Passing on Perspective
Guest Post by J.A. O’Connor
Forward in italics by BAP Blogger – J.A. O’Connor returns with a second guest post (thanks J.A.!). The first post, an inspirational story, featured an Asian male classmate who broke out of the oppressive social mold cast by a racist belief system of the Deep South (read here). This one is about a difficult and sensitive subject – “passing”.
“Passing” refers to a person who is a member of an out-group identifying or being identified as a member of the privileged group, thereby avoiding out-group detriments and enjoying in-group privileges. The option to pass is itself a privilege of heredity, conferred by the “accident of birth“.
“The post asks: What is it like then to be picked out of a crowd with intent? To be recognized immediately for your religion? Your nationality? Your race? Your sexual identity?”
Passing is a topic of sensitivity when it comes to race. While passing is a convenient way out of social jams, it’s often unavailable to persons in small communities based on being in an out-group member of certain religions, nationality, or sexual orientation, there’s usually a backdoor option. Move away to a new city, a new life with an old secret.
With racial identity, however, it gets less tractable. Virtually no African Americans, for instance, have the option of moving away from a region saturated with racism, start telling people in their new town that they’re white and start gaining white privilege.
Why “pass”? As John Howard Griffin found out after mere weeks as a white man traveling in a very convincing incognito black disguise, he felt intolerable burn of human hatred, he struggled to find housing, he struggled to feed himself…he even struggled in even finding a bathroom to use. (His memoir, Black Like Me, was a best seller in 1961.) Griffin returned to his white self. I guess you could say he decided to pass for the rest of his life.
As this post points out, passing meant avoiding that hatred in the authors life, and in the not too distant past, it meant avoiding a cruel death…
About ten years ago, I met a woman named Heidi. She was outspoken and extroverted with an ebullient personality. I liked her right away, and it was mutual. She invited me to her home for coffee within what seemed like moments after our meeting, and we talked for hours. She had grown up in Germany, daughter to a German mother and American father. She had married a Japanese man and had two children with him. Her openmindedness was refreshing.
One afternoon, she shared a family album with me. I saw old photographs of her mother, who had died when she was young. She looked more nostalgic than grieved as she flipped through the pages of yellowing pictures. Then, we landed on an old black and white photograph: “Oh, look at this one!” I looked at it closely. My stomach dropped. I said nothing. I held my breath. She looked almost gleeful as if she had found a lost treasure. “I forgot I had this! This is my grandfather! He was a pharmacist in Germany! I love this picture of him. Doesn’t he look handsome?” I continued to stare at the photograph. “Oh, look at him in his uniform. He looks so proud.” Yes. That uniform. She looked at me and laughed, “Oh, you see the swastika. Everyone was a Nazi back then.” She shook her head like it meant nothing. Her grandfather was wearing the official uniform of the Third Reich in a family photograph. In that moment, I was so relieved that I never told Heidi I was Jewish.
I passed. I pretended to be like her. As I sat in the presence of the granddaughter of a Nazi, I felt afraid. It is my family legacy after all. Passing. And fear.
When I was a little girl, my very odd grandmother, whom I’d only met a few times, grabbed me when no one was looking, locked us both in the guest room, and told me a story sotto voce. We were not Christians. We were, in fact, Jews. She then spoke very quickly about the Netherlands, hiding, Spain, Germany, a king, and things that I can’t easily recall as an adult. She gave me two very old porcelain pieces that were now mine to hide just as she had hidden them. And, I was tasked with keeping everything that she had revealed a secret. I was never to tell anyone. Ever. It had been a secret in our family for many, many years She was passing it on to me. It was my turn now.
From that moment on, I felt an existential fear that I had not previously known. “No matter what, no one can know. You must hide,” she quietly emphasized.
I had to pass. I had to pretend that I was not Jewish. At all costs apparently.
Passing was not hard for me in terms of appearance. I look European. Pretending to be someone I was not, however, was very difficult. It was not consistent with my personality, but I could not shake a visceral fear that something terrible would happen to me should someone discover my true identity. I did not understand why we were hiding, but I kept my promise to my grandmother. Sort of.
I started secretly practicing Judaism in college. I took classes in Jewish Studies. I went to ecumenical Passover services at local synagogues once a year and spoke with rabbis. Whenever anyone asked why I was interested in Judaism, I would simply shrug my shoulders and say nothing.
“No matter what, no one can know. You must hide.”
In my naiveté, I didn’t realize that what I was doing had a namepassing. I heard the word for the first time in college when my best friend told me that he was tired of passing as straight to his family. He wanted to come out as gay, but he was terrified that he would be rejected. He wanted to be accepted for who he was. He didn’t want to play a part anymore. Didn’t he have that right, too? Yes, he did, I told him. I understood more than he knew.
What is it like, however, for someone who cannot pass, I had often pondered? This question bothered me because this ability to pass as whatever was deemed acceptable by the social, cultural, and often political and religious majority is why my family is alive today. I almost felt guilty.
I avoided looking into my grandmother’s story for years because it frightened me in an irrational way. A few years ago, I learned that she died by suicide, and the injustice of her death struck me. Did she die because she, in part, felt like I did? Ontologically rootless? Deprived of a vital sense of her identity? I had to know. Once I started digging, it didn’t take long to come upon answers. She had indeed been truthful. Our family had fled the Iberian Peninsula centuries ago as marranos or conversosnames given to those who publicly converted to Christianity but secretly adhered to Judaism. Practicing Judaism or Islam privately was forbidden, and many Jews and Muslims were killed over the centuries for either not converting to Christianity or being caught practicing Judaism or Islam in private particularly during the 14th and 15th centuries in Spain. Many fled to central Europe. Keeping the public face of one’s conversion intact was vital to survival. Pass as a Christian if you want to live… or run. My family had been running and passing for centuries. Pass or die. Somehow that had become an ingrained way of life for all of us. Even now.
What does it mean then if you choose to stop passing or if you can’t pass? In my searching for answers, I discovered that family members died in the Holocaust. They could not hide. They did not pass as Aryan. Heidi’s handsome grandfather’s countrymen picked them out of a crowd. What is it like then to be picked out of a crowd with intent? To be recognized immediately for your religion? Your nationality? Your race? Your sexual identity?
For that which makes you different?
We all know what it’s like to be recognized by others for something idiosyncratic to us. But, what about when we do not want to be recognized? If there were ever a time in history to attempt to practice perspectivetaking on a different idea, it’s now. Why? Racism is not
diminishing, and the current political rhetoric in the United States is creating a climate in which old and dangerous ideas are making a comeback. Human beings are viewed more and more through the filters of nationality, race, religion, and sexuality, categorized and labeled, and then devalued accordingly. People are not valued equally simply because they have inherent worth as human beings. How do we solve this? It’s not possible to fix something like this at a policy level. It must start with you. With me. It’s all about your perspective.
What does that look like?
My daughter started her first year of college this year. In keeping with good liberal arts practices, her freshman orientation involved stuffing all the freshmen into a little room and running them through diversity training: “Stand up if you identify as ________.” It’s a great way to make everyone feel singled out simultaneously. The religion questions predictably arose, and my daughter explained that she started sweating because she knew that the “Jew question” was coming; she had never publicly identified as Jewish.
“Stand up if you identify as Jewish.”
She told me:
“I had passed for so long, and I had to decide. So, when it came down to it, I stood up. I actually did it. And, you know, I was the only fucking Jew in the room! How is that even possible? The only Jew! And, Mom, I felt something I’d never felt before. Terror. I was terrified. I don’t know where it came from. Like I needed to run. Hide. If everyone knew, then…something might happen to me. I’m a Jew. And, I’m out. People in our family have been killed for being Jews. We’ve been hiding a long time. And then I thought about it. Is this what it’s like for other people who live with fear of being hurt for something that they can’t change about themselves? For people who are gay or trans or even any race other than white? You can’t change your race! You can’t! And you can’t hide it. I won’t pass anymore. I can’t do it.”
And, there it is. You can’t change your race. When an Asian man or woman walks into a restaurant, for example, he or she cannot pass as anything other than Asian. That is perfectly fine if that restaurant is in Hong Kong, but if that restaurant is in Small Town, Racist County, then what? Passing is not an option in that situation.
That terror that my daughter described in which she felt that something awful might happen to her because she was singled out simply for being different from everyone else in a completely unchangeable way is not a terror uncommon to the human experience. That almost primal fear that we will be harmed because we are inherently different and, thusly, unacceptable is actually common. For those of us in the majority, we feel this most keenly during adolescence. Sit back and recall middle school. It’s a feeling that we all try to avoid and forget. In this case, I think that we should attempt to remember it. Resurrect it. Bring it to mind. Marinate in it.
This recalled feeling of being singled out for no reason other than being different from the majority is your key to taking on this new perspective, and, going further, understanding that it is that very difference that not only makes one vulnerable to mockery and disdain but also potential victimization, exclusion, violence, and shame. Fully activating an empathetic response would be to then imagine that you cannot change this difference in any way. As I have done for years, passing would not be an option.
I’ll make it less abstract. Imagine my story with Heidi going differently. What if I had been wearing a Jewish star necklace, but it had been concealed in my blouse. In the middle of Heidi recounting the story about her grandfather, the sunlight would have reflected off the golden star somehow causing her to notice it. In an instant, she would see the symbol of my true identity hanging around my neckthe very symbol that her beloved grandfather’s political party made Jews wear on their clothing to identify them as such. Suddenly, I would not be able to pass. I would be revealed. The Nazi’s granddaughter and the Jew would be sitting together on a couch, side by side.
Do you feel it? The tension and fear rising? What do you think would have happened?
Have you ever felt something similar? If so, when? Why? (Editor’s note: please take the author up on this offer in the comment section below. Anonymous comments are permitted though moderated first.)
I fully admit that I am unusual because I can speak from both sides of the issue. I experience privilege daily, and, at the same time, I have been threatened with social exclusion, intimidation, and even violence for my own ill-favored difference. Antisemitism is an old problem. It is in this context of passing that I observe a potential means of discussing racism and other prevalent social prejudices albeit sensitively.
Frankly, we are all passing in some way because we are all hiding something. Everyone has secrets, and no one is wont to be singled out and found unacceptable for that which makes them different. When we become willing to closely examine those ideas, practice empathy, and take on that different perspective, the external differences in others begin to matter less because we have all, at one time or another, shared in that common experience; and common experience tends to open dialogues.
Even if many of us have never experienced extreme social isolation, shaming, violence, and the resultant pain associated with social bias and racism, most of us know what fear feels like. We know what it means to want to hide. Recognizing that ‘sameness’ in our emotional experiences enables us to pass out from under judgment and fear and move into developing curiosity about other people’s experiences which cultivates open communication and the possibility for new relationships and bridge building.
We are the ones who will shape the future of race relations. Person by person. Not the policy makers.
Sometimes, however, you might have to begin to have those first conversations with yourself. By the way, I’ve passed on passing, too. I think my grandmother would actually be proud.