History professor speaks on the history of “passing” for a different identity

Ari Davis
Allyson Hobbs speaks to students at BYU about the African American history of passing as white in the Joseph F. Smith building. (Ari Davis)

Stanford University’s American history professor Allyson Hobbs visited campus on Friday Mar. 25, 2016. Women’s Studies Colloquium hosted a lecture at the Joseph F. Smith building on a history of racial passing American life.

Hobbs earned her bachelor’s degree at Harvard University and her Ph. D. at the University of Chicago. She teaches courses on American identity, African American history, African American Women’s history and twentieth century American history and culture.

She started her lecture asking present students and professors to discuss common “mistaken identities” made in society based on race, class or religion. Students shared different experiences when they were often stereotyped into a certain identity by strangers.

Hobbs explained people often make the assumption they have this knowledge that enables them to speak on someone else’s experience even when they may not know anything about that other person.

“There’s an interesting way that our identities are sometimes not our own, in a sense that other people are able to make certain assumptions about us. It doesn’t necessary shape our identity but in some ways it can,” Hobbs said.

Hobbs went on to analyze the history of African American’s “passing” as white due to a lighter skin tone- whether intentionally or not, it was often seen as an advantage. She shared several historical examples and stories of African Americans passing as white.

“Conventional wisdom tells us that a history of passing cannot be written, that those who passed left no trace in the historical record. I believe the sources were out there for historians, just waiting to be discovered,” Hobbs said.

Past sources reveal “passing” to be a deeply individualistic practice and social act with enormous social consequences, according to Hobbs. Some examples of those who “passed” were willing to leave their backgrounds and family behind.

She said “those who were left behind described the pain and loss of this act, just as keenly as those who passed.” Hobbs explained many who passed as white did so in hope of gaining social benefits, although it often included loss of family and original identity.

“Race was quite real to those lived with it, not because of skin color or existentialists notions about biology, but because it was social and experimental. Because it involved one’s closest relationships and one’s most intimate communities,” Hobbs said.

She explained that living in a country obsessed with racial distinction, “passing” demonstrated just how unreliable one’s appearance was in determining their race.

In the 1940’s and through the 1960’s, the black press published several testimonials of African Americans and the real psychological and emotional damaging effects of “passing.” With the civil rights movement, more African Americans eventually found pride in being “black.”

She said that even though we live in a society that allows for greater acceptance of mixed race identities, the core issues of race and identity remain.

“Some African Americans view passing as a crucial channel leading to physical and personal freedom. What they could’t fully know until they had successfully passed was that the light of freedom was often overshadowed by the darkness of loss,” Hobbs said.



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