As we clock up one more year of the twenty-first century it seems news headlines increasingly reference the past. This week, TMZ reported that a Versace retail assistant “shocked the manager” by revealing he was African American – and was subsequently fired. Presumably, in order to get and keep his job for a luxury brand, the worker had been passing as white up until that point.
Passing is the act of a racially ambiguous person who chooses to present as being of the dominant culture, possibly denying their genealogy, social and educational roots in the process. It can be a complicated endeavor, the combination of deliberate choices by the individual (e.g. hair style, clothing, and the spelling of their name) and the community in which they seek acceptance. It’s not enough to present your chosen racial identity, you have to hope that everyone you encounter also accepts, on an ongoing basis, your self-definition.
“We do not see color. We think it.” – Walter White
For much of the history of the U.S.A., those who chose to pass were driven by very powerful economic, legal and social reasons. Under most circumstances, you would live a longer, more peaceful and prosperous life if other people thought you were white. During slavery, when mixed-race children born of an enslaved mother were considered the property of her owner (even if that man was also their father), a light skin could mean a much easier path to freedom or education. When segregation set limits on everything from public transport to housing to marriage, a complexion ‘lighter than a brown paper bag’ could be used to advance beyond the spirit and letter of the restrictions. Even into the Civil Rights era, the ability to appear on the other side of the color line could mean the difference between life and death.
No one knows how many individuals of mixed race whitewashed their family trees and adopted a wholesome Caucasian last name – estimates range from a few hundred thousand to millions. Those who passed kept their origins a closely guarded secret, often cutting off all contact with their families and disappearing from official records, reappearing in a different state, under a different name, untraceable.
Passing had legal ramifications too. Under Jim Crow laws, a single grandparent of color meant you were officially classified as ‘non-white’ in a world where ‘Whites Only’ signs abounded. Simple acts – booking a train ticket, applying to school, ordering a soda, falling in love – became potentially criminal activities if you refused to accept the state’s classification of your racial identity.
Although Jim Crow laws were more sweeping and vicious across the South, miscegenation was defined as a felony in many states (including California) until a wave of repeals occurred between 1948-1967 (the last state laws tumbled thanks to Loving vs. Virginia on 6/12/67). Even in liberal northern states, race was enough of a reason to have a marriage annulled, once the truth of a spouse’s ancestry was revealed. New Yorkers were scandalized in 1924 when the New Rochelle Standard Star printed a story about the Rhinelander Real Estate heir, Kip, and his new wife, Alice who, it turned out, wasn’t just a member of the working class (she was a domestic servant when she met Kip) but of mixed race too. The incendiary headline, picked up by the New York tabloids, read “Rhinelander’s Son Marries Daughter of Colored Man.”
The Rhinelanders threatened to disinherit Kip if he didn’t ditch Alice. Their lawyers prepped an annulment complaint, claiming that Alice had intentionally deceived Kip by passing as white. How could the marriage be legally binding if it was based on such a massive act of fraud? Alice’s lawyers countered with the claim that she had never attempted to hide her race. More sensationally, they argued that as she and Kip had had sex before marriage, he should have known from seeing her naked breasts and legs that she was of mixed race. During the trial, Alice appeared in her underwear as one of the exhibits, and was paraded in front of the all-white, all-male jury, who, having seen her bare legs, shoulders, back and the top of her breasts, agreed that Kip could not possibly have mistaken her for a white woman. They found in Alice’s favor.
The Rhinelander case fed into a growing pop culture fascination with passing. Although there were obvious advantages to pretending to be white, passing meant a life of constantly looking over your shoulder and lying to your spouse and children about who you were and where you came from. Racial ambiguity had always been a potent plot device (see Kate Chopin’s short story published in Vogue in 1893, Désirée’s Baby or Mark Twain’s 1894 novel, The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson for early examples) but the 1920s-1940s saw a steady stream of novels, memoirs and films that explored the emotional burdens and tough choices that came with living the lie.
Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929) examines the complexities of life for New York socialite Clare Kendry, a mixed race woman whose husband is entirely unaware of her genetic make-up. A chance encounter with a childhood friend, another mixed race woman, Irene, leads Clare to reconnect with the black side of her family, and, ultimately, to her doom. Fannie Hurst’s Imitation of Life (published in 1933 and then made into two films, in 1934 and 1959) takes a more melodramatic approach, comparing the experiences of the light-skinned Peola and the white Jessie who grow up together in an Atlantic City household run between their mothers, white businesswoman Bea and black Delilah. 20th Century Fox’s top-grossing film of 1949, Pinky, followed the fortunes of a nurse who had been passing during her training in Chicago, where she fell in love with a white doctor. When she returns home to the South, to visit the black, illiterate grandmother who raised her, she has to choose between living her dream future as a white man’s passing-for-white wife, or doing her duty by her birth community.
Poplars girls in the first half of the twentieth century would have been very familiar with the concept and practice of passing – and some of them would have been much more familiar than others. It would be a mistake to look at a School photograph and automatically assume that, even in such an exclusive establishment, all the students were irrefutably white, with sixteen Caucasian great-great-grandparents. The United States of America wasn’t made like that. Indeed, after the Wall St. Crash in 1929, when the headmistress was desperate to maintain even minimal enrolment numbers, word got around that the School might be persuaded to look the other way regarding non-WASP candidates. The old system of personal and familial recommendation crumbled and there were only two key criteria for admission: the parents had to be able to pay the fees in advance, in cash, and the student had to be able to pass.
This new system worked so well that the evidence of girls’ passing only came to light after the fact. The investigation into a victim’s family background triggered by a disappearance would inevitably reveal some inconvenient truths – one more reason why the headmistress became increasingly reluctant to inform the police when a student went missing in the middle of the night.
There are, however, three case studies from this time that reveal the extent of passing at The Poplars. Ilsa, only too aware of anti-refugee sentiment throughout the 1930s hid her Jewishness by singing in the Chapel choir. Meg stayed out of Manzanar internment camp by denying her half-Japanese father. And Lily, poor Lily, passed successfully and unconsciously until she was blindsided by the truth about her mother’s “high yaller” showgirl past. Patrons — these case studies are coming. Non-Patron? Sign up!
I’d like to be able to write about passing as a historical curiosity, a no-longer-necessary relic of the days before Equal Rights. Unfortunately, as the ex-Versace employee will attest, there are still advantages to letting people think you are white – or straight, or cis-gender, or in any way conforming to the dominant culture. Poplars girls, sadly, are passing in the present day and will, I suspect, continue to do so for the foreseeable future.