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Final Paper: Are we Passing?

Passing is generally defined as the movement away from one’s identity group towards another. An individual’s choice to live apart from his or her group of origin is usually viewed as treason to their identity or heritage.  From doing research on this topic, I have learned that there are many different types of passing which include: ability, racial, gender, and social class. Others see an individual’s choice to change their appearance to try and pass as something that they are not as a sign that the individual is ashamed of their community or culture. Although this can be true in many instances, there are several other factors that can contribute to one’s aspiration of being something that they were not originally born as.

The idea of passing has been a recurring theme in our Gender and Technology class this semester. For my multimedia project, I created a video that touched on the issue of ability passing.  One other project that I felt spoke directly to mine was that of Michelle, who focused on racial passing.

My video started off with the quote, “We are all cyborgs” by Donna Haraway. In “A Cyborg Manifesto,” Haraway believes that we are all cyborgs which allows us to deconstruct and reconstruct ourselves in the way we feel is most suited for the life style we choose to live.

I began with this quote because the insight that I have received from this class swayed my thinking. Before taking this class I always thought of a cyborg as something that was half machine and half human. My definition was more so leaning towards that of a fictional cyborg: an object that is half human and half machine that is often portrayed with physical or mental abilities far exceeding that of a human being. I then found out that there is yet another definition of a cyborg. A real cyborg is a person who uses cybernetic technology to repair or overcome the physical and mental constraints of the body.

The purpose of my multimedia project was to give a new face to the word cyborg. I then showed images of women with breast cancer which stood for women around the world who have to battle with this disease on a daily basis; many of them who may or may not have thought of the idea of using prosthesis in order to cover up the fact that they have an amputated breast. This is where the idea of ability passing comes in to play. When a woman makes a conscious decision to use prosthesis, is she doing it for herself or to please others?

I then went on to quote Audre Lorde, a Caribbean-American writer, poet, and activist who too was diagnosed with breast cancer. In one of her famous works The Cancer Journals, Lorde allows readers to follow her on her journey with the battle for her life. In the last chapter of the book, entitled “Breast Cancer: Power vs. Prosthesis” Lorde gives a detailed account of her decision of refusing to wear prosthesis, a cosmetic devise that she believed “placed profit and denial of difference over health and well-being” (Kulii, Reuman, Trapasso).

Two very compelling quotes from Lorde’s book allow readers to get a sense of how adamant she actually was about her refusal to use prosthesis. “Prosthesis offers the empty comfort of nobody will know the difference. But it is that very difference which I wish to affirm, because  I have lived it, and survived it , and wish to share that strength with other women”(Lorde 62). The other quote reads: “Surrounded by other women day by day, all of whom appear to have two breasts, it is very difficult sometimes to remember that I AM NOT ALONE” (Lorde 63).

Both quotes touch on the issue of passing as an able-bodied individual and how there may be women who feel that they need to wear prosthesis in order to feel “more normal” or to look healthy. Lorde is against this because she feels that it makes those battling with the disease actually feel more alone and like they have no one to turn to during this hard time.

My Multimedia Project:

Multimedia project from Ashley S on Vimeo.

As I mentioned before, there was one other video made by a student in the class whose primary focus was on the idea of racial passing. Historically, this has been a very touching topic that can either be thought of as a means of saving one’s life or changing one’s appearance due to the fact that they are not comfortable in their own skin or with the race they were born into.

John M. Stahl’s “Imitation of Life” (1934) tells the story of a woman who was born to African American parents and throughout her life regrets her racial identity. Paola (also known as Sarah Jane in remakes of the film) struggles daily with her identity and wants badly to be accepted in society. From a child, Paola became ashamed of being black because she realized that African Americans did not have the same opportunities as Caucasians. Paola felt that she would have a better life if she attempts to pass for white. This was easy for her because she had very light skin. In order to pass for white, Paola would try hard not to be associated with other black people and refused to tell people who her mother was. Throughout Paola’s life she would distance herself from mother in order to make her transition from African American to that of a Caucasian woman easier and more believable.

One very heartbreaking scene in the movie was during the classroom scene when Paola’s mother rushed to her daughter’s school to give her clothes to wear in the rain. When Paola’s mother walked into the classroom, the teacher automatically assumed that the woman was in the wrong place. When the mother told her that she was there to give something to her daughter, the teacher replied saying “There are no colored children in my class.” The mother then looked around to find that her daughter was sitting at her desk, hidden behind one of her textbooks desperately hoping that her mother would not point her out. When Paola’s mother finally pointed her out, you could hear the shocking replies of the other students in the class saying, “We never knew she was a colored person.” Paola was told she was dismissed by her teacher; the child then rose from her seat and ran out of the class yelling at her mother saying, “Why do you have to be my mother?” This was vary disrespectful and showed how deeply she wanted to be white.

When the mother heard these words being uttered from her child’s lips, she asked her daughter if she “had been passing.” It was quite obvious that neither Paola’s teacher nor her classmates knew that she was African American; it made her happier to know she was passing.

Although “Imitation of Life” was just a movie, it told the life story of many African American people as well as other minorities who have tried to pass as white in order to climb the social ladder and be accepted in society.

Another type of passing that we touched on a great deal in class gender passing. I will use the film “Transamerica” (2005) as an example of this type of passing. The film addresses a delicate topic of a male who is in search of his true identity; becoming a woman. In the character Bree’s adult life, he finally decided to have a genital operation which would be the final step in transforming from male to female. Days away from the transition, Bree receives a phone call from the New York jail informing him that his son, who he never knew he had, was in jail. Wanting to be a responsible adult, Bree went to the jail to pick up his son but failed to reveal his true identity of being his father. At first the character wanted to pass as a church woman whose mission was to help the boy get straightened out but later on in the film Bree reveals that he is in fact the child’s father.

As a male who feels that he truly a woman inside, he tries to conceal his male exterior by wearing dresses, makeup, high heels, wigs, female undergarments and the like. It is a very difficult transition; when a male or female wants to change their gender they tend to feel an extreme amount of pressure to pass in order to not be harassed or ostracized from his or her community. I happened to come across a great interview of a transgender woman who expresses how she felt going through the process and they types of reactions she receives from family, friends

I also found a clip from The View where the women are discussing transgender children:

The last form of passing that I will like to discuss in this essay is the idea of social class passing. Economists refer to items that we purchase in order to reveal our prosperity to others as wealth signals. There have been studies done on the differences between items lower class families tend to purchase as opposed to higher class families. A study done by Kerwin Kofi Charles, Erik Hurst, and Nikolai Roussanov used nationally representative data on consumption, showed that Blacks and Hispanics tend to devote a larger share of their expenditures on visible goods (clothing, jewelry, and cars) when compared to Whites (Charles, Hurst, and Roussanov 18).

Their argument was that racial differences in incentives for particular purchases may account for consumption differences, but they also feel that there is a deeper explanation as to why people from a lower social status tend to spend more money than in comparison to wealthier people.

The theorists would prefer to use the model of conspicuous consumptions to better explain what is happening in this situation. This model will emphasize instead that status seeking as a means of a reflection of one’s household’s economic position relative to that reference group. This basically means that people from lower class families may want to purchase more expensive items to pass as being a member of a middle or upper class family.

In this essay I have discussed the most common types of passing which include but are not limited to: ability, racial, gender, and social class. From doing research on this topic, I have come to the conclusion that many humans, if not all humans have come to a point in their lives where they had to try to pass in a certain situation in order to be accepted. Many would like to believe that they have a single personality that they reveal to the world but in reality, depending on the setting we have to alter our appearances or personalities so that we can try not to be subject to the stereotypes others form about us.


Charles, Kerwin Kofi, Erik Hurst, and Nikolai Roussanov. “Conspicuous Consumption and Race” 2007.

Kulii, Threatt, Ann E. Reuman, and Ann Trapasso. “Audre Lord’s Life and Career” Modern American Poetry. 2008.

Lorde, Audre. The Cancer Journals. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1997.