Passings That Pass in America:
Crossing Over and Coming Back to Tell About It

TEMPORARILY PASSING as an other is a universal fantasy and a not uncommon practice. From Arab potentates dressed as commoners to check on the governance of their realms, to women going into combat as male soldiers, it has a long history, and passing is a phenomenon of particular resonance in the contemporary United States.[1] In the affluent postwar decades, the belief that the middle class would come to encompass all was challenged by white middle-class exclusion of African-Americans from membership in this classless utopia, and of women from a patriarchal order. Today, this ideology of prosperity has changed; it is now predicated on the permanent existence of extremes in wealth and poverty, the unrelenting insecurity of an unconstrained market society and the emotional costs of gender norms. These are the contexts for the appearance of a number of widely-read accounts of race, class, and gender passing in the United States.

American culture glorifies the self-made man and this self-making extends to individual identity. The United States celebrates geographical and social mobility and the very anomie this produces is also the site of secular rebirths. In this essay, I will examine a literary genre that draws upon the American faith in self-transformation in an effort to confront the social boundaries that define its limits: narratives of white middle-class individuals who seek to live as an other for a while with the aim of revealing to their social group of origin its role in creating and sustaining the marginalization and oppression of the other whose identity they temporarily assume. John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me and Grace Halsell’s Soul Sister and Bessie Yellowhair were products of an era when the challenges that racial integration presented to white middle-class society gave new impetus to the tradition of participant-observer social scientists and journalists living as workers and reporting on the experience. I conclude with a reading of recent accounts of inter- and intra-class passing: Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch, and Norah Vincent’s memoir of gender passing, Self-Made Man.

Writing a memoir is an integral element of returning from the experience of passing as an other. It involves a textual performance as the other, or, more exactly, performing the creation of the other as the product of the gaze and practices of the readers’ world. Apostrophes in the text identify the primary audience as readers who share the author’s racial and class identity of origin, a white middle class whose cultural blindness is revealed by the ease with which passers can pass as the other whom the white middle class employs, abuses, neglects, or refuses to see. Texts of passing are ostensibly directed at revealing an unknown other and there is a substantial literature rightly directed to criticizing this project as naïve, elitist, or worse.[2] My goal in this essay is to read these texts as revealing of the different passers’ dialogue with the cultures from which they come (and in which they situate their presumed readers). Entering the space of the other can initiate a dialogue with one’s self, leading to examination, critique and the possibility of change in the reader’s relation to his or her culture of origin. Memoirs of passing often conclude with the threat of retribution against those who passed for challenging taboos from the passer’s society of origin.[3] The reader is called to review his or her own culture and to take a stand.

These texts can be situated historically in the context of the late twentieth-century American ideology of multiculturalism. An account of passing to address prejudice such as Black Like Me is suspicious of valorizing difference and has little place for articulation and affirmation of different and unique cultural identities.[4] While multiculturalism can suggest the multiple contesting identities within each individual, multiculturalism in the contemporary United States more commonly celebrates the viability and value of different identity communities. Multiculturalism is an ideology that, as Nathan Glazer contends, has its roots in the failure of American society’s efforts to overcome the “two nations” of “black” and “white” through assimilation and integration.[5] It is a way of organizing and giving meaning to our conception of a fragmented society. Narratives of “passing” are rooted in a temporary, unregulated carnivalesque exchange of identities antithetical to the multiculturalist project.

Teaching Passings That Pass Texts

Examining the construction of social and cultural difference is a fundamental element of a variety of courses in modern history. Reading and discussion of the works analyzed in this essay would allow students to see how a genre of social issues literature develops in an historical context.[6] Each book was written and read when it appeared in light of its predecessors, but each in turn examined new issues from different perspectives. These accounts of temporary passing tell us more about contemporary American understandings of identity and difference than they do about the particular identity communities entered, but this is the point. Successful teaching of the history of the construction of difference recognizes that invariably students initially broach this project as individuals. Critical assessment of memoirs about passing and their limitations can lead students to a revealing dialogue about the nature and history of all identities, including their own.[7]

Any one of these texts can be assigned as a primary source on social relations and the construction of difference. They can also be read collectively as a means of critically assessing a particular way of undertaking and presenting social research.[8] Precisely because these works are so accessible, they are particularly useful for developing students’ skills as critical readers. What is the author’s goal? By what means does the author construct her or his self and relationship to the reader, and how do these develop over the course of the narration? Why are readers told certain things (and not others)? Working with these questions provides the basis of the analysis of the texts in this essay. To situate these texts historically, students can read contemporary reviews. What did reviewers find important or criticize and what does this tell us about the society in which they were writing?

Because the writer’s authority in accounts of passing is based on experience rather than scholarly expertise, students often feel more engaged in developing critiques of such works than of studies based on extensive academic research. Students also learn to engage with first-person accounts not simply by questioning their accuracy, but by assessing why the author interpreted experience in one way rather than in another. Students see that each of these texts has its insights and limitations. These texts call for readers to respond in a particularly insistent fashion. But in the process, students develop as historians when they do not always respond as the author would like, and analyze what it is about their own identities and experiences, their own historical situation, that makes them rebel against the author’s expectations. Students’ recognition of problems in these texts offer them an opening to explore in new ways problems in the society in which the texts are set, as well as to examine critically the act of passing as a means to research the otherwise unseen in society.

Race Passing

In 1959 the white John Howard Griffin took medication that darkened his skin and allowed him to pass as black in the American south for six weeks. This was not his first experience in becoming an other.[9] In 1935, as a teen-aged Texan, Griffin received a scholarship to a lycée in Tours (France) and at the outbreak of the war, he was a student in medical school there, specializing in psychiatry. Griffin also served as an assistant to the director of the asylum in Tours and when the director was conscripted, he took over direction of the asylum. Following the defeat of France, Griffin joined a French Resistance movement and worked to smuggle German and Austrian Jewish children, disguised in straitjackets as mental patients, out of Tours to the coast where they could be taken across the channel. When the Gestapo uncovered his activities, Griffin’s movement sent him to England. From there, he returned to the United States and joined the army. In 1945, Griffin was blinded by a war injury. He came to understand how the blind functioned as an “other,” to be pitied or abused, but denied individuality and treatment as normal by the sighted. Griffin wrote a guide for the sighted who were in close contact with blind people to help them understand how their mode of interacting could be so hurtful. He deeply resented this status, a status he lost but did not forget when his sight unexpectedly returned in 1957.

Griffin became a staff writer for Sepia, a glossy monthly directed to a black audience. In 1959, preparing to write an article on suicide and suicidal thoughts among Southern blacks, Griffin found that the black professionals to whom he turned would not speak with him. Finally the magazine editor explained that blacks knew a white, no matter how sympathetic, could never understand life as a black. So Griffin set out “to reveal the truth of what it was like to be discriminated against.”[10] He chose passing as a form of performance art to be able to present white treatment of blacks and its effects. After six weeks, he effected a resurrection as the white who was not white, that is to say he was no longer an individual blind to the racism rooted in white cultural practices.[11] Griffin was the antithesis of Norman Mailer’s contemporaneous “White Negro,” the white who imitates blacks to lay a claim to the sexual power he lacks, and to compensate for the blandness of an ostensibly universal homogenizing white culture.[12] Nor did he resemble Dustin Hoffman playing Dorothy Michaels in Sydney Pollack’s Tootsie (1982), who cannot help but show with masculine bravado that he can present himself as a woman better than women. Griffin altered nothing but his skin color. He kept the same occupation, speech pattern and dress. His point was that a change in skin color alone altered the way whites responded to him. Griffin is like the character of Phil Green played by Gregory Peck in Elia Kazan’s Gentlemen’s Agreement (1947), who makes no changes in his appearance or persona when adopting the identity of a Jew in order to experience anti-semitism in New York City so he could write about it in “I lived eight weeks as a Jew.”

Griffin sought to experience white treatment of the Negro in the Deep South, traveling from Louisiana to Georgia. He wrote in Black Like Me of passing as black for readers whom Griffin assumed to be white. Griffin’s account of his experience appeared first as a series of articles in Sepia. These were close to the version he published in Black Like Me, although they lack the development of some of the most powerful scenes in Black Like Me, those in which Griffin confronts not simply the racism of other whites, but the racism he as a white necessarily carried within and sought to purge. The Sepia essays were a confirmation for blacks of what they already knew. Black Like Me was a book written to encourage white introspection. Although Griffin may have been told things African-Americans would not have said to whites, he had limited access to black culture and could not have written “African-American like me.”

When Griffin includes black voices not heard by whites, it is to counter the white racist defense that Griffin’s responses are those of a white to treatment that does not bother blacks. Griffin projected on to blacks traits he saw as effects of white racism, before assuming these himself: “I noted, too, that my face had lost animation. In repose, it had taken on the strained, disconsolate expression that is written on the countenance of so many southern Negroes.”[13] Shelby Steele is correct in observing that Black Like Me “tended to mistake the black stigma for the entire black experience.”[14] Becoming black has allowed Griffin to explore not black cultures, but white racist cultures, including the obsessive fantasies about black sexuality that white males tell black males, but would not otherwise admit: “With a Negro, they assumed they need give no semblance of self-respect or respectability.”[15] As for Griffin’s self-critique of his own racism, it is enmeshed in ideas of black male sexuality. “My conditioning as a Negro, and the immense sexual implications with which the racists in our culture bombard us, cut me off, even in my most intimate self, from any connection with my wife.”[16] Griffin feared he would be seen as a “spy for whites;”[17] he was in fact a spy on whites and their creation of “whiteness” through often unacknowledged assertions of power and humiliation in interactions with blacks.

The underlying narrative of Black Like Me is Griffin’s recognition of his own previously unacknowledged racism. He confronted this when he saw himself as black in appearance with all this connoted in the white society in which he had been raised. Reflecting later on Black Like Me, Griffin recalls looking at himself in black skin in a mirror.
That glance in the mirror brought a sickening shock that I tried not to admit, not to recognize, but I could not avoid it. It was the shock of seeing my black face in the mirror and of feeling an involuntary movement of antipathy for that face, because it was pigmented, the face of a Negro. I realized then that although intellectually I had liberated myself from the prejudice which our Southern culture inculcates in us, these prejudices were so profoundly dredged in me that at the emotional level I was in no way liberated.
But living with Negro families he discovers that the Other he had constructed was not truly other—”that the Other is me.”[18] Griffin was aware that the primary audience for Black Like Me would be whites who deny their racism as he had—and may have made their decision to read his book emblematic of their perception that they are free of racism. He knew they would seek to evade his confession, desiring instead to identify with the courage they attribute to Griffin the passer. Yet Griffin’s self-examination is the subject of the book and his intense exploration of his depressions and recoveries are intended to make the white reader participate in the drama of “Griffin Like Me.” By encouraging identification with Griffin the white who has lost his moorings, Griffin aspires to bring whites to feel the consequences of their actions and inaction.

Writing in a racist society, Griffin sees that the objectivity claimed by social scientists acts as a screen that denies to the white reader the experience of looking in the mirror that he wants them to feel when reading Black Like Me. Griffin exposes nothing that social scientists had not already documented. What he does do is develop an aesthetic form to show to white audiences an element of the experience of African-Americans, something white social scientists could present only as knowledge of an other, an other distinctly differentiated in order to preserve the observer’s objectivity. Or, to put it another way, he shows that the social scientific model posits the other under examination as different, marked by alien subjectivity, while the reader Griffin evokes is asked to see the contribution he or she makes to creation of an other’s status as different. Griffin devotes the long final section of Black Like Me to the act of writing his account, when threats to him as a “race traitor” forced Griffin and his family to leave their home in Texas and move temporarily to Mexico. Having his audience read about the act of writing is crucial to Griffin’s effort to make (white) readers complete the “like me” experience by assessing how they will make sense of their experience of reading, as he could do of the experience of passing only when writing of it.

Race Passing a Decade Later

The veteran foreign correspondent Grace Halsell pursued Griffin’s project in 1968, quitting her job as the highest-ranking woman on President Lyndon Johnson’s staff to spend time in black skin in Harlem and later in Mississippi, and then recounting her experiences in Soul Sister. A few years later, Halsell went to live on a Navajo reservation, adopted the identity of a Navajo woman she met there, and then went as a Navajo to work as a childcare provider for a Euro-American family in California, an experience she chronicled in Bessie Yellowhair. Halsell takes the reader on a different voyage from Griffin. She confronts the unadulterated racism of southern whites in Mississippi a decade after Griffin, but her experiences in Harlem and on the reservation are more revealing. Griffin’s discovery was of a shared humanitarian essence that obviated discussion of cultural difference. But Halsell meets politicized young blacks who assert a pride in their race identity. If racist whites had responded with anger to Griffin’s crossing the race line, Halsell confronts northern blacks who reject her efforts to adopt a black identity. She in turn comes to believe that blacks are like her, a white, not simply in human terms (as for Griffin), but because she sees whites, especially Southern whites like herself, and African-Americans as sharing a fundamental culture: “Nothing black was alien to me,” she writes.[19] However, she posits Native American culture as fundamentally different:
As a ‘black’ I was like any other tough-minded, competitive, aggressive American. But as an `Indian’, I was submissive, passive, and extremely vulnerable, not knowing how to defend myself against the more subtle oppression of an almost impersonal ‘enemy’, contemptuous, arrogant, insensitive…. [E]ven after I escaped back into the white world, I felt the agony of emotions in conflict: my values, aspirations, mode of life seemed somehow to be under indictment. Through a transference I hardly understood, I believed that the Indian concept of being was more appealing than that of achieving.[20]Halsell came to feel that adoption of a Native American persona required radical changes in her, not simply cosmetic ones to test the society from which she came.

Halsell had grown up poor in the Depression-era west Texas from which Griffin came, but she situates the discrimination she experienced when passing as a black and as a Native American historically as stemming in large part from a homogenized consumer society and the quest for security and acquisitions that she saw dominating the postwar middle-class cultural imagination. Halsell believes this materialism is shared by black ghetto residents lured by the availability of goods on credit and by the middle-class blacks she condemns as acting as “master of ceremonies for programs whitey controls.”[21] In the job she took as a typist in Harlem Hospital, working with middle-class blacks, Halsell found that they were “no different, the middle class being the middle class, from whitey.”[22] In Harlem, Halsell had little direct contact with whites and their racist practices. She adopted the voice of the black militant to denounce what she saw as the cost of black middle-class collaboration in the white middle-class world. Halsell condemned her fellow black employees who asked her to wear stockings for “holding up the standards, the values of the white System. She was to conform because clothes make the man, to be like others, to act the role of what is ‘normal’ and respectable.”[23] In Bessie Yellowhair, Halsell frequently speaks in a voice drawn from black militants to criticize Native American women who style their hair or dress like white middle-class women.

Halsell found her later experience passing as a Navajo more difficult than that of passing as a black. Rather than taking on a different skin color while maintaining the same personality, she claimed that since it was not physical appearance, but culture which differentiated whites from Native Americans, she would initially have to spend time with the Navajos to assume the cultural psychology necessary to experience passing. Her critique of the white middle-class society in Bessie Yellowhair came in the way she interpreted the act of passing as the other. Halsell’s confrontation with white middle class individuals only confirmed what she already felt through confrontation with her own self when “becoming” Navajo. Halsell claimed to have assumed temporarily, through the experience of passing, a Navajo spiritual outlook, “quiet, passive and peaceful,” at odds with the white middle-class society from which she came and which, as a Navajo woman, she found to be “aggressive, loud, materialistic.”[24]

As a child, Halsell had grown up with tales of Euro-American children kidnapped by Indians in western Texas. If they were brought back, “Always there was the question: can the prisoner be rehabilitated? [There was] the feeling that the white inhabitants had a tenuous grasp upon their own culture.”[25] This sense that the experience of passing will change the passer is the goal and the anxiety at work in any narrative of passing. Readers of Bessie Yellowhair may at first be surprised to find that Halsell lasted only a few days as a childcare provider for a white middle-class family until they recall the account given by Bessie Yellowhair, the Navajo woman whose identity Halsell has taken. She tells of Bessie’s experience as a childcare provider and her need to escape after a short time as well. If Halsell could have stayed, it would have been evidence that she had not really adopted the persona of a Navajo.

Because Halsell believes that white and African-American cultures share the same qualities, she interprets the message of radical black politics directed towards whites as not simply or even primarily for whites to purge their racism, but as a call for whites to purge their hollow selves:
Like the militants around me I too want to scream ‘Hell, no!’ to forces that would reduce us to cogs in a system that destroys individualism. Does the white man say the black militants are alienated? The black militants feel the one-sided emphasis on techniques and material consumption has caused the white man to lose touch with himself, with life. And that it is he, whitey, and the Uncle Toms, the black man or woman who apes whitey, who is alienated, lost, lost from himself.[26]

Consequently, Halsell concludes Soul Sister with a covetous glance at the “soul” she bestows on herself in the title of her book. She offers readers no insight into black culture, but what she takes from it reveals to her not simply whites’ role in the creation of a stigmatized black other, but this other’s revelation of the self-alienation of white culture:
We are in one sense self-segregated. It is this isolation from man’s inner world—the source of personality, character, and if you like, soul—that pains and cripples the white American, I believe, even more than the black American. Many white Americans have become so estranged from the inner world they argue it does not exist, and even if it does, that it does not matter.

Now the Negroes are shouting at the top of their lungs, ‘Don’t forget soul,’ reminding us of the emptiness of life without it. White Americans, obsessed by their material goals, driven to protect their gains and gadgets, could learn from the blacks that all the money in the world and what it buys will not bring them ‘soul’.[27]Halsell’s reflections on soul are akin to the white male’s attribution of sexuality to black males, and to the hipster’s reflections on the Negro in Mailer’s “White Negro.” Whatever Halsell might have learned about black culture and experience is subordinated to a critical examination of the culture in which she and her putative readers live. And black articulation of “soul” offers Halsell a model for making the otherwise impossible move from white middle class values to those she identifies in Native American culture.

As a pioneering female professional, Halsell lived with the expectation that she act as a woman, but that such acting could make her appear unprofessional. Halsell created narratives about her experiences of passing in terms drawn from the contemporaneous women’s liberation movement. In a later memoir, she wrote, “Living as a black maid in Mississippi and working in Los Angeles as ‘Bessie Yellowhair’ … I quickly discovered the truth that … women of my generation were programmed to become enslaved.”[28] Halsell responded in feminist terms to those like Malcolm X, who scoffed at whites’ passing experiences of being non-white, writing, “from the beginning I had credentials to ‘pass’ as the Other, having lived a lifetime not as a minority but nevertheless a Second Sex, one Other Than a Man.”[29] Adopting Navajo culture, Halsell thinks she finds herself feeling submissive and open to white self-denigration; she believes she is coming to understand how a woman could became submissive to a domineering spouse (and then replays her own life experience of embracing and escaping such a situation as a teenage bride). As a successful journalist in a male-dominated profession, she sees her experiences as an “other” as having a therapeutic element. “I wanted to strip myself to see who I was, to see if there was anything there.”[30] The experience of passing is interpreted as an instrument of self-knowledge beyond learning of whites’ racism and its effects. Casting herself into utterly foreign worlds, she learns (like Griffin) to accept and appreciate the caring actions of strangers she could never have tolerated as a white woman social pioneer. That the act of passing, which required breaking relations with the world from which one came, could act as therapy suggested that this white middle-class world was not only an agent of racism, but self-destructive in other ways as well.

Class Passing

Like Griffin and Halsell, Barbara Ehrenreich used her experience of passing to explore the middle class from which she came.[31] In 1977, she and her then husband John Ehrenreich argued that the core of the American middle class was the Professional-Managerial Class (PMC), salaried menial workers who did not own the means of production but who played an instrumental role in the reproduction of capitalist culture and capitalist class relations. The PMC had its origins in the wresting from workers of their control of the labor process and of their lives. An elitism nurtured by an ideology of expertise distanced the PMC from the working class, but could also put the PMC in opposition to the irrationality and single-minded search for profit of the capitalism that employed and empowered them. They believed, further, that the New Left in the United States, rooted as it was in the PMC that was in-the-making in universities, indeed did challenge capitalism, but would also have to learn to challenge as well the elitism that distanced the PMC from the working class: “The left, which is now predominantly drawn from the PMC, must address itself to other subjective and cultural aspects of class oppression as well as to material inequalities; it must commit itself to uprooting its own ingrained and often subtle attitude of condescension and elitism.”[32]

Barbara Ehrenreich returned to writing about the PMC a decade later in Fear of Falling. Here she argued that what she identifies as the largely white PMC middle class, in which she places herself, developed ideas about other social groups and acted upon them in response to its own needs. She wrote, “The invented poor were a reflection of middle-class needs and a projection of middle-class anxieties.”[33] This suggests how we should read her later work, Nickel and Dimed, and explains the many invitations Ehrenreich offers middle-class readers of this work to identify with her and to learn about themselves by considering their responses to her experience. Ehrenreich mentions attributes of her life, when she is not passing as an other, several times—her Ph.D. and her health club membership and trim body (the quintessential “yuppie” performance)[34]—in order to assure that middle-class readers see themselves in her. Nickel and Dimed recounts how she worked undercover as a housecleaner, waitress, healthcare worker and sales employee. In it, Ehrenreich seeks to show why material constraints, especially housing costs and the expense of adequate health care, could make working-class individuals experience psychological “neediness,”[35] and how this might encourage them to make decisions that middle-class readers might otherwise attribute to moral deficiencies. She seeks to lead her middle-class readers to recognize their responsibility for the creation and maintenance of inhuman conditions for the working poor, and to make the PMC understand their role in the deprivation of the “basic civil rights” and “self-respect” of the working poor. She further asks the PMC to understand the ways in which their assertions of their cultural and social superiority produce powerlessness, arguing, “If you’re made to feel unworthy enough, you may come to think that what you’re paid is what you are actually worth.”[36]

Ehrenreich confirms her self-identified “upper middle-class” credentials for the reader by telling precisely the story the middle class often uses to dismiss those whose plight she is seeking to present. The American middle class tells itself that whatever privileges they now enjoy are the fruit of a past social climbing, whether of one’s ancestors or one’s self. So she tells how her own father worked as a copper miner as a young man, claiming such a past, and the desire to tell it, are defining attributes of the American middle class which validates itself by reference to achievement. “Do it better than anyone has ever done it before. Or so said my father, who must have known what he was talking about because he managed to pull himself, and us with him, up from the mile-deep copper mines of Butte to the leafy suburb of the Northeast.”[37] Her father’s success as an executive for the Gillette Corporation haunts Nickel and Dimed; “Take away the career and the higher education, and maybe what you’re left with is this original Barb, the one who might have ended up working at Wal-Mart for real if her father hadn’t managed to climb out of the mines.”[38] Ehrenreich concludes Nickel and Dimed with a liberating critique of her father’s mantra based on her own experience in the contemporary world of the working poor: “I grew up hearing over and over, to the point of tedium, that ‘hard work’ was the secret of success, ‘Work hard and you’ll get ahead,’ or ‘It’s hard work that got us where we are.’ No one ever said that you could work hard—harder even than you ever thought possible—and still find yourself sinking ever deeper into poverty and debt.”[39]

Ehrenreich purges herself of this self-serving middle-class ideology and seeks to bring middle-class readers along with her. She also draws on her experience in working-class jobs to challenge the PMC ideology of expertise, something it uses to legitimize its assertion of power and privilege over workers. She found that employees “experienced management as an obstacle to getting the job done as it should be done…. Left to themselves, they devised systems of cooperation and work sharing; when there was a crisis, they rose to it. In fact, it was often hard to see what the function of management was, other than to exact obeisance.”[40] In championing the working class, Ehrenreich appeals to the desire to do the job well that is historically a source of conflict between PMC assertions of expertise and workers’ efforts to control their work. She sees it as a value they share in opposition to capitalism that places the highest premium on immediate profitability.

In Fear of Falling, written earlier, she had offered an account of the PMC moving away from this ideology. In the 1980s, important elements of the PMC had forsaken the separate identity conferred by an ideology of expertise to embrace the corporate worldview, maintaining their identity and difference from lower-class workers through carefully cultivated consumer tastes. Looking back on the PMC of decades earlier, Ehrenreich had particularly valued its ideology of work as a form of self-fulfillment and concluded Fear of Falling by seeing that this was the way the PMC could save itself from consumerist addictions. She wrote, “the pleasure of work is the middle class’s tacit rebuttal to capitalism, a pleasure that cannot be commodified or marketed.”[41] She self-identifies as a member of the PMC. However, as a free-lance writer without a status conferred by a professional guild like those in medicine or the academy, she is particularly partial to this interpretation of PMC identity as involving fulfillment through work chosen by the individual, not dictated by capitalist masters.

Becoming the other because one believes it is important and one wants to do so makes projects of passing the ultimate affirmation of the ideology of those elements of the PMC who have not redefined themselves in terms of their service to corporate capitalism. Halsell’s covetous relationship to a Native American culture which she saw as being neither consumed by consumerism nor the sacrifices necessary to access it was an earlier New Age expression of this. When Griffin, Halsell, and Ehrenreich pass as the other, and seek to experience the life of this other, they remain radically different from those whose identity they are choosing to assume. They are fulfilling themselves through this project of passing in a way that allows them to forgo consumerist excess that others in the PMC need to compensate themselves and to individualize their otherwise indistinct identities.

Ehrenreich followed up Nickel and Dimed with Bait and Switch, in which she adopts the persona of a middle-class professional seeking work in public relations. Bait and Switch is a more difficult text for a middle-class audience to embrace both because it reveals the middle-class world itself as drained of anything worth repressing and because the repeated failed searches for employment offer no satisfying narratives like the job experiences of Nickel and Dimed. Bait and Switch is primarily an account of psychic, rather than material, immiseration. Ehrenreich worries incessantly that a job search counselor or employer will see through her false curriculum vita, and though she takes the advice of counselors to falsify it further, its authenticity is never questioned. Middle-class readers of Nickel and Dimed wanted to believe that a child of privilege with a Ph.D. like Ehrenreich would have difficulty passing as a poorly paid service worker, because her class essence, like theirs, would be apparent. The underlying argument of Bait and Switch is that, if no employers are interested in her curriculum vita, this is because they are in fact not interested in the skills and experience claimed there, skills and experience which lie at the core of the PMC ideology of expertise. Rather, they are interested in a personality type. Ehrenreich sees around her passive, obedient individuals both with and without jobs, observing, “It must be that the same corporate culture embraces both jobholders and job seekers, and that it is a culture of conformity and studied restraint.”[42]

The employed individuals Ehrenreich meets are the job search coaches, and she sees in them not representatives of PMC expertise, but exemplars of the corporate world. One counselor “represents something about the corporate world that repels me, some deep coldness masked as relentless cheerfulness … even as I dislike her, my whole aim is to be welcomed into the same corporate culture that she seems to have mastered.”[43] Given this, it would have been a blow to Ehrenreich’s self esteem, had she been offered a corporate job. She concludes, “The corporate world has spoken, and it wants nothing to do with me, not even with the smiling, suited, endlessly compliant … version of me.”[44] Her inability to pass is a vindication of her personality.

Ehrenreich had taken her maiden name to look for a job—her father’s name—and, sure enough, after her first experience with a job counselor, her father resurfaces as the Horatio Alger model of success for whom there is no place today. She cannot truly compete with her father, because he lived in a different world:
I think of my father, whose personality traits included brash, cynical, bombastic, obnoxious, charming, kindly, and falling-down drunk, yet who managed to rise from the copper mines of Butte to the corporate stratosphere, ending up as vice president of research for a multinational firm. Did he ever take a personality test or submit to executive coaching? Or were things different in the fifties and sixties, with a greater emphasis on what you could actually do?[45]At one point, “hoping to establish [her] hereditary membership in the executive class,” Ehrenreich tells a job counselor of her father, and he assures her that executives no longer have careers like his.[46] Becoming the other without experiencing difference, passing without a self to which to return, are at the heart of the insecurity of contemporary market capitalism. Ehrenreich’s most recent account of passing is the least exotic because it has become the core of middle-class existence. Her father’s experience of passing permanently from one fixed social world to another has become the exotic for which Ehrenreich now experiences a respect and desire she never felt before.

Gender Passing

Norah Vincent’s Self-Made Man challenges conventions of recent passing narratives like those of Griffin, Halsell and Ehrenreich. Vincent is a lesbian who assumes the identity of a heterosexual male to explore a variety of all-male communities and experiences, from a bowling league to a monastery and a men’s movement group. As a man, she dates women, goes to strip bars and works as a door-to-door salesman. Although reviewers placed Self-Made Man in the tradition of Griffin’s and Ehrenreich’s works, Vincent pursues a journey in the opposite direction. She is moving from the world of the oppressed—women and gays—to that of the oppressor—heterosexual, predominantly white, males. Her primary goal is not to reveal how the oppressor treats and creates the oppressed, but to enter the (male) oppressors’ world from which she, as a woman, is barred, and to seek to understand and empathize with it. Vincent sees men and women as fundamentally different, but she believes that men can learn from that difference to develop repressed elements in their character just as she suggests women could learn from elements of male fraternity.

Vincent argues that men are crippled by sexual drives they are unable to master, that they have a deep desire to express their emotional needs but have no language to do so, and that a crippling fear of homosexuality forces them to assert a distance from other males. Finally, she believes that heterosexual women’s contradictory demands that men express themselves in stereotypically masculine ways and also express themselves emotionally gives women a power in male-female relationships that they are loathe to recognize. All men, Vincent contends, share her experience of wearing a mask of masculinity and her fear of being exposed.[47] Vincent goes to lengths to fend off the charge that passing as a male is realization of a lesbian fantasy. However, her sexual identity does allow her to imagine herself as playing the role of the woman without the fault-finding expectations of heterosexual women in their dealings with men. A woman presenting as a man is like a gay person “adopting a heterosexual lifestyle.”[48] A number of Vincent’s experiences are structured in the form of a gay narrative with Vincent “coming out” as a woman to men she has gotten to know. Invariably the men like her better as a lesbian. No longer “the spectral fag in their midst,”[49] she is rewarded for introducing her true self to men, the one time her sexual identity restores order to a disordered world of gender. As a gay person, she has a psychological expertise to offer precisely because she is not dependent on the heterosexual market.


The goal of those who pass and return is to show, along the lines of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew, that the gaze of the oppressor constructs the most confining elements of identity. Memoirs of passing present fairly monolithic portraits of the cultures of the other, whether African-American, Native-American, working class, professional middle class, or male. But they seek to engage readers by drawing on suppressed or marginalized elements of the authors’ (and readers’) culture taken from a presumed fund of shared cultural memory and social experience and presented in avant-garde terms. For Griffin, it is an American egalitarianism recoded as Catholic humanism; for Halsell it is the individualism of her eccentric West Texas father—Indian fighter and rancher who renounced his wealth to marry her mother—recoded in feminist terms; for Ehrenreich, it is the socialist feminism of her youth; and for Vincent, gay liberation liberated from homosexuality and feminism. By passing as an other, temporarily abandoning the position of those who speak for the dominant culture and legitimate their position in terms of it, these authors hope to be better able to develop a critical perspective on their cultures of origin. “Passing” texts respond to a utopian desire in American culture to address as individuals the relation of the diverse to the divisive. With the allure of reality television shows, they resonate with contemporary American culture’s ways of addressing social issues.[50] It is precisely the bewitching premise and the resulting disillusionment that students discover in these texts that permit them to be used to examine how societies construct difference and responses to differences, and to assess the project of passing as a means to examine it and tell about it.


1� I do not use passing in the sense the term is used for African-Americans, for whom passing was a permanent decision that meant effecting a painful break with their families and communities of origin. Elaine K. Ginsberg, ed., Passing and the Fictions of Identity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996).

2� For good critical readings along these lines of Black Like Me, see Gayle Wald, Crossing the Line: Racial Passing in Twentieth-Century U.S. Literature and Culture (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000), 152–181 and Eric Lott, “White Like Me: Racial Cross-Dressing and the Construction of American Whiteness” in Amy Kaplan and Donald E. Pease, eds., Cultures of United States Imperialism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993), 474–495.

3� Griffin was threatened with death when he made his story known; Halsell lived with fear of retribution as well. After publication of Nickel and Dimed, Ehrenreich was pilloried as an anti-Christian zealot. Barbara Ehrenreich, “The Antichrist of North Carolina,” The Progressive (September 2003): 14–15.

4� By 1976, Griffin had come to recognize Black Power as a necessary response to the legacies of white discrimination and white paternalism, which had created a situation in which the African-American was required to become other (white) in order to succeed. “Epilogue: What Has Happened Since Black Like Me” in Black Like Me (San Antonio: Wings Press, 2004), 203–208. However, Griffin did not articulate a multicultural perspective. He saw Black Power as a response to white behavior, not a validation of black culture.

5� Nathan Glazer, We Are All Multiculturalists Now (Cambridge. MA: Harvard University Press, 1997).

6� There are a number of other accounts of passing written in this period, including John Coleman, Blue-Collar Journal: A College President’s Sabbatical (Philadelphia. PA: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1974); Laurie Graham, On the Line at Subaru-Isuzu (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995); Rebekah Nathan, My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned By Becoming a Student (New York: Penguin Books, 2005); and Richard M. Pfeffer, Working for Capitali$m (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1979).

7� In Passing and Pedagogy: The Dynamics of Responsibility (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1999), Pamela L. Caughie presents passing as teaching aware of the subject positions articulated in texts and those performed by the instructor and students. Although Caughie does not examine the texts discussed in this essay, her pedagogy takes seriously—and critically—the kind of challenges they pose to readers—and teachers.

8� In a guide to ethnographic research published under the auspices of the Association of Social Anthropologists, the effort to pass as a member of the culture under examination—an action necessarily done without “informed consent”—is presented as ethically wrong. Griffin is singled out for having gone to “absurd lengths” to present as an other. R. F. Ellen, ed., Ethnographic research. A guide to general conduct (New York, NY: Academic Press, 1984), 218n.

9� I draw biographical material from John Howard Griffin, Scattered Shadows: A Memoir of Blindness and Vision (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2004); Robert Bonazzi, Man in the Mirror: John Howard Griffin and the Story of Black Like Me (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1997); and Ernest Sharpe, Jr., “The Man Who Changed His Skin,” American Heritage 40:1 (February 1989): 44–55.

10� Griffin, Black Like Me, 159. For an earlier account of a white passing as black which lacks this self-examination, see Ray Sprigle, In the Land of Jim Crow (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1949).

11� As a student in France, Griffin had made no connection between the racism he had absorbed growing up in west Texas and Nazi anti-semitism. The experience of passing brought these experiences together for him. He wrote in the preface to Black Like Me that appearing as a black he “could have been a Jew in Germany” and he positioned the book as a response to white Americans’ characterization of racism in terms of the Holocaust, which had become white Americans’ way of showing that they could therefore not be considered racist. Griffin, Black Like Me, xiii, 179.

12� Norman Mailer, “The White Negro” in Advertisements for Myself (New York, NY: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1959), 337–358.

13� Griffin, Black Like Me, 118.

14� Shelby Steele, “The Culture of Difference,” Academic Questions (Winter 1998–1999), 56.

15� Griffin, Black Like Me, 87.

16� Ibid., 69.

17� Ibid., 66.

18� John Howard Griffin, “The Intrinsic Other” in The John Howard Griffin Reader ed. Bradford Daniel (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1968), 466.

19� Grace Halsell, Bessie Yellowhair (New York: William Morrow & Co., 1973), 155.

20� Ibid., 10.

21� Grace Halsell, Soul Sister (Washington, D.C.: Crossroads Publishing, 1999 [1969]), 99.

22� Ibid., 114.

23� Ibid., 116.

24� Grace Halsell, In Their Shoes (Fort Worth, TX: Texas Christian University Press, 1996), 139–141.

25� Halsell, Bessie Yellowhair, 20.

26� Halsell, In Their Shoes, 116.

27� Halsell, Soul Sister, 207.

28� Halsell, In Their Shoes, 1.

29� Ibid., 251. However, Halsell can read sexual identity and sexual orientation only in terms of identities she recognizes, like race. She interprets the lesbianism and cross-gendered world she encounters in Harlem, including a man taking pills to grow breasts rather than to change pigment color, as simply elements of “the desperate attempt of the people to break from white bondage.” Soul Sister, 80.

30� Halsell, Soul Sister, 25.

31� For an overview of Ehrenrich’s work, see Scott Sherman, “Class Warrior: Barbara Ehrenreich’s Singular Crusade,” Columbia Journalism Review (November/December 2003): 34–41.

32� Barbara Ehrenreich and John Ehrenreich, “The Professional-Managerial Class,” Radical America 11:2 (March-April 1977): 7–31; and Barbara Ehrenrich and John Ehrenreich, “The New Left and the Professional-Managerial Class,” Radical America 11:3 (May-June 1977): 7–22 [quote from page 21]. Feminism in turn condemned the way expertise was mobilized to undercut sources of woman’s power. Barbara Ehrenreich and Deidre English, For her own good : 150 years of the experts’ advice to women (Garden City, N.Y. : Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1978).

33� Barbara Ehrenreich, Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1989), 48.

34� Ibid., 233–236.

35� Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed (New York, NY: Henry Holt, 2001), 117.

36� Ibid., 208, 211.

37� Ibid., 18.

38� Ibid., 169.

39� Ibid., 220.

40� Ibid., 212.

41� Ehrenreich, Fear of Falling, 261.

42� Barbara Ehrenreich, Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream (New York, NY: Metropolitan Books, 2005), 60.

43� Ibid., 53.

44� Ibid., 202.

45� Ibid., 26–27.

46� Ibid., 153.

47� Norah Vincent, Self-Made Man: One Woman’s Journey into Manhood and Back Again (New York, NY: Viking, 2006), 273, 276.

48� Ibid., 285.

49� Ibid., 277.

50� See FX’s Black. White (2006), a reality show about the experiences of a black family which assumes the appearance of whites, and a white family which assumes the appearance of blacks.