Speaker 1: Things aren't always what they seem to.
Speaker 2: I'll be damned.
Speaker 1: Nobody could tell from looking at her.
Speaker 2: No, most surprising.
Melissa Harris-Perry: This week a new film by Rebecca Hall premieres on Netflix, adapted from Nella Larsen's 1929, Harlem Renaissance novel of the same name Passing is shot in Black and white. Its pace deliberate, it' sound almost a whisper.
Speaker 2: Tell me, can you always tell the difference?
Speaker 1: Oh, now you really are sounding ignorant.
Speaker 2: No, no, I mean it. Feelings of change shift or something like that.
Speaker 1: Cute. Stop talking to me like you're ready to piece for the National Geographic. I can tell same as you. I suppose sometimes there is a thing, a thing you can't be registered.
Melissa: This is a complex film likely to revive old debates and provoke new conversations all swirling around unresolved and still unspoken meanings of race, class, gender, power, identity resistance. Larsen's novel is nearly a hundred years old, but there is still so much to discuss. It seems like right now is the right time for a deep dive on Passing. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, and for this episode of the Takeaway, we are deep diving the complicated history and practice of Passing. Taking this journey with me is co-president of community change, co-chair of the economic security project, and my cohost for the Takeaway Deep Dive Dorian Warren.
Dorian Warren: Hey, Melissa always gets to be with you here on the show, and we're going to start with this new Netflix film, head backward into a 1920s novel, spring forward to modern DNA testing. Explore the social construction of race and gender and along the way, we will talk with filmmakers, writers, historians, legal scholars, organizers, and the Takeaway community.
Mellisa: All right. That's a lot. So let's get started.
Rebecca Hall: My name is Rebecca Hall and I'm the writer and director of Passing.
Melissa: Now, Hall is a British-born actor, producer, and director with a diverse portfolio of work and a long list of accolades. While her father's English, Rebecca's mother is American and she grew up thinking her mom was simply a white woman, but the reality is a bit more complex. Rebecca's maternal grandfather was a Black man who'd passed for white, but this familial history of race and racial passing was not something Rebecca's mother openly discussed.
Rebecca: The truth is any family that has a history of passing, there is a great deal of pain, obviously, but there's a great deal of obfuscation and secrets. I think my mother grew up in an environment where her father said, "This is something that we do not talk about." With that, comes a child's desire to please the parent, they do what they've been told, but also I think we do not talk about it also incorporates an awful lot of shame because it suggests that this is something that should not be spoken about.
Melissa: All right, Dorian, I think that silence, the secrets, the shame, they're core features of how we typically understand the practice of racial passing. Why would someone lie to their friends, their family, their coworkers, the word itself pass, it kind of assumes a hierarchy that someone is trying to hide who they really are in order to appear as though they are something better, more palatable, more valuable. It's not surprising that this connotation of shame would leave children and grandchildren confused, wondering about their own identities when their own origin stories are disrupted.
As Rebecca Hall sought to make meaning of her own racial identity within a kind of destabilized context, a friend gifted to her a copy of Nella Larsen's 1929 novel Passing and encouraged her to read it.
Rebecca: It was like being given an instant historical context, yes, but also emotional context. It gave me compassion and understanding and it also was like a missing piece of a puzzle. Suddenly it made sense.
Dorian: Passing, the novel that gave Rebecca historical and emotional context is the story of Clare and Irene. They're both fair-skinned women who were childhood acquaintances while they were growing up in a middle-class Black community in Chicago, but the girls lost touch after Clare's father died, and she went off to live with her two white aunts. Now, the aunt's adopted Clare and she adopted whiteness. Clare now lives her adult life as a white woman, she's married to a white man who's unaware of her racial heritage. Clare is Passing.
Melissa: To be fair, Irene is also Passing. She's married to a successful doctor and together they are a wealthy well-respected Black family who employs household help and operates at the center of Harlem's philanthropic and cultural circles. They're what Alain Locke might've referred to as New Negros, which was that title of his 1925 anthology of Harlem Renaissance writers and thinkers. As much as Irene and her husband and their two sons remain firmly rooted in their Black identity, Irene does use her fair skin, expensive attire, and bourgeois manners to gain access and to spaces where ordinarily she'd be barred. It's in one of those moments of Irene's Passing that Clare recognizes Irene as her childhood friend.
[movie clip plays]
Clare: Pardon me, I don't mean to stare, but I think I know you.
Irene: I'm afraid you're mistaken.
Clare: No, of course, I know you Reenie, you look just the same. Tell me, do they still call you Reenie?
Irene: Yes. No one's called me that for a long time.
Claire: Don't you know me? Not really Reenie?
Irene: I'm afraid I can't seem to place. [laughs] Clare?
Clare: That's right.
Melissa: Oh, Dorian. The tension in that scene is palpable. You can feel Irene's thinly veiled terror about being outed in a public place by someone she thinks is a white woman. Even though New York was not governed by the lynch mob rule of the Jim Crow South, there still would've been considerable consequences for transgressing the color line.
Dorian: Yes, Melissa. This is key to understanding how and why people like Irene pass in situations like travel or shopping or simply casual interactions, and even sometimes in employment. These were cultivated practices of situational Passing.
Allyson Hobbs: I think the idea of situational Passing or nine to five Passing as it was often called, which allowed people to pass for a particular period of time often it was for employment, particularly during the Jim Crow era.
Dorian: This is Allyson Hobbs. She is--
Allyson: An Associate Professor of American History and The Director of African and African-American Studies at Stanford University.
Dorian: She's also author of--
Allyson: A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life.
Dorian: Allyson talked to us about the differences between situational passing and permanent passing, between say, Irene's choices and Clare's life.
Allyson: Allowed people to pass just for a particular period of time and then they could go back to their families and live their lives as Black people. I think that type of passing was very common, and I don't know if it had the same social and emotional consequences as passing permanently did. Where you really were stepping away, breaking away from your family, from your community pretty much permanently to live a completely different life.
In that case, you really couldn't go back to your family. You couldn't go back to those friends and that community that you had once been really embedded in. The stakes were a lot higher and I think the costs were a lot higher. I think the feelings of loss and longing were a lot more intense for those who passed permanently.
Dorian: Melissa in so many ways, these costs of passing are core to Larsen's novel. When it was first published some heralded it as a straightforward morality tale using Clare's experience to warn Black people against choosing to live as a white person, but both the novel and the lived experience of passing are neither simple nor straightforward.
Allyson: There was that sense of loss. There was that sense of having to leave behind a family, a community, a neighborhood, friends, everything that someone had ever known to make that break and to start that new life. I think that in the archives, there's a lot of discussion about this sense of loss and a description passing almost as like a death sort of like a mourning or a feeling of grief that someone who passed as white had crossed over, not only crossed over the Black-white racial divide and the color line but had actually crossed over from a sense of life to a sense of death.
Melissa: Dorian, I have to admit that during this conversation with Allyson Hobbs, I kept thinking about a long trajectory of American film and television occupied with this pain of passing.
Dorian: A pain of passing that's so right, Melissa, because probably the most famous [chuckles] is 1959's Imitation of Life. Now, Little Sarah Jane's persistent attempts to pass as white, and therefore her heartless rejection of her mother leaves the audience feeling little sympathy for her at all.
[movie clip plays]
Speaker 3: I'll only stay a minute. I just want to look at you. That's why I came. Are you happy here, honey? Are you finding what you really want?
Sarah Jane: I'm somebody else. I'm white, white, white.
Melissa: Nobody cares when Sarah Jane cries. Dorian, it is not just a theme of Jim Crow era film. I have not been able to stop thinking about Lovecraft Country.
Melissa: Now listen, for folks out there. I'm so sorry if this is a spoiler for any Afro-futurist science fiction fans who haven't yet watched the 2020 HBO series, but I'm going to need y'all to go ahead, clear your weekend, binge some of this show if you haven't seen it yet because we really cannot talk about the cost of passing without referring to Episode Five when Ruby gains the stunning and graphically depicted power to transform into a white woman at will.
Ruby: You have an invitation to do whatever you want. You can't relate to who I am. Who are you really uninterrupted?
Melissa: Now, Ruby uses her power to transform into a white woman to secure a long-coveted job, to improve her personal circumstances, and to take some pretty serious revenge on people and systems that harm Black women, but ultimately, the cost of being a white woman is just too high and the transformation, it is definitely more horror than magic. It's pretty clearly a 21st-century statement on the cost of passing.
Dorian: This episode was definitely a lot. The moments of rubies passing into whiteness, I have to say reminded me of that old Eddie Murphy skit on Saturday Night Live when he dresses up and passes as a white man and experiences all the material advantages that whiteness affords in America, but in the case of Ruby, passing is both painful and costly. Costly, in particular, when she hears the, you might call it the absolutely triggering conversations white people have about Black people when they assume only white people are in the room.
Melissa, it's telling that the brutal cost of passing, a compelling material for, say a 1929 novel, a 1959 film, a 2020 HBO series, and now a new film, and it suggests that there's much still unresolved about this practice of moving across America's color line.
Melissa: Listen, I totally agree. If we're going to understand, really understand something about Passing, Dorian, we're going to need to dive even deeper to discover what some of that unresolved stuff is underneath.
Karla Holloway: We've made a fact the depiction of race. We have to live with the consequences that we are finding today and they are alluring, they're seductive, they're dangerous, they're all the things that make a story, a narrative compelling.
Melissa: This is Karla Holloway, and she is the--
Karla: James B. Duke, Professor Emeritus of English and Professor of Law at Duke University. What we're feeling is that the results of the US that has strain to make race visible to know who's got it. It's as if our policy and our conduct, both have made the fiction of race this nation's factual frames. The boxes that we check on forms might get more complicated, but as long as there are boxes, policy and imagination are going to find ways to align. This conundrum of-- We know this stuff is as a fiction, at the same time, we know our legal and social histories have made it as if it is factual. This is a contradiction that we've been forced to live with.
Melissa: As tough and insight as that is, Dorian, I was actually relieved when Professor Holloway explained the distinction that race is not a biological fact, but it is a social, political, and legal fiction. Indeed, Professor Holloway authored a book titled Legal Fictions and it wrestles with these contradictions and these constructions of race embedded in our law, but look, law and policy can feel abstract or remote so let's just put this down where the goats can get it.
Think about race in a really practical way. Now, if you're a white person, and let's say you're in a car accident, you go to the hospital, you're given a blood transfusion, and the blood comes from a Black person. I'm pretty sure most of us understand that this transfusion of so-called Black blood did not make you Black.
Dorian: Oh, it doesn't? Yes, that's right. Absolutely.
Melissa: I think that's for me a little bit difficult to reconcile why a change in identity occurs for a white person who uncovers a family secret of a relative who passed or a white person who takes a 23andMe genetic test and finds relatively recent African ancestry. Why should the fact that this biological information change the fiction of race already established by a lifetime of living and being white? I'm not sure if you've ever seen this 2017 episode of the PBS show, Finding Your Roots. It's hosted by Henry Louis Gates, and he revealed the results of Carly Simon's DNA testing.
Henry Louis Gates: We tested her DNA, which revealed a significant amount of sub-Saharan African ancestry.
Carly Simon: 10% African
Henry: Carly, 10% is roughly equivalent to the amount of DNA you would inherit from a great-grandmother, a full African ancestry. We have never tested a white person as Black as you [laughs]
Carly: Can't wait to call my sisters and my brother and tell them this.
Melissa: I just don't get it. Discovering a genetic marker from the continent of Africa does not make Carly Simon Black. That's just messy. Here's Karla Holloway, again.
Karla: Its messiness makes it an uncomfortable terrain, but the fact that we're trying to refine this messiness into something usable in our society is frankly to me deeply disturbing because I just see us creating more and more [unintelligible 00:17:29] like stairways around this question of race, making it, giving it a solid presence, not only in jurisprudence but in our communities.
Who are the police of race? Who's in and who's out? Do we want laws on this, and who's going to write these laws? This being in and outside of racial categories has made it evident that racial categories will matter. My own perspective is the presumption that we are working on is problematic and is sandy terrain.
Dorian: It's far too easy to think of passing as jumping out of one clearly defined identity, blackness, and then falsely assuming another clearly defined identity, whiteness, but to get deeper, Karla Holloway is saying, "We need to ask who created these definitions, these legal fictions of racial identity, and why?" This is not just a rhetorical question because there are clearly identifiable moments in our history where law defines race.
Let's take 1896. That's the year the Supreme Court decided Plessy versus Ferguson and yes, this is the decision that established the doctrine of separate but equal, but it did something else. Plessy v Ferguson defined race for the 20th century in America. Homer Plessy, by the way, was not an accidental litigant. He boarded the train in New Orleans with the purpose of challenging racial segregation in transportation.
As a creole of color, Homer Plessy was racially mixed but visibly white. When the court decided that it was acceptable to segregate Black people in separate train cars, they also decided who qualified as Black. By deciding that Homer Plessy with just one Black grandparent deciding that he was Black, the court established the one-drop rule for the modern age.
Karla: Well, Plessy was engaged in a very refined experiment to make sure that the courts paid attention to the issue of what are they using to determine who sits in what car. Yes, it was deception. If he understood himself to be a Black man, in fact, intentionally, I got to make that intentionality clear again. It wasn't, "I just happened to be sitting here today," it's a group of light-skinned men, Plessy Homer Plessy was chosen who sat in the railway car. The question that was settled by the courts was separate but equal. The interesting thing about Plessy was the other question in Plessy is still used by states.
That question in Plessy was, "Can states demarcate race? Can they use race in situations like voting or in situations that have what the law would call compelling interests?" Not only was separate but equal at the result of Plessy's deception but the unresolved question that Plessy entered about whether or states could have a compelling interest in determining race. Here we are in 2021 and that factor from Homer, from Plessy V Ferguson is still a factor in state politics.
Melissa: I'll also say, Dorian, this reminder about Homer Plessy, it brings us to yet another level in this question of passing because passing is not just about race. It's also about color.
Karla: Race is not one simple coherent space, but it itself is color-coded. The codes of color we have also been living alongside. There's only a very small segment of African-American society that can even consider the notion of passing intentionally. Most folks are color-coded and quickly identified, which we have also found a legal problem. Some of us are always in that mix and some of us have the wherewithal, which already gives it some value to be outside or inside.
This is why Nella Larsen could write this novel and Rebecca Hall could make such a compelling movie and I could write A Death in Harlem because this question of color coding, and I think that's a very important question to leave the blank line, "What is it that you want from passing? What is it that you can't do because you cannot pass?" The fact that there is a value associated with color is where the problem lies.
[movie clip plays]
Clare: Boys, Oh, I love boys. I'd never risk it again though. I went through hell those nine months of fear [inaudible 00:22:45]
Dorian: You just heard actress, Ruth Negga as Clare in the new film, Passing.
Melissa: Clare's anxiety about having a too dark child, it really lets us dive deeper into the question of what is race? Professor Karla Holloway described it as a biological fiction that's been made into a social fact by law, policy, and practice. I want to lean into that a bit more just to say that most of us who are raised in the US, we believe that we experience race as a highly visual marker. When I'm teaching college students, for example, but I'll ask them, how do they define race? Particularly, how do you define Blackness? Typically, they'll respond with phenotypes like darker skin, broader features or thick curly, or maybe even nappy hair.
Dorian: Melissa, of course, we know that none of those markers constitute Blackness. Let's take Walter White and no, I'm not talking about the meth kingpin from Breaking Bad, [laughs] but I'm, of course, talking about the journalist and civil rights activists who led the NAACP during the 1930s and 1940s. Walter White was of mixed-race parentage and he was so readily taken as white by most who saw him, but he regularly passed in order to infiltrates Southern KKK chapters. Then, Melissa, he returned to the North to report out his investigations of their violence.
Melissa: He was also incredibly brave. Look, also professor Karla Holloway reminded us of the racial ambiguity of the legendary Congressman representative, Adam Clayton Powell, who represented Harlem for nearly 25 years.
Karla Holloway: Adam Clayton Powell, our revered late congressperson, for the first two years of being a college student passed as white until somebody called the question when he tried to join a white fraternity, according to his biographers.
Dorian: You might be onto something here, Melissa, because Congressman Charlie Rangel who spent nearly 50 years representing Harlem and was known, Melissa, as the lion of Lennox avenue, certainly didn't conform to narrow ideas of what Blackness looks like.
Congressman Charlie Rangel: I don't care who you are. If you are conservative, lifelong Republican, you know that vote was stolen.
Dorian: Yet no one, no one would question the racial authenticity of Walter White or Adam Clayton Powell or Charlie Rangel, they're all Black.
Melissa: Yes, so is governor Doug Wilder, Representative G. K. Butterfield of North Carolina, and Vice-President Kamala Harris.
Dorian: Oh, okay. You're going there?
Melissa: I did. I had to go there because I just want us to be as least as honest as we can be about just how much messiness we already experience in race. We speak in these clean-cut binaries and so it's perfectly obvious to any casual observer exactly which census box was checked by every person we encounter, but really, Dorian, we live with a lot of ambiguity. Maybe passing is a bit less about jumping box to box and a little bit more about inhabiting the overlapping space in the racial Venn diagram.
Dorian: We know Melissa of course passing is not only about race, it's about color.
Brit Bennett: My name is Brit Bennett and I'm the author of The Vanishing Half.
Dorian: The Vanishing Half is set in a fictional town in Louisiana.
Brit: It's a community of light skin-Black people who are obsessed with lightness to the point that they're essentially trying to genetically engineer their population toward light skin. It's a very complicated to look at Blackness because they are not striving to be white necessarily, but they also don't want to be associated with other darker skinned-Black people. What drew me into the idea of the story was to think of this community, particularly when the book is sat during the Jim Crow era, which is, of course, a system of binaries, and to think of this community, to positioning themselves against that binary, which from one way of looking at it may seem transgressive.
From this other way of looking at it, I think it's deeply troubling to see the way that this community is so deeply invested in the project of lightness. The lightness for its own sake, essentially. Light skin does not really give them any tangible benefits in the world of the book. This is still a rural community, a working-class community. They don't gain wealth or privilege in any real meaningful way, but they're interested in lightness for its own sake.
Dorian: Bennett's novel, asks us to encounter and cope with issues of color. Melissa, to the extent Americans are uncomfortable discussing race, we're also pretty resistant to exploring the meanings of color.
Brit: I also wanted to think about passing from the standpoint that identity is really fluid. What does it mean even to pass? If we think of these categories themselves as being fluid and unstable and even to some extent unknowable. To me, it felt like I wanted to build on these texts that had informed my understanding of racial passing. I wanted to push against the idea that there is something essential to race that there is something that you can actively lie about and push against that kind of reading that I think people sometimes have of stories about passing.
I didn't want to even think about really lying in the sense, because so much of this book is about characters trying to figure out what race is, what do these categories even mean? What are they made of? And the idea that they are some firm-fixed thing that you can lie or tell the truth about. That was an idea that also, I think similarly made me feel uncomfortable and also motivated me to try my best to push against it.
Melissa: Dorian, I have to say, I was thinking about George Lipsitz's foundational text, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness, and just like David Roediger's classic text, The Wages of Whiteness, Lipsitz shows us how whiteness has an actual economic value.
Dorian: It happens in so many different ways. Let's think about it, unequal educational opportunities or unfair criminal justice practices or what has been repeatedly shown as the most consequential for the racial wealth gap, housing segregation and discrimination and lending and the law of real estate as you well know, Melissa, is location, location, location, but that often means race, race, race.
Melissa: For real. Lipsitz argues that those who possess whiteness are deeply invested in it because it has this cash value as he calls it. But Dorian, it is worth noting that those who possess Blackness are also pretty darn invested in it.
Lauren Michele Jackson: I'm Lauren Michele Jackson, I'm a assistant professor of English, at Northwestern University and a contributing writer for the New Yorker.
Melissa: Jackson is author of the book, White Negroes: When Cornrows Were in Vogue and Other Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation.
Lauren: You cannot be white in America without putting on a bit of [unintelligible 00:29:57] every now and then the way that American culture relies upon and really feeds off of what we can call Black culture or uniquely Black
Dorian: Let's slow down again because we are diving down to another level, Melissa, so up to this point we have talked about passing from blackness to whiteness, but professor Jackson has introduced this idea of white folk transgressing racial boundaries by adopting a performance of blackness.
Melissa: This passing is more like cultural appropriation or in the digital age of online identities masked by avatars, some call it Blackfishing so if Nella Larson's Claire is passing by tricking her husband into thinking she is white then social media Blackfishing is about tricking others into thinking you're Black or at least that you have particular skills and styles associated with blackness. Because I don't need Twitter to come for me let's give credit where it is due freelance writer Werner Thompson introduced the term Blackfishing in 2018 Article for Paper Magazine.
There she described white women as course playing Black women online and she wrote that Black women are constantly bombarded with the promotion of European beauty standards in the media. When our likeness is then embraced on women who have the privilege to fit traditional standards yet freely co-opt blackness to their liking it reaffirms the belief that people desire blackness just not on Black women
Dorian: Melissa, what started with Thompson's keen insight has expanded into popular culture to describe white artists and influencers who seem to dip selectively into Black culture, of course, when it's valuable for their own and advancement. It's a kind of situational passing to draw out the analogy. Johanna Yaovi the founder of the Curl Talk Project said "It's about picking and choosing among Black traits and characteristics for one's benefit, while we continue to face discrimination on a day to day basis." Melissa, if the wages of passing into whiteness are measurable in terms of access or income and wealth, then the wages of Blackfishing are measured in accolades of say, originality or creativity or street credibility and coolness.
Lauren: That layer is pretty nicely on top of contemporary observations about the art world, about music, about pop culture, fashion, places where it is very easy to get lost in the crowd. If you can find something that sets you apart as seemingly innovative, as seemingly different it's about difference, that is something that as a artist can really pull you ahead.
Mellisa: It's here where? Just to play on Lipsitz's insight, that the possessive investment in blackness becomes obvious because hell have no fury like Black Twitter checking Blackfishing. Like when Black Twitter took Jesy Nelson from the British girl group Little Mix to task for Blackfishing in her new solo debut Boys. In the music video, Nelson, who identifies as white and British, wheres grills on her teeth sings about liking men who are so hood and in one scene she has her hair and braids and another she's wearing a bandana and then she's sporting a tan and is lit in ways that at moments make her appear nonwhite.
Mellisa: It's not just the style mimicry that draws ire, it's the lack of critical reflection from the artists themselves. Here, again, is Lauren Michelle Jackson.
Lauren: I get the anger, I get the frustration. I think it's not something that's too hard to understand when you think of something as yours or something that you see being done with such innovation and such beauty and coolness among the people you grew up with, among the people who look like you who you find kinship with and then you see it on TV by someone who's being paid a lot of money to be there, perform there, have a career, that's been thought of as neat and popular that is really frustrating. I think on one hand we can talk about it economically, we can speak about who gets compensated for the innovations of their work, of their creative labors.
I think also just from an emotional standpoint I think it's not hard to grasp why something like that would be so maddening across a culture and across a people and so yes that would seem to contradict the idea also of blackness and Black culture as diverse and multitudinous and enveloping and being capable of reaching into all these other forms of artistic expression like [unintelligible 00:35:21] you can't tell me [unintelligible 00:35:24] isn't Black [inaudible 00:35:25] working myself into a knot here, but I think that's the point that none of this is steady or stable.
Dorian: Melissa, we're going to shift our lens a bit to think about what it means to be passing without intention or deception.
Bliss Broyard: This is Bliss Broyard and I'm the author of One Drop: My Father's Hidden Life - A Story of Race and Family Secrets.
Tanzina: Bliss Broyard is the daughter of Anatole Paul Broyard. He was a writer, literary critic, and contributing editor for the New York Times. His two autobiographical memoirs were published after his death. Bliss was in her mid-twenties when her father became very ill and summon both her and her brother to join him in the hospital because he had a family secret to reveal.
Bliss: My dad landed back in the hospital and had an emergency surgery and the doctors told us that there was a good chance he wouldn't survive it, so during that surgery my mother took us outside and she said, "I want to tell you what the secret is, your father's part Black." We laughed. We were like, "That's the big secret? That's it?" We thought it was something terrible and this actually seemed back in 1990 growing up as a white girl in Connecticut, kind of cool.
Tanzina: We asked Bliss to say more about what she meant by kind of cool.
Bliss: To me being a little bit Black was much cooler than being a white girl who grew up in a waspy environment in Connecticut where everybody just was trying to be a upper middle class. It felt very constricting, so this seemed like a much more interesting history initially.
Melissa: I was more than a little bit taken aback when Bliss described this revelation as cool and that she saw being a little bit Black as a welcome addition to her identity. We've been having all these conversations with historians and scholars and writers, whose work reveals the agonizing losses endured by those who passed permanently. These were choices made to keep their new families and communities from knowing that they were, in fact, not white, or at least not white by the narrowest definitions.
To think of Nella Larson's original novel Passing. It was shot through with tragedy prompted by the need to avoid ever being outed as Black, but here in 1990, Bliss and her brother received the news of their father's racial identity with a bit of a shrug. I guess it's a response professor Allyson Hobbs anticipated during the conversation that we had with her.
Allyson: We now live in a much more multiracial society so it's very likely that if a child or a grandchild, in particular, found out about this story, it's very likely that they might find it fascinating, they might find it troubling, but it might not necessarily change their idea of who they are or it's very likely that they might then feel that they are multiracial or they might feel that they are mixed race or they might accept that identity without the same difficulty that people in the 1920s or '30s or '40s would have felt.
Dorian: Yes, but to be fair, Melissa, the Broyard's reaction to the news became very complicated, very quickly.
Bliss: It started to seem less cool and more troubling and confusing and, "Why did he have to keep this a secret?" It started me on a journey that lasted quite a long time, where I sought out my family members and a lot of them are in New Orleans and learn this history that I had never learned in school and began to claim this history and identity for myself to some degree.
Melissa: This was where Bliss described this moment as a turning point in her understanding of herself and her life.
Bliss: I didn't grow up thinking I was Black, it's not necessarily what the world sees when they look at me, but it is an identity that I feel attached to and I feel proud of and I don't want to deny. As a shorthand, I've come to embrace what I think is being used more and more, this idea of being white-passing, which is different than passing for white, but just recognizing that I have mixed-raced heritage, but I'm white-passing. I don't necessarily have the same experience of blackness, of people who grab as Black or perceived as Black by the world do.
Melissa: I had to sit with this for a while because I really did realize my own possessive investment in blackness. I was having this reaction that Bliss could lay claim to Black identity as a simple matter of this genetic familial discovery that didn't come until her adulthood. Now, let's just put the cards on the table, I've got a white mom and a Black father. I was raised in 1970s, Virginia. For me as a kid in that space at that time, having mixed parentage only meant Black. In fact, the word mixed race or mixed wasn't even in my lexicon.
I still bristle when people refer to me that way, but I have grown to understand that's silly because, yes, I am Black. Having a white parent who reared me also changes and shapes my experience of blackness in important ways. There's this push-pull between the internal and the external definitions of the self.
Dorian: Yes, Melissa, it takes us back to the notion that professor Holloway shared with us, of the legal fiction of race. You just said you were raised in 1970s Virginia, but it makes me think of the 1967 Supreme Court case Loving versus Virginia, where that was the first time at the national level the court said interracial marriages are legal.
You came of age right after it was frankly legal for someone like you to exist in the world. Melissa, this all lands back on an interesting insight I think Bliss shared about her father, that even though he may have been passing racially, that doesn't mean he was living a lie in a way. She believes that the passing allowed him to embody his truest self-identity.
Bliss: It's tricky because I think he felt that he was being his most authentic self and he grew up in a time where he was surrounded by a lot of Jewish immigrants who were also casting off their legacy and their upbringings because they were all moving to Greenwich village. He wrote in his own memoir, "We all were sprung from our own brows and we were trying to discard our histories and our families, these heavy legacies and come into ourselves as who we wanted to be." He was doing what a lot of his peers were doing, but I think for him what it required, which didn't necessarily require as much for say his Jewish contemporaries was a denial of his family.
Rebecca: The limits of categorization or binaries by constantly presenting this world of male, female, Black, white gay, straight that comes into it too rich, poor, she's constantly drawing attention to how busy we are all trying to fit into these containers and how invariably our messy humanity spills out the sun and that place of nuance that gray area of human existence is always the thing that has turned me on as an artist.
Melissa: This is Rebecca Hall, whose new film passing is based on the 1929 novel of the same name by Nella Larsen. Hall is clear that Larsen's novel speaks to issues of passing beyond racial categorization. Taking our cue from Larsen, we want to wrap our Deep Dive today by thinking about the ways passing also emerges around gender and sexuality.
Dorian: There are many differences in how passing functions along racial lines versus say gendered ones. The concept of passing is a key issue within queer communities. That's something we heard about firsthand from our next guest.
Dean Moncel: My name is Dean Moncel. I'm a biracial trans man. I'm a psychology student by day and a freelance blog writer by night. When I came out, I was actually in college in the United States. I live in Europe right now. When I came out in the states, I was at a very liberal pocket and everything and without any medical or legal transitioning, just in my social transitioning of my name and my pronouns, I was completely accepted. That is even just by going to Walgreens.
I didn't have to do anything. Even before I came out, it was already starting to be implied that I was being seen as a man. It's only when I came back to Switzerland, after graduating that I realized that this may be a little more cultural because I came back here and I got my first bouts of being misgendered. That started to make me think a lot more critically about, "How do I pass in certain spaces?" I took it very much for granted in the super early part of my transition.
It completely made me re-assess how I even perceived myself, my transitioning, and passing because suddenly social transitioning wasn't sufficient. It definitely added a lot of pressure to me to medically transition in a way that I just didn't have that pressure before, I wanted to. I don't know. It pushed me in a way that I wasn't really expecting. I had to really adapt and it made me feel like, "Was what I lived in the states a fever dream?" Like, "Did that really happen? Were people just pretending?" Because that's how stark of a difference it was.
Melissa: Dean was able to pass in one nation but not another. All that made him think about the power dynamics at play.
Dean: When I came out to myself, my declaration that, "I am a man," that was in my full control. I was fully in control to believe it, to live it, to alter parts of my life in order to fulfill that declaration, and then you look at passing and that's the next step when relating to other people. At some point in order to relate to someone, they have to perceive you. Passing is shifting that power onto the hands of someone else.
When someone is being misgendered for "Bad passing," the control that you possess in defining yourself is it's being violated, it's being questioned. Suddenly, it's not onto you to define yourself anymore. That control is completely lost. Definitely, in an ideal world, you're the one that can maintain the control around your self-perception all the way through the end.
Melissa: Today, Dean has undergone physical changes. Those changes more closely align his body to his sense of self. They reduce the chances he'll be misgendered by others. Now he can more easily pass as a Cis man, but that ability to pass comes with meaningful loss.
Dean: Now I've been on hormone replacement therapy since January. My voice has gone down a great deal and that apparently was the light switch. My initial reaction is to just say that I feel safer. I've been really baffled by how the world doesn't care about, I'm going to say me being a man. Although I am Black, I'm biracial. On the outside, I look pretty ethnically ambiguous. I'm also an American in Europe. All of that has its own privileges, but I definitely feel that compared to how I felt as a butch lesbian before this, I feel a lot more invisible as opposed to being hypervisible.
The fact that I was a butch lesbian before it was almost tatted on my forehead. I couldn't go anywhere without that following me. It's one of the first things that people noticed was my queerness and actually, on that topic, that's really been my biggest struggle being perceived as not just a man, but a cisgender man, in particular, it's really made me feel like, "Do I really belong in the community?" I know that sounds ridiculous because the T is literally in the acronym.
When my queerness used to be so visible, so implied, it now becomes this invisible identity, something that I've never had before. Queerness is really the lens I learned to see the world through. Losing that I guess is very much losing a part of myself. I think that's a huge fear.
Dorian: We wanted to continue the conversation about passing across gender binaries with someone who gave us a keen analysis.
Aryah Lester: I'm Aryah Lester, Deputy Director of the Transgender Strategy Center. Passing in terms of gender is when someone is gender nonconforming or presenting a characteristic in identity that is different than what they were assigned at birth. Passing is a protection in the conformity of passing as cisgender or passing as someone whose gender aligns with that which they are assigned at birth. Protecting oneself as far as being a trans woman passing as a cisgender woman to where someone cannot recognize physically that the person is transgender is what passing is.
Dorian: We asked Aryah to expand this idea and reflect on the privileges and safeties associated with cisgender identity.
Mariah: I think it's almost always because of safety. Passing is something that someone does for protection of one's self, be it that, a light-skinned Black person in a predominantly white space that feels the need to pass in order to fit, to be a bit more safe because your true identity is something that is both oppressed and attacked.
That's why we see Black and brown people or Hispanic, Latino, even Mexicans have a whole conversation about white-passing. When you're looking at gender and especially transgender individuals look at the violence that's constantly be being placed upon us on a yearly basis, the deaths and murders and attacks. Because of xenophobia and related human expressions in a way that we react to certain things that are not what our perception of normal is, is the reason why a lot of transgender people do fall into that passing or conforming to what the societal standards of norm is in order to feel a bit more safe as they go about on their day-to-day lives.
Dorian: Melissa, it seems that a critical difference between racial passing and this complex question of gender passing, is about the presumption that racial passing is at its core deception, but with transgender identity, it's not a question of deception. It's actually a matter of articulating one's truth.
Aryah: It's not about deception. Many times, it's just about presenting a good assumption so that the inference of people is that there's nothing about you that makes them want to question anything. It's not about tricking people, but yet is still about aligning to the gender binary system. If we're looking at going beyond the systems that were created for us to not thrive especially those of us who are not of white European descent and are not Cisgender and don't fall in line to what the founding fathers have said is your standard American.
Then that's when we're looking at, or when we're shifting to actually include others and make inclusion organic within all of our systems, then we have to look past passing and look past of how do we create a structure to where a person doesn't have to engage in trying to pass because there's a place for them to actually be their individual selves? Gender is also a social construct, especially if we're looking at history and seeing the multiplicity of genders and how do we get now to just two, and that being all that it is and so it's the same thing with race and ethnicity that was something that then exists at a certain time and all of a sudden it did.
We see that it's not necessary for our human evolution for us generally as a species. Gender, race, ethnicity, these are all things that we have to break and look beyond for us to really thrive as individuals.
Dorian: Melissa, I'm left to thinking in binaries on the one hand truth versus deception or cost versus benefits of passing or legal fiction or real lived experience. This deep dive on passing really has taught me that it opens up a range of questions, which our binary way of thinking doesn't quite capture, that there is fluidity and complexity and the notion of passing, whether it's race or gender.
Melissa: I know that for both of us, we hope is that everybody who is engaging with us, who's listening, who's talking will continue this conversation that we've really just scratched the surface here. We hope that you'll keep asking questions for which there are not easy answers. It was a big show, and yet it still feels like we only just began, but I want to thank all of our guests who contributed to today's Deep Dive, Rebecca Hall, Allyson Hobbs, Aryah Leicester, Dean Moncel, Karla Holloway, Brit Bennett, Lauren Michelle Jackson, and Bliss Broyard. That's it for today's deep dive on passing. Dorian as always, thank you for taking this dive with me.
Dorian: Thanks, Melissa, for allowing me to join you on this Deep Dive.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Hey, you had a lot of thoughts on this too, so now it's your turn.
Erica: This is Erica. I'm calling from Raleigh, North Carolina. I used My Heritage DNA app to find out my ancestry and not rarely a lot of it was surprising, I'm 65% Nigerian, 13% Sierra Leonean, and 21.5% other ethnicities. I knew that there would be some Irish Scottish Welsh just based on my family's last name, but it was very interesting and helpful to know where we're from, and looking forward to continuing the journey.
Diane: This is Diane [unintelligible 00:54:59] call from Tacoma, Washington. I was pleasantly surprised to be able to track down a great-great-grandmother in my DNA analysis. I discovered that I am 2% North African, along with Scandinavian and Italian heritage, but it did confirm my relationship with this woman from the late 1800s to, early 1900s.
Speaker 6: This is [unintelligible 00:55:23], I'm calling from Las Vegas, Nevada. I used a 23andMe genetic test. It told me some interesting things, but it wasn't as specific as far as my exact ethnicity as I would have liked. I think I'm going to try another company to see if I can get a little bit more information because I'm African-American, so I'm born in America. I know I have a lot of different pieces that make me up.
Delia Smith: My name is Delia Smith, and I did the 23andMe genetic test some time ago. I found that I am 55% European, which was what I knew because my mother's Caucasian or white and my father's black, or they were, they were all passed away. I also found out that I do not have native American ancestry, even though I did, or if I do, I have a very minuscule amount because both sides of my family have claimed to be Blackfoot Indian descendants.
Also, one side of my family, my father's side mentioned that we also had Cherokee, but that doesn't seem to be the case, but I am 55% European and almost 45% African. It's very informative. It was a very good experience. I even got the book that has everything printed out all about my DNA.
Lonnie: My name is Lonnie. I live in Bend, Oregon, and I did do a 23andMe test and it was [unintelligible 00:56:48] full all kinds of surprises, racially, we were always told that we were native American, and turns out no, we definitely weren't. Also, I found out that, who I thought my father wasn't. It turns out I, my biological great-grandmother was Lola Baldwin, the first female police detective in Portland. Yes, crazy. It was just nuts, but it's all been good.
Fred Mindlin: It's Fred Mindlin from Watsonville, California. I did an ancestry DNA test and was very surprised to find a 1% to 2% heritage from Nigeria. My mother is from Arkansas and I'm pretty sure that the Nigerian heritage would be somewhere in her family tree because my father is from Lithuanian Jewish heritage. I'd always thought because somebody in the NAACP told me when I was a student protesting against discrimination. "Oh, if you're from the south, then you probably have black blood." It was a surprise when I heard that 60 years ago, but it's true.
Kara Rubinstein: My name is Kara Rubinstein [unintelligible 00:58:13], and three and a half years ago, I did an ancestry over-the-counter DNA test to find out where in Africa my father was from so I could take my children on a finding your roots tour. My results came back and I had no African DNA as I thought I would. My pie chart did show I was half something, but there was no African in it. I was half Jewish Ashkenazi. This meant only one thing. The man on my birth certificate couldn't be my biological father is sent me into a bit of an identity crisis living 44 years as a biracial person to suddenly find out I was not. Been a journey to find myself since my discovery.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That's your Takeaway for today. Until tomorrow, I'm Melissa Harris-Perry this The Takeaway.
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