passed could vote, own property, and even be presidents of “elite” universities.

However, passing had a negative side. The “tragic mulatta” archetype was a literary trope created during the antebellum period. A tragic mulatta (or mulatto, if the character was a man) was a mixed-race woman with Black heritage who successfully passed for white. However, this character would inevitably lead a life of despair and catastrophe because she could never fully make peace with her Black heritage. You can learn more about this archetype and read about examples of it here.

It’s more than fine with me if Black people continue to use the term “passing” — after all, it has a very complex sociohistorical significance to us. And, in my opinion, we are the experts on what “passing” means — each part of the process — and what it means when you don’t pass. However, if you’re not Black and talking about Blackness — yes, both parts — keep the term “passing” out ya mouth. It don’t make sense for anybody else to use it any other way.

Not to #gatekeep, but the nature of passing — as a word, as a process, as a social experience — is very particular to the construction of Blackness and Black people in the present-day United States relative to whiteness. It simply doesn’t make sense when people generalize it to other identities.

I understand why people have attempted to extend the concept of passing to other racial/ethnic identities (such as Latinidad or the myriad of groups from the SWANA region, which stands for Southwest Asia and North Africa) and social identities (such as “passing for cisgender” or “passing for nondisabled”). We should have language to discuss what it means for a marginalized experience or heritage to not be recognized by society. However, the word “passing” is not the way to do it. I don’t have the solution for talking about that experience with other social identities, but using different terminology is possible: for instance, the use of the word “masking” in the autistic community.

Despite its historical significance, I believe that the term “white-passing” has lost its utility. In my opinion, words and phrases that were coined for a specific reason — even when they were created and/or embraced by marginalized people themselves — can and usually do become outdated at some point. This can happen for many reasons: co-optation; misuse; the loss of need for such a phrase; general changes in language and terminology.

One notable example of a term losing its utility is the word “tr*nsvestite.” It was embraced by many people who, in the present day, would be referred to as transgender or gender non-conforming. The organization Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) was founded by Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, two prominent nonwhite self-identified drag queens; they provided resources to homeless queer and trans people in New York City. While Rivera and Johnson embraced the word “tr*nsvestite” as members of the community, it is now widely understood to be offensive.

“White-passing” is in a similar boat — while it isn’t considered offensive, it certainly is no longer useful. First and foremost, it’s not descriptive enough. What does it mean to pass on different levels: individual, interpersonal, and structural? Second, the phrase is reductive of the experiences of people who physically appear to be white but have a non-white parent or parents. It collapses many different experiences and relationships to both whiteness and non-whiteness under one (very flimsy) umbrella. Lastly, it’s an incomplete phrase. What are the effects of being “white-passing” for that person themselves and what are the effects of the existence of “white-passing” people for the world around them — including both white people and the nonwhite community they come from?

People do not consider what it means to be “white-passing” in different settings. Folks tend to think that if someone is white-passing in one place, they will always have a certain experience of race and ethnicity. However, what constitutes race — on all levels from individual to systemic — varies with context. Being “white-passing” means different things to different communities in different places.

Earlier this year, I interviewed my friend Gia for an assignment. Gia is biracial, with one white parent and one Black parent. From kindergarten through eighth grade, Gia was the only Black student at her school; due to this, she was always seen as Black, despite her very light skin. She said that while she is “white-passing in some instances, [she] was not white passing in this instance.” She explained by saying that “My Blackness depends on the amount of whiteness around me. Compared to their whiteness, I wasn’t the same type of white as them — I experienced racism because it was in comparison to whiteness.” During our conversation, she said that being white-passing is “contextual” and discussed the significance of hair, particularly to Black women. She said that her “biggest indicator of Blackness is hair” and that changes to her hairstyle — such as having braids versus straightening her hair — often changes people’s perception of her race.

In the present day, when it is said that a person “passes for white” — or any identity, for that matter — it is implied that these identities are absolute and immutable. (This is because we have divorced the context of “passing” from its roots in chattel slavery, when it was known that to “pass” was the result of deliberate and tangible actions.) Many identities that we consider central to our existence are constructed and vary depending on context. What constitutes who is “disabled” is constructed, just as what constitutes a “woman” is constructed. Racial categories, however, were even more deliberately constructed than other identities. Whiteness was created during the era of colonization and chattel slavery to be the default, the norm. It meant having access to opportunities, citizenship, and, ultimately, power. Race, and especially whiteness, are not grounded in science or reality; they were invented by humans to provide legitimacy to the oppression of those deemed nonwhite.

[I would like to make it very clear that I am not saying that race simply doesn’t exist; as sociology’s Thomas Theorem says, situations that are defined as real are real in their consequences. In this case, though our conception of race was and is constructed, the consequences of race are very real.]

The phrase “white-passing” also locates whiteness and its privileges squarely within the individual rather than incorporating a lens of how it operates in our wider society. When we say a person is “white-passing,” we are saying that their whiteness travels with them from situation to situation; it ignores how a person’s whiteness can fluctuate with context, such as in Gia’s story. We have to recognize that, for many people with nonwhite heritage, they may or may not be received as white depending on the conditions at hand.

A man may appear to be white upon first approach by a law enforcement official. But if that official asks for his identification, and that identification displays a name such as “José Antonio García,” Mr. García may no longer be “white” to that official.

A woman may appear to be white while exercising in an all-female gym. When putting back on her regular clothes after her workout, she also puts on a hijab. To many people who see her wearing her hijab while outside the gym, she may no longer be “white.”

A student at a high school that is >95% Black is thought to be white by their peers, the vast majority of whom are Black. When they go on to attend a predominantly white institution (PWI) for college, their peers, the majority of whom are now white, correctly assume that the student is biracial. In a majority Black environment, the student was “white”; however, in a majority white environment, the student was no longer “white” to most of their peers.

Let me give a real-life example. At a meeting for a community organization which I was a member of, we were dividing ourselves up into small discussion groups based on racial identification. There were groups for white people, Black people, and non-Black people of color. One member was having trouble deciding whether to join the group made up of white people — which, if solely based on appearance, they could have joined — or the group made up of non-Black people of color, which, if based on certain personal experiences, they also could have joined.

At some point, this person began to cry as they told us about the racism and Islamophobia their family — which is from the SWANA region — faced when they were a child, which deeply affected and traumatized them. When this person is with their family, they are not perceived and received as white. But, now an adult with their own life, they would appear to be white while going about their day, on public transit or at the grocery store. However, that doesn’t wipe away the experiences they carry with themself. While this person does have skin color privilege, they still have emotional trauma due to negative racialization that would not immediately be recognized just from looking at them at that particular moment.

There is quite a bit of discourse on social media, particularly on Twitter, about “white-passing” people like the folks described in the previous examples. Many people who participate in this conversation say there is “no such thing as being white-passing.” I generally agree with them, for the reasons I stated earlier: the phrase “white-passing” is ambiguous, unhelpful, and has been divorced from its historical (but still relevant) origins. However, I halt when they say that people who would be called “white-passing” are “just white.” There is a difference, even if it is contextual and, at times, seemingly trivial. We must be precise with our language if we are to have conversations about race and find solutions to racism that really work.

In general, I’m just tired of people who do not have the experience of being Black in America utilizing the concept of passing. When non-Black people talk about “passing,” they’re just talking about the physical appearance of an individual. They typically do not consider the interpersonal experiences of that individual and how structures and institutions treat that individual. Passing is deeper than how one looks; it’s about your treatment by society and the things you receive as a result of that treatment. It’s about access.

I believe that the term “white-passing” has reached the end of its utility. It’s time to say what we really mean: access to whiteness.

What does it mean for an individual to have access to whiteness? First, instead of saying that whiteness is a fixed characteristic within an individual, it tells us that whiteness is a socially constructed mechanism. It also tells us what happens when a person can be read as white: not simply that they are “passing” for white, but that they can access and therefore utilize the powers and privileges of whiteness. Lastly, it implies that an individual’s whiteness isn’t a constant, but rather, it fluctuates; they may or may not access whiteness depending on the situation.

Let me be clear that I’m not saying white people — white people with two white parents, white people who would never, ever be [negatively] racialized — should start using “access to whiteness” as a euphemism to describe themselves. Y’all just white, hun. Don’t try to gloss over it.

I am also not saying that people with access to whiteness do not have to reckon with their skin color privilege (not to mention their privilege under texturism and featurism, too). Our communities still have to do the work of unlearning eurocentric standards of beauty, which affects not only who finds you attractive, but also systemic processes such as school discipline and sentencing in a court of law. People with access to whiteness must always be cognizant of their privilege and ensure they’re not taking advantage of it to contribute to the oppression of people darker than them.

“Access to whiteness” is a better term because, unlike the concept of passing, it can be extrapolated to non-Black racial and ethnic groups. It at least begins the conversation about the effects of being perceived and received by society as white. The phrase also talks about whiteness rather than being white — that is, it demonstrates that whiteness is a constructed, subjective concept rather than a fixed characteristic. In addition, “access to whiteness” locates racial categorization (and the benefits that accompany being categorized as white) within social structures and processes instead of a singular person and their physical traits.

“White-passing” is the past; leave it behind. “Access to whiteness” is my proposal for the language we need in order to have conversations about how to bring about a more equitable future.


Jo can be found on Twitter and Instagram.

Author: Jo (Foderingham) Brown

Jo (Foderingham) Brown (she/her or he/him, use either, idc) is a poet, writer, student, activist, and all-around nerd living in D.C.

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