Passing for white is where you get people to assume you are white even though you are not pure white. Millions of blacks in America have done it down through time so that now a tenth of all white Americans are at least one-tenth black.
Passing is a direct consequence of how race works in America. Because of the One Drop Rule if you look at all part black African you are seen as “black” by “whites” and suffer all the racism that goes with that.
The government does not keep records about your race – it is not on your passport or even birth certificates any more – so it comes down to how you look - and, to a degree, how you talk and dress and act.
In the old days to pass you had to move away to some town where no one knew your family. Many were not willing to do that. These days, though, in big cities few people are ever going to meet your family, so it is much easier to pass, at least part of the time.
It was more important in the past when racism was worse, but it is still going on, some say at a rate of about 35,000 a year. Men seem to do it far more than women.
According to one study about one person in 500 who is born to black parents looks white. If you are less than one-eighth black by blood you have a good chance of passing, but you can be as much as a fourth black and still pass. It all depends on how you look – and what likely story you can tell people who get curious about your background. Some say they are Sicilian, Arab or American Indian.
Some people are part black and do not even know it because they have been lied to or kept in the dark about their family history.
From looking at the DNA of white Americans we can tell that the mixing and passing has been going on all along for 400 years and not just in the 1600s or the late 1900s when mixed-race marriages were allowed by law throughout the country.
The census also tells us that passing is going on: Every ten years the government counts everyone in the country and, among other things, asks what their race is. From that and immigration records you can tell that there are fewer blacks and more whites than there should be: blacks are disappearing without dying or leaving the country and whites are appearing without ever being born or entering the country. A study done along these lines in 1958 showed that 21% of whites must be part black.
In American fiction those who pass often come to a bad end – the idea of the tragic mulatto. The most famous example is “The Imitation of Life”, a book twice made into a film by Hollywood. A true-life example of someone who passed is Anatole Broyard, pictured above.