The United States holds a strong history of racially based segregation that very clearly follows through to the twenty-first century. African Americans in particular have faced persecution, enslavement, and separation in American society simply because of the color of their skin, and their status as African Americans. The book A Chosen Exile explores the idea of passing, or giving up your life, family, history, and community to take on another race as your own. Between the eighteenth and into the twentieth century many African Americans chose to pass as white, giving up their cultural identity and personal history to willfully enter a new and different culture so that they may be given better opportunities, better treatment, and a new life. African Americans escaped the often brutal treatment that they commonly received and began their lives with
these new identities. Allyson Hobbs, author of A Chosen Exile, explores the idea that though passing as white did give African Americans better opportunities and a new life, the loss of cultural identity, and personal history gave way to a deep feeling of loss among African Americans who no longer chose to be labeled as black. A Chosen Exile opens up the opportunity for discussion about the complexity about what it means to identify as black, and blackness as a concept. Today most light skinned African Americans, or multiracial African Americans do not feel the need to pass, yet many benefit from their light skin in a way that those passing in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth century did, without having to give up the sense of a community and feeling the loss their earlier counterparts did.
A Chosen Exile highlights real stories of African American people struggling with the ludicrous nature of racial biases in American history. The fact that your choices in life could very well change the actual race that you were perceived of shows the very thin line that race in America has held throughout history. A light skinned or multiracial African American could change the way that they dress, or act, and be perceived as an entirely different race. The color line, and what it means to be black or part of black culture, has been very brittle, and changes with each generation, and even by location. Black culture and the sense of community is something dynamic, that changes with each generation, but it is a shared experience that many African Americans cherish.
Discrimination based on color is not only something that happens with different communities of people, but happens continually, internally, in black communities even though they share their common blackness. The very racial hierarchy, with white or light skinned people benefiting from the system of unjustness, that has been prevalent in American Society since the days of colonialism has carried into the twenty-first century with a system that still benefits light-skinned people over dark-skinned. Many light-skinned African Americans benefit from their skin color, and the racial ambiguity that comes with light skin, and the social implications that carry as well as the political benefits that come with lighter skin.
Through the “one drop rule” and others such as the Act to Preserve Racial Integrity passed in 1924 in Virginia, that stated that if you had any non-white ancestry you could not claim to be white, society created a group of people who legally had to claim their blackness, while having to limit any claim to other racial background they may have had.  African Americans with the ability to pass at this time had to choose between being black, or passing as white. This homogeneous treatment of African Americans seems to have limited today, with more celebration in the diversity of those with African American heritage. The main difference between the light skinned African Americans today, and the passing African Americans of earlier centuries, is that African Americans with light skin today are able to benefit from their light skin while fully claiming their African American heritage and remaining a part of the African American community, without losing touch with their African American roots and culture as those who passed did. The loss and alienation, and the inability to fit in the culture you were born in, is the one that was chosen something that the multiracial or light skinned African Americans do not have to deal with today. Light skinned African Americans today embrace their culture, and collective identity in the opposite way in which passing African Americans did in the eighteenth through mid-twentieth century.
Though racial boundaries and lines have historically been, and continue to be, extremely unclear and easily changed, the communities that come out of these boundaries are a support system that can help members of that community. The act of passing, skin tone, and the diversity in African American people is an extremely complicated part of our countries history, and contemporary lives of African American people.
1. Hochschild JL, Weaver V. The Skin Color Paradox and the American Racial Order. Social Forces. 2007;86(2):643-670.
2.Hobbs, Allyson, A Chosen Exile. Harvard University Press (October 13, 2014), 128-129.