What is Racial Passing?

In 1882 the US passed the Chinese Exclusion
Act, which suspended Chinese immigration for 10 years. The law was renewed in 1892 and made permanent
in 1902. It wasn’t repealed until 1943, when China
became an ally of the US in WW2. But in the intervening years, although the
Chinese immigrant population in the US sharply declined it didn’t stop altogether. At the tail end of the 19th century and into
the dawn of the 20th, Chinese immigrants looking to enter the US found themselves barred from
coastal cities and states like California and New York. But the US shared a then more lenient border
with its Southern neighbor: Mexico, where In order to enter the country Chinese migrants
disguised themselves as Mexican Nationals and entered the U.S. with doctored documents. Professor Allyson Hobbs of Stanford University
details stories like this and other instances of racial passing in her book A Chosen Exile. While Hobbs notes that stories of African
Americans who passed for white in the 20th century to avoid the terror of Jim Crow laws
remain the more commonly known passing narratives in the US, people from a variety of backgrounds
have chosen to pass in order to change their class, legal, and social standing in society. So passing is when people decide to change
their background and their social identifiers in order to gain certain benefits. And in US history the most commonly discussed
instances of passing are usually people pretending to be of European descent. And that is because at various points in time,
whiteness, or being of Western European descent (particularly Anglo-Saxon ) has carried
with it certain legal protections and benefits. As Professor Cheryl Harris notes in her article
“Whiteness as Property”, those legal protections are directly linked to property. This can include things like the ability to
earn a living, travel freely between states, purchasing a home, or attending elite schools. Harris details how cases like Plessy vs. Ferguson
and Brown vs. Board of Education demonstrate a positive correlation between property, prosperity
and race in US law. In Plessy’s 1896 case, Homer Plessy (a New
Orleans man of European and African descent) boarded a whites only railway car with the
intention of being detained in order to fight the 1890 Louisiana Separate Car Act which
dictated that citizens of different races must ride in designated cars. Plessy’s case was supported by a group of
Louisiana citizens who argued that dividing the cars deprived black riders of their legal
rights. The Supreme Court eventually declared that
the state and the railroad company had the right to maintain segregated cars, ultimately
leading to the “separate but equal” doctrine that became the backbone of Jim Crow and segregation
laws in the US. These laws ostensibly granted separate facilities
for white and black citizens, but they more effectively created generational, systematic
class divides in the US that aligned with race. It wasn’t until the Supreme Court’s decision
in 1954’s Brown versus Board of Education that the separate but equal doctrine was struck
down. The plaintiff’s attorneys argued effectively
that segregated schools disadvantaged black children who were being put into facilities
that were understaffed, underfunded, and therefore guaranteed worse life outcomes for black children
than their white peers. But the pivotal argument in the case came
in the form of the Clark Doll Experiment. Drs. Mamie and Kenneth Clark, a husband and
wife psychologist team, conducted experiments with black children in order to determine
the lasting psychological impacts of the racial bias created by legal segregation. The Clarks showed groups of black children
two dolls: ones that looked white and ones that looked brown. The Clarks asked the children to identify
the traits they associated with the dolls, including which one was white and which one
was negro or colored. They also asked the children to identify which
dolls were “good” and which were “bad”, as well as which dolls looked more like them. Overwhelmingly the children identified the
white dolls as good and the brown dolls as inferior, with some children becoming so overwhelmed
and upset when asked to identify themselves with the brown dolls that they would cry or
run from the room. Future Supreme Court Justice and one of the
attorneys for Brown versus Board of Education, Thurgood Marshall, persuaded other members
of the NAACP legal defense team to use the Clarks’ findings in the court case. The result was a persuasive demonstration
of how awarding legal protections and privilege based on race had long lasting effects on
children who are marked outside of the privileged group. Therefore the arguments for desegregation
centered on questions of legal access rather than the desire to subvert or hide black identity. So the legal undergirdings of how we assign
financial or other benefits based on race or gender or ethnic background or country
of origin is often the true motivator for people to pass, more so than a desire to change
their race or appearance. But the question of passing and legality does
not just extend to the benefits of property assigned on the basis of race. It can also encompass related concepts, like
physical safety. For example during World War II it was common
for European Jews to either change their last names or hide their Jewish heritage in order
to escape concentration camps and extermination at the hands of the Nazi party. Throughout history, passing for persecuted
groups has extended to any place and time where those in the social minority were in physical or
legal danger from the state because their group had been designated as “undesirable.” So passing in those cases was a matter of
life and death. Some of you may remember the story of Ellen
Craft and her husband William who in 1848 engineered their own escape from slavery in
Georgia by passing. Ellen, dressed as a white male planter, traveled
North from Georgia with William pretending to be her manservant. They were able to check themselves into hotels
and board railroads until they safely reached the north. I mentioned the story of Ellen and William
in our episode on cross-dressing, but the implications of passing here are also present
because Ellen was able to gain access to these elite hotels and methods of transportation
along with William because she was passing for a white man. But the benefits of being within a legally
protected group wasn’t just known to those attempting to pass or crossover; they were
also acknowledged by members of the protected group. In 1863 abolitionist propaganda circulated
in the US displayed pictures mixed heritage children from New Orleans with very fair skin
who were also born into slavery. Because under US law slavery was a legal condition
that was passed down from mother to child, these children, although they could pass for
white or had what was considered very small percentages of black heritage, were still
considered legal slaves. Northern abolitionists, fearing that support
for the Civil War was waning as rich citizens were often exempted from service and poor
white citizens were drafted at higher numbers, used the images of these children to elicit
empathy and support for the abolition of legal slavery. These images were printed in Harper’s Weekly
and on small souvenir photographs called carte de visite. Abolitionists like Henry Ward Beecher
stated that in addition to the great evils of slavery, situations like this where white
passing children could also be enslaved should strike outrage and fear into conscientious
White Citizens. Because if these children, (who looked so
close in appearance to the children of the predominantly white and middle-class abolitionist
readers of Harper’s Weekly) could be enslaved, then what was stopping free white children
or their parents from being drawn in to the treacherous clutches of slavery? The appeal was incredibly effective on anxious
readers who noted that race, which had long stood as the primary determinant of slavery
in the US, was not a foregone and concrete conclusion. If people who could pass as white were still
enslaved than the boundaries of legal protections based on race were fluid and fragile, making
them more difficult to police. And in the 20th century this anxiety around
the fragility of racial legal boundaries was discussed and immortalized in the literature
of the Harlem Renaissance, most famously in Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel Passing. But to add one more confusing spoke to this
already huge wheel, passing does not just occur when those in a legally disadvantaged
group claim membership in the dominant culture. There are also cases where those from the
dominant group have crossed into a minority group, often causing public shock and outcry
when their deceptions are revealed. I mean, who can forget the internet outrage
caused by Rachel Dolezal. But despite her notoriety she was far from
the first. Hobbs notes the case of musician Mezz Mezzrow,
the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, who chose to pass as black at various points in
his life to strengthen his jazz career and later wrote about it in his 1946 autobiography
Really the Blues. Mezzrow hoped to gain social capital and increased
ability to book gigs as a jazz musician by passing. And an actor who went by the stage name Iron
Eyes Cody rose to fame in the latter half of the 20th century, claiming membership in
several Native American tribes. At the height of his career he was featured
as an actor in Western films, starred in the famously publicized “Crying Indian” ad
of 1971 , authored a book on what he claimed were types of Native American sign language,
and even landed himself a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. It wasn’t until he died in 1999 that it
was discovered that he was actually the son of two Sicilian immigrants who was born Espera
Oscar de Corti in 1904 in Louisiana. But despite evidence including baptismal records
and family accounts, de Corti still claimed to be the child of a Cherokee father and Cree
mother until he died. And there’s also the story of Linda Taylor,
a white woman who passed as a variety of races, including black, throughout her life in order
to engage in myriad illegal schemes such as changing wills, cashing fake checks, theft,
and most famously welfare fraud. A report from Josh Levin at Slate notes how
Taylor, passing as a black woman, came to national attention in 1976 when then Presidential
candidate Ronald Reagan used her case as an example of reasons to restructure American
welfare programs. Taylor was rapidly becoming infamous as the
“welfare queen” when Reagan found her story in an article in Chicago newspapers. Later it was revealed she was born a white
woman in Tennessee and raised in Arkansas as Martha Miller and she later began passing
for different races and ages in order to aid her in her crimes. So just like whiteness has a social capital
that has material gains that aren’t only related to improved finances, the kinds of
capital that people hope to gain by passing isn’t directly tied to the dominant
social group but still bears the potential for legal gains (like subverting the law)
and financial gains (like making a career in entertainment). So passing carries with it the potential to
alter someone’s legal or social status, pointing to the difficulty of pinning down
social markers that are often subjective and fluid. But the material results of passing usually
benefit the person crossing the divide in tangible ways. So what do you think? Anything to add to this condensed timeline? Be sure to read all of the links down in the
works cited since there’s a ton more to cover in this story. And if you like Origin of Everything then
be sure to like us on Facebook, Subscribe to our channel on Youtube and follow us on
Instagram and Twitter for more show updates. That’s it for now and I’ll see you guys
back here next week!

100 thoughts on “What is Racial Passing?

  1. Such a good video with really good information. I'm a white passing POC and I see all the time how I benefit from white privilege.

  2. I need to figure out how to pass as a very tall woman, rather than a short women in heels…..excellent video, thank you!

  3. Interesting how you choose to study your blessed little heart out on how people like you cheated to get into OUR nation. We should have sent all you blacks back after the civil war. You add NOTHING to our society except evil.

  4. Q: How can we be sure that certain inequalities between groups isn't a matter of one group simply being better than the other?

  5. Thank you for making an Informative video that didn’t subscribe to the bullshit SJW rhetoric of today. I found this genuinely refreshing and SO interesting!!!

  6. Is a latino sayin the N word considered passing? Cause that shit needs to stop!(by latino Im umbrellaying, more specific to Mexican-Americans or Chicanos)

  7. I thought this was a NASCAR video about how to pass during a race! good video and i hope like hell nobody has to do this in our modern day…this was awesomely done…

  8. If you can pass for white you’re white. Being a quadroon(1/4th black or native ) or less than that than you’re not black/native.

  9. Lol….nothing changes unless whites themselves are threatened ….

  10. The young lady who hosts this video is very articulate and did an awesome job!

  11. One of my grandmothers was half Cree but chose to pass as white for half of her life. She was denied treaty rights because of her white father yet her brothers got treaty rights because of gender discrimination on that issue. That law was changed in the 80's so she opted in and began to identify as Cree (she spoke the language fluently) and lost friends because of her decision. I am only 1/8th Cree and identify as white but my grandmother's biracial status really makes racism confusing to me. We are all only one race, the human race. How is that so hard to fathom?

  12. My grandmother was half Japanese. When the United States started Internment camps for Japanese Americans, my grandparents somehow stole, bribed, or blackmailed the courthouses that held my grandmother's legal documents so that they could destroy them, so that she, and my father, aunt, and uncle, who were children at the time, would not have to go to the Internment camps. She told my mother what they had done when she was on her death bed. For years, we did not know whether to believe it or not, because we could not find information about her genealogy anywhere. About a year ago, I had DNA testing, and it confirmed that I had Japanese/Asian ancestors. So it confirms that her death-bed confession was true.

  13. What do you think about Robert Francis O'Rourke going by "Beto". He's not Latino.

  14. Where is a white country?
    Where can white people go to be left alone?

  15. So much applause for this video. The moment when she said "Those in the social minority were BOTH in physical and legal danger from the state" I was hooked. Preach

  16. 100% white Irish children were the FIRST slaves in the United States.

  17. My family is Mexican, and even though we have been in Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico for about 450 years we still experienced a lot of prejudice in the 1950s. My dad passed as Jewish to get work, and did what he had to do to feed the family. Ironically there have been times when people would assume that I am Jewish, and then getting mad at me when I didn't know the customs. It's a double-edged sword when people assume your race because of your skin color.

  18. I'm so fascinated and surprised that people, especially americans, still use and permeate the word, "race" as though it's a valid scientific phenomena. We know race is nothing more than a social construct, a limiting and divisive one at best, yet it is still used as biological identifier.

    I'm even more fascinated that persons of colour use this word, as it's sole purpose was to divide and hierarchy humanity by skin color. Why continue to buy into the madness?

    It would be very cool to see a video by Origin of Everything on the history of the word "race" and why it's still in use today.

  19. America is a rich, diverse community now. But were full now, no vacancies. Build the wall and put up machine gun towers.

  20. Lolololol. What… Chinese passing as Mexicans. They Chinese? No, they chino. Lolol

  21. Every black person knows what this is…light bright damn near white. Nobody asks and they don’t tell usually treated so much better than deeper pigmented blacks…

  22. Still very common today with prominent public figures pretending to be Native American or even African American

  23. What about people who ''pass'' accidentally, my step daughter is seldom recognised as Māori though she is, and being mistaken for pakeha is a heartache for her.

  24. Conservatives get triggered when you mention that whites did anything wrong in American history

  25. You forgot about white people whose great great grandparents bought their way into INDIAN TRIBES for a whopping 5 USD and are still passing TODAY!

  26. Do not over extend the term Anglo-Saxon to those Europeans who are not Anglo-Saxon, and have histories of wars. There is so much that happened before America.

  27. Very good information….I just wish that you wouldn't have been speaking so fast….it's very hard to understand what's being said when one speaks to quickly and runs words together.

  28. "Imitation of Life" is a great oldies movie about a girl that can pass for white.

  29. Whites have never thought about races as much as races have tried to define how whites historically felt about race .
    Imagine a hunter gatherer of any race now with a compare them to a animal.
    It's hard to find one more civil than the other .they both live primitive lives .
    As modern civilization no matter your race you will automatically feel you have to educate them and elevate them to your civilized lifestyle.
    race is a more recent thing.
    You must be able to veiw each period by the standard of that civilization standards.

  30. Thise black kids were stupid. Favoring the white dolls made no sense. I am mixed race and I hated the blonde dolls. I favored the dark ones. The darkest dumb kids have insecurities. I wasnt like that so I don't know why the kids were. Yea they made dark dolls uglier in the face but my mom only got me pretty dolls.

  31. So crazy how humans find "reasonable" solutions to problems of people trying to escape untenable circumstances. Their solutions to marginalized vulnerable people is to do even more horrendous things to them (like our current government), instead of recognizing that the way they are handling things now is not working, and change for the better.

    A collective insanity. After all, if you do the same things the same ways over and over again, and expect the results to be different…. etc etc.

    No wonder there are so many movie villains trying to wipe out humanity, with a snap of their fingers. Even endangered animals would rejoice!

  32. um, most "blacks" passing are nearly all white to begin with. Therefore, they are really white. If a white person tried to pass as black with a tiny bit of African dna they would be persecuted and ridiculed. The one drop rule is for people who can't let go of identifying as a slave. Come on people-! By the way, you present a wonderful program.

  33. Chinese can't get away with pretending to be Mexican, I think they look too different.

  34. Okay so, I have a legitimate question to this, Is this kind of like a black face/white face type of thing?
    I had another question but forgot it. I'm just curious as to how people take it though. I can understand why some people would do it in certain periods of time, move from one country to another so they could possibly live a better life but I'm just wondering.

  35. Chinese “passing” as Mexicans…yeah we should have been had a wall.

  36. What a weak foundation to build the world on!! That's why the world is cracking! Sins have weighed it heavily. Shame on the architect of such a satanic world.

  37. Our GOVT told white 2 hate black so they won't mix. Some did fall in love and had kids mix looking white or black folks .Praises The Lord

  38. Listening to this, I'm thinking of the movie Imitation of Life! 😔 smh

  39. My mother’s parents did this…I just found out only a year ago that my mother parents family actually comes from Spanish heritage but my grandparents have always claimed to be fully Italian & because they look “white” it worked. Crazy how we hide what we really are.

  40. You wouldn't have to do dat it this was real america.more proof that this country has a real dease and the white man is the cause of it.the never of him taking Indian country calling it his. Then brain wash you in to thinking it's your fault pay attention you can't afford free speach.

  41. I had heard of Ellen Craft passing for white and her husband pretendiung to be her slave, but I hadn't known that she also passed for a man durring their escape!
    One thing I've wondered about; if a person (or a couple) passing for white gave birth to a child who clearly wasn't all white, how did they handle it?

  42. racism is so confusing to me… who cares about skin color it's so stupid

  43. When you lie about your culture and society and no one is the WISER.


  44. People can see my indigenous heritage bcs I have some facial traits that point to it, but the people that can tell are either originary from here or live in areas in the US where a lot of Poblanos and Jalicienses have migrated to. Many people in Latinamerica are always trying to make themselves and others's believe to be whiter than they are due to the consequences of the caste system. It's very disturbing. Even though plenty of times it's a matter of safety, survival, and access to work, wealth, basic human rights and education. People from other countries always assume other parts of my heritage as my nationality, like Syrian, Turkish, Sephardite, Lebanese, French or Italian, though in Mexico hardly anyone would think I have ancestors from there.

    It was very painful and frustrating when some people were telling me than I didn't know better, and that the indigenous and black "didn't show", or wasn't true at all, as if my father hadn't had a grandma from an indigenous community. Yes, they are mixed raced too very often, but the condescendance, white supremacy and ignorance had me boiling. Or maybe worse when people objectified and exotized me.

    Just as it saddens me when my fellow Mexicans get nasty towards me when they see that many amongst my relatives have "northern European looks". It shouldn't be a reason to envy anyone, it's ludicrous, ocious, miserable and self-destructive but such are the heartbreaking results of centuries of mass rapes, prevalent genocides, the social (dis)order before and today, and white supremacy indoctrination.

    Miscegenation was the norm here, it isn't rare at all to find very different looking family members, yet many abused abusers get mad when they see they're not the only ones. They're obviously lost and delusional, our enemies aren't our peers but the racist misogynist system and the rapist elites, of whatever heritage they are.

    It's such a waste to direct hate towards other abused, specially against the most vulnerable ones and that have suffered the most like indigenous and black communities, disabled people and trans folx. It's a waste too bcs it has created generation after generation of self-hating aggressive calculative narcissist sociopaths. And their scapegoats, courts of admirers, and torture "toys".

  45. They were passing because they were already part white…so they were passing as FULL white

  46. Taylor could have passed for a mixed race woman but not a black woman

  47. I was surprised when the guitarist Tom Morello mentioned in an interview that he is black, I assumed he was white.

  48. She said Coloured! In Britain this is considered an insult. We now have to say Black or Person of Colour.

  49. People on my mothers side of the family seem to be able to tan very, very darkly, and the family business is pool service. As a result, I had some very odd ideas about race when I was a young child. Since dark skin was distributed throughout my family with little rhyme or reason, I thought human skin color was basically random, just a roll of the dice when you're born.

  50. I think, that what counts mostly is what has, culturally, been instilled in you. Some people's family members had passed somewhere down the line. Now, they are in the white culture. It no longer matters how many, so called, drops they have.

  51. The crying Native American was Italian?? Just destroyed my childhood.

  52. Speaking TOO FAST. Need to pause and let people digest what you are saying. Good information but difficult to follow

  53. sooooo is there a difference between "passing as" and "identifying as"? Discuss!

  54. Honestly, during that time, I would definitely try to pass as a white woman. I'm Arab (From Yemen, but born and raised in America) (Though I don't like it), but, thankfully, I look really white. I have a fair complexion, silky black hair, and lots of freckles, I'm also not small like other middle eastern girls, so I can pass off as a white woman.

  55. This something they MORE and MORE YOUNGER PEOPLE need to LOOK AT and FOLLOW in the SOCIAL MEDIA , even OLDER ADULTS for there are so many LIES and PERCONCITIONS told about HISTORY , most of them have TOLD for so LONG some even ACCEPT them on FACE VALUE as FACT .It's not always EDUCATORS DISPENSING them some of them were TAUGHT them by EDUCATORS before them . If YOU TELL a LIE LONG ENOUGH and OFTEN ENOUGH PEOPLE will began to SWEAR it's the TRUTH ,when gets to that POINT DESTORING the LIES and TEACHING the it's took to make it the TRUTH and it take YEAR'S to DESTORY it as a LIE. Depending on how many LIES and how INGRAINED they are in the EDUCATIONAL PROCESS and SYSTEMS it can a LONG HAUL not a SHORT ONE . Those with COMMON SENSE ACCEPT this FACT and UNDERSTAND it , it was CREATED OVER NIGHT so therefore it can not CORRECTED OVERNIGHT . ALL those YEARS to BUILD it ,there INDIVIDUALS with there ACADEMIC and PERSONAL INTAGRATE on LINE with and HELL of a lot to LOST in that PROCESS . Some things in LIFE it's EASY to DEAD UP say I WRONG or made a MISTAKE about it ,this though some have EVERYTHING they have on the LINE and that the PROBLEM in it's ENTIRE SCOPE . Will all the LIES be found and EVENTUALLY YES ,how many YEAR'S though it's going take to CORRECT them all that's s STORY.

  56. I noticed actors/actresses from the Golden Age were often foreign but marketed as white.

  57. fantastic video. Found you from Animal Welfare Montana. Both great channels.

  58. Imagine being thrown in with people whose hair is lighter than your hertiage's skin color. That's whitepassing.

  59. White passing: When a white person with hair signifcantly lighter than your ancestors' skin calls you white. Been there before.

  60. 5:09 saw a movie like this. Except it was of a chinese serf and some tomboy in the wild west.

  61. My great great grandma could have passed for white but she kept it real with herself and married a black man 💅🏽

  62. Well passing will always be rare because in order to really do it you'd have to cut off everyone from your past

  63. White dolls – good. Black dolls – bad. It's true. Segregation was very good.

  64. If I was able to pass during the 20’s 30’s 40’s 50’s and so on, I probably would’ve just to have a better life. It’s sad ppl had to do things like this in order to get ahead. Just horrible ☹️

  65. I’ve always been curious about the slavery being passed down by mother… I know there was the one drop rule but what about a white mother and black father? I know it was probably rare but it must have happened a few times. And it sounds like the one drop rule wasn’t a thing until much later on. Did mix children born from a white mother also ended up as slaves if they didn’t look black?

  66. “Poor whites were drafted “(Civil War)-Yeah, the Irish immigrants; most of my heritage..🤬

  67. That doll experiment makes me want to cry. Those poor children. I mean, it's all terrible, but that really got me.

  68. Is this video supposed to stir feelings of white guilt? Please speak of the union soldiers that died to liberate slaves during the civil war.

  69. George Clooney would never be considered to be white here in the UK, he would be called ' ethnic looking'

  70. People are still trying to pass as white in the 21st century. That because they hate their race. If your family passed as white and you have blood relatives that have some color, your not white.

  71. Separate but equal wasn't equal but now we're together but still not equal. They should have just made funding equal. Mixing was a scam .

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