Paul R. Lehman, Americans Passing and Crossing for European American (white)

November 21, 2010 at 8:33 pm | Posted in American Bigotry, Ethnicity in America | 2 Comments
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When the European Americans created a privileged group of people called the white race, meaning themselves, they also created the phenomenon known as Passing. The concept of Passing is embodied in the term, a term used to identify non-European Americans who possess physical features of European Americans, and use them to assume a European American identity. During the late 1800’s and early 1900’s many Americans of varying ethnic groups engaged in this practice to gain as many advantages that being “white” offered. Today, thousands of Americans participate in this practice knowingly or unknowingly. Some of the ethnic groups singled out early on for exclusion from the white race included  but was not limited to the Irish, Greeks, Italians, Jews, and of course, Americans Indians, Hispanic Americans, and African Americans.

History records the experiences each of the above ethnic groups encountered at the hands of an Americans society that wanted to preserve its specialness and privileges for its group alone. Since the white race was the only normal race in America, it set the standards for everything, but especially, for physical appearance. Being white, in many instances meant living or dying, eating or starving, working or not working, having housing or no housing, and a plethora of other vital necessities. With so much importance attached to being white, little wonder that anyone who could pass safely, surly entertained the idea. American literature is replete with stories in a variety of genres that capture the experiences of non-European Americans facing the challenges and dangers of passing.

Some of the more famous works that contain an aspect of Passing include Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and  even Walter Mosley’s Little Scarlet to mention a very few. Movies such as Pinky, and Imitation of Life, to name a couple also treated Passing or as some refer to it, Crossing (the color line). Regardless of the medium, Passing and Crossing have been facts of American life since emphasis was placed on race. The limits to which people go to experience the privileges given to European Americans are too numerous to mention here, but suffice it to say they are serious and drastic in many cases.

Many of the ethnic groups mentioned earlier gained partial admittance, over a number of years, into the ‘white race.’ The word partial is important because in some sections of the country certain ethnic Americans regardless of their looks are still viewed as less-than-white.  In Louisiana, for example, some Creole people who could pass for white in New York, world not be accepted as such in Louisiana. Or in Oklahoma, some European Americans with American Indian heritage would not be accepted as white in Oklahoma, but would easily pass in other states. In Oklahoma, some European Americans who try to pass for American Indian must prove their heritage before they can use that heritage for commercial purposes.

Although most experiences of Passing/Crossing involve non-European Americans trying to pas as European Americans, a number of experiences show jus the opposite. Seemingly, when the possibility of financial gain is present, people will go to great lengths to qualify as whatever is needed to get their hands on money—even if it means going from European American to African American. A number of books on the subject are available, such as Crossing the Line, by Gayle Wald.

The quest to become European American (white) took a major turn in 1964 and after because the privileges and special treatment enjoyed by European Americans became available (to a point) to all Americans. The 1964, 1965 and 1968 Civil Rights Acts passed making all public accommodations, housing and jobs available to all Americans citizens. For certain the problems of bigotry, prejudice, and discrimination were still present and visible; the opportunities that were reserved for European Americans in the past were now becoming available to other ethnic Americans. No longer would non-European Americans have to worry about their naturally curly hair, or almost too brown complexion. With the door of opportunity open to all, there was not need to hide behind the mask of race.

Education has brought us to the knowledge of our human family and the fact that no superior race of human beings exist on planet Earth. A great American Civil Rights Activists once commented to the effect that we human beings can learn to lived together as friends or perish separately as fools. Unfortunately, many of our national leaders have not yet accepted that concept; they still try to play the idea of race as a factor in gaining support for their objectives. Once people realize that race was and is used as a ploy to play on human weaknesses of bigotry, fear and anger by people who know the art of political manipulation, they can began the growing process towards peace and joy. The actions of Passing and Crossing are as false and confining as believing in a white race and it biological superiority. Both stifle growth



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  1. What a horrible legacy of oppression cut so deeply a person would readily deny who they are and even worst seek comfort and safety in the likeness of their oppressor.

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