What happens when your racial appearance doesn't match up with your reality.

By Taylyn Washington-Harmon
June 04, 2021

Identities like race and gender come with nuance, and because of that nuance, you can't assume them just by looking at someone. Enter the concept of "passing," where you can get away with pretending to be something you're not usually based solely on appearance. White passing—the ability to pass as a white person—is one specific kind of passing that's been getting attention these days.

What-It-Means-to-be-White-Passing
Credit: Getty / Yale University Library / Yale University Art Gallery / American Studies Program at the University of Virginia / Photo Illustration by Jo Imperio for Health

What is white passing?

"To be white passing is when a person of color attempts to pass, meaning to mislead others, as being white," Delvena Thomas, DO, a Florida-based psychiatrist, tells Health. This is different from white-appearing, in which a BIPOC person is mistaken for being white, but not by choice.

White passing isn't new; enslaved African-Americans would attempt to pass as white to escape enslavement or subjugation. Even after slavery was outlawed, lighter-skinned people of color would try to pass for white for political and social gain, and also as a survival tactic.

A person who is white passing intentionally disavows their race, according to Shantel Buggs, PhD, assistant professor of sociology at Florida State University. "In contemporary society, we've used white passing to describe people who have reaped some of the benefits of whiteness in terms of their everyday interactions," Dr. Buggs tells Health, such as avoiding racism. A 2015 paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that more than 19% of Black males have passed for white at some point between the years of 1880-1940, positioning them for "better political-economic and social opportunities."

So how does one effectively pass for white? Skin color is a major deciding factor, according to a March 2020 paper from the American Journal of Sociology. This has resulted in many lighter-skinned BIPOC to be perceived as white, even if they have little white ancestry. But passing as white extends beyond physical appearance. It sometimes requires a passing person to abandon their family and cultural markers, such as clothing and mannerisms, to avoid being discovered as non-white, says Dr. Thomas.

"The constructed nature of race becomes evident when individuals changed their racial identity by changing location, clothing, speech, and life story, thus making themselves white," wrote Allyson Hobbs, associate professor of history at Harvard University, in her 2016 book, A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life.

Who are white passing celebrities?

Wentworth Miller, Rashida Jones, Meghan Markle, Halsey, and Maya Rudolph all have at least one Black parent but have been perceived as white by contemporary Americans, and all have been accused of white passing or discussed it in the media.

Meghan Markle, who has a Black mother and white father, wrote explicitly about passing for white in Elle in 2015 when a teacher encouraged her to identify as white on a classroom census. "My teacher told me to check the box for Caucasian. 'Because that's how you look, Meghan,' she said. I put down my pen. Not as an act of defiance, but rather a symptom of my confusion," Markle wrote.

Though Rashida Jones, daughter of Black music producer Quincy Jones and white actress Peggy Lipton, has played racially ambiguous roles throughout her career, she has said that her white passing appearance has actually been a detriment to her career. "'Passed'? I had no control over how I looked. This is my natural hair, these are my natural eyes! I've never tried to be anything that I'm not," Jones told Glamour in 2005. "When I audition for white roles, I'm told I'm 'too exotic.' When I go up for Black roles, I'm told I'm 'too light.' I've lost a lot of jobs, looking the way I do."

How does white passing affect health?

"Someone who has passed for white, whether it was intentional or as a result of society, they oftentimes have issues with identity, a sense of belonging, and low self-esteem," says Dr. Thomas. "When you have low self-esteem, that often leads to things like sadness, depression, and also relationship challenges because you may not trust other people and their intentions."

Buggs, who is mixed-race, comments that many white-passing individuals come from mixed-raced backgrounds, which can contribute to feelings of not belonging. According to Mental Health America, a nonprofit organization that addresses mental health needs, people who identified themselves as multiracial were the most likely to screen positive or at-risk for alcohol/substance use disorders, anxiety, depression, ", and psychosis.

"It's a painful thing when you don't have control over how other people perceive you," says Buggs. "For some white passing individuals, they've had to cut themselves off and never be in communication with their families again."

I passed for white, what can I do?

"For someone who is very careful about doing the right thing and maintaining integrity, passing for white may present a dilemma," says Dr. Thomas, which in turn can cause interrupted sleep and higher stress and anxiety levels. "If you pass for white to get—can't say earn—a position in a certain company or similar, at some point you may struggle with guilt. You may have to remedy this by coming clean and being honest about you, your lineage, and your heritage."

Dr. Buggs also encourages anyone who has passed for white to think of ways to use your white passing privilege to better the lives of others. "If being perceived as white is lending you some professional opportunities or chances for advancement, think of ways you can pay forward opportunities for others who are not able to leverage [this] to their benefit," he says. "I think people can and should self-evaluate when these situations arise as best they can but they shouldn't beat themselves up about it."

And if you're assuming that someone is white simply because they have light skin or blue eyes? While it's easy to make assumptions based on appearance, you don't know that person's whole story just from they look. If you don't know someone personally or know their backstory, it's not your place to decide what their racial identity is—and it shouldn't matter anyway.

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