April 10, 2008

"Passing" into Freedom: Being Black and Living White

author_janis By Janis Prince Inniss

Do you know the race of everyone in your family? Of your friends? Your colleagues? Odd questions if race is as obvious as we usually think it is. “She’s black.” “He’s white.” “They’re Hispanic.” No confusion there. What about the man and his daughter pictured below? What race are they?

Anatole Broyard was a literary critic and editor of the New York Times. He died in 1990 at age 70, and was survived by his wife and two children. Nothing unusual so far, right?

What is remarkable, however, is the fact that only a few weeks before his death, his adult children learned that Broyard was “part black”. Based on his daughter Bliss’s research, it appears that Broyard made the choice to be white when he sought a Social Security card in 1938.

In that same year, Broyard’s sister had sought employment at the state office and was told that there were no jobs for “colored girls”. For most of his adult life, Broyard had minimal contact with his mother and two sisters who all lived as black, although his wife and a few friends knew of his “secret.”

J0336807 How is it possible to interact with someone and not know their race when we live in a racialized society? Like his parents, Broyard was light-skinned and this allowed him to “pass” as white—that is, pretend not to have a drop of black blood. The consequences of being black at that time could be dire; surely the limitations and other costs associated with being black served as the impetus for Broyard’s decision to “pass” as a white man.

Reading Broyard’s obituary in the Times, I was struck by the lack of reference to race in the description of the man, his family and his work. He was not described as a “black writer,” or the as first black editor or any other historic firsts that he likely accomplished. The obituary told of a man, born here, schooled there, who wrote this and that. It struck me that being black would have shackled Broyard and limited the images I conjured of him as I read his story; it would—perhaps to lesser degrees over time—define him as well as my impression of who he was.

When I initially wrote the paragraph above, I wrote, “his race would have shackled Broyard…”In fact, in the U.S. it is not any race that would prescribe, for example, the topics with which he would be expected to be conversant; it was being black that would be so conscribing; hence his concealment of his black heritage. 

But what of whiteness? That too is a race. White people are not devoid of race, although Broyard’s story reminds us of the freedoms that whiteness facilitates: freedom to live where one wants, to write about what one wants, freedom from feeling (negatively) “raced”. In the 70 years since Broyard made the decision to “pass,” more of these freedoms have become commonplace for all who live in the U.S., regardless of race. Still, as you watch the news on television or read newspapers, contrast how often the race of racial/ethnic minorities is mentioned compared to that of whites.

What images come to mind when you hear racial descriptors? Is your response the same regardless of whether stories reference your own or a different group? If Broyard had been thought of as black, (since that would have to be his racial designation in a “one-drop” system), that designation would have conveyed something that he probably did not want people to think about. Racism creates limits; and without a negatively “raced” label, Broyard had more life options. 

There are many who would see Broyard’s choice as self-hatred, an example of internalized racism. Further his choice to “pass” may be viewed as turning his back on his (black) race when—particularly given his stature at the New York Times—he could have served to help African Americans, by serving as a refutation of stereotypes and by being a role-model. Is this a burden or is it a duty that all racial minorities ought to carry? 

While we usually think of race as a biological imperative, stories such as Broyard’s highlight the socially constructed nature of the beast: race is also how we live: Broyard looked white, had a white wife and white children, lived in white communities, had a white occupation (that of writer, not a black writer), and was therefore white. His being white was less related to his DNA than to the life he led.

It’s arguable that the historical facts that made passing desirable for Anatole Broyard have been transformed at least somewhat over the past fifty years; but are there incentives for any racial minorities to ”pass” as white in America today?

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Comments

I think your article is wonderful, but I do have a question.

Based on your second to last paragraph, is it your conclusion then that there is "black" behavior and "white" behavior?
Is a man "more black" because he lives in Chicago than the man who lives in Vermont?
Is a woman "more black" because she listen to wrap and wear baggy pants than a woman who listens to Opera and wears dresses?

thanks

There's a really good book out there called "The Black Image in the White Mind" and I think it speaks to some of the questions you pose. The authors (Robert Entman and Andrew Rojecki draw from a variety of media programs (news, sitcoms, films, etc.) to explain why some white people hold negative and racist ideas about black people. In a nutshell, the authors argue that the media provides readily available images of black people with which many white folks draw on to process and understand black people in the U.S. Sometimes they use the media to reinforce a personal experience they recall and other times they use the media to locate their personal experiences with black folks as unique and 'exceptions' to the more common and negative characteristics they see in the media. It's a good read and solid research, and it really highlights the role of media in constructing and reinforcing ideologies.

Hello Joe,

I appreciate your thoughtful, positive feedback.

In response to your question, I think that because of the socially constructed aspect of race, any behaviors could be associated with either whites or blacks, depending on circumstance, maybe even happenstance. So, what is considered white behavior in the U.S., might be associated with black behavior in another part of the world, for example. With regard to your questions about what constitutes “more black” behavior you might find my piece entitled “Barack Obama and Racial/Ethnic Authenticity” interesting as it addresses these themes and what I think this is ultimately a question of racial authenticity.

Thanks for the book recommendation, Steve. Sounds like fascinating research. The role of media in this arena has always intrigued me.

Hi,
Just to point out an interesting parallel between your article and Ms. Raskoff's "Sex: It's not what you think": Passing, in its many forms, whether it be racial passing or gender passing (to name just two of many), is a very interesting way for individuals to bend the social constructs that limit them or oppress them. Not to mean that such oppression is the only reason for passing, for it can just be "just because." However, the latter draws a lot more attention and anger, when spotted. I hope our societies can one day reach a point where individuals can freely choose to pass, without condemnation, to be able to express themselves the way they feel comfortable. But perhaps, when we reach that point, passing will have only a playful value, rather than a function for survival and reaching beyond our social/racial/class/gender constrictions.
As for betrayal, I think most of us feel upset when we see someone who has found a way to access privilege that we wish we had. However, I don't feel the I have the right to judge anyone for trying to access privilege. However, my natural reaction is to expect that with such privilege, they will do something good, something valuable. But I realize that what I deem valuable may not be valuable for others.

Great article. It is crazy how much racism is still a part of America. Even after all the civil rights movements and living in 2009, people are still completly ignorant about issues when it comes to race. America is supposed to be "land of the free, home of the brave" but we still have cowards like the KKK who are not brave at all and do not allow equality.

Many things still need to change in this county. Any person with some sort of sense knows all people are equal. However, all the ingnorant people that still support racism and attempt to bring down anyone with a different color skin than their own. It is sad that so many racial terms are used so freely everywhere in America. People need to work together to bring freedom to everyone. We have made great steps, for example President Obama opened the door to equality in 2009.

Racial passing is living as if one is a member of a different racial category. This can be a result of social oppression, or a way to access privileges meant to only one form of racial group. I thing it is mostly a survival plan. Well, sometimes it can be very upsetting for others, but trully, we are not in the mind of the targetted to set a judgment.
This is not true only on race but culture too. I know from experience, many people who try to assimilate and internalise another "high" culture values, style and norms.

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