The topic of “passing” has been a controversial one within the African-American community for generations. “Passing” is usually understood as an abbreviation for “racial passing” and describes the fact of being accepted, or representing oneself successfully as a member of a different group. In today’s multicultural and multifaceted world one would think that passing would not be a present day issue or discussion, yet racial identity is as much a part of the national dialogue as it has ever been.
According to award-winning author and Brown University Visiting Scholar Marcia Dawkins, everybody passes, not just racial minorities. In “Clearly Invisible: Racial Passing and the Color of Cultural Identity” (Baylor University, $29.99), Dawkins explains, passing has been occurring for millennia, since intercultural and interracial contact began.
And with this profound new study, she explores its old limits and new possibilities: from women passing as men and able-bodied persons passing as disabled to Black classics professors passing as Jewish and white supremacists passing as white.
“Clearly Invisible” journeys to sometimes uncomfortable but unfailingly enlightening places as Dawkins retells the contemporary expressions and historical experiences of individuals called passers. Along the way these passers become people — people whose stories sound familiar but take subtle turns to reveal racial and other tensions lurking beneath the surface, people who ultimately expose as much about our culture and society as they conceal about themselves.
Both an updated take on the history of passing and a practical account of passing’s effects on the rhetoric of multiracial identities, “Clearly Invisible” traces passing’s legal, political and literary manifestations, questioning whether passing can be a form of empowerment (even while implying secrecy) and suggesting that passing could be one of the first expressions of multiracial identity in the U.S. as it seeks its own social standing. “Passing forces us to think and rethink what exactly makes a person Black, white or ‘other,’ and why we care,” notes Dawkins.
Certain to be hailed as a pioneering work in the study of race and culture, “Clearly Invisible” offers powerful testimony to the fact that individual identities are never fully self-determined — and that race is far more a matter of sociology than of biology.