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Passing (sociology)

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Passing (sociology)

Passing is the ability of a person to be regarded as a member of social groups other than his or her own, such as a different race, ethnicity, caste, social class, gender, age and/or disability status, generally with the purpose of gaining social acceptance [1] or to cope with difference anxiety. This may take the form of changing only one group from the person's own, such as a person's dressing so as to pretend to be of a higher social class.

Etymologically, the term is simply the nominalisation of the verb pass in its phrasal use with for or as, as in a counterfeit passing for the genuine article or an impostor passing as another person. It has been in popular use since at least the late 1920s.[2]

Social class

Class passing, analogous to racial and gender passing, is the concealment or misrepresentation of one’s social class. Whereas racial and gender passing is often stigmatized, class passing is generally accepted as normative behavior.[3] Passing in the context of caste, as prevalent in the Indian sub-continent, is also called Sanskritization. Class passing is common in US media and is linked to the notion of the American Dream and of upward class mobility. English-language novels which feature class passing include The Talented Mr. Ripley, Anne of Green Gables, and Horatio Alger novels. Films featuring class-passing characters include Catch Me If You Can and Andy Hardy Meets Debutante.[4] Class passing also figures into reality television programs such as Joe Millionaire: contestants are often immersed in displays of great material wealth, or may have to conceal their class status.[5]

Motives for class passing might include:

  • Achievement of class mobility. Individuals may class pass to achieve social mobility. For instance, working-class students may class pass in educational institutions to obtain academic credentials and the associated rewards.[6]
  • Concealment of previous class status. Upwardly mobile individuals may class pass to conceal previous membership in the lower or working classes.[7]
  • Membership in the Working Class. Membership in the working class can be construed from multiple viewpoints: on the one hand, working-class identification can be a source of positive identification; on the other, working-class identity can be a source of stigma. Working-class individuals report fear of disclosure of their identity, particularly if poor performance at work or school or deviant behavior may be attributed to them.[8] For instance, a study of working-class students found that they link the fear of performing poorly on standardized tests to a fear of being discovered as working class.[9]

Ethnicity and race

The origin of passing stems from mixed-race Americans, most often black, passing as other ethnicities, most often white. The term has been expanded to include other ethnicities and situations. Discriminated groups In North America and Europe may modify their accents, word choices, manner of dress, grooming habits, and even names in an attempt to appear to be members of a majority group or of a privileged minority group.[10][11]

The 1929 novella Passing helped to establish the term after several years of prior usage. The writer and subject of the novel are mixed African-American/Caucasian who pass for white. The novella was written during the Harlem Renaissance, when passing was very common in both reality and fiction. Since the Movements for civil rights of the 1960s, racial pride decreased the weight given to passing as an important issue for black Americans. Still, it is possible and common for biracial people to pass based on appearance, or by hiding or omitting their backgrounds.[12][13]

Circumcised Jewish males in Germany during World War II attempted to restore their foreskins as part of passing as Gentile.The film Europa, Europa explores this theme.


Passing as a member of a different religion or as not religious at all is not uncommon among minority religious communities.

Gender and sexual orientation

Passing as a different sexual orientation has traditionally been an action taken by homosexual men and women who pretend to be heterosexual to avoid embarrassment or hostility. The phrase "in the closet" is often used for a secret homosexual or bisexual.

Within the transgender community, "passing" is used to mean when a transitioned or transitioning trans man or trans woman is recognised as their transitioned gender in everyday life without giving away their birth-assigned sex, i.e. when they are assimilated with the cisgender majority.


Passing among persons with disabilities is a complex situation more commonly addressed via the parallel terms visible and invisible disabilities. Visible disabilities'are those impairments which are readily apparent to a non-disabled person: for instance wheelchair use or facial disfigurement; invisible disabilities are those which are not immediately apparent: for instance hearing impairments, mental health or neurological disorders. Whether a particular disability is "visible" or "invisible" can vary on both individual and contextual bases; a wheelchair user may only use the wheelchair under certain circumstances and move apparently normally under others, a prosthetic limb may or may not be apparent, depending on clothing. A particular disabled person may often have both visible and invisible disabilities.

Whether a disabled person is invisibly or visibly disabled or both can affect the provision of services and the likelihood and types of discriminatory behaviour which is experienced. Visibly disabled people are more likely to suffer random harassment for appearance; invisibly disabled people may experience harassment when attempting to access facilities provided for people with disabilities. A disabled person with both visible and invisible disabilities may experience substantial difficulty in directing attention to the less apparent invisible disability.

The inherent visual aspect of a visible disability provides a visual foundation for building charitable or campaigning activity around, for instance the March of Dimes; while this foundation is absent for invisible disabilities. This dichotomy may result in less funding and care for invisible disabilities. In the United States, Medicare provides much less funding for mental than physical disabilities.

See also


  1. ^ Daniel G. Renfrow, "A Cartography of Passing in Everyday Life," Symbolic Interaction, Vol. 27, Issue 4, pp. 485-506; Maria C. Sanchez, Passing: Identity and Interpretation in Sexuality, Race, and Religion, NYU Press, 2001.
  2. ^ Nella Larsen, Passing, 1929. Caroline Bond Day and Earnest Albert Hooton, A Study of Some Negro-White Families in the United States (Cambridge MA: Harvard University, 1932). Melville J. Herskovits, The Anthropometry of the American Negro (New York: Columbia University, 1930). Cheryl I. Harris, "On Passing: Whiteness as Property," 106 Harvard Law Review, 1709-1795, 1710-1712 (1993)
  3. ^ Foster, Gwendolyn Audrey. Class-passing: Social Mobility in Film and Popular Culture, Carbondale, Il: Southern Illinois University Press, 2005, pp. 1-5.
  4. ^ Foster, Gwendolyn Audrey. '',Class-passing: Social Mobility in Film and Popular Culture, Carbondale, Il: Southern Illinois University Press, 2005, pp. 6-13
  5. ^ Foster, Gwendolyn Audrey. Class-passing: Social Mobility in Film and Popular Culture. Carbondale, Il: Southern Illinois University Press, 2005, p. 6.
  6. ^ Reay, Diane. "Finding or Losing Yourself? Working Class Relationships to Education", The RoutledgeFalmer Reader, in Sociology of Education, ed. Stephen J. Ball. London: RoutledgeFalmer, 2004, p. 33.
  7. ^ Foster, Gwendolyn Audrey. Class-passing: Social Mobility in Film and Popular Culture, Carbondale, Il: Southern Illinois University Press, 2005, p. 89.
  8. ^ Skeggs, Beverly. Formations of Class & Gender, London: SAGE publications, 1997, pp. 74-77.
  9. ^ Reay, Diane. "Finding or Losing Yourself? Working Class Relationships to Education", The RoutledgeFalmer Reader, Sociology of Education, ed. Stephen J. Ball. London: RoutledgeFalmer, 2004, pp. 39-41.
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