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Should One Cross The Line?

What about race. Is this person white, black, indian, biracial, multiracial, mulatto, black passing as white, white passing as black, of color, other? What about sexuality. Is this person hetereosexual, homosexual, straight, gay, lesbian, bi, queer, other? What about sex. Is this person a virgin, a slut, sexually knowledgable, selfish, other?

Does any of this matter? Will any of these three possible identifications affect this person’s work, ability to critically think or problem solve, relationships, kindness or generousity, homophobia, ability to interact with other people, thoughtfulness in deed, honorability, trustworthyness?

Will this person’s family accept this person regardless of any of these three identifications? Will the family even try to accept this person? Will the family beat this person on finding out one of these identifications?

Will this person’s friends accept this person regardless of any of these three identifications? Will the friends even try to accept this person? Will the friends scorn this person on finding out one of these identifications?

Will this person ever be murdered for one of these identifications?

Is it ever okay for this person to pass for a different one of these identifications? Is that just hurting the cause of social equality, supporting the oppressive system? Is it educating oneself and others about the arbitrariness of these labels? Is it saving this person’s life? Is it simply getting by? Does it subvert societal norms? Is this about picking one’s battles? Is it about keeping one’s family, one’s culture alive? Is it about having friends? Is it all of these?

This paper was inspired by an apparent hypocrisy. Reading Sciolino and Mekhennet’s article about hymenoplasty in Europe, I found myself disapproving of women who had this surgery to convince their families of their virginity. I kept thinking that these women were enforcing the gender roles proscribed for women. However, I found myself unable to answer the question “Why should _these_ women have to bear the burden of changing societal norms?” It was then that I made the connection between these women wanting to keep their family or culture and homosexuals wanting to keep theirs and so not coming out. Recently, I saw the movie Milk, about the openly gay U.S. politician Harvey Milk. In the movie Milk called on all homosexuals to out themselves to everybody in order to foster social justice. He wanted people to realize how prevalent homosexuality was in the U.S. and he realized that the more people talked about the issue, the more quickly change could occur. I think this is true, but I realize how hard it is for some people to tell their families about their “deviant” sexuality, and that some would rather keep their families and live a lie to them than lose their families over a partial identity. Why was I not able to accept this about the women passing as virgins? This led me to the bigger question of “How do I decide whether a person should pass or not?” Or perhaps the more interesting question, “How should I decide whether a person should pass or not?” Anne had the idea to look at the history of passing in the U.S. to help understand the differences and similarities between passing as virgin and passing as straight. This paper will explore the history of black people passing as white in an effort to understand and contrast some women passing as virgins and some people passing as straight.

The expression “crossing the line” is a colloquialism to mean a black person passing as white, to cross the color line. Wald is interested in (racial) passing because it demonstrates “the failure of race to impose stable definitions of identity, or to manifest itself in a reliable, permanent, and/or visible manner. [Yet] we cannot lose sight of the power of race to define (ix).” In a similar vein, Elam says a more useful question to ask is “not what passing looks like than what does passing _do_ (751)?” Elam answers this question by examining several novels about passing. She says that the text Caucasia demonstrates how dismissing race as merely a social construction or a myth can deny a person the ability to articulate one’s _own_ experience (753).  Elam quotes Walter Benn Michaels as saying “a truly performative conception of race would make passing impossible … Passing becomes impossible because, in the logic of social constructionism, it is impossible not to _be_ what you are passing for (754).” One thing Elam is getting at here, is that passing shows that race is not simply performative, because if it was then to _be_ a race, one would simply _perform_ that race. Since people pass, that is perform a race without being that race, it must be the case that race is not just performance, that there is some form of identity going on.

In examining the book The Human Stain, Elam discusses some (seemingly contradictory) by-products of passing. She points out that, in passing, there can be a sense of triumph at tricking the dominant culture as well as sense of self-hatred. She also notes that the main character’s drive for freedom – and hence drive to pass – is at once aligned with _lack_ of color and with being white. Despite the subversive element to passing, in order to secure oneself on one side of the line, to pass, one must strengthen that line. She says something similar about the main character in the novel Caucasia, “performing whiteness will make her irresistibly complicit with white racism.” This is an interesting contrast to the women Adrian Piper, who did not attempt to pass, but was often assumed to be white. To make herself not complicit with white racism, when people made some racial slur or joke in her precesence, she would hand them a card that said “I am black. I am sure that you did not realize this when you made/laughed at/agreed with that racist remark. In the past, I have attempted to alert white people to my racial identity in advance. Unfortunately, this invariably causes them to react to me as pushy, manipulative, or socially inappropriate. I regret any discomfort my presence is causing you, just as I am sure you regret the discomfort your racism is causing me (Wald, 4).” This suggests a kind of freedom that one who passes may not have. Perhaps in order to pass oneself off as authentic, one would need to let more racism go unchallenged.

Elam ends with a discussion of the book The Intuitionist. She claims that this book shows how “passing can point the way to figuring subversive new norms. Passing requires an adjustment of perspective, requires a recognition that norms can be generated anew.” At this point it is important to note that “most scholars agree that passers were of two varieties: those who passed permanently into the white community; and occasional passers, who moved into the white world for economic reasons or for the temporary privileges that whiteness brought (Crothers and K’Meyer, 32).” From the context, I think that Elam was talking about the permanent passers. On the other hand, Crothers and K’Meyer presented some of the history about Marguerite Davis Stewart, a woman who was an occasional passer. Of course, this distinction, like every other line we, as a class, have drawn, is vague and subject to many problems. For example, some people would pass every day as white in order to secure and maintain a particular job, but every evening would return home to a black community (Crothers and K’Meyer, 32). That said, it is important to realize that there are varying degrees to which people may pass.

Stewart, unlike the characters Elam talks about, does not seem to make passing her main focal point in life. This could be because Stewart is not a permanent passer, but I think it has more to do with the fact that Stewart is a real person and the characters in novels are fictional. Stewart “found her primary identity in her professional career (36).” That said, Stewart often passed as white, and did experience “the isolation and estrangement from both the white and black communities (25).” It is interesting to note, however, that Stewart found her “chameleon” nature enabled her to have ” ‘camaraderie among people of different backgrounds’ [which] led to success in her career and gave her personally fulfilling multicultural experiences (27).” Despite these cited benefits, Crothers and K’Meyers point out the constant fear inherent in passing and loneliness that comes from loss of familial support and one’s “own” kind as well as the pressure to “maintain a sense of racial loyalty solidarity (33).” They also reference Charles Parrish who says that race and its consequences are ” ‘simply not a topic for general or public conversation’ and ‘anyone who broaches the subject is quickly made to realize that he [sic] has committed a serious breach of social etiquette (37).’ ” This both explains Stewart’s reluctance to talk about her racial experience and people’s reactions to Piper’s attempt to pre-emptively explain her race. One of the reasons I think that Stewart’s life does not seem to revolve around passing is that she realizes the complexity of her life and the lives of others. In fact she says “there are so many segments of my life that you can’t even [know]. (Crotheres and K’Meyer, 44)”

I think this really starts to get at the complexity of real life. “[R]ace is not a biological fact, but rather an elaborate fiction that society writes over time. What we make of different individual traits […] matters more than the traits themselves. […] The word ‘race’ itself, for instance, tempts us back into thinking that there really are biological categories and that one stays forever in the category assigned at birth. […] today, we must try to read through those usages [of words like ‘race’] even when they become our own, remembering how little reality is behind them. (O’Toole, 3-4)” While holding fact to the idea that race is a social construct, one must struggle to then interpret what it means for someone to pass for one social construct over another. Keeping this in mind, how can one interpret the consequences of passing – ranging from the small, having someone politely step out of your way or allowing a snide comment about your original race to go unremarked, to the large, inheriting a million dollars or owning slaves. This is, I think, a point that Elam tries to make in her article Passing in the Post-Race Era – that passing is filled with contradictory messages. The Healy children, because they passed as white, were able to inherit the fortune amassed by their white father. However, this fortune was in slaves. By renting the slaves out yearly and then eventually selling them, the Healy children collected the money. This leads to the question of how does one choose whether or not to pass?

In terms of race, the answer greatly depends on the color of one’s skin. Some people are too dark to pass and most white people don’t care to pass as black. If you happen to be born in the inbetween place, though, what should you do? For Stewart, “we just felt as an American we had a right to it, if we had the money to do it. (Crothers and K’Meyer, 42)” The economic gains and the mobility (to go into white only restaurants, hotels etc) as well as the respect favored a white women, certainly were a draw. However, she lost a great deal of having a black community in doing this. “You can’t realize how I want to see Negroes, to be with them again, to talk with them, to hear them laugh. (Crothers and K’Meyer, 34)” She was also never involved with the civil rights movement. “I didn’t know they had a civil rights thing [in Louisville]. I mostly fooled with the government and the Red Cross. You couldn’t take part in anything controversial …. You just couldn’t work for those [civil rights] organizations in the jobs that I had. (Crothers and K’Meyer, 36)” However, according to Crothers and K’Meyer, “light-skinned blacks faced real pressure from the black community to maintain a sense of racial loyalty and solidarity.” However, they also “felt constant pressure to convince ‘unsympathetic and sometimes hostile dark Negroes that they really do not harbor feelings of superiority.’ (33)” Basically, there was every kind of conceivable pressure.

What can this tell us about passing as a virgin? In several aspects, the experience can be very similar. If discovered, it can mean extreme loss of familial and societal standing and loss of marital status. However, to pass as a virgin, it really is a ‘one-time’ event. Once you pass as a virgin, after you sex, there is no more need to pass. The stress is gone. For people who pass as white, this is an ongoing daily practice. However, to pass as virgin, one needs the surgery on the hymen, which the people who passed as white did not. Further, the women who want to pass as virgin, generally are trying to pass to their and their husbands families whereas the black people tended to pass to society at large, but also their spouse and spouse’s family. The other obvious difference is that only women are trying to pass as virgin, whereas both men and women tried to pass as white (though gender did influence how and the reasons why they passed). Class is again a consideration – the surgery costs several thousand dollars. What about passing as straight? People pass as straight to their families to avoid rejection and maintain good relations, but also pass to society at large to keep their jobs and social standing. This is slightly dissimilar to people passing as white because they didn’t usually pass to their families. I should clarify – I mean older family, (parents siblings etc). I think in both cases people pass to their younger families (spouses, spouses’ families, children etc).

What’s the difference? What does racial passing tell us?

What racial passing can teach us about other forms of passing is that passing, in general, is done for many reasons and has many, often contradictory, consequences. I think the reason I had a harder time accepting women’s choices to have hymenoplasty was because I focus a lot more women’s rights in my life than on gay rights. I saw in their choices a decision to not press the issue of women’s rights, a decision to help color in the virginity line. Whereas, with gay people passing as straight I saw a decision involving safety and personal well-being. However, watching the movie Milk made me question this easy answer of – well, people like to be safe – to ask “What about the future of people who do not fit the hetero-normative society we live in?” Passing is a politically charged act; it is the choice to gain societal benefits, but not without its cost. Keeping secrets is always a fearful endeavor, passing especially so because it involves the deeply personal. Often passing involves the gain of one community at the expense of another. I can understand a woman wanting to keep her family on her side more than wanting to push for this particular facet of women’s rights, just as I can understand a gay person passing as straight to keep the family rather than challenging those particular people about homophobia. I still do recognize that both of these instances of passing, for straight or as a virgin, are helping police the lines drawn by society and are forcing the issue to instead be carried by future generations. In Milk, he made if very clear that closet gays were not helping the young people in isolated towns deal with their sexuality in a time when Anita Bryant was televized.

I have other questions I would have liked to answer about other forms of passing , had time permitted. For example, what can (racialized) passing tell us about the whole conversation about women wanting to be men and, more generally, transgendered people’s choices. There are many forms of passing – I think there will be as long as society views some groups more favorably than others. Is there something we can say about it in general? Do people see an end to this favoritism and passing?

Works Cited

Crothers, A. Glenn and Tracy E. K’Meyer. ” ‘I was Black When it Suited me; I was White When it Suited Me’: Racial Identity in the Biracial Life of Marguerite Davis Stewart.” Journal of American Ethnic History; Summer 2007; 26, 4; Immigration and Ethnic History Society.

Elam, Michele. “Passing in the Post-Race Era: Danzy Senna, Philip Roth, and Colson Whitehead.” African American Review; Winter 2007; 41, 4; Research Library pg 749.

Hussein, Shakira and Alia Imtoual. “Challenging the myth of the happy celibate: Muslim women negotiating contemporary relationships.” <> 2009

O’Toole, James M. Passing for White: Race, Religion, and the Healy Family, 1820-1820. University of Massachusetts Press. Amherst and Boston. 2002.

Sciolino, Elaine and Souad Mekhennet. “In Europe, Debate Over Islam and Virginity.” 2008 <>

Wald, Gayle. Crossing the Line: Racial Passing in Twentieth-Century U.S. Literature and Culture. Duke University Press. Durham and London. 2000