Passing For White


Anatole Broyard

Passing for white is where you get people to assume you are white even though you are not pure white.

Passing is a direct consequence of how race works in America. Because of the One Drop Ruleif you look part black African you are seen as “Black” by “Whites” and suffer all the racism that goes with that.

The government does not keep records about your race – it is not on your passport or even birth certificates any more – so it comes down to how you look - and, to a degree, how you talk and dress and act.

which-is-negro-which-is-whiteIn the old days to pass you had to move awayto some town where no one knew your family. Many were not willing to do that. These days, though, in big cities few people are ever going to meet your family, so it is much easier to pass, at least part of the time.

It was more important in the past when racism was worse, but it is still going on, some say at a rate of about 35,000 a year. Men seem to do it far more than women.

According to one study about one person in 500 who is born to Black parents looks white. If you are less than one-eighth black by blood you have a good chance of passing, but you can be as much as a fourth black and still pass. It all depends on how you look – and what likely story you can tell people who get curious about your background. Some say they are Sicilian, Arab or Native American.


Carly Simon

Some people are part Black and do not even know it because they have been lied to or kept in the dark about their family history.

From looking at the DNA of White Americans we can tell that the mixing and passing has been going on all along for 400 years and not just in the 1600s or the late 1900s when mixed-race marriages were allowed by law throughout the country.

In 2014, 4% of White Americans, nearly 8 million, were at least 1% Black. That means they had at least one black ancestor over the past 200 years.

The census also tells us that passing is going on: Comparing it against immigration records shows that Blacks are disappearing without dying or leaving the country while Whites are appearing without being born or entering the country. A 1958 study done along these lines showed that 21% of Whites were part Black.


  • Tragic Mulatto: those who pass who come to a bad end, common in American fiction before 1960.The most famous example is “The Imitation of Life”, a book twice made into a Hollywood film.
  • Voluntary Negro: what they used to call those who could pass for white but chose not to. Examples:
    • Homer Plessey of Plessey v Ferguson, 
    • Walter White of the NAACP.
    • Nella Larsen, author of “Passing” (1929), the story of a Tragic Mulatto.

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