Passing Privilege

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

A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life by Allyson Hobbs

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.[1]

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. [2] 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.

14 thoughts on “Passing Privilege

  1. I loved your discussion of contemporary light-skinned privileged and the way you brought it into dialogue with this fantastic book. Hobbs makes it very clear that we are in a much different position now just based on the fact that one can claim both white and black heritage (something impossible during Jim Crow). However, it is still so important to recognize the effects colorism still have on our society today. Also, how flimsy race actually is and how those boundaries are always changing.

    1. Great post and I agree Tori! Colors still has a strong hold on our society today. Colorism is a constant problem for people of color in the U.S. Colorism privileges light-skinned people of color over dark in areas such as income, education, housing, and the marriage market. It is the result of hearing racist stereotypes and attitudes over and over till the point one begins to believe them as truth creating a system of internalized racism. People are making millions off the physiologic effects colors has on individuals through skin bleaching and cosmetic surgery markets. A heavy price is paid by all people of color, especially African-Americans. Moreover, it is crazy to think that half of society does not even realize that this is a continuum of slavery mentality. – There’s an excellent documentary called Dark Girls (on Netflix) that I highly recommend.

  2. Olivia, thanks for your post. Hobbs does not go into great detail on contemporary issues but I was interested in the implications of skin color today while reading the book. I remember watching a Tyra Show episode (remember when Tyra Banks had a talk show?) which explored the tensions between darker skinned and lighter skinned African American women in today’s society. The two groups of women on the show seemed to have a very contentious relationship. I always wanted to know more about the dynamic.

  3. This is an important element that I have never though about before. The way I was I taught about the racial integrity law in VA was how it was used to eliminate Native Americans on paper. I find this book a great resource on a topic that might become more and more prevalent as the lines of race has been and will be changing.

  4. I, like Carly, am curious to know more about the tension between dark skinned and light skinned African American women. Race is so visibly noticeable, A Chosen Exile really highlights how much of a social construct that it is. It is a social construct that has defined lives and history.

    1. Sammy and Carly, I am also interested in this topic. I remember the first time I really thought about that was when my class watched Hotel Rwanda in 9th grade. When I first watched it I, being naive and young, wondered how one racial group could cannibalize itself. I also learned about “white” racial groups treated each others in similar ways (e.g. treatment of the Irish). Now, 10 years later, I understand the nuances of racial identity much better and also have learned more about the spectrum of identification. I would love to explore this topic further.

  5. Olivia, I love that you brought up the lack of a community that resulted from having to pass. This was what stood out to me as most heartbreaking, that individuals had to make the choice of giving up their communities and support systems in order to gain a better life for themselves. I would like to think that we live in a more accepting country today, which welcomes the celebration of individuals of all varieties of racial backgrounds. Carly’s comment brings that point into question though. What can be done to celebrate individuality and end the need for people to choose how they want to identify, and instead embrace all of their identities?

    1. Caitlin, I completely agree. It was the loss of community that really stood out to me in the book. The stories are truly heartbreaking in that they not only leave everything behind but they also live in constant fear that someone will find out that they are passing. This really hit home for me in the story about the Johnston’s when there was talk of the Ku Klux Klan setting up a chapter in their town. This must have been terrifying, but they felt so ingrained in the community that they stayed to see what happened. I can’t imagine what that must have been like.

  6. While I was reading A Chosen Exile, I kept thinking about the differences between light and dark skinned African-Americans. Light-skinned people had the option to pass as white, and while that raised all sorts of issues of loss, community, and privilege, they could still benefit from their skin color. Darker-skinned people never had the option to pass as white, and so I wonder how they felt toward those who could pass. Were they jealous of the opportunities lighter-skinned people had, or did they feel sadness that those who passed were cut off from a community? I’d love to know more about how darker-skinned people viewed the practice of passing as white.

    1. Emily, these are the same kind of thoughts I had while reading. Race is so often thought of as different groups of people, but not often enough looking inward at the different racial groups our societies have created. Hobbs does a great job of using narratives to illustrate her research and big ideas; it would be great to see narratives that look at this idea more specifically. Thank you Olivia for finding ways to connect Hobbs’ work to our contemporary culture and lifetime.

  7. One thing that I think is really valuable about the discussion of passing is that it points out the inherent ambiguity of race and that it also might force white people to racialize themselves. White people especially are prone to considering whiteness the norm or the default, and blackness or anything else as an “other.” By pointing out the differences between the light-skinned people who chose to pass and those who didn’t, it forces white people to consider how their race has affected their lives just as much as a person of color. Generally, white people dislike recognizing this because it makes them consider the idea that their successes were not entirely of their own making. But this discussion is incredibly important for making white privilege visible to those who possess it.

  8. Olivia, you’ve brought up some great points here. Before reading this book I’m not sure if I would have considered what African-Americans lost as much as what they gained when passing. As others have said, this idea of losing a community and way of life was sad to read. The study you linked to looks interesting, and I would like to learn more about this paradox and other contemporary ideas of race today.

  9. I find it interesting that the US census had a racial category of “mulatto” in the 1850s but that it was removed in the 1930s. I think it highlights how race is a social construct of what is is to be white, and the opportunities that people would have if they could pass for white. The fact that people of different ethnic groups could not get married in many states in the US until the Supreme Court Case: Loving vs. Virginia of 1967. The judge Leon M. Bazile, who forced them out of Virginia stated: “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents…. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.” Judge Bazile sentenced the Lovings to a year in prison, to be suspended if the couple agreed to leave the state for the next 25 years. Miscegenation laws and issues of mixed marriages is an issue that is very well connected to passing and Colorism. If African American men or women were light skinned they would not have problems of being in a mixed relationship or marriage. I also would like to learn more about the effects of passing on communities and family relationships.

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