Passing: How posing as white became a choice for many black Americans

Passing: How posing as white became a choice for many black Americans

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Monica L. Haynes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The young unkempt woman still in her pajamas shuffled into her 8 a.m. college psychology class and sat down next to Barbara Douglass.

“I’m sure glad there are no niggers in this class ’cause I can smell them a mile away,” the young woman declared.

But Douglass, who lives in Wilkinsburg, is a 53-year-old black woman. She could pass for white but she has never tried, she said.

“Growing up, I knew of people who did, and I was even instructed not to say, at that time, that they were colored. In order to get their jobs, they had to say they were white.”

The new film “The Human Stain,” based on a novel of the same name by Philip Roth, provides a glimpse into the world of blacks so fair they can live undetected among whites.

Thelma Marshall knows that routine.

During the 1950s and early ’60s, she did what her mother before her had done. What her grandmother and aunts had done.

She passed for white.

“One time I told a woman I was black, colored in those days,” Marshall recalled. “She said, ‘You won’t get the job unless you pass for white.’ ”

So that’s what Marshall did.

“I passed for white on lots of jobs,” she said. “I had to be white to get the jobs.” …

…”We are a child of God first. We are human beings first,” Douglass remembered her mother saying.

In fifth grade, she learned that the United States is a melting pot, and she declared to her mother that she would be a melting pot.

Her mother decided it was the perfect definition, seeing as how her ancestors were Cherokee, black, Dutch, German and Irish.

Maybe all blacks would have defined themselves that way given the chance. Since black people first came to the New World in 1619, they’ve mingled and mixed with every race and ethnic group here.

It is not just the fair-skinned blacks who can lay claim to that melting pot definition. Those blacks who have the mark of Africa in their features and skin tone also have multicultural ancestry. They just can’t pass.

Most blacks were never afforded the luxury of defining themselves. After the Civil War, Southern whites, not wanting this swirling of races to get out of hand and seeking to keep the white race as pure and powerful as possible, instituted a rule that anyone with “one drop” of black blood was black.

That spurred even more fair-skinned blacks to cross over and escape Jim Crow laws that kept blacks in the shackles of second-class citizenship…

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