NDG Bookshelf: Clearly Invisible explores “passing” from different angles

By Terri Schlichenmeyer, NDG Contributing Writer

Nothing in life is ever as it seems.

The package of potato chips feels full, but you find twelve chips inside when you open it up. It appears that you’ve got plenty of money for vacation, then you actually get there. The party sure seemed fun, until the next morning.  Your new co-worker was nice, before his first temper tantrum.

Things – and sometimes people – can be something they’re not. They “pass” for various reasons and in the new book Clearly Invisible by Marcia Alesan Dawkins, you’ll find out why it happens and how multiracialism will change that.

“Generally speaking,” says Marcia Alesan Dawkins,” passing refers to the means by which nonwhite people represent themselves as white.”  Judging by literature and first-hand accounts, it’s nothing new, it’s not going away, and it waxes and wanes. We care, then we don’t, or we have “guess-my-race encounters.”

But why do people – and not just black people – attempt it?  Dawkins believes there are several main reasons.

People pass as white or black for “persuasion” when social or political reasons make doing so beneficial.  Dawkins uses as an example a theoretical case of interracial dating, and a “clairvoyant” who keeps the pass a secret.

Passing can be “powerful” by “bending conventional boundaries of… culture.”  To illustrate, she cites a fascinating case of two married slaves who devised a brilliant way to escape: the wife, who was very light-skinned, passed as a young white man, while the husband “passed” as the young man’s slave. Surprisingly, during their daring journey, the darker-skinned husband was accused of passing, too.

Dawkins also says that passing-as-power works for gender as well as race, citing Afghan girls who pass as boys to escape death.

When Homer A. Plessy boarded a train bound for Louisiana , he used passing as “property” to challenge current laws, creating what became the Supreme Court’s first case of identity theft.

Passing can be unintentional (when people caught under the “one drop” law are unaware of their ancestry); it can be a “pastime” (in the movies); and in one astounding case, it can be a “paradox”: Dawkins writes of a man who “entered prison as an angry black man and exited as a white supremacist leader.”

As a Visiting Scholar at Brown University , Marcia Alesan Dawkins writes with authority. Her impressive education shows in her research and in what she shares with readers in Clearly Invisible.  The problem comes in understanding it all

Deeper than a canyon and more highbrow than an Ivy League conclave, this is a book filled with ten-dollar words and hypotheses to accompany them; in fact, if you’re unaccustomed to the terms Dawkins uses, you’ll be lost in short order. Yes, there are some interesting anecdotes but they’re buried deep in the “rhetoric” that Dawkins so often mentions.

I think if you can devote the very considerable time needed to grasp the ideas here, you’ll understand why this social action may “progress from passing to passed.”  For readers looking for a curl-up-this-weekend book, though, Clearly Invisible seems awfully scholarly.

Clearly Invisible by Marcia Alesan Dawkins (Baylor University Press, $29.95, 259 pages, includes notes)

 

 

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