Clearly Invisible: Racial Passing and the Color of Cultural Identity

Article excerpt

Clearly Invisible: Racial Passing and the Color of Cultural Identity

By Harcia Alesan Dawkins

Baylor University Press, 285 pp., $29.95

The one time I visited my maternal grandfather's house, we had planned to stay four days. I was ten and had seen my grandfather just once before in my life. I don't recall if he ever spoke to me, but my mother and ! are fairly certain that he never called me by my name. That was probably a matter of principle for him--Rachel being a Hebrew name and he being an active anti-Semite.

In the spaces around his desk where family photos might have hung were portraits of Hitler, Goebbels and Himmler. When I put my summer shorts and T-shirts in the creaky oak dresser of the guest room, there was a red, white and black swastika armband in the drawer. We stayed for the night but left the next morning. I never saw him again.

As strange as that story is, the stranger part is this: my grandfather was Jewish, a fact that seems to have been unknown or ignored by the white supremacist groups to which he belonged. He was a Jew passing as a white Christian separatist.

But what about me? My mother became a Christian in her teens after a thoroughly secular upbringing, and my dad was raised Catholic and is now a Baptist pastor. I'm told I don't look Jewish, or at least that I don't have a "Jewish nose." So am I Jewish? Am I passing? Does it matter?

In Clearly Invisible, Marcia Alesan Dawkins explores passing--presenting oneself as a member of a racial group to which one does not belong. Dawkins argues that passing is a rhetorical act that "forces us to think and rethink what, exactly, makes a person black, white or 'other,' and why we care." She articulates a critical vocabulary of 13 "passwords" that can help us understand passing as "a form of rhetoric that is racially sincere, compatible with reasoned deliberative discourse, and expresses what fits rightly when people do not fit rightly with the world around them."

To explore passing as a kind of power, a challenge to forces of oppression, Dawkins tells the story of Ellen and William Craft, who escaped from slavery by passing in the roles of a white male master and his black male slave. As the Crafts traveled and spoke about their journey, audiences struggled to make sense of their story. If passing was possible for slaves, then wasn't racial identity so "ambiguous and changeable" that race could not possibly be grounds to justify enslavement? …