Passing, the Movie

I heard about “passing” a long time ago. It’s when a light-skin toned Black person “passes” as White to assume the position in society of a member of the White population. It’s a phrase and persona from our time in history when slavery existed. It was a rough time. To pass as White meant to pass as free. I thought it was over when people tried to exist as Multiracial, not making them choose to be one race or another. Passing as white in the 21st-century is more controversial: it is often seen as a rejection of blackness, family, and culture.

There are many problems with passing. The most recent one is that a movie is coming out soon called “Passing.” It tries to dignify the most private of a person’s identity—race. Passing was not dignified. It was lying to get what someone wanted, to be a “better race” at that point in time. There was a carryover to a generation that theoretically ended by about 1960. People started to find pride in being Multiracial, not blindly lying to get what they felt they should be.

It’s back.

A movie called “Passing” will premier in November on Netflix, based on the Nella Larson book of 1929. Will you watch it? That’s a personal decision, but I know for me the answer is “No.” I watched a piece on CBS News Sunday Morning recently that promoted passing, but CBS claims they never promote anything. Really?

The CBS piece was the lead story that Sunday. It included people whispering, “Does he know?” “You have to make a choice to be one or the other,” and, “She couldn’t be my mother!” It’s right there with the word “mutt.” I wrote to the show’s producer and stated my displeasure at their involvement in bringing the concept of passing back into common language. CBS claims that they have received many kudos on how well the story was told. People even liked that words like “mutt” were in a story CBS had on interracial marriage. I simply don’t believe it. Not many people want to go back to the movie “Imitation of Life.” I’m one of them.

I watched “Imitation of Life” when I was a teenager. It was timely then. I also watched the movie “Loving,” more recently which was about Mildred and Richard Loving and their quest to get married as an interracial couple. The movie was wonderful. But Passing seems different. It’s how People of Color “elevated” themselves to the majority race, often at great emotional cost to themselves and their families. Why should “White” be something to aspire to? What is this movie trying to say?

But, again, it’s your personal decision. It’s similar to Critical Race Theory, which is being discussed by educators, parents, school administrators, politicians, and the students themselves. Critical Race Theory (CRT) is an entire discussion and powder keg of its own, so I won’t go into it here except to say that the educators, not the parents, would be giving most of the racist history to the children. It gets complicated.

I know that I wanted to be the one to talk to my children about difficult concepts when they were young. Interracially married parents are not stupid. We know we must have the discussion about “driving while black” with our kids when they get their drivers’ licenses or before no matter what race police officers think they are. Many talks about hair come with Multiracial children. Being called names like “mutt” must be addressed. I want to have these talks at home, not in the schools.

How does a white teacher in an urban or suburban school explain these concepts to my children? It had better be very carefully. How does that teacher teach “the other side” of the passing story? Was there one? I was outraged when I heard that if CRT teaches about the Holocaust, it must teach the “other side” of it. What?! There is no positive other side of the Holocaust. But let’s get back to passing.

Passing should be something of the past. Can Rebecca Hall’s movie on Passing dredge up the past again? Should it? We are not calling for a boycott of the movie because whether to watch it or not should be up to a family, not CBS or Netflix. I, for one, won’t be joining you if you do.

Susan Graham, for Project RACE