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"Passing", in sociology, is the state of living one's life as a member of another sociological group be it ethnic, racial, gender, class, or sexual. It's a complicated matter in real life, especially in racial issues, with many social pressures, such as economics, racism, and colorism, and the question of whether a person has to identify with a group they are only tangentially related to. For example, why does an "octoroon" (1/8 black, 7/8ths white) in a Reconstruction-era novel have to identify as black in order to be "true to herself?" It reflects many racial ideas still present, if less explicit these days, in Western society, notably the USA's pre-Civil Rights "One-Drop Rule", in which any hint of non-white blood makes a person non-white.

Likewise, there are huge social pressures keeping many gay people "in the closet," and many women have cross-dressed not because they are transgender or even transvestites, but because they want to do something they would only be allowed to do as a man.

Luckily, most modern fictional representations have simplified this complex state of being into An Aesop: "Don't try to be something you're not." Because you will fail, and miserably. And as bad as being discriminated against may be, it's still not as bad as having to be a traitor to your own identity.

The Reveal is usually a part of this (including Deathbed Confession). Rife with Unfortunate Implications. Compare In Another Man's Shoes and related tropes.

Examples of Pass Fail include:


Class

Literature

  • The Prince and the Pauper
  • Puddn'head Wilson
  • In Robert Graves's novel Claudius the God, the sequel to I, Claudius, a lawyer who has pled cases in front of Claudius and his predecessors for decades is unmasked as a slave by one of Claudius's friends, who pulls aside the lawyer's toga to expose his brand. When an American critic howled at the "unreality" of this, Graves pointed out that it had actually happened in real life.
  • Gatsby in The Great Gatsby
  • Richard Papen in The Secret History. Partially subverted in that only one of his rich friends is a jerk about it.

Theater

Gender And Sexual Orientation

Literature

  • Michelle Cliff's "No Telephone to Heaven" has the trans/genderqueer character Harry/Harriet (also known as H/H), who is biologically male but identifies as a blend of male and female. At the beginning of the novel, s/he has a totally masculine appearance but wears bikinis, puts on make-up, and occasionally dresses in the genderfuck style (for example with both a tuxedo and very campy make-up. This impish black Jamaican character passes for an African man to fool an American tourist, who really thinks he has just met "King Badnigga of Benin"). Towards the end of the novel, H/H starts living and presumably identifying as Harriet, a white nurse, which involves double 'passing'. H/H is very aware that even as 'she' is respected as a generous nurse, s/he could literally get lynched for being trans and for passing for white, but makes this choice because a black man couldn't become a nurse. This character plays a huge role in the development of the very confused main character Clare Savage, a white-looking middle-class mixed-race Jamaican woman who questions the racist standards of her formerly slave-owning family and might further be bisexual. His/her ability to transcend social boundaries and to fool racists and homophobes/transphobes is part of his/her attributes as a Trickster figure.

Live Action TV

  • Adam in Degrassi has some trouble coming across as a guy, particularly in his early appearances. Played with an element of Cringe Comedy. Booyah!

Video Games

Real Life

  • It wasn't until jazz musician Billy Tipton died that even his adopted sons learned that Dad was born Dorothy Lucille Tipton. He had been living as male for nearly 50 years (with only two female cousins and possibly a lover or two knowing his status as a trans man), including sexual relationships with women (at least one of whom was firmly convinced her partner was male).
  • This is the basis of a book called 'Self-Made Man : One Woman's Journey into Manhood and Back Again' by Norah Vincent. For about a year and a half, she masqueraded as a man among various groups of men (in a monastery, at a business, in a strip club, etc.) to see how their interactions varied from what she experienced as a woman.
  • "Passing" is a common term in the transgender and transsexual community, meaning just what you would think.
  • Gay actors of yesteryear were pretty much required to pass as straight. Rock Hudson is one of the more famous examples.

Webcomics

  • A short-term and more light-hearted example occurred in Ozy and Millie, when the two titular characters decide to 'switch genders' for a day, to find out how differently members of the other gender are treated. Nobody sees through the Paper-Thin Disguise, and both of them come away from it with a greater insight into the opposite sex.

Race and Ethnicity

Comic Books

  • The graphic novel Incognegro is a period-piece about a light-skinned reporter who passes for white in order to write about racial hate crimes in the South.
  • Sally Juspeczyk in Watchmen covered up her Polish ancestry for the sake of her career, renaming herself Sally Jupiter, and firmly denies it when she is sort-of confronted about it. Her daughter Laurie has no such hang-ups and uses her mother's original surname.
  • The concept of passing overlaps heavily with Fantastic Racism in the second volume of Blacksad.

Film

  • "The Human Stain." The Movie of the book had an African-American character played by Anthony Hopkins.
  • Slow Burn; a white DA has been braiding her hair and passing for mixed in order to foster support in her African-American constituency.
  • Imitation of Life follows Sarah Jane, a mixed-race girl who can quite easily pass for white, trying her best to deny her mother and her previous life altogether. It doesn't end well. Her white boyfriend beats her senseless when he finds out, and she gets fired from her job as a cabaret dancer when her mother comes looking for her.

Literature

  • Nella Larsen's 1929 novel Passing is entirely about examining this phenomenon- it contains three "black" women, one who has basically switched to a white identity by continuously passing, one that can pass, but doesn't,and one who passes occasionally out of convenience. It does not work out well for the first two in the end.
  • "Black Like Me" is an example of short term passing, and a rare example of a white man passing as a black man.
    • Parodied on Saturday Night Live with "White Like Me" http://www.hulu.com/watch/10356/saturday-night-live-white-like-me, where Eddie Murphy is given makeup to pass him as a white man. He "finds out" white people get freaky when there are no minorities around.
    • 'Black Like Me' could actually count as a Real Life example, since the book is nonfiction. The author John Howard Griffin actually artificially darkened his skin under the care of a doctor and journeyed through the American South to get a first-person perspective on what it was like to be black.
  • Fannie Hurst"s novel "Imitation of Life" is an interesting case, as it was adapted into a movie in both the US and Mexico, showing the differences in views of passing in both nations.
  • Gustave de Beaumont's novel "Marie; ou, L'Esclavage aux États-Unis" ("Marie, or Slavery in the United States"), published in 1835, is the first known novel featuring Black-White racial passing.

 Narrator: "Public opinion, ordinarily so indulgent to fortune-seekers who conceal their names and previous lives, is pitiless in its search for proofs of African descent.... There is but one crime, of which the guilty bear everywhere the penalty and the infamy; it is that of belonging to a family reputed to be of color."Though the color may be effaced, the stigma remains."

  • In a rare reversal this trope, the titular character of The Sheik is a European pretending to be an Arab. He mostly gets away with it, too; the only way the female protagonist finds out he's not is because his best friend, a Frenchman, gives him away.
  • "Clotel; or, The President's Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States" by William Wells Brown features Thomas Jefferson"s slave daughter escaping captivity. Yeah.
    • Same thing happens at the end of Ann Rinaldi's Wolf By the Ears, as mixed-race Harriet opts to leave Monticello and pass for white.
  • The Garies and Their Friends (1857) by Frank J. Webb.
  • Mark Twain's Puddin' Head Wilson played with this, with the son of a wealthy family in fact being the child of one of the slaves Switched At Birth, and was sold into slavery immediately after his true heritage was discovered.
    • Although this is an example of the "one-drop" rule described above. Tom Driscoll, the son of a slave, who is black according to antebellum society and is only "passing" for white actually has only one black great-great-great-grandparent (he is 1/32 black).
  • A racial Pass Fail is the Dark Secret in the Sherlock Holmes story "The Yellow Face". Effie Munro, married into white British middle-class society, was previously married to a black man in the United States, and has a daughter who is darker than he was. (Scientific footnote: this usually only happens when both parents are mixed-race, and being a "passer" herself would explain some of the curious inconsistencies in her backstory. If either Holmes or Watson caught on, they kept quiet about it.) Fortunately, Grant Munro is big-hearted enough to accept the little girl.
  • This is part of the backstory of the Fannie Flagg novel Welcome To the World, Baby Girl! The (blonde, blue-eyed) protagonist's mother turned out to be of mixed race - the daughter of a German woman and a very light-skinned African American man who had moved to Europe to escape from the racial discrimination of the United States, but had been forced to move back with the rise of Hitler. She could, physically, pass for white without trying, but had spent her adult life in terror of being "outed" by someone who knew about her background - which was the reason for her secretive and evasive behavior during the protagonist's childhood.
  • Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! gets mixed up with this trope and Tragic Mulatto as more of the back story about the back story coming out comes out. Although it being Faulkner, a lot of the point is just impressing upon the reader what a total Jerkass the lead really is.
  • In Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, George Peavey has twin sons, Jasper, the light-skinned one, and Artis, the the dark one. Jasper later joins a club in Birmingham whose members are so light their pictures have made it into the paper as those of a white organization. There's a chapter where his daughter goes shopping in a department store, pretending she's white, when her uncle Artis runs into her. She reacts in such a way, though she knows who he is, that the store staff believes he's harassing her.
  • Kate Chopin's story Désirée's Baby is a particularly brutal twist on the trope. The bigoted Armand kicks out his wife Desirée for having a dark-skinned baby, which supposedly proves that she's not completely white. It's revealed at the end that he's the one with mixed ancestry, although it's left up to interpretation whether or not he's aware of this.
  • One of the main themes of Caucasia. Birdie and Cole Lee are both half-black-half-white and at different times must attempt to pass for one or the other to fit in or blend into the surroundings. Cole has darker skin and kinky hair, so she has difficulty passing as anything but black, but Cole uses speech, mannerisms and even modifications to the way she looks to try to pass as either.
  • A subplot in The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, concerns a mixed-race girl who was given up for adoption by her mother because she looked white, and in 1950's Mississippi the social pressure on the mother was too much. The girl later returns to her birth mother in Jackson, where she deliberately passes for white at a Daughters of the American Revolution meeting, then lets everyone there know that she is, in fact, black (and indeed, a member of the Black Panthers). It does not end well.
  • A weird version of this occurs in Hari Kunzru's The Impressionist. Pran Nath Razdan is the product of his Indian mother's one night stand with a British man, but his family passed him off as the son of his mother's husband, a wealthy and educated Indian man. When the man dies, Pran Nath is thrown out on the street and spends some time desperately trying to reintegrate himself into Indian society. Failing at this, he eventually makes his way to England, where he successfully passes as 100% white and British. When, some time later, he tries to reveal his true heritage, he is not believed.
  • In Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire, Madame Maxime is half-giant, but is trying to pass as "big-boned". You can't really blame her, considering how much Fantastic Racism ensued after Hagrid was outed as a half-giant. Also, pure-blood wizards are rarer than the bad side likes to think they are, and it's suggested in Half Blood Prince that most Death Eaters are probably half-bloods passing as pure-bloods. When Voldemort takes over the Ministry of Magic and passes the Nuremberg Laws against Muggle-borns in Deathly Hallows, Ron suggests that his family could protect Hermione by swearing that she was their cousin. Of course, as Hermione points out, it's a non-issue since they're on the lam anyway.

Live Action TV

  • One episode of Law and Order has a black guy who spent his whole adult life passing for white. He's only found out after his second wife was killed when they considered taking back their darker-skinned baby they had given up for adoption. His first wife killed the second in order to maintain the illusion of an all-white family for her son, who was attending a very upper-class-white school with subtle social discrimination against non-whites. Or, so she said, until it was revealed that she'd never wanted to take custody of their son in the divorce, had to be bribed to do it, and she was really just a big ol' racist.
    • The best part of that show was toward the beginning, when the detectives are operating under the belief that the "white" man killed his wife because she gave birth to a black infant. After they find evidence that he has been passing, the white detectives can't get him to admit it. Lt. Van Buren shoos them out of the interrogation room, closes the door, gives the man a knowing look, and sarcastically congratulates him on passing, asking what white people are like among themselves. Feeling guilty, he finally admits to having passed as white for years in order to climb the corporate ladder, something that would have been much harder to do had he lived as a black man since he joined before the Civil Rights era, and by the time he became an executive he'd been passing as white for so long that he didn't want to reveal the truth,. The irony is that when the police question the suspect's superiors at work, they say that had they been aware that he was African American, they probably would have promoted him to the Board of Directors as their Token Minority.
  • The Angel episode Are You Now, or Have You Ever Been involved a half-black woman who was fired from her job at a bank in the 50s when it was learned she had been passing as white. The earlier episosde Hero also has a demonblooded youth sneer to Doyle that Doyle's life must have been a cakewalk compared to his own, as Doyle, while also part-demon, is "passing" (i.e., looks human, unlike the boy).
  • An episode of Cold Case dealt with the murder of a pale-skinned Negro who had been passing as a white in the 1950s.
    • Another episode had an aversion with a black female victim from the early 1930's or so, whose secret white lover tried in vain to get her to pass for white so they could run away together. The actress was clearly black but camera effects lightened her complexion.
    • "Colors" featured an African American baseball player (the victim) and his passing-as-white girlfriend.
  • The George Lopez Show had a variant: George's biological sister (who's Hispanic) was adopted by an Italian family and thus grew up unintentionally passing until she discovered her biological family.
  • On Sons of Anarchy, it has transpired that Juice's father is actually African-American, and he has been passing as Hispanic. In the show, as in real life, Hispanics and Asians are allowed in white motorcycle clubs, African-Americans are not.

Music

  • The 1901 hit song "Coon! Coon! Coon!", featured in part on the quotes page.

Theater

  • Played with in Show Boat. Steve is white, and his wife Julie is mixed-race, passing for white--their marriage was a crime in the South at the time. When someone tips the local sheriff off and he comes to arrest them, Steve quickly cuts Julie's hand and swallows her blood; when the sheriff arrives, he asks, "You wouldn't call a man a white man that's got Negro blood in him, would you?" He swears to having that blood in him (and thus, he pretends to be passing for white); the two are able to leave the boat, and the South, in peace.

Real Life / Truth In Television

  • 19th Century literary trope of the Tragic Mulatto, in which a beautiful woman in good standing in her community has her reputation and often life destroyed when it is revealed that one of her distant ancestors was in fact a slave owned by her household, makes this Older Than Radio. Such an idea seems horrific to the modern eye, but as a wise man once said, if your friends are going to abandon you to die in a poorhouse after finding out that you're one-sixteenth Black, they probably weren't your friends in the first place.
    • Subverted in the same way but with inverted genders in the film "Angelitos Negros". The happy ending has the wife realizing after discovering that her biological mother was her black nanny that she has been a complete jerk to her family and that race is utterly meaningless. The family reunites.
    • The Brazilian Soap Opera Escrava Isaura (Isaura The Slave) has a twist on the titular character tragedy: it isn't her racial background that's the problem, because she can pass for white with no problem (partly for her looks, partly because her original owners gave her a polished education), and most of the people she loves and befriends already know or don't care when they learn about it; it's that she is still legally owned by her most obssessed admirer and he doesn't want to give her up so easily. If he has to use the Race Card to discredit her and make her go back to him, he will do it.
    • Charles Chesnutt's The House Behind the Cedars: the light-skinned son and daughter of a former slave move to another town and pass for white. The daughter becomes engaged to a white man, and she starts to have doubts about deceiving him, so she points to a black servant and asks her fiance if he would still love her if she were that woman. He misunderstands it as her asking if he would still love her if she were a poor servant, and says he would. Then he finds out later that her mother is a black woman, and tragedy ensues for everyone.
  • The North used this trope during the Civil War to drum up support for their side among the British and other Europeans. They distributed flyers with the pictures of beautiful blonde, blue-eyed little girls who were slaves in the South solely because they were one-sixteenth or one-thirty-second black, and pointed out that if the South won, those girls would end up having to service their masters in the same way that black women did. The Values Dissonance in this campaign ("if the South wins these pretty white girls are going to be sexually abused!") means that not many modern people have heard of it.
  • Abolitionists held mock "fancy girl" slave auctions in the North at universities to titillate, then outrage white Northerners. "Fancy girls" were attractive slave women, usually mixed race, who were sold at slave auctions in New Orleans as sex slaves. The abolitionists would auction lighter and lighter women, displaying their bodies like cattle, until, to the horror of the white crowd, they finally started auctioning off blond haired, blue eyed women who in the South would legally be considered black.
  • There was a pamphlet abolitionists were circulating in Great Britain about a Scottish man traveling through the American South who had encountered a house slave he perceived as white. What the Scottish traveler found exceptionally alarming was that the slave had red hair and a Scottish accent. When the Scot brought the matter up, the slave's master grew indignant, and insisted the slave's hair was slightly wooly, and his nose slightly full, which proved he was black. The Scot saw none of this, and thought the slave owner was reaching, but the slave owner told the Scot not to feel ashamed, that he hadn't lived around blacks long enough, so his untrained eye was easily fooled. It turned out the slave had been born free and believed himself white, up until slave hunters had shown up one day to recapture his grandmother. The man's grandmother was a runaway slave who had passed as white, and married a Scottish immigrant. The grandmother, her children, and her grandchildren were all reclaimed as lost property and enslaved. The slave's white relatives were still trying to buy their freedom back before they could be split up and sold off to different owners. Whether the pamphlet's story is true or not is anyone's guess.
  • Actress Merle Oberon hid her mixed race parentage, and birth in Mumbai India, throughout her entire career, claiming to have been born in Tasmania Australia. That her claimed early life was a total fabrication didn't become known until after her death, and her actual parentage is still somewhat in doubt.
  • Subverted in real life by Homer Adolph Plessy, who as an octoroon, was able to pass easily as a white man, when buying a "white" ticket on a segregated train. When he was asked for his ticket, he outed himself as a black man in order to challenge segregation, which led to his arrest and eventually, the infamous "separate, but equal" ruling of Plessy v Ferguson.
  • Relics of this are still in law. Native-American religious rituals using controlled hallucinogens can only be legally participated in if the person can prove a certain level of blood membership to the right tribes, essentially making it illegal to convert to those religions. A man who is 1/16 the right bloodline could do so, but his wife who wasn't, and any children they had, could not.
  • 19th-century Finnish orientalist and explorer Georg August Wallin spent years traveling in the middle east while disguising himself as an Arab Muslim, including a pilgrimage to Mecca. He was in several situations where having his true origins revealed would have meant certain death.
    • T. E. Lawrence also visited Mecca in Arab guise.
    • Important note: Mecca is of course the holiest place in Islam, and non-Muslims are forbidden from entering. The punishment for getting around the ban has varied based upon the dynasty that happened to rule at the time, from "get out and never come back again" to (if the ruler was feeling particularly fanatical/vindictive/bad) death.
  • Shows up in Australia: laws introduced to improve the lot of people living in rural Aboriginal communities give an unfair advantage to other people with as little as 1/8 Aboriginal blood. Combined with the fact that the genes Aboriginals have for dark skin and the like are mostly recessive, most people who take advantage of these laws appear white.
    • Australian history, especially that of the stolen generation, has made discussions about mixed race and exact categorization of aboriginals into a taboo topic amongst people with any sense. Suffice to say that in many cases, even aboriginals who could pass for white have still suffered as a result of racist politics- in fact, there are people alive today who were taken from their families by the government specifically because they could pass. It's considered incredibly offensive to challenge someone who identifies as aboriginal Australian, even (especially) if they look white.
  • Half of the cases in this Cracked.com article about undercover operations.

Tabletop Games

  • In the Eberron campaign setting of Dungeons and Dragons, some members of the Changeling race of shapeshifting humanoids create for themselves as members of other humanoid races to avoid the distrust other humanoids have for their kind; these individuals are known among Changelings as "passers". (This is in contrast to "becomers", who maintain multiple identities or simply create, steal, and abandon identities whenever they find it convenient or amusing, and "truthseekers", who live openly as changelings and only rarely use their shapeshifting abilities.)

Western Animation

  • On Futurama, Leela grew up thinking she was a one-eyed alien abandoned as a baby on Earth. She later discovers that she is a relatively normal-looking mutant; because mutants aren't given legal rights, while aliens are, her parents left her at an Orphanarium so that she could grow up without having to suffer like they did. (It might sound ridiculous, but it was actually rather touching when they were reunited.)
  • On Young Justice, Megan passes as a Green Martian when she is really a White Martian.

Anime

  • Kallen Stadtfeld / Kallen Kozuki of Code Geass is a half-Britannian / half-Japanese Terrorist and Student. She was able to pass as a Britannian student by day, and joined her brother's resistance cell by night. She preferred to think of herself as Japanese rather than as a Britannian or a "half-breed". Despite finding out that she's a half-breed, her Britannian friends don't lose any respect for her at all, and try to petition their very well connected friend to have her pardoned for her terrorism. In fact, the show, despite having overcoming racial supremacy and segregation as a main theme, has surprisingly little incidence of named people actually caring about race, to the point where the President of Japan at the end of the series is married to a black, Britannian woman, despite years of ruthless oppression and cruelty. It would have been touching if anyone had actually remembered that used to be a theme, or that it made any sense.
    • Apparently, it was intentional that the main protagonist and his foil were designed in such a way that they could conceivably pass for the opposite race, whom they were fighting for.

Other

Comic Books

  • In various iterations of Shazam, Captain Marvel uses his adult superhero form to conceal the fact that he is actually a child. Other heroes are naturally reluctant to let a ten-year-old fight super-powered murderers.

Fan Fiction

  • In this Watchmen fanfic, Adrian Veidt has been dyeing his hair for most of his life, and with good reason. His mother's husband was a blond, blue-eyed German in 1939 Berlin, but Adrian takes after his mother's Jewish lover in looks.

Literature

  • In a Real Life incident described in Charles and Emma, the young Charles Darwin passed as a devout Unitarian, and his father urged to him to do so even with his fiancée/wife. He eventually decided to out himself to her, and eventually, of course, to the rest of the world.

Live Action TV

  • One episode of Law and Order Special Victims Unit featured an autistic guy who somehow managed to convince everybody (including his own mother!) that he was neurotypical.
  • An episode of Just Shoot Me inverted the SVU example above, with Elliot's brother having spent years posing as mentally retarded due to a head injury as a child to get out of having to support himself. He's outed only after Jack's foolishness causes a Rant-Inducing Slight.
  • Also inverted in an episode of The Mentalist.

Webcomics

Real Life

  • Recently, a young autistic man managed to fool people into believing not only that he was neurotypical, but that he was a rich, young executive planning to buy their company. Apparently due to his autism he didn't have any of the physical signatures associated with lying.
    • Autistic people in general try to pass for normal as much as possible if they can, which often means they are reluctant to get assistance with the things they have difficulty with.
    • Also, since autism is a spectrum, many people on the spectrum appear neurotypical during casual social interaction, without any intentional deception being required.
  • Franklin D Roosevelt. Many people knew that he couldn't walk, particularly the press and White House staff, but publicly he worked hard to conceal his disability. For example, he had a customized car made that he could drive with his hands[1]. He painted his leg braces black and nearly all of his photos show him either sitting in a regular chair or leaning on somebody or something. (There is only one photo of him in his wheelchair.) In films that show him "walking", he's always surrounded by people so he could hide the fact that he was using them for support.
  • True Life examined people who were trying to avoid this for various reasons. One person highlighted was a transgender woman who passed so well nobody knew (because for all intents and purposes she had lived as a woman since she was a child), and had to tell her boyfriend. There was some humor, when she was in a club and a man was dancing with her and she became...aroused. Another person profiled was a biracial (black and white) girl passing...as Nicaraguan. She was too dark to pass for white, so she went for Latina instead. This caused problems when her friend set her up on a date with an actual Nicaraguan.

Notes

  1. This before power steering, power brakes and automatic transmissions, so it was far from the relatively simple one-lever-for-gas-and-brake affair seen today and required a great deal of strength to operate.
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