The topic of “passing” – or, the ability to be seen as a member of another identity group different than your own– is a rather difficult one to articulate. There are people who believe that passing is a luxury that negates all (or most) of the harmful effects of injustice and oppression, and then there are others – who are usually those able to pass – who believe that the misconception of passing-as-luxury creates more lived injustice. My view, as someone who passes very, very easily, is more in line with the latter. While passing certainly does grant some protections, it comes at a cost. First, we have to alienate ourselves from our minority identity in order to successfully pass, and second, we receive injustices from within our own group(s).
Passing occurs in many ways and forms that aren’t always apparent. Even the simple distinction between José and Joe on a resumé gives informal indication that the first applicant may be Chicano while the second is not – even if José submit both applications. Speech patterns can conceal elements of our identities as well and grant “passage” in the majority world. If Alyona speaks “like us” instead of “with an accent”, she can pass during phone interviews in ways she may not be able to during in-person interviews. Likewise, a text resumé can conceal sexuality, disability, and so on.
There is no doubt that passing and blending in with the majority offers privileges – in fact, these occurrences can actually help illuminate exactly just how prevalent and how powerful privilege is. They can also demonstrate how powerful and prevalent the violence towards minorities is; people who pass can hide when situations become too dangerous to be themselves, others can’t. This effect can be compounded if you fit into the majority in other ways (for example: I am male, so I am afforded even more passage than a female counterpart would with the same status).
However, this luxury can be a double edged-blade. Not only does it require active ignorance of one’s minority status in order to employ, but passers can draw the ire of those within our own groups who cannot pass. For instance, I present masculine and speak with a relatively “straight” voice, and as such I am less likely to be targeted than my more effeminate queer male friends. Presenting in such a way is a safety that allows me to pass, but it means I am considered an outsider to queer targeted abuse/assault/phobia – which is not the case. I am simultaneously a target as well as shut out of the discussion.
Passage and blending in can even cause harm to the individual themselves. In order to avoid stigmatisation, people with mental illness may hide, passing as the societal “normal”. But by doing so, these individuals necessarily neglect their own care and treatment in order to maintain the pass. Class passing also involves a necessary harm as the individual must spend what little resources they have on unnecessary or frivolous items in order to portray a higher social status than they can afford to maintain.
Next week I’ll be analysing “erasure”. The plan is to cover both outsider erasure (ex: whitewashing film) as well as insider erasure (ex: ‘gay-washing’ trans* media). A quick note before I go, next week may not be posted on a Thursday as I will be at an international conference and don’t know the internet set up. I will try to be on time, though I apologise in advance if it doesn’t go live until early Saturday.
As with last week, I’ve rustled up some articles should you wish to continue on this topic. As well, I can always be reached for further discussion at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(1) The trouble with ‘passing’ for another race/sexuality/religion… – Koa Beck
(2) Why I’ve Decided To Start Dressing More Femininely – John Paul Brammer
(3) Adjusting the Borders: Bisexual Passing and Queer Theory – Jessa Lingel
(4) Stanford historian re-examines practice of racial ‘passing’ – Nate Sloan
(5) What Is the Definition of Passing for White? – Nadra Kareem Nittle