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  • Passing for What? Racial Masquerade and the Demands of Upward Mobility
  • Phillip Brian Harper (bio)

Ends and Means: The Social-Critical Significance of Racial Passing in the U.S. Context

The preposition “for” in the main title of my essay carries a deliberate dual significance, simultaneously constituting a synonym for “as” and indicating the (provisionally indeterminate) end of the activity I plan to interrogate here. For it has come to my attention over the last few years that racial passing—and the narratives that conventionally bring it to light—serves a function that escapes many students of the practice, by which I mean many of the students I teach. These readers of the racial passing narrative—chiefly enrollees in my African-American literature courses—tend to see it in psychic-orientational terms, as signifying only the protagonist’s disavowal of an identity that proper race pride and healthy self-regard would lead him or her enthusiastically to embrace. It is generally only after a fair amount of cajoling that they can acknowledge the material gain potentially enjoyed by anyone who, while legally designated as black, lives successfully as white for a significant time—that particular masquerade being the one generically conjured by the term “racial passing” in the U.S. context.

And yet there are other modes of racial masquerade than the one in which a light-skinned black “passes for” white; and there are other functions typically served by racial passing per se than the accomplishment of a merely individualist objective. Limited though these general functions may be, their critical utility is not insignificant; which is why, before I consider as what one might pass (the possibilities for which are much more numerous than we might expect, even within the limited field described by the oversimplifying white/black binary that governs U.S. racial culture), I should elaborate clearly to what purpose passing ordinarily works. It is against this generalized societal function that the meanings of some particular instances of racial passing—which I interrogate below—take shape.

I am at a great advantage in undertaking this task of elaboration, in that a substantial part of the work has already been done for me. Indeed, the last several years have brought numerous insightful analyses of the social-expository function typically served by racial passing, which, in the summary offered by Amy Robinson, is to reveal “‘race’ . . . as a construct, an arbitrary principle of classification that produces the ‘racial’ subject in the very act of social categorization.” 1 The possibility of passing’s functioning in this way derives from the specifically visual means by [End Page 381] which racial identity is registered in U.S. culture, where, as Robinson puts it, “appearance is assumed to bear a mimetic relation to identity, but in fact does not and can not.” These conditions make it “easy to bypass the rules of representation and claim an identity by virtue of a ‘misleading’ appearance” (250). Thus, Robinson suggests, passing “jeopardizes the very notion of race as a biological essence, foregrounding the social contexts of vision by calling into question the ‘truth’ of the object in question” (241), and thereby “emerges as a challenge to the very notion of the visual as an epistemological guarantee” (250). 2

While racial passing does do this, however, it is important to remember that this is effectively all that it does, and that it generally does even this relatively little only under certain self-defeating conditions. This latter constraint inheres in the fact that, for an instance of passing to register as a challenge to the logic of racial identification, it must disclose itself as an instance of passing in the first place, which disclosure typically would also constitute the failure of the act. For, as Robinson notes, “the mark of . . . success” for any instance of passing ordinarily consists “precisely in its inconspicuousness” (243)—its inability to be perceived at all, let alone as a threat to the governing order. When I emphasize that, even under these highly circumscribed conditions, the racial pass does no more than expose the logical flaw in the mechanism by which we conceive of racial identity, I am indicating the intrinsic limits to what...

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pp. 381-397
Launched on MUSE
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