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New book explores legacy of passing

Caitlin Yohiko Kandil

During the first debate, Sen. Scott Brown accused his Democratic challenger, Elizabeth Warren, of misleading the public about her race.

“Professor Warren claimed that she was a Native American, a person of color, and as you can see, she is not,” Brown said. “That being said, she checked the box … I don’t know, and the viewers don’t know, if she got ahead as a result of that checking of the box. The only way we’ll find out is to have her release her personnel records, have Harvard release her personnel [records] to make sure she did not have an advantage that others were entitled to.”

Brown, in essence, attacked Warren for “passing,” for reaping social benefits by pretending to be a different race than she truly is. While the senator’s charge is a twist on what is typically thought of as passing — people of color trying to be perceived as white — it serves as a reminder of this country’s long and complex legacy of passing.

“The history of passing should tell us that we can’t necessarily believe everything we can see,” said Marcia Alesan Dawkins of the University of Southern California’s School of Communication and Journalism. “We should be reminded that race and ethnicity, at least the way they operate in our country, are not necessarily biological, but social constructions.”

In her new book, “Clearly Invisible: Racial Passing and the Color of Cultural Identity,” Dawkins explores this history of passing, from slavery to Barack Obama, and how passing can be used to understand racial identity today.

In 1892, a simple act of passing changed the country’s entire understanding of race. Homer Plessy, a self-identified octoroon (seven-eighths white and one-eighth black) boarded a train in Louisiana with the intent of challenging the state’s Separate Car Act, which ordered the separation of blacks and whites on trains.

Plessy passed as white to buy his train ticket, and once on board, passed as black to provoke arrest. While Plessy had hoped that his arrest would be an opportunity to fight back against segregation, what happened instead was the exact opposite.

He lost his Supreme Court case, Plessy v. Ferguson, which enshrined the rigidity of racial categories and the constitutionality of “separate but equal.” The Court justified this by “transform[ing] his passing into a theft of identity … in order to break the law and acquire goods and services,” Dawkins writes.

While Plessy v. Ferguson was eventually overturned in 1954 with the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, the notion of fixed racial identity remained cemented in the American imagination. Because of this, Plessy’s is still a powerful form of protest today.

“Many undocumented immigrants are taking a page out of Plessy’s book and are coming out of the closet,” Dawkins said, citing the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, who “passed” as a U.S. citizen his entire adult life and recently exposed himself as an undocumented immigrant.

Like Plessy, Vargas “came out as an act of protest to show that we need to change our public policy and we need to pay more attention to these issues to show that things aren’t as simple as they appear,” Dawkins said.

In addition, the rhetoric of passing has cropped up many times this election season — and not just in the Massachusetts Senate race. For President Obama, the idea of passing comes from many different directions.

The “birthers,” who falsely claim that Obama was not born in the United States, are actually accusing him of passing, Dawkins explains: Instead of showing himself as a radical African Muslim, he is passing as a U.S. citizen and a legitimate president.

But for many others, Obama embodies the breakdown of the rigid racial categories that the Plessy decision and passing relied on. In its place has emerged multi-racial identity, which Dawkins said “symbolizes the coming together of various racial groups” even though “we don’t have the proof that our society is becoming more racially equitable and just.”

The country’s first black president is not the only candidate who can be seen through the lens of passing. Republican contender Mitt Romney — who Dawkins said is her “favorite passer of the moment” — has been characterized as a flip-flopper with views like an Etch-a-Sketch.

“Romney’s constant search for an identity that other people will believe is an inside view into what it’s like to pass,” said Dawkins. “It’s a very anxiety-driven process.”

In addition to charges that the former Massachusetts governor was trying to pass as a “severe conservative” during the primaries and as a moderate now, Romney faces questions of passing in regard to his wealth, his religion and his ethnicity — since his father was born in Mexico.

“Mitt Romney is a very interesting — and not very successful, I might add — passer,” Dawkins said.

Dawkins hopes her book will spark a larger conversation about the complexities of race and identity in this country.

“I want people to start larger conversations with others who they thought they didn’t have anything in common with,” she said. “At some point along the way, everyone has been a passer, so we all have some common ground.”