Passing

black like me

Racial passing refers to a person classified as a member of one racial group attempting to be accepted as a member of a different racial group.

The term was used especially in the U.S. to describe a person of mixed-race heritage assimilating into the white majority during times when legal and social conventions of hypodescent classified the person as a minority, subject to racial segregation and discrimination.

In the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, some Americans of mixed European and African ancestry claimed Mediterranean, Arab or Native American heritage to explain skin color and features differing from northern Europeans. They were trying to find a way through the binary racial divisions of society, especially in the South, where slavery became closely tied in the colonial era to the foreign status of people of African descent, which prevented them from being considered English subjects. In the 18th and 19th centuries, most free people went by appearance. If they looked white, were accepted by neighbors and fulfilled community obligations, they were absorbed into white or European-American society.

Late 19th-century Jim Crow state laws establishing segregation in public facilities, and early 20th-century state laws establishing the ‘one-drop rule’ for racial classification (as in Virginia in 1924), were examples of whites attempting to impose regulations of hypodescent (the automatic assignment of children of a mixed union to the subordinate group), that is, classifying someone as black or African based on any African ancestry. At that time, someone who identified by appearance and majority ancestry might be described as ‘passing” for white. In Louisiana, people of color who passed as white were referred to as ‘passe blanc.’

Civil rights leader Walter Francis White (who was blond-haired, blue-eyed, and very fair) was of mixed-race, mostly white ancestry as 27 of his 32 great-great-great-grandparents were white; five were classified as black and had been slaves. He grew up with his parents and family in Atlanta in the black community and identified with it. He served as the chief executive of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from 1929 until his death in 1955. In the earlier stages of his career, he did investigations in the South, where he sometimes passed as white to gather information more freely on lynchings and hate crimes, and to protect himself in socially hostile environments.

In the 20th century ‘Krazy Kat’ comics creator George Herriman was a Louisiana Creole of partial African-American ancestry who claimed Greek heritage throughout his adult life. Writer and critic Anatole Broyard was a Louisiana Creole who chose to pass for white in his adult life in New York City and Connecticut, in part because he wanted to create an independent writing life and not be classified as a black writer. In addition, he did not identify with northern urban blacks, whose experiences had been much different from his as a child in New Orleans. He married an American woman of European descent. His wife and many of his friends knew he was partly black in ancestry. His daughter Bliss Broyard did not find out until after her father’s death. In 2007 she published a memoir that traced her exploration of her father’s life and family mysteries entitled ‘One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life – A Story of Race and Family Secrets.’

In a limited reversal of the usual pattern, some people of European ancestry have chosen to pass as members of other races. The environmentalist Grey Owl was a white British man named Archibald Belaney, rather than the Native American-Canadian he claimed to be. He claimed he was half Apache and half Scottish to explain European aspects of his appearance. He learned the Ojibwa languages and ways, and lived fully with them as a man of nature. The United States actor Iron Eyes Cody, who was of Sicilian descent, created a niche by playing roles of Native Americans. He had claimed American Indian heritage to get work. European-American authors and artists who have notably attempted to pass as being Native American include Asa Earl Carter, who claimed to be Cherokee; Ward Churchill, who claimed to be Cherokee-Muscogee Creek; Jamake Highwater, who claimed to be Cherokee-Blackfeet; and Yeffe Kimball, who claimed to be Osage. During the New Age movement, non-native peoples sometimes passed as Native American medicine people. The pejorative term for such people is “plastic shaman.”

During World War II in Nazi Germany and the rest of Europe, some Jewish people who looked ‘Aryan’ (based on fair coloring and other features) passed as ‘Aryan’ to save their lives, and to avoid shipment by the Nazis to concentration and death camps. An extreme example is the story of Edith Hahn Beer. Hahn was Jewish and ‘passed’ as ‘Aryan’; she survived the Holocaust by living with and marrying a Nazi officer. Hahn-Beer wrote a memoir called ‘The Nazi Officer’s Wife: How One Jewish Woman Survived the Holocaust.’

Many communities of mixed-racial heritage are scattered throughout the eastern United States. They were called tri-racial isolate groups by anthropologists because in some areas they had quite cohesive identities and for decades married within the community. They were always formed in relation to the larger communities, however. Members often claimed to have Amerindian/Native American and European ancestry, although some also were identified in early years as Arab to explain physical characteristics that made them look different from mostly European neighbors. Myths arose about their origins, including links to Turks, the Lost Colony of Roanoke, and early Native American tribes. Most of the stories are unsupported by historical documentation.

Extensive research in the late 20th century in original colonial records has documented genealogies and migration patterns of many ancestors of these peoples. In work that has won awards, Paul Heinegg found that most free people of color in North Carolina in 1790 and 1810 were descended from African Americans free in Virginia during the colonial period. Free African Americans, also called ‘free people of color’ in early 19th-century censuses (which had no designation for American Indian) migrated to frontier areas in 18th-century Virginia and other areas of the Chesapeake Bay Colony. Like their neighbors of European descent, after the American Revolution they migrated into North Carolina, Kentucky and Tennessee, and often further west. In frontier areas land was more affordable, and the people were often accepted by neighbors and were not as bound by racial divisions as in the plantation settlements.

Heinegg found that 80 percent of the people listed as ‘other’ or ‘free Negroes’ and ‘free people of color’ in North Carolina in censuses from 1790-1810 were descended from African Americans free in Virginia during the colonial period. Those were born mostly of relationships freely chosen between white women, free or indentured servants, and African or African American men, indentured servants, free or slave. Such relationships indicated the fluid nature of society before slavery became defined as a lifelong racial caste. Because the women were white, their children were born free. In addition, some slaves were freed as early as the mid-17th century, so after 150 years had generations of descendants by 1800, the turn of the 19th century.

Early scholars of such groups thought they descended from Europeans, Africans who escaped from slavery, and Native Americans, who formed their own communities on the frontiers. The first comprehensive survey of these groups was made in 1948 and listed the following: The Wesorts of southern Maryland; The Issues (referring to free Negroes of longstanding, now called Monacans) of Amherst and Rockingham Counties, Virginia; The Croatans (since 1953 called Lumbees) of Robeson County North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia; The Melungeons of the Southern Appalachians, centered on Hancock County Tennessee; The Brass Ankles, Redbones, Red Legs, Turks, and Marlboro Blues of South Carolina; The Cajuns or Acadians and Creoles of Louisiana; The Redbones of Texas and Louisiana; The Guineas, West Hill Indians, Cecil Indians; and The Jackson Whites of the Ramapo Mountains of New York and New Jersey, the only group that originally formed outside the South.

Most such terms were labels given by whites or blacks, not names created by the multiracial communities. Some members have considered such nicknames offensive. The relatively isolated mixed-race communities are important to the study of people’s moving from black to white across the color line because some formed a ‘racial escape hatch.’ Members increasingly married into and identified with the European-American majority community in the area.

In Latin America, generational acculturation and assimilation took place via intermarriage. Medium-brown offspring of even dark parents were no longer ‘black,’ but were labeled with any of a half-dozen terms denoting class as much as skin tone. Descendants who were European-looking were accepted as white. This was somewhat similar to the growth of a mixed-race Creole class in Louisiana, especially in New Orleans before the US purchased the territory. In the early years of the French and Spanish colony, there were few European women. Men took enslaved or Native American women as wives or mistresses.

In the Latin culture, the wealthy men often had their mixed-race sons educated in Europe or trained in skilled trades. Gradually a third caste evolved, of mixed-race Creoles. Creoles were often educated, and many became wealthy property owners. They also formed a community of artisans in New Orleans. Beautiful young Creole women often became the official mistresses of white French colonists, who provided financial settlements for them and their children in a system known as plaçage. This enabled them to have their children educated.

Certainly there were many generations of mixed-race people in the American South. In the later 18th and 19th centuries, they were often the children of white planter fathers and enslaved women. Among the most famous were the multiracial slave children born to Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings from their long relationship after he became a widower. Hemings was mixed-race, as was her enslaved mother Betty Hemings. The daughter of a slave woman and an English sea captain, Betty became the longtime mistress of Jefferson’s father-in-law John Wayles after he became a widower for the third time, and had several children with him.

In 1998, DNA studies showed that the descendants of Eston Hemings, Sally’s youngest son, were related to the Jefferson male line. Most historians, the National Genealogical Society, and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation of Monticello believe that the weight of historical evidence suggests Jefferson was the father of Eston and all of Hemings’ children (who were thus seven-eighths European by ancestry and legally white under Virginia law at the time). Historian Annette Gordon-Reed was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 2010 for her work on the history of the Jeffersons and the Hemings families (which won a Pulitzer Prize and 15 other major awards), and for ‘changing the course of Jeffersonian scholarship’ by showing how earlier historians had disregarded or discounted important evidence from slave testimonies.

The Civil War did not end relationships across color and ethnic lines. Although during the Jim Crow era, southern legislators created strict segregation between whites and blacks and anti-miscegenation laws, people made their own arrangements. As under slavery, relationships often developed out of white social dominance. For instance, as a 22-year-old young man, segregationist US Senator Strom Thurmond had an affair with Carrie ‘Tunch’ Butler, the 16-year-old black maid to his family. She bore his daughter Essie Mae Washington-Williams. Thurmond provided financial support for his daughter and paid for Butler’s education, but kept her existence a secret. His daughter did not discuss their relationship until after his death.

Currently, new waves of immigration and people’s desires to embrace all of their heritage are causing attrition of single ‘racial’ categories. Responding to citizens, the Census Bureau since 2000 allows people to check off ‘more than one’ ethnic group with which they identify, and more responses are falling into that category. Younger people are especially claiming all their multiracial heritage.

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