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Re: Tracing Persons Passing for White

Now check this out from the Philadelphia Daily News: The People Paper
philly.com concerning the issue of passing for white

Posted on Fri, Oct. 31, 2003

Passing for white is not quite passe
By DAVID CRARY
Associated Press

NEW YORK - America is more diverse than ever and racial pride is strong, yet a new movie and book are highlighting a phenomenon that seems like a relic of the segregationist past - black people passing as white.

The film, "The Human Stain," is an adaptation of Philip Roth's novel about a college professor, played by Anthony Hopkins, who conceals his racial background.

The book, "Passing: When People Can't Be Who They Are," by Brooke Kroeger, a New York University journalism professor, includes a sympathetic profile of a black man who passed as a white Jew during the 1980s and '90s.

Paul Johnston, a retired X-ray technician, knows of passing firsthand. His parents, Albert and Thyra Johnston, passed as white along with Paul and his three older siblings while the family lived in two New Hampshire towns during the 1930s and '40s. Albert Johnston was a physician in the community.

The truth of the Johnstons' background came out in 1941, when Albert Johnston was rejected as a Navy officer. But despite the family's fears, townspeople in Keene, N.H., were generally receptive to them even after the news spread, and the Johnstons' experience was movingly depicted in a 1949 film, "Lost Boundaries."

Paul Johnston, 68, is now married to a woman of Irish descent who has nine children from a previous marriage. "Some of the kids were pretty prejudiced, but they grew to like me," he said in a telephone interview. "They thought it was quite fascinating that something like this [his family's passing] would happen."

Johnston, who says some of his relatives continue to pass for white, lives in a predominantly white town on Cape Cod.

"Almost nobody knows of my background, not because I've kept it a secret, just because I haven't talked about it much except to a few people in my church," he said.

Like Johnston, psychologist Juanita Brooks lived for years in a predominantly white community, knowing that most of her acquaintances in Melbourne Beach, Fla., were unaware of her background.

The daughter of a white woman and black man, Brooks describes herself as a biracial person with a white appearance.

Though she is proud of her heritage, and once rejected a prospective employer's offer to classify her as white, Brooks didn't make her background widely known until 2001. Then, she decided to cooperate with a local newspaper that wrote about how the 2000 census had given her the option - for the first time - of listing herself as both African-American and white.

"It felt like I was coming out," she said. "Not that I ever passed for white, but there were assumptions my acquaintances made...I was allowing people to believe whatever they wanted to believe, unless race came up in a conversation."

Brooks, 56, said she grew up assuming she had no choice but to consider herself black.

"The word 'multiracial' was not in our vocabulary back then," she said. "You had to choose - society made you choose." Now racial lines are less stark, she said, and it "feels wonderful."

Some other Americans prefer an element of ambiguity when it comes to their racial identity.

Hollywood action star Vin Diesel, for example, says he doesn't know who his biological father is. Many moviegoers assume he is white, and he declines to elaborate on what he calls a complex racial background - a stance that frustrates some blacks.

"Black folks aren't offended by the fact that Diesel can play multiple ethnicities on screen," wrote James Hill, a producer with BET, on the network's Web site. "It's when he's not being paid to pretend that we want him to assert his blackness, or his half-blackness - or something."

In "The Human Stain," Philip Roth's fictional protagonist, Coleman Silk, was loosely modeled on the late Anatole Broyard, for many years a prominent literary critic for the New York Times.

Broyard was born to a black family in New Orleans and grew up in a black section of Brooklyn, but as a young man stopped seeing relatives and friends from his past and lived the rest of life as white.

Anna Deavere Smith, a black actress, plays the mother of the young Coleman Silk in the film, which intrigued her partly because she had a light-skinned great-aunt who occasionally passed for white.

"She told me she had passed as Spanish so she could be a dancer," Smith said. "Even in the segregation era, she never sat in the colored section. She used it to get ahead."

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Tracing Persons Passing for White
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18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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