Racial passing – an outdated term?

Photo courtesy of IFC’s Portlandia

‘Racial passing’ is used to describe when an individual is accepted as a member of an ethnic group other than their own. In today’s world, does anyone choose to ‘pass’ as another race? Does the term ‘racial passing’ still merit any use?

Jeff Chiba Stearns, 41, co-founded Hapa-Palooza Art Festival in 2011 with the objective of celebrating mixed roots ideas through art and culture.

What is racial passing?

A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing by history professor Allyson Hobbs defines racial passing as “the practice in which light-skinned African Americans chose to present themselves as white.”[1] In a more general sense, racial passing is the phenomenon when a person classified as a member of one ethnic group ‘passes’ as a member of an ethnic group other than their own. The term was historically used in the United States to describe people of an ethnic minority or multiracial people who assimilated into the white majority.

“People want to guess what [race] you are, or constantly ask what you are,” says Stearns.

Stearns explains that living in a nation with a colonial past, such as Canada, people often want to know where a person comes from if they’re not white. This curiosity is fairly ingrained in the collective conscience and many instinctively question people of colour where they originate from without meaning any disrespect.

However, Stearns disagrees with the underlying notion that if a person isn’t white, they have to be from somewhere else, believing it to be unjust and problematic. This curiosity towards people’s ethnic background can manifest itself in other ways as well. When describing a mixed-race person whose physical features don’t fit neatly within one ethnicity, the term ‘ethnically ambiguous’ is used. Do ‘ethnically ambiguous’ people choose to be defined as such, or are others’ perceptions forced upon them as a label?

The curious case of Fred Armisen

“For a lot of people in Canada, they can only trace their heritage as far back as what ethnicities their grandparents or grandparents were,” says Stearns.

A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing by Allyson Hobbs.

Stearns points to American actor and comedian Fred Armisen as a potential example of racial passing. Self-identifying as part Japanese for his entire life, Armisen believed that his grandfather, Masami Kuni, was Japanese. It was then revealed by genealogy experts that his late grandfather was actually Korean.

Unbeknownst to Armisen, his grandfather chose to actively pass as Japanese following racial violence in Japan against ethnic Koreans. Being one quarter Japanese formed a core part of Armisen’s identity, and he had proudly proclaimed his heritage on numerous occasions. In Armisen’s case, he wasn’t trying to pass as Japanese-American. He simply self-identified as one quarter Japanese based on his knowledge of his family history. Armisen’s case goes to show that claiming a heritage that isn’t one’s own can often come about due to misunderstanding and a lack of information. Do Armisen’s mistaken claims of having Japanese heritage constitute racial passing?

Rachel Dolezal – racial passing or blackfishing?

Stearns points to so-called Black rights activist Rachel Dolezal as another potential instance of racial passing. Dolezal was believed to be an African-American woman who cared deeply about civil rights and even served as president of the Spokane chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

After allegations from her parents that Dolezal was only passing as black, it was revealed that she had no African-American heritage. Later, Dolezal acknowledged that she was born to white parents, but also maintained that she self-identified as black. Dolezal’s story seems to fit the definition of racial passing, but can her actions be classified as racial passing or was she actually stealing a heritage that wasn’t hers? Is there a difference between the two?

Racially passing  vs self-identifying

“There’s this idea that [mixed-race people] are living between a hyphen, we’re either this or that,” says Stearns.

Rachel Dolezal. | Photo courtesy of TEDx UIdado

Although Stearns is of Japanese and European descent, his appearance may lean towards white-passing, even being mistaken for Brazillian or Mexican. Stearns also recognizes the privilege that can come with looking whiter.

However, he explains that his outward appearance and how he’s perceived by others doesn’t mean he’s trying to pass as white. Rather, what’s important is that he firmly self-identifies as Japanese-Canadian, a decision that should be respected. Stearns doesn’t believe anyone actively chooses to racially pass as an ethnic group other than their own. In short, Stearns advocates for the ideals laid out in the Mixed Race Bill of Rights, one of the most important being that any mixed-race person should be able to identify themselves regardless of what others expect them to identify as.

“Looking at me, you may not see Asian features, but that doesn’t mean you can take that away from me,” says Stearns. “I’m still self-identifying as Japanese-Canadian.”

Aside from a few people claiming an ethnic background not belonging to them for personal gain, does anyone actively attempt to pass as a race they’re not? If not, does the term ‘racial passing’ still warrant use.

“The term ‘racial passing’ is a very open-ended expression,” concludes Stearns.