IN THE YEARS preceding the 2016 presidential election, the “birther” movement that had dogged Barack Obama during his initial run for president raised its ugly head once again, revived by Donald Trump, a bombastic businessman/reality-show celebrity, and one of Obama’s most outspoken critics. Using the platform afforded to him as a rich and powerful white man, Trump made claims that Obama was not an American citizen, calling for him to prove otherwise by producing his birth certificate. This claim was made — and repeated often — despite the abundance of unassailable proof to the contrary.
Trump — and the rest of the “birther” movement — essentially accused President Obama of passing as an American citizen. According to Brando Skyhorse, co-editor of the new anthology We Wear the Mask: 15 True Stories of Passing in America, passing is the “knowing decision about hiding or omitting one’s background to obtain acceptance into a community.” Skyhorse knows whereof he speaks since he acknowledges engaging in the practice himself. The phenomenon of passing is neither new nor unique to the United States. Age-old fairy tales like “Cinderella” and “The Little Mermaid” depict young women who pass as something other than their true selves in order to meet their Prince Charmings. Despite our country’s founding documents declaring that “all men are created equal,” endowed with rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” entrenched inequalities and stigmas associated with race, class, and sexuality have helped contribute to a long history of passing in the United States: African Americans and other people of color passing as white, poor people passing as affluent, LGBTQ individuals passing as straight.
We Wear the Mask includes deeply personal stories of passing by 15 writers, reflecting how wide-ranging and prevalent passing is in the United States. The anthology takes its name from the title of a poem by African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, which alludes to the “mask” black Americans donned when interacting with whites during the Jim Crow era. The last stanza of Dunbar’s poem provides a glimpse of the hidden pain experienced by those who feel compelled to pass:
We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!
Generally speaking, marginalized individuals pass in the hope of availing themselves of the protections and benefits afforded to those with more privileged social identities. In the note that opens the anthology, Skyhorse and co-editor Lisa Page discuss the reasons why people pass and the role of social gatekeepers who help them do so:
Why do people pass? The reasons are manifold: opportunity, access, safety, adventure, agency, fear, trauma, shame. Some pass to advance themselves or their loved ones to what they perceive is a better quality of life. Others are passed on by gatekeepers, who see in the person they’re passing some kind of kinship, an element that says, “You’re like me. And now, you belong.”
Skyhorse and Page observe that the stories included in We Wear the Mask underscore the prevalence of passing and the fact that most of us have passed, to some degree or another, at some point in our lives. As they state:
People make assumptions about us based on stereotypes, context, environment. When we don’t correct these ideas, either because explaining the truth could humiliate, or infuriate, whoever’s making these assumptions, we “pass.” […] [E]ach of us sometimes employs misdirection to let someone jump to a different conclusion about who we are.
In his contribution to the volume, “The Inscrutable Alexander Fitten,” author and editor Marc Fitten writes about the unsettling effects of his Chinese-Jamaican great-grandfather’s efforts to obscure his Chinese heritage. Fitten poses a series of key “existential” questions related to passing:
1. If a person has the chance to invent a more privileged identity for himself and his descendants, should he take it?
2. Is it a moral obligation to pursue these advantages for himself and his family?
3. If a social system is unjust and puts a certain type of person at a disadvantage, if they choose to pass are they disrupting and weakening the status quo or buying into it?
4. Should descendants respect this decision and keep the secret hidden or do they have the right to uncover the truth and claim an identity back?
Discussions about passing tend to focus only on what is gained, but Fitten notes a vital element lost through passing: genetic history, which holds crucial clues that can influence medical diagnoses and treatments for one’s descendants. When Fitten’s two-year-old nephew is rushed to the hospital with mysterious and alarming symptoms, doctors arrive at a possible diagnosis — Kawasaki disease. Their diagnosis underscores the real-life significance of his family’s hidden cultural identity: Kawasaki disease is a condition to which Asians are especially prone.
In his essay on being mistaken as a server at the National Book Awards ceremony, Filipino-American poet Patrick Rosal bemoans the inadequacies that cause the marginalized to feel as if they are passing and not fully entitled to what they’ve rightfully earned. Rosal also calls out privileged social gatekeepers for making the perpetual “mistake” of assuming that “He’s-Got-to-Be-the-Help-Because-He’s-Brown.” Despite his successes, Rosal acknowledges his own insecurities attending a literary “high-class soiree” in his comparatively “inexpensive” suit.
The personal significance and perils of passing are powerfully highlighted by Gabrielle Bellot, a Caribbean writer who identifies as a binary transgender woman. As Bellot makes clear, passing can serve both as an aspiration and a danger to members of the transgender community, who face high rates of harassment and violence. Exploring her own perceptions of passing, Bellot remarks:
[I]t’s easy to forget where you belong in the star fields when you are confronted, day after day, with the fear that you may not pass as a cisgender woman. […] [T]he fear that lives in the vast shadow of the idea of passing […] is one of the most overwhelming I know, a fear that follows some of us down every well-lit hall. In the past I have avoided going to a doctor out of fear that I will not pass and that I will be ridiculed or denied service.
Bellot also points to limitations in the language of passing because it connotes “temporariness” and “trickery,” when the true aim is to be “recognized” for who one is.
Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s essay “On Historical Passing and Erasure” seems ripped straight from headlines about the recent deadly violence unleashed by white supremacists in Charlottesville. Shifting the focus from the individual to the collective, Perkins-Valdez examines the profusion of monuments to the Confederacy through the lens of what she calls “historical passing,” or the recasting of historical facts to suit an alternative version of history:
If we pass into an ahistorical space, we engage in a kind of social death as a nation. We seek to destroy our very fabric. […] Historical passing does not seek to erase all of American history. When one chooses to live outside these historical lines, the boundaries are never fairly drawn. Inevitably, we embrace certain histories and reject others.
Ultimately, as Perkins-Valdez points out, the key difference between individual passing and historical passing is the scale of the phenomenon.
Co-editor Skyhorse begins his own essay by stating simply, “I was seventeen when I had to choose who I was going to be for the rest of my life.” Years ago, Skyhorse’s Mexican mother had invented a Native American identity for herself and her son, after her partner, who was also Mexican, had abandoned them. For his mother, inhabiting a Native American identity was a way of going from “nothing” to “something.” Seventeen-year-old Skyhorse knowingly made the decision to pass as Native American in his college applications, reaping the preferential benefits given to such applicants, but several years later, he was overcome by guilt over his identity theft and sadness because of his detachment from his original identity. As he says, “No small gain occurs in passing without a more substantial accompanying loss. I gained a fake American Indian identity, but I lost my actual Mexican American self.” Skyhorse talks about his process of “reconciliation” with both the community he sought to pass into and the one with which he now seeks to reconnect.
Reading Skyhorse’s essay jogged my own childhood memory of being taken by my mother to a New York City casting audition when I was about six years old. I was an Indian-American girl from Queens hoping that my brown skin and long braids might land me a part in a Land O’Lakes Butter commercial. Thankfully, I didn’t even make it to an audition, but at the time it didn’t strike me as problematic that I was attempting to pass myself off as Native American, especially since my classmates regularly chased me around the playground making whooping sounds, causing me to roll my eyes and retort, “I’m not that type of Indian.”
More recently, as I transitioned to writing after working in social change for 15 years, I experienced what is called “imposter syndrome.” When I would attend literary events, I felt like an interloper, and when I introduced myself as a “writer,” I felt like I was wearing shoes three sizes too big, especially since I didn’t have an appropriate terminal degree like an MFA in creative writing or an MA in journalism. I had only the vision of the book I would write, along with a small handful of published pieces. At some point, however, I transitioned from passing as a writer to being a writer, and in retrospect, I might have been my own toughest gatekeeper.
The experiences of passing chronicled in We Wear the Mask offer a prism through which to understand the numerous ways we all pass in our personal and professional lives. Reading this anthology against the backdrop of the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that, in today’s United States, we are still deeply divided into those who are forever suspected of passing and those whose legitimacy is always presumed, those who are perpetually passed over and those who are assuredly given a pass.
Kavita Das worked in social change for 15 years on issues ranging from homelessness, to public health disparities, to racial justice, and now focuses on writing about culture, race, feminism, social change, and their intersections, and her first book, Poignant Song: The Life and Music of Lakshmi Shankar, a biography about the Grammy-nominated Hindustani singer who played a pivotal role in bringing Indian music to the West, is forthcoming from Harper Collins India (April 2018). Kavita can be found on Twitter @kavitamix