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New book explores legacy of passing

Caitlin Yohiko Kandil | 10/31/2012, 7:51 a.m.

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.