Are the days of ‘passing’ a thing of the past?
“We pass for what we are. Character teaches above our wills. Men imagine that they communicate their virtue or vice only by overt actions, and do not see that virtue or vice emit a breath every moment.” (Emerson, 1841)
This article was written to celebrate ‘Black History Month’ and as such, I felt torn by the expectation of writing from a positive position and the compulsion to write about something that is real and feeling unsure, as the words fell onto the page, as to whether this article would be celebratory or positive at all. Logically, I want to proclaim how great things are and how much has changed for us as black women in business, yet perhaps I am unsure whether ‘things’ have changed, or whether it is US who have changed. For that reason, I found myself writing the word ‘perhaps’, both as a reflective endeavour but also by way of inviting the reader to also engage in the inquiry. There is no denying our growth and consequently there is now a plethora of female, black role models, to inform a broad frame of reference, yet it is perhaps inevitable that there have been casualties along the way. Perhaps though, we can now relax and be who we are, without the pressure of being ‘strong’, of being ‘superwomen’, of sacrificing parts of ourSELVES, to be so-called successful in business? Perhaps also, we can release the grip of ownership and competition and have a quiet confidence in the fact that there is room for us all. Perhaps.
We have a collective history and we each also have our individual stories. Stories of rejection, marginalisation, invisibilisation and isolation, of inner and outer conflict and defence, of maltreatment and abuse, of sacrifice and of blood, sweat and tears. As we celebrate our success, we wear our experiences as badges of honour, collected along the way as we walked the path, some even creating new paths and new generic milestones to celebrate and aspire to. Few of us have travelled a smooth journey and this instigates a precious independence in us. As black women in business, we can stand together in solidarity and we can also tear each other down, both consciously and unconsciously.
I recall once, being told that my achievements in academia were related to my skin tone – that I had been afforded a ‘fast pass’ access that a darker-hued woman would not be given. I also remember a separate occasion, where I was told that I would be chosen in a job interview setting, not due to my own merit but because my so-called ‘fair’ skin tone would earn me the position. On both occasions, I remember feeling hurt and offended; that my hard-earned achievements were being unfairly translated into fruits of favour and privilege. Over the years, I have managed to balance feeling that my efforts are being wrongfully dismissed and belittled, with a deeper understanding of the contributory societal and historical context.
In my own entrepreneurial journey, I chose to go against well-meaning advice and base my business on the notion of chameleonism, a concept I first started writing about in 2010, which is borne from my mixed-race identity and the subsequent resilience and flexibility that necessitated my survival. Central to my business, is a transient brand-identity, which many told me was a bad business decision but which felt perfectly natural to me, even though I knew, having studied brand management as part of my first degree in Advertising, Media and Marketing, that they were right! In many academic studies, ‘the chameleon effect’ refers to mimicry and ‘behaviour matching’, although it is also recognised as having social value. For some, its uncertainty raises some anxiety, particularly in relation to professional identity, with one of my ‘embrace the chameleon’ workshop attendees, stating that they did not want to be ‘professionally naked’ and that “to be chameleon, is to risk being invisible”.
This leads me to the theme of this article, that of ‘passing’ or ‘passé’. One author, Marcia Dawkins, proclaims that racial passing “suggests secrecy and complicates a politics of visibility”, interestingly, Dawkins titled her book, published in 2012, ‘clearly invisible’. Dawkins refers to the popularity of passé in literature and media and the common association that ‘mixed-race’ equals confusion, which is a perception I have defended against for as long as I can remember.
I can see the temptation for people to ‘pass’, having experienced continually being asked how I ‘see myself’ (i.e.: as black or white), as though I had a choice. I have previously written about mixed-race parentage being a creative embodiment in itself, paradoxically straddling two or more racial identities, which for me is what led to my ‘chameleonic perspective’. When asked ‘how I saw myself’, I sensed that this was not out of interest in me but to serve the purpose of other people’s anticipated communication and relationship with me, which aligns with an historical perspective, shared by Emerson in 1841 that, “A man must consider what a blindman’s-buff is this game of conformity. If I know your sect, I anticipate your argument”. In relation to ‘passing’, there is no doubt a sense of being an ‘outsider on the inside’, which could be a powerful position to be in, especially in the context of business. In relation to racial passing, Dawkins poignantly comments that, “To take the analogy of passing and airbrushing a step further, we can say that passing is all about who has the airbrush and who has the latest version of photoshop!”
I have written in a previous article, about the massive shift in power dynamic and the rise (and rise and RISE) of black women in business, especially in entrepreneurial spaces. The power fuelling the new order is palpable and one could claim that we are very firmly holding the airbrush and that we indeed do have the latest version of photoshop.
This was evident in more recent years, with the ‘incident’ involving Rachel Dolozal, who caused outrage (and perhaps also incited some humour) in 2015, as she allegedly misrepresented herself as black, sparking global conversation about racial ‘passing’. Of course, as a ‘black woman’, Dolozal led an organisation that she likely would not have, had she not been passing. Indeed, in this instance, it could be said that this was less a case of ‘passing’ and more one of manufacture, which would imply much more effort on the part of the individual. This example, unusual in that it was white-to-black, could symbolise a move towards there no longer being a need for ‘passing’ from black-to-white, whether intentional or otherwise. It is not a new thing for black women to be appropriated in some respects but not necessarily in relation to professional life. In any case, this type of ‘passing’ is not just about “mere disguise”, as Dawkins highlights, it is “about rhetoric – the symbolic social construction and reconstruction of identity within particular situational constraints and social networks”.
Traditionally, ‘passing’ was motivated by need, rather than desire, sometimes a need to survive or safeguard self or others. It seems that a related matter is that of assimilation, not ‘passing’ per sé but an adoption of certain characteristics, as highlighted in a previous article, where I recalled a CEO, who I interviewed for my doctoral studies, becoming aware of her voice lowering several octaves, whilst in male-dominated management meetings. She had felt the need to somehow become ‘more male’, to fit in, to be accepted and perhaps most importantly, to be heard. Clearly, this is not ‘passing’, she presented as a woman and there was no misunderstanding of that but one could argue that ‘assimilation’ and ‘passing’ do share some common tenets.
Is ‘passing’ a thing of the past? Is it now redundant in its function? Perhaps. If not, is that a social disorder, or a personal dysfunction? Perhaps we are moving closer to the notion of ‘womanity’, as coined by Alice Walker, whereby we are able to express the facets of ourselves, racially and culturally as women, in a cohesive and harmonious way. Perhaps this is the ‘something’ to celebrate right now.
NB: this is an article for a forthcoming edition of ‘Highly Fabulous Women’ but it was felt that there is a need for it to be ‘aired’ now.
Thank you Dr. Patricia Benjamin, for your support and understanding.