Passing: black to white, white to black

Check out “Do Not Pass“, a short essay in the New York Times highlighting well-known black novel characters who pass as white. The writer, Touré, connects these characters by their ultimate demise in each case, brought on by the falsified construction of identity. At the end of his essay, Touré asks, “So my question is: Why aren’t more white people trying to pass as black?” His question points to the negative cultural status of African Americans, implicating the privilege of white people and asking the central question of those scholars who study white privilege: Why would white people want to give up their privilege?

Of course, there are many white folks who have imitated black people. In most instances this is a racist act for the sake of entertainment or exploitation. But I am reminded of a book I read a few years ago, Black Like Me, by a white journalist named John Howard Griffin, who in the late 1950s chronicled his six weeks in the south passing as a black man. In his earnest and controversial attempt to understand what it means to be black, he was astounded at the disparities otherwise unnoticed and did some very important identity work on what it means to be white. Griffin’s attempt to pass, as you might imagine, didn’t end in his demise. While he was burned in effigy in his hometown and reviled by white supremacists, his book made him an internationally known civil rights activist. Ahh … privilege.

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