Passing as another race – what I’m reading this week

Passing as another race: what I’m reading this week.

The book-reading group I belong to is going to be talking about Philip Roth’s “The Human Stain” next month. This deals with a topic I’ve only seen mentioned in one other book: people of African American decent “passing” as white. I’ve been vaguely aware that this exists in America, but it’s never been something I’ve had any reason to think about or discuss with any of my American friends. So, first a summary and then a few questions.

Roth’s book revolves around Coleman Silk, a college professor who is incorrectly accused of racism because one day, as he’s marking the attendance roll, he refers to two students who have never shown up for class by saying “Does anyone know these people? Do they exist or are they spooks?” I’ve never heard the word used in this sense, but apparently “spooks” is one term for African Americans. I’ve always thought a spook was either a ghost or a spy. In fact the two students are black, and lodge a complaint against Silk, which ends with him leaving his college. In fact Silk is actually a green-eyed, white-skinned African American who enrolled in the Navy in WWII passing as white. When he left the navy he got a scholarship to university as a white. For 50 years he has pretended to be white, in fact, to be Jewish. It is not until after Silks death that the narrator of the book meets Silk’s sister, at his funeral, and she tells the narrator of Silk’s history. Silk has just been buried as a Jew. He has, intentionally, married a woman with crinkly hair in case any of his children were born with crinkly hair. Silk’s only communication with his family has only been telephone calls between him and the sister, since he could never allow the two worlds to meet.

When he decided, 50 years ago what he was going to do, he told his mother and she said she realised his (future) children would never know her as their grandmother.

The book is set in 1989, during the time of the Monika Lewinsky scandal, i.e., it’s fairly recent in historical terms.

In Australia, the opposite issue to “passing” has arisen recently in a court case involving journalist Andrew Bolt, who suggested in a newspaper article that some fair skinned people of mixed descent identify as aboriginal in order to get art prizes and jobs reserved for aboriginals. But these people acknowledge their Austrian or English ancestry is not a secret – they couldn’t really hide it even if they wanted to) so the issue is not quite the same as in Roth’s book. (There’s a Wikipedia article on Bolt with links to his articles.)

It set me wondering: do light skinned African Americans today feel a need / or see a benefit from “passing” as white? How often on forms do people have to state their race? (I can’t recall any internet forms asking me my race (even just for ‘statistical purposes). Is it regarded as treachery to one’s group? Anybody got any thoughts? Anybody want to enlighten me?

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