Passing and the Costs and Benefits of Appropriating Blackness

“Passing,” in American culture, is inseparable from notions of race and identity. The term metaphorically implies that a person of Black or African descent who crossed or passed through a racial line or boundary had trespassed to assume a new racial identity. The math of the action was simple: As these persons escaped the subordination and oppression accompanying their Black identity, they accessed the privileges and status of their newly created White identity.

However, these attempts at passing can come from a variety of rationales, motivated by range of perceived rewards. In this paper, the authors explore three examples–Rachel Dolezal, Dr. Clarence King, and Johnny Otis–that outline the nuance and individuality of these cases.