Daniel Silvermint on how we talk about passing

Daniel Silvermint is an assistant professor of philosophy & women’s, gender, and sexualities studies at the University of Connecticut. His work includes the ethics of passing. He has authored a guest post for us about ‘reverse passing’ in light of the Dolezal case.


This post isn’t about Rachel Dolezal or the particulars of her alleged case of passing.   I don’t know her or the truth of the matter, and I’m not inclined to speculate about either. If Dolezal has indeed passed, then we need to talk about why that’s wrong. But whether or not she passed, we need to talk about how we’re talking about passing in the wake of these allegations. Here I do the latter. In particular, I’m interested in both [1] the term ‘reverse passing’ and how it affects our judgments and [2] the way these sorts of conversations can serve to reinforce socially-constructed categories and police the boundaries between them.

(A disclaimer before I begin: I should note that I am white and of Jewish descent. My background and experiences have inescapably influenced and biased my treatment of these issues, in ways that I might not even detect. I am probably mistaken about much, and missing even more. These are also the sorts of issues that can’t be properly addressed without a variety of representative voices. I am joining a discussion that’s already ongoing, but I am far more interested in what others have to say.)

First, many are calling this a case of ‘reverse passing’. That’s an unfortunate term, and not just because of its associations with the problematic term ‘reverse discrimination’. ‘Reverse passing’ assumes that there’s a natural direction to passing or a single, paradigm case of it (the wholly oppressed passing as the wholly privileged), and that this sort of alleged case is the exact opposite. But that obscures the remarkable variety of passing cases as well as social categories between which people pass. There are intersectional differences in identity, personal circumstances, and one’s priorities, and since stereotypes and popular assumptions do a lot to create and maintain those categories, their boundaries are largely arbitrary and ever-shifting.

Here are just a few examples of how passing is more complicated, and more everyday, than just ‘standard passing’ and ‘reverse passing’. Some passing is done because you want others to misidentify you. But some passing, for example trans passing, doesn’t involve any deception at all: it can instead be about trying to bring external perceptions into alignment with your actual identity in a world where apparent physical markers, and not self-identification, are wrongly considered authoritative. A trans woman that passes isn’t a man pretending to be a woman – she is a woman. Next, some individuals pass unintentionally or passively, in virtue of the fact that the people encountering them in ordinary situations do a poor job of tracking binary-defying identities. We might see someone who’s multiracial as white, someone who’s intersex as male, or someone who’s gender non-conforming as a woman. They’re passing, but that’s mostly our fault. Nor is passing as simple as oppressed people passing as privileged and privileged people passing as oppressed. The standard passing / reverse passing dichotomy can’t capture, say, an African-American individual passing as Latin American, or an Indian individual passing as an Arab.

So we need better terms if we want to understand passing, and make claims about its permissibility. If ‘passing as privileged’ involves a member of an oppressed group passing as a member of a privileged group for the sake of some personal advantage, then a better fit for this sort of alleged case might be ‘passing as disadvantaged’, where a member of a privileged group passes as a member of an oppressed group for the sake of some personal advantage. There are many such examples. A politician with a wealthy background might present himself as “a man of the people” in order to sway voters in a low-income district. Cultural appropriation in the music industry or within artistic communities is another example, such as when a person passes in order to sell “authentic” indigenous pieces or narratives. Someone might pass as a member of a marginalized group in order to obtain a scholarship or other diversity opportunity, or in order to feel somehow special in virtue of having suffered, overcome adversity, or challenged the status quo. Some simply fetishize otherness.

“Might” is the operative word here, and not just because this is an alleged case of passing. Other types of passing could end up providing even better explanations and bases for assessment. For one thing, this doesn’t appear to be simple case of appropriation – setting aside the interpersonal and institutional fallout such a reveal could bring, by all accounts Dolezal is an effective and dedicated advocate for change. If so, then she wasn’t the only person intentionally and directly advantaged by her alleged passing, meaning that the case might have more in common with ‘mutually-beneficial passing’ than with cases where the passing agent alone benefits. In other words, the deception might be wrong, but the passing wouldn’t necessarily be parasitic or exploitative in the same way that, say, passing yourself off as a long-lost relative in order to be written into a will would be wrong. Dolezal might have usurped a position or displaced a voice when being a staunch ally would have been more appropriate, but that is a different kind of wrong.

Alternatively—and quite controversially—this alleged case might be something akin to transracial passing. If she genuinely self-identifies as something other than her assigned racialized group, and is actively living the life of a person of color (including taking on the oppressive burdens that go along with such identifications), then it is at least not immediately, decisively obvious that she is engaged in wrongful deception, or that she owed it to anyone to disclose her birth identity. Many have protested that Dolezal is obviously white because she, unlike people of color, can voluntarily walk away from oppressive burdens and disadvantageous racialized treatment if she so chooses. But this objection overlooks the ongoing history of ‘passing as privileged’, where genuine victims of oppression (tenuously, and at great personal risk and cost) have done just that. Dolezal, if she is indeed passing as black, has apparently paid familial costs among others, and faces fresh costs now that she has allegedly been outed. This is fraught and uncertain terrain, and I’m not sure what to say. We don’t normally think of racialized group membership as something that one can genuinely transition into or out of, but perhaps that’s as socially determined as everything else.

How we conceptualize and assess this sort of alleged passing isn’t the only important issue. Also important is how our conversations can serve to reinforce socially-constructed categories.

Again, I know nothing about Dolezal’s heritage or history, and it would be irresponsible of me to speculate about her situation or motives. But say, entirely for the sake of argument, that Dolezal was racialized white during her upbringing, secretly self-identifies as white to this day, and was knowingly engaged in a deception at least partially for the sake of her own, personal advantage. Make the case as bad as you like. Even if all of that is true, then there’s still something incredibly troubling about the way in which we’re policing racialized boundaries in our conversations about Dolezal.

A lot of weight is being placed on what are purported to be her high school photos, which show a young woman with lighter-seeming skin. Using these photos to draw the conclusion that she is “actually white” is social construction in action. When we think a member of group x is actually a member of group y based on how they look, dress, act, sound, spend, associate, etc., or because they appear in social spaces where we normally expect members of y to appear, then we’re often doing more to maintain and reinforce social reality than we’re doing to meaningfully track it. Identity is messy and complicated. For almost any given group, its members run the gamut in terms of appearance, personality, and expression, but when we see borderline or ambiguous individuals as members of one group rather than another, this serves to fix the boundaries of both.

For example, if we (wrongly) assume that traditionally masculine men are straight, then masculine gay men will be seen as straight, erasing them from the public conception of what gay men are like. That leaves less masculine gay men (as well as any man that fails to conform to masculine ideals, including some straight men) as the only ones seen as gay. An identity marker that does an incredibly bad job of reliably tracking sexual orientation—masculinity—is helping to construct the social categories of gay and straight. And skin color is another example of an unreliable physical marker that is often taken to be determinate of group membership. So when we see those photographs and react by saying “Hang on, she’s actually white,” we’re engaged in just the sort of stereotype-grounded judgments that create the background conditions necessary for passing to take place. We’re policing boundaries, and in so doing, we’re maintaining and partially constituting constructed categories. And this is true whether or not Dolezal is actually lying.

In addition to the photographs, much has been made of the fact that Dolezal’s biological parents apparently identify as white. But this does not necessarily mean that they—and in turn, Dolezal—are white. They could be passing for their own reasons, or perhaps deceiving themselves; families are as complicated as identities. It’s also possible that one or more of Dolezal’s grandparents passed and never told their children, leading to a middle generation that sees itself as white, but is mistaken about the grounds of their claims. Maybe her passing grandparents told Dolezal their secret, in which case her self-identification is appropriate. Maybe they never did, in which case Dolezal is asserting something true but lacks any justification for it. Of course, if we go even a few generations back, a narrower range of ethnic groups were socially accepted as white, complicating the matter considerably. And for that matter, are we using U.S. census or Department of Justice criteria, or falling back on the persistent ‘one-drop rule’ conception, or appealing to a shared history of oppression (to which intersectional differences will once again apply)? There can be objective determiners of socially constructed categories, in the sense that there really is a fact of the matter about Dolezal, but the point is that judging racialized group membership from afar is no easy thing.

It’s interesting that we’re much more comfortable policing self-identifications when we believe that we’ve caught someone passing in an inappropriate or social progress-undermining direction. We’re guarding against trespass, but unlike those who want to draw very strict boundaries around the category ‘white’ in order to reserve and preserve privilege, policing who counts as a member of an historically and/or currently oppressed group can serve good ends, such as correctly allocating resources and reparations. And we can have perfectly good reasons for policing those categories in everyday life, like wanting the solidarity of genuinely shared experience, or endeavoring to be an ally to disadvantaged groups. But I’m not sure we should be so comfortable.

Consider the category ‘disabled’. There are certainly commendable, appropriate motivations for unilaterally policing claims of disability. If we see someone park in a reserved spot, and then walk away without apparent difficulty, then we might assume that we’re seeing a despicable cheat, someone who’s consuming resources or opportunities that are meant to help others, and who is insensitive to the burdens others face. But the markers we tend to use to identify disabled and non-disabled persons are as imperfect as all the other markers we’ve discussed. Notably, relying on whether someone looks or acts disabled leaves out individuals with invisible disabilities, such as mental illness, chronic pain, intermittent impairment, concealed prosthetics, and so on. Walking away from a reserved parking spot without apparent difficulty is not reliable evidence, but when we shake our heads or worse, challenge the individual in question or reprimand her, we are once again engaged in social construction. We are determining who counts as what on the basis of largely arbitrary stereotypes. And the same is true of looking at a photograph of a seemingly white woman and assuming that we’ve been deceived. There are good reasons to police boundaries, but there are good reasons to be careful when we do.

Perhaps there has been a deception, and if so, then there’s much to discuss. I’m in no position to judge either way. But that’s rather the point: who is in a position to judge, and how do we go about judging? And what unintended consequences do our judgments bring?

­* I’d like to thank Kristina Meshelski (California State University, Northridge) for urging me to write this post, and Feminist Philosophers for giving it a venue. In addition, the views expressed above are my own. If I’ve erred or offended, I ask that you criticize me for writing it, and not them for posting it. 

11 thoughts on “Daniel Silvermint on how we talk about passing

  1. One way of getting at the issues the Dolezal case raises is to compare it to transgender cases. Some transgendered individuals decide at a certain age that they have been born into the wrong body; others are more fluid and object to the whole two-gender binary and still others, such as Deirdre McCluskey, simply want to be another sex. The case of Dolezal seems to be analogous to this last case: she apparently wants to be African American. Why is this any more of a problem that a man who wants to be a woman? I think one problem people have with Dolezal is that she appears to be lying about her past. Yet this is interesting since transgendered people were once advised by psychologists and others precisely to lie about their pasts, to make up pasts as the sex they had transitioned into. Another criticism of Dolezal is that she is taking on the identity of an oppressed minority without the qualifications for doing so: she didn’t grow up as African American and so she hasn’t earned the identity. The same might be said for men who become women. So, I guess bottom line: I don’t really see what the problem here is.

  2. Thanks for the article, good discussion of the issues. One aspect that could be explored further I think (in terms of both racial/ethnic identity or gender/sexual identity) is about people not liking the identity they would normally be ascribed. Masculinity is a narrow, and in some ways boring, social identity, as is whiteness. Both are also associated with privilege and oppression. I’m not saying this is inherent or necessary, or that people born ‘male’ or ‘white’ are essentially that way, but I am interested in the possibility that people passing as or transitioning to black or female could be at least in part reacting against these perceived narrow, boring and oppressive identities.

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