The Complicated Question of Passing
“If you need to pass, you should,” my grandfather told me. We started having this conversation when I was around seven years old. It always went the same.
“No,” I would respond, “I wouldn’t ever want to do that.”
“No baby, you don’t understand,” he’d say. “If times return to how it was in the South when I was a boy, you might need to.”
Again I would protest but he’d persist. “If times turn to how they used to be and you see me on the street, you have to pretend you don’t know me and walk on by.”
My Black grandfather was telling me this to try and keep me safe. He didn’t want me to experience the violent side of racism he had. The rule was, if you had one drop of African blood, you were considered Black. You faced violence. You used a separate entrance around the corner from the main one, you sat in the back of the bus, you drank from a different fountain, you were forced to live in a specific area, you had limited options.
As a child of European and African American parents, I would have been classified as “mulatto” (if you had one Black grandparent, you were “quadroon” and if one of your great grandparents was Black, you were “Octoroon”). My olive-toned skinned meant I could travel in the world as not Black. To my grandfather, this was so much safer for me. His experience in America as a Black man, even in the later years of his life, was not positive. He was trying to protect his granddaughter. And I loved him for it. I couldn’t understand why someone would want to pass, to pretend part of who they were didn’t exist — to ignore their own grandfather. His experience was removed just enough from mine, that I couldn’t understand his logic.
Now don’t get me wrong, as a mixed person I’ve experienced my own racism. I’ve been called oreo, half calf, and mutt. Even the seemingly innocent question by the asker, “Where are you really from” or “you’re lucky, you look exotic,” becomes overbearing when asked on a regular basis. Once when I was dating a Japanese man and we were walking in downtown Seattle, we were spat on. A girl asked me in the 5th grade if I was mixed and I said yes, and she then slapped me across the face. Even with those experiences, I still didn’t want to try and pass.
I wanted to embrace all of who I was. I was proud of my African ancestry; and loved that part of my culture: food, dancing, and body language. But being a mixed person means you really don’t fit in anywhere. You straddle two worlds never feeling like you completely belong anywhere. Your “otherness,” the fact that you don’t physically look like either side sets you apart. You learn to code-switch, to adjust your speech and mannerisms, depending on which crowd you found yourself in. It leaves you wondering who you are, how to combine your worlds.
On top of that, you’re treated like some kind of “race” ambassador. My European American friends would ask me about racism, whether Black teenagers were really treated differently by the police. “I mean they must have done something wrong, right.” Uh, NO. A long debate would usually follow this question which often ended with me wondering how we can heal as a nation with such a lack of understanding.
From the other side, I’d be told, “White folks don’t understand, they all think we need to be kept in our place.” Uh, NO. By the end of this line of conversation, I’d feel the same as the other — I don’t belong anywhere. Regardless of with whom I was speaking to, they didn’t think of me as part of “their” group, I was “other.” I wanted to belong in both worlds, to honor my rich and diverse heritages, so there was no way I would ever try to pass.
I had 44 years of this lived experience until I did an over-the-counter DNA test and discovered I wasn’t half European and African American; I was half Jewish. This shattered my identity. I don’t feel like a “white” woman, but that’s what my DNA tells me I am. Now if I tell someone I am mixed I feel like an imposter, but this is my lived experience. Before my DNA surprise, I had no idea what it meant to be Jewish. After two-plus years of reading about this question and talking to many people, I now know this is a complicated subject and there is not an easy answer.
I’ll try and sum up the concept of who’s a Jew here, but trust me, many books have been written on the topic. Of course, anyone can convert to Judaism (through an Orthodox or Reform process). Traditionally, if your mother is Jewish, then you are. Under Reform Judaism, if your father is Jewish and you are raised in a Jewish household, then you are Jewish.
In both of these cases, we’re looking at DNA which is a slippery slope. The Nazi’s used this kind of thinking, based in part on the U.S. Jim Crow laws, to decide who to murder. Under the Nuremberg Laws, a Jew was someone who had three or four Jewish grandparents, those with one or two Jewish grandparents were Mischling, meaning mixed. I would’ve likely been considered a Jew because I was conceived from a forbidden extramarital affair between a married “Christian” woman and a married Jewish man.
I discovered there is bias surrounding the question of who is a Jew in the Jewish community. I’ve been asked what my mother’s maiden name was (yes, even in a Reform setting) so the asker could ascertain if my mother was Jewish. On the other hand, I’ve also been told that if I practice Judaism and my father was Jewish, then I am a Jew — no need to convert. This reminded me of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in reverse. There are lots of opinions in the Jewish community, which is how I like it.
To start to learn about my Jewish heritage, I visited a Synagogue. I spent the entire service gawking at everyone. For the first time in my life, I physically looked like other people in a group. I recognized my nose, the shape of my eyes, the tone of my skin in many of the people in the room. It was a strange feeling, almost overwhelming, to be in a room with people who looked like me. Not one person looked at me out of the corner of their eye wondering why I was there.
Due to the complexities of the subject of who is a Jew, I find myself in the strange position of wanting to pass now. If I keep my mouth closed, no one knows I didn’t grow up a Jew. I can for once in my life feel like I belong somewhere. Now understand why someone might choose to pass. My grandfather wanted me to pass so I could be safe, and here I am talking about passing to feel what it’s like to be fully embraced as part of a group. Passing raises some ethical questions. While it feels good to be treated like I belong, it is a hollow feeling. One should never have to feel like they need to hide part of one’s self to fit in, to feel safe. Yet throughout history, many groups have been forced to do just this.
We must move to a time when people don’t feel they need to pass to fit in. We have to create a world where people are not afraid of violence due to how they look be it their skin color, clothes, or gender choice. People don’t always have the stereotypical look you might associate with one group or another and some pass for a group they don’t identify with.
So how do we categorize the people we meet if visual cues are misleading. Do we turn to DNA like in the past? Does someone need to hold up an “ethnicity card” when you meet them? How much “African” DNA would you need to pass as Black? Most African Americans have approximately 20–25% European DNA. How much Jewish DNA do you need to be a Jew? 50% of my DNA?
These questions are reminiscent of the Jim Crow and Nuremberg Laws. Trying to classify people based on DNA is not productive and is really quite meaningless. All humans share 99.9% of the same DNA. The idea of “race” is a social construct and was developed to keep one group in power. We must shift how we view ethnicity and let go of the concept of race entirely.
People are complex, we have overlapping aspects of who we are. What’s important is a person’s lived experience; how they choose to identify. And this may change over a person’s lifetime. I believe society must learn to accept a bit of ethnic fluidity, so long as it isn’t predicated on deception.
Let’s learn to love and not judge someone based on a first glance. We should take the time to truly listen to each other’s stories before looking at the color of someone’s skin to see if they should be talking about a subject. We need to treat each other with respect and equity so no one has to wear a mask to feel safe or to pretend to be something so they can feel like they fit in.