Racecraft: Stories of Racial Passing

Racial passing shows that “race” is both socially constructed and, as experienced, extremely meaningful.

Racecraft: Stories of Racial Passing

THE VERY NOTION of racial “passing” implies a test. Those who believed clear racial categorization was possible might test for race by measuring physical traits to indicate “blood purity”: slight physical traits that could be identified, such as the half-moon of a nail bed or the whites of ones eyes. In apartheid South Africa, the “pencil test” was devised: categorizing people based on whether a pencil would remain or fall from their hair. Physical markers were used to fix and control whole futures.

“White people were so stupid about such things,” says Irene, the narrator of Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929). “They usually asserted that they were able to tell; and by the most ridiculous means, finger-nails, palms of hands, shapes of ears, teeth.”

To pass the faulty test of white scrutiny is not difficult; Larsen’s Passing, and other 18th to 20th century fiction and 20th century film, work to demonstrate that categorization by race relies on arbitrary rules and unsound logic — proving, in other words, the falsely naturalized or socially constructed nature of “race” itself. As Stanford historian Allyson Hobbs reminds us in her recent cultural history A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life, the gains and losses of racial passing — when someone from one racial group “passes,” or is accepted, as another — were historically contingent, like “race” itself. Indeed, one’s semblance could rarely be taken as trustworthy evidence. “Skin color and physical appearance were usually the least reliable factors,” writes Hobbs, “whereas one’s associations and relationships were more predictive” of who was deemed white and who was not. If white people can’t actually tell who is white and who isn’t, whiteness is exposed as simply the external perception of being white — the privilege, power, and civic membership afforded to someone recognized as such. This is white supremacy in practice.

Michael Yudell’s Race Unmasked examines the history of the concept of biological race — in large part tied to the history of genetics, which “at its founding was inseparable from eugenics theories” — in order to show that race is “neither a static biological certainty nor a reflection of our genes. Instead, race is a historical and cultural phenomenon.” We’ve known this, of course. But Yudell’s recent book provides scientific documentation of the process of “racecraft,” a term coined by Karen Fields and Barbara Fields in their 2012 book by the same name: the “mental terrain” where our deep and pervasive belief in race as meaningful is conjured, then ritualized into reality. “Race” comes to explain social effects like poverty, as witchcraft might explain failing crops. What’s real is not “race,” but the ideology of racism: the belief in “race” as a tool with which to rationalize cause and consequence.

In this way, while both fictive and biographical representations of passing demonstrate the absurdity of “race,” they also emphasize the very real effects of racial categorization. From the point of view of those passing, Hobbs writes,

race was neither strictly a social construction nor a biological fact. The line between black and white was by no means imaginary; crossing it had profound, life-changing consequences. Race was quite real to those who lived with it, not because of skin color or essentialist notions about biology, but because it was social and experiential, because it involved one’s closest relationships and one’s most intimate communities.

Passing, in other words, demonstrates how “race” is both socially constructed and, as experienced, extremely meaningful.

Hobbs focuses on the experience of great loss in her cultural history of passing. As she points out, “Historians and literary scholars have paid far more attention to what was gained by passing as white than to what was lost by rejecting a black racial identity.” But “racial passing is an exile, sometimes chosen, sometimes not.”


Jess Row updates the idea of passing and further complicates it in his first novel, Your Face in Mine, imbuing the concept with new possibilities of choice and identity. The novel’s premise reverses the American emphasis on passing as white, when Martin Lipkin becomes the first white American to undergo “racial reassignment surgery,” and to reemerge as the black man Martin Wilkinson. Unlike in John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me (1961), Martin’s transformation is not for the purpose of exposing racism or inequality; it’s a voyage toward the self. Set in the early 21st century, Your Face in Mine is a meditation on identity and choice in the context of globalization.

Within the first couple of pages, Kelly, the ambivalent narrator and protagonist of Your Face, runs into his old friend Martin in a grocery store parking lot in Baltimore, where the novel is primarily set. He recognizes this black man as familiar but can’t quite place him, of course, because the Martin he knew in high school was white and Jewish, the third member of the punk band L’Arc-en-Ciel, in which Kelly played with his best friend Alan, now deceased.

Martin reveals himself as the friend Kelly hasn’t seen in decades, to Kelly’s incredulity, and yet, immediate acceptance. “We cross the parking lot together,” narrates a stunned yet calm Kelly, “Martin, the black man who used to be Martin, ducked slightly behind my right shoulder, flickering in and out of my peripheral vision.” As they browse the aisles of the Asian grocery, we learn, through the selection of ingredients familiar to him, that Kelly’s late wife Wendy was Chinese, and that she and their daughter Meimei died in a car accident a year and a half ago. We also discover that Kelly and Martin’s meeting wasn’t mere coincidence — Martin has been looking for Kelly.

From here, Kelly pulls us along with him as he discovers, bit by bit, the secret world of racial reassignment surgery (RRS) — which involves cosmetic surgery, speech therapy, and “melanogenic process[es],” all described in pseudoscientific detail. The many acronyms seamlessly blend the world of science and the world of globalized business, consumer advertising, and lifestyle marketing. There’s your “real life transitioning plan” (RLTP) and “real life experience” (RLE) as well as “permanent skin alteration” (PSA) and “visual identity transition” (VIT). The novel’s constant barrage of references — from Du Bois to Lacan, The Wire to Song Dynasty poetry, Plato to A Tribe Called Quest to Marx, Spike Lee to NPR to Greek mythology to Marcus Garvey to Law & Order — mimics the intermixing of culture and ideas in a globalized information era. At times, the novel’s density of reference can completely overwhelm, and sometimes it feels as if the narrator has something to prove.

Martin wants Kelly to be the journalist who will reveal the existence of racial reassignment surgery to the world. Kelly accepts this job with hesitation, eventually traveling to Bangkok with Martin to meet Dr. Silpa — the only person performing RRS in the world, formerly having specialized in sexual reassignment surgery.

It turns out that his aspiration to make RRS known to the public is not the pure motive of Martin’s recruitment of Kelly. For Martin plans to develop RRS as a global enterprise, HUE, Inc., “on the leading edge of the most exciting health and lifestyle technology of the twenty-first century.” Furthermore, Martin isn’t the only person to have undergone the procedure — there is also Tariko, the charming Japanese-turned-black Rastafarian, and Julie-nah, a Korean-to-WASPy academic who has serious reservations about her transformation that run directly counter to Martin’s utopian businessman’s view of racial reassignment.


Stories of passing have been with us for a long time, and many of them focus on the choice or intention of the one who is passing. In The Octoroon, a highly popular play by Dion Boucicault first produced in 1859 in New York, the title character doesn’t choose to pass, but she is thought to be white by someone coming from outside the world of anti-miscegenation law, someone who doesn’t understand the local social code. The play tells the story of Zoe, the mixed-race daughter of a Southern judge and plantation owner. After her father’s death, his wife raises Zoe as her own daughter. That Zoe’s mother was the enslaved black mistress of the late Judge Peyton is implied but never mentioned. Everyone on Terrebonne plantation knows that Zoe is an “octoroon” — having one-eighth black ancestry — but they treat her as the daughter of the house, and her dual status basically goes unmentioned.

That changes when George, Judge Peyton’s nephew, who was educated in Paris and has only just returned to Louisiana, falls in love with Zoe. She hasn’t been passing exactly, but George doesn’t know the full truth. Zoe tells him their love can never be: “The one black drop gives me despair, for I’m an unclean thing — forbidden by the laws — I am an Octoroon!” It turns out that she is also a slave, for though the judge had signed her free papers before dying, the debt on his estate makes them invalid. In a sensational scene at the center of the play, an evil overseer buys her at auction.

As you can probably imagine, it doesn’t end well for anyone — though in the English revised ending, created to appease unhappy audiences in a country that had already abolished slavery, the couple is reunited. In the American version, though, Zoe commits suicide, in order to “free” George for a future in which she cannot participate.

Like The Octoroon, both Sirk’s Imitation of Life (1959, a remake of the 1934 original) and Kazan’s Pinky (1949) feature a female subject who passes. In both films, as in Larsen’s Passing, a white male romantic interest is central to her impetus to pass; another trope common to passing narratives with a female subject involves her fear that an unborn child will reveal her true identity. Indeed, these films, like The Octoroon, focus on parentage and biological inheritance. In both Sirk’s Imitiation and Pinky, a phenotypically (and culturally-signifying) black female caretaker is present — in the former a mother, in the latter a grandmother — and in both cases, the relationship between the subject who passes and her matriarch is fraught. Both Sarah Jane (of Sirk’s Imitation, played by Susan Kohner, of Mexican and Austria-Hungarian parents) and Pinky (played by the Irish-American Jeanne Crain) struggle to navigate the moral implications of their passing, which, in both cases — again, as in Zoe’s case — begins not with the subjects’ intention to pass, but with judgment from the outside.

Their stories are different, but the message of both is clear: by not correcting external perception, Sarah Jane and Pinky are guiltily implicated in their passing. Both films champion pride of origins to the point of seeming to essentialize identity as immutable. Passing is amoral deception. As Pinky’s grandmother tells her, “Nobody deserves respect as long as she pretends to be something she isn’t.” After being mistaken for white, Sarah Jane aspires to inhabit the white world, finally breaking ties completely with her mother, and woefully penitent when her mother dies at the film’s end.

While the material benefits of passing are acknowledged in each film to varying degrees, what’s emphasized instead are the ties to family and community that are taken to correspond to an essential self. Indeed, loss plays prominently in both films: the loss of the life and sense of self before passing of which Hobbs speaks, and most powerfully, the potential loss of the child by the matriarch. And yet that loss — in both of these so-called “message movies” — is overshadowed by the urge to moralize passing, treating the decision to abandon one’s origins as a betrayal of one’s true self.

Unlike Sarah Jane, Pinky triumphs in the end — and avoids becoming the tragic mulatto — by claiming her blackness and working to uplift the race. “You can’t live without pride,” Pinky tells us at the film’s close, and we’re to feel she’s made the right decision to leave her white fiancée and establish “Miss Em’s Clinic,” a nursing school for young women of color. Earlier, Pinky’s anger at the racism that affects her grandmother has been poo-pooed by her matriarch as unseemly. Life is unfair, but be proud of who you are and where you come from, because only thus can you live free, with dignity (never mind structural racism).

In Larsen’s Passing, Clare misses the black community within which she was raised. After reconnecting with her childhood friend and our narrator, Irene, Clare risks her marriage to a white racist in order to visit the black world of Harlem where Irene lives. Irene’s choice not to pass, though she too could have, is emphasized in contrast to Clare’s fate. For Clare, like Zoe, is a tragic figure — modernized and made somewhat sociopathic.

But this story line is specifically written about women. For men, the story is told differently. In the film Lost Boundaries (1949), also clearly a “message movie” about integration anxiety, Dr. Carter (played by the Cuban-Irish-American Mel Ferrer) decides to pass in order to make a better life for his family. Thus passing is his deliberate choice, however reluctant he may be. Based on the true story of the Johnstons, Dr. Carter’s saga turns when he must tell his teenage children. His son, Howard, especially grapples with what his father’s revelation means, and he runs away to Harlem and ends up in jail, where a black policeman asks him to reconsider his father’s difficult choice. The film ends with the family happily reunited, and their acceptance by the white community valorized.

The recent graphic novel Incognegro (2008) tells the story of Zane Pinchback, who passes as white in order to investigate deep-south lynchings undercover, as Walter White, chief executive of the NAACP, actually did. In Philip Roth’s The Human Stain (2000), Nathan Zuckerman slowly discovers that his neighbor, Coleman Silk, formerly a professor and dean of faculties but fired for accusations of racism by two black students, is a black man passing as Jewish; we’re told Silk chose “to take the future into his own hands rather than to leave it to an unenlightened society to determine his fate.” Of course, Black Like Me (1961) precedes Your Face as a story of reverse-passing. Hitchhiking and riding for six weeks on a Greyhound bus through the South, John Howard Griffin made explicit his aim to reveal the role that social perceptions played in the attribution of race hatred.

Even in James Weldon Johnson’s novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, choice is emphasized. The narrator decides to pass after witnessing a lynching, which clarifies for him the “cheapness of black life” in racist society, and his associated shame. “I finally made up my mind that I would neither disclaim the black race nor claim the white race; but that I would change my name, raise a mustache, and let the world take me for what it would,” he says, recasting his active decision as passively dependent on the whims of external perception — which of course passing necessarily always was. But he chooses to adopt white-signifying name and dress. Of the complicated bargain he’s made, the Ex-Colored Man famously focuses on his loss, declaring, with Biblical resonance, “I have sold my birthright for a mess of pottage.”

The male subject has less currency as a tragic victim because our culture grants him the agency to work with what he is so as to transform himself as best he can. Johnson’s narrator is a tragic character, but not a tragic victim in the way that Zoe, or Clare, or Sarah Jane is; his decision to pass is understood differently. A man does not simply accept his fate passively — he does what he must. Of course this is not to say the experiences of actual men passing were more liberated or less remorseful than their female counterparts. But the trope of the tragic mulatto — a central narrative conception of “passing,” and, therefore, of our understanding of the simultaneous absurdity and reality of “race” — relies on the tragic, and scrutinized, position of passing passively, and being morally entangled within the hesitation to correct the perception of others.

In Your Face in Mine, Martin’s story illustrates the agency of a male, white subject — and his ability to choose what and who to be. Martin seems to feel only gains, not losses, for he has acquired a brilliant, beautiful wife and children (adopted; RRS is cosmetic, not genetic) and he contemplates future riches from HUE, Inc. But beyond the awe- and terror-inspiring machinations of Martin’s business mind (parallel, disappointingly, to a lack of insight into his emotional complexity as a character) we are made to wonder, by the end of the novel, whether other racial reassignment — particularly Kelly’s potential transformation — could work as well and for whom.


“And I suggest this,” said James Baldwin, in the epigraph to Your Face in Mine, “that in order to learn your name, you are going to have to learn mine.” Baldwin’s words come from his interview with Studs Terkel. In the interview he continues: “In a way, the American Negro is the key figure in this country; and if you don’t face him, you will never face anything.”

In Your Face in Mine, Row considers whether Baldwin’s challenge to face “race” can be answered — how we try, often fail, and might succeed. Considering Martin’s many identities — virtual and real, his business personae (as elusive as the grey markets of his investments) and his lives before and after RRS — Kelly says to himself, “A black man, I’m thinking, is the perfect vehicle, the vessel for every American desire, the vector for every narrative.” He almost says aloud, “Martin, you’re a fucking genius,” and then throws up — responding to the mix of jet lag and his whirling mental disorientation and discovery.

After the release of his novel, Row discussed in Guernica, the importance of Baldwin’s Another Country for his writing of Your Face in Mine, and the

unnamed, unresolved, guilty whiteness of ‘90s liberals, hidden under irony and subterfuge: fake dreadlocks, tribal tattoos, unconvincing DJ names. Whiteness, that is, that was doing everything possible to act as if it no longer mattered, to draw attention away from itself.

Emboldened by his discovery of Adam Mansbach’s imperfect but existent Angry Black White Boy, Row concludes, My version of Another Country would have to begin with whiteness” — and then, the novel seems to hope, to pass beyond it. Not into post-raciality, but into what exactly?

An examination of whiteness must necessarily be more complicated than what we often label “white liberal guilt”: what Kelly experiences as a desire to escape the mundane privilege of his upper-middle-class upbringing. In a heated conversation, Martin says to Kelly,

White people […] I mean you feel like you had to work hard for what you’ve got, but not that hard, in the end, right? So there’s a little guilt in there as well? And what do you do with guilt, except write another book about it?

Beyond guilt, Kelly suffers from the sense of mistaken identity — or, at the very least, a sense of uncertain identity, the quivering underbelly of white supremacy. He is in “white dreamtime”: “the time in which all crimes are historical. Back then. Lesson learned.” “What does it mean,” Kelly thinks after his dissertation advisor has torn him to pieces — “if you were Chinese,” she tells him, “you might stake this kind of claim” — “to hate yourself, not for what you are but for what you aren’t? To hate yourself as a kind of double negative, a self-canceling equation?” Martin is not the only one who would like to be somebody else.

Self-referentially, the novel shows Kelly considering his narratorial positioning, fretting that “the white observer, the interlocutor, is in a kind of an impossible bind, right? If I’m cynical and worldly I get called out for making assumptions and appropriating a black perspective. If I’m innocent and careful I get called out for false naiveté.” The dark numbness behind white liberal goodwill is exposed and cynically interrogated during a conversation about leaving Baltimore with his old friend, Rina. She thinks of leaving, “because of the unsolvable social problems,” which, Kelly interjects, is just another way of saying that they don’t want to look at “so many poor black people.” He taunts her, and himself, for “the way you say, it hurts to say it, but it actually doesn’t.”

But Kelly has tried to leave Baltimore once before. He takes up Chinese classes in college, we’re told, after “snapp[ing] out of my love of hip-hop, as if out of a dream […] Was I fleeing from something?” In China doing graduate research, Kelly meets Wendy and writes his dissertation on Wu Kaiqin, a fictional Chinese poet that Row uses to develop a conception of racial equality or unity through difference, called miao: “the wrong note that harmonizes all human appearances,” Wu wrote, “and allows us to forget ‘near’ and ‘far,’ ‘dark’ and ‘light,’ ‘Chinese’ and ‘barbarian.’”

Martin’s reason for undergoing RRS, he tells Kelly, is that he believes he suffered from “Racial Identity Dysphoria Syndrome” (RIDS), that he was “born into a physical identity of the wrong race” (as a doctor describes it in a Clinical Referral evaluation), that he is “in fact, internally, African American.” But what does it mean to be raced “internally”? What does it mean to experience “racial dysphoria” if “race” is the experience of being recognized as a certain race?

At school when Martin got older, he was told he shouldn’t speak the way most familiar to him, in black vernacular (his formative childhood years having been spent, parents mostly absent, in a predominantly black Baltimore community) — and it was only then that he realized he wasn’t black. He was then painfully socialized into whiteness (and though it’s unbelievable to think he wouldn’t have experienced externally driven cues before then, this plot point is interesting as a parable of the relational realities of race). The novel makes it clear, in other words, that “racial identity dysphoria” is a product of socialization, demonstrating not only the constructedness of race, but the way its effects are internalized and therefore real.

Kelly’s intellectual interest in Chinese language and culture, his experience living within China, and his marriage to Wendy create what we’re supposed to see as a comparable, but distinctly different, experience and desire running parallel to Martin’s “dysphoria.” Kelly’s is a desire to have — or experience — rather than to be. And yet, in addition to his many other motives for wishing to escape from his current identity (the death of his wife and daughter, blackmail involving the death of his old friend Alan, general alienation and depression) is his desire to escape the banality and benefit of upper-middle-class white privilege, the homelessness that comes with the feeling of belonging everywhere, and nowhere.

Row writes in Guernica of his own struggle to claim a writer’s identity that would be tied to his influential black predecessors — most prominent among them, James Baldwin: “I was a bad actor: bad at performing versions of literary whiteness I’d somehow never quite believed in […] I needed permission, a precedent.” Because of anxiety about appropriating on the one hand, and the dominance of the white literary canon on the other, Row argues that white writers continue to self-segregate, imagining the black literature is not for them — which he recognizes as an arrogance disguised as enlightenment. “Frankly,” Kelly says, “nobody wants me to be an expert on black people. That would be intrusive. That would be weird. It would raise all kinds of red flags.” Immersion in Chinese language and culture is a more acceptable alternative. “I had no standing,” Row continues in Guernica. “There was no way I could say that my strong precursor was a black man.”

As if to ease the hedging anxiety his character-narrator Kelly shares, Row quotes in Guernica Fred Moten, whose words confer permission to find precursors cross-racially: “The long chain of life and death performances that are the concern of black studies [are] horribly misunderstood if they are understood as exclusive. Everyone whom blackness claims, which is to say everyone, can claim blackness.” Row adds that this “is perhaps the most troubling, and necessary, idea of all: to be American is to be marked by the experience of racism, the experience of living in a divided, paranoid, unreconciled culture.”


Expanding beyond the old gendered trope of the tragic mulatto as the main subject of passing, Your Face demonstrates a world where identity is taken out of the fixed realm of parentage and genetic — even cultural — inheritance, and is placed in the context of consumer choice and performance. But rather than the claim that we’re headed for post-raciality, the novel’s premise and Kelly’s internal struggle — the two most powerful aspects of Your Face — demonstrate a complex dystopian allegory for our current historical moment. In conversations with Martin’s new friends — Kelly the fly-on-the-wall journalist — we hear black intellectual perspectives on the current world (Obama as a “master of the mask,” passing in a different sense of the word) and we’re reminded that our current progress does not, cannot, mean “post-racial.” With RSS, racial identity becomes a lucrative tool of self-branding. But without a complete overhaul of structural inequality, what does this mean?

Row shows us a world concerned with progress in the global-business sense, where the excited, forward-looking Martins rule and have no time for concepts like “loss.” In this globalized world, the immigrant or Other is both something to blame, a scapegoat, and something to desire, a product. The new lives that Martin sells don’t account for looking back; though we’re told that all the (heavily invasive) RRS procedures can easily be reversed, there is a breaking from the past that occurs with RRS that, at least as long as it remains a secret, must necessarily be maintained.

We end with Kelly having undergone RRS to become the Chinese man Curtis Wang. It turns out that Martin’s secret motive all along was not only to have Kelly write about RRS, but also to offer Kelly the racial reassignment for which he yearns: to be the final case study and advertisement. Kelly deplanes in Shanghai and Dr. Silpa is dead — shot by Julie-nah, who arguably updates the tragic mulatto figure to one of agency and revolt against the modernized science-business of passing. She is not as happy with the outcome as she’d thought she would be: “You think, what, you’ll be less divided, more yourself? You’ll just be the same ball of questions as always,” she’s told Kelly before he got the surgery. She urges him that they have to pull the plug on HUE, Inc., “before it makes us all billionaires.” He doesn’t listen.

In the world of Your Face, one’s chosen identity is nothing more than a mask, or that’s the anxiety anyway. White guilt is shown as pathetic and useless, though not detached from reason. It creates the sense that allows one to be taken up by the capitalist machinery of production and sale of self — the (mistaken) sense of being without a culture, without identity. Within the globalized context, the internationalization of everything produces an anxiety about homogenization. Is RRS the misguided solution? By excavating whiteness from the backdrop role it usually serves — as a neutral space against which everything else is cast — Row provides a good critique, but may not move us beyond it. Row doesn’t tell us where Kelly is going because, how can he know?

The novel is not quite sure of its own premises, and leaves us swimming in the fluid sea of cultural references, unmoored as we are in the new terrain of global exchange, where identity is neither static nor essential, but takes on the fluidity of global capital and global culture. The ending of the novel, this future, feels ominous, with the self a composite of consumer “lifestyle” choices that one can purchase, and Martin scheming onward. “I think I’m beginning to understand how money is really made,” Kelly has told Rina. Of leaving Baltimore for China, he’s just remarked, “I’ll just say this: it doesn’t just go away, that need to erase one reality with another. Or, better yet, find a way to make them overlap.”

Your Face in Mine is highly aware of the need to create that “overlap,” a situation in which “your face” can be seen “in mine” — but RRS offers us exchange more than overlap, and without grappling with the “loss” inherently involved. Kelly’s loss — of his family — has already occurred, primed him for his destiny, his role in the machine. As Julie-nah begs him to hear her, before she’s killed Dr. Silpa and before he’s undergone RRS, Kelly thinks of a phrase he can’t place, can’t quite understand: “Since I can’t have you, I want to say, I have to become you.” His mouth can’t form the words.


Lucy McKeon is a writer and photographer living in New York City.

LARB Contributor

Lucy McKeon (lucymckeon.com) is a writer and photographer based in New York City.


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