Some Striking Feature: Whiteness and Institutional Passing

I was very pleased to participate in a conference Disrupting Visibility: The Politics of Passing co-hosted by the Centre for Feminist Research on Friday. It was a wonderful event – I learnt so much from the papers I listened to. I also gave a lecture, which I am sharing here. I have just added some notes and references – otherwise, this lecture is pretty much as I presented it, which please note means that it is not a polished piece!


“Some Striking Feature: Whiteness and Institutional Passing,” presented at Disrupting Visibility: The Politics of Passing, Friday June 12th 2015, Goldsmiths.

With thanks to Morganne Conti and Linnete Manriques for their work in organising this event on passing and for the opportunity for me to speak as part of it. I really enjoyed returning to the question of passing. I say “returning” because one of the very first academics events I spoke at back in 1995, 20 years ago, in Women’s Studies at Lancaster University was a Day School on Passing. I prepared a paper subtitled “Passing through Hybridity” (1). Since then the theme of passing has often come up in my work; in fact, I had not realised until I began working on this paper how often passing has come up. Just to be brief : passing as white as a way of passing into a community in Strange Encounters (2000);  the figure of the bogus asylum seeker as the one who “passes by” in The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2004); passing over what is given as familiar in Queer Phenomenology (2006), passing as happy in The Promise of Happiness (2010); institutional passing in On Being Included (2012); and most recently, passing as willing as a way of being willful in Willful Subjects (2014). But even if passing keeps coming up, albeit in different ways (I will try and show how some of these ways are related), I have not foregrounded passing as a thematic nor returned to some of the classic literatures on racial passing since that conference. It can be a curious experience: going back to a once-familiar place you haven’t been to for a while; you find things you didn’t notice before. Becoming a stranger is how a landscape can become alive with detail.

What I will be sharing today then are some rather scattered thoughts on passing rather than a formal lecture. I will firstly return to some of the classic literature on racial passing, before offering a more phenomenological account of passing as lived experience, and then will turn to the question of institutional passing. And in conclusion I will relate my passing thoughts to a politics of willfulness.

Passing Figures

And I want to begin in a rather odd place, well odd for me because it is not where I would ordinarily begin. It is a quote from Freud’s essay on the Unconscious, first published in 1911, which is where I get the title of this lecture:

Their origin is what decides their fate. We may compare them with individuals of mixed-race who taken all round resemble whites, but who betray their coloured descent by some striking feature or other, and on that account are excluded from society and enjoy none of the privileges of white people ([1911]2013: 53).

The “them” in this quote refers to instincts, and Freud is describing how instincts have a hybrid origin, how they are part of the preconscious and unconscious systems in his typography of the psyche. Freud is making use of the figure of the mixed race individual who does not and cannot pass because that figure is handy.  Just as a side note, we could think more of how racism comes up so often in European thought as an aside, a way of supporting an argument, a set of background assumptions that can be mobilised quickly because they are already in operation. This quote from Freud might be familiar to those of you working on postcolonial or critical race studies: Homi Bhabha (1994) draws on it in his account of mimicry as colonial governance; Sander Gilman (1995) in his discussion of Jewishness and assimilation.

This statement seems to be offered as a statement of confidence that those of dubious origins cannot pass; that they will betray or reveal themselves.  But perhaps this belief that difference will be revealed by “some striking feature” rests on an anxiety that the others could pass their way into whiteness without being detected. In other words, a belief system can operate as a defence system: as if the belief that another cannot pass is sufficient to stop another from passing. And note what is being defended here: society as the distribution of privileges or benefits; whiteness as means of distributing privilege or benefits.

We can understand how Freud’s statement helped Bhabha formulate his model of the colonial mimicry: the other must resemble the colonizer but is never the same as the colonizer: “almost the same but not quite” as “almost the same but not white.” his “almost” is defensive: it must be assumed that we can tell the difference because otherwise the other could pass for us and even take our place. Bhabha draws on a quote from Macaulay’s Minute on Education (1835) about the purpose of colonial education which would be to create an elite Indian population who would transmit colonial values for the colonizer. Such a population would be: “Indian in blood and colour but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect” (cited in Bhabha 1994: 124). Macaulay is precisely not talking about the creation of a racially mixed population, although as I am sure many of you will know this was the policy in other colonial contexts including Australia (the guiding Eugenic assumption being that racial mixing would eliminate traces of Aboriginality from the population). Rather Macaulay assumed that Indianness could and should be eliminated culturally because it would always leave a trace biologically. To borrow Bhabha’s terms the Indian elite would become Anglicized not English; resembling not being.

In situations of proximity between those historically understood as “different races,” and let’s give that proximity its name, colonialism, difference becomes a defence: an assumption that we can always “tell the difference,” that race as such is a tellable difference.  The figure of the passing mixed-race individual thus became a site of anxiety, particularly in the United States in the early twentieth century. One of the famous texts to tell the story of what became known as the tragic mulatto whose passing as white prefigures her passing into death is Nella Larsen’s novella Passing, first published in 1929. In one scene, two light skinned African American women Irene and Clare are observing each other. They are seated at a table in a restaurant reserved for whites; they are both passing successfully, which means not only that neither of them realises that the other is passing but that they also do not realise they know each other; passing provides a cloak of anonymity.

Irene observes and I imagine her speaking back to Freud: “White people were so stupid about such things for all that they usually asserted that they were able to tell; and by the most ridiculous means, finger-nails, palms of hands, shapes of ears, teeth, and other equally silly rot. They always took her for an Italian, a Spaniard, a Mexican, or a gipsy. Never, when she was alone, had they even remotely seemed to suspect that she was a Negro. No, the woman sitting there staring at her couldn’t possibly know” (7-8). The account is pedagogic : the desire to tell the difference is what organises the science of raciology, which is itself a detection system: a search for evidence that treats the bodies of racialised others as testimony. Every bit of the body becomes a revelation.  A system based on such “silly rot” still has to be survived. What we learn as well from this novella is that “the striking feature” becomes what is feared or anticipated by the passing subject herself: to experience oneself as passing is to fear being detected or caught out for not being as one appears. And this novel reminds us how that “striking feature” can also be delayed, a threat of what is to come, of who is to come: the fear that one’s own darkness will be revealed on a future child, a child who might inherit the darkness, a child who would become the striking feature that betrays the passing individual’s dubious origins to return to Freud’s own mythic confidence (“their origin decides their fate”). This fear of betrayal –that we will betray ourselves or be betrayed by others – is central to the experience of passing. We do not have to assume we are not what we appear to be, to fear the consequences of being found not to be as we appear.

What I am suggesting here is passing is a matter of who is already found to be suspicious. Passing reopens a history that has not been closed. We can learn here from Harryette Mullen’s brilliant paper, “Optic White: Blackness and the Production of Whiteness,” first published in 1994, which considers the African American literatures on passing. Mullen reflects on what she calls “the usual mechanism of passing,” which involves the active denial and erasure of African ancestry by individuals and the gradual but violent process of assimilation (72). When passing succeeds, a population can disappear without  a trace. But she also considers how “the logic of passing” is intrinsic to “the logic of slavery” because of the construction of Blackness as a “facsimile or counterfeit of white” (73). Mullen refers to the passing subject as like “a counterfeit bill that is passed into circulation but that may be withdrawn at any point it is discovered to be bogus. The inherited whiteness is a kind of capital which may yield the dividend of freedom” (76). Light skinned African Americans who pass thus acquire the value of whiteness, they may even temporarily possess this value (and note how freedom is explicitly tied to capital), but this possession is insecure; they may be dispossessed at any moment.

This idea of the passing subject as like counterfeit money is extremely suggestive: it shows how passing is not only an act of fraud (counterfeit money passes itself off as real money) but is an attempt to defraud a system that itself depends on abstraction and exchange. Or to make use of Judith Butler’s (1990) account of drag in a different content: we can show how money is itself a drag. The counterfeit bill fraudulently reveals that the origin in being copyable is a copy. Fraud is here another way of thinking about the act of dispossession: somebody without authority puts something in circulation that passes for what those with authority (here the State) assume as their role and right to put into circulation.

Note the word “bogus” in this quote. I was struck myself that the word “bogus” actually derives from counterfeit money, a bogus was a “spurious coin” and the word is assumed to derive from slang for the counterfeit’s apparatus: that is, from the machine that makes such coins through creating impressions. Just to quote from one early usage of the bogus machine: “One bogus or machine impressing dies on the coin, with a number of dies, engraving tools, bank bill paper, spurious coin, &c. &c. making in all a large wagon load, was taken into possession by the attorney general of Lower Canada” (Online Etymology Dictionary). So much material is required to make counterfeit money!  And just to add to our queer etymological wanderings, it is always delight to wander with words, the word “spurious” implies sham, “not proceeding from the source intended,” and refers to the illegitimate child, as the one who has dubious origins because their arrival has not been rendered as legitimate by law (outside wedlock). A coin would be spurious and bogus when it does not originate legitimately; a person too. Words are allowing us to make connections. Note also that bogus can refer to a coin and to a machine for making coins: passing machines, passing as machinery.

Think of the figure of the bogus asylum seeker.  We can begin to understand how asylum as such become fraudulence: those who claim asylum are assumed to be bogus, to be passing their way into the nation through fraud, unless they demonstrate otherwise; every asylum seeker is understood as a singular impress created by a machinery that is intended to defraud the whole system.

In these instances passing is understood as a deliberate willful act of fraud; a way of falsely receiving benefits. The welfare recipient and the asylum seeker are both passing figures in this sense.  You have to demonstrate that you are not passing for what you are not (that you are what you claim you are) in order to take up residence within a nation or to receive any benefits.  The effort to establish that you are not a fraud has life consequences: a system becomes a hammer directed against those who are perpetually being rendered dubious because of their origins, because their bodies, their story, their papers, are not in the right place. To be judged as passing is to inherit a demand to establish one’s legitimacy to those who decide the criteria for legitimacy. We sense what we know: this system is wearing; it works by being wearing.

The figure of the passer is thus generated by a system as a mechanism for legitimating itself; it is how legitimacy is legitimated. Those who pass (by going undetected) both trouble the system and are how a system is justified as necessary. Some might have to pass to survive and that very survival is narrated as a way of falsely accruing benefits. Sometimes passing is really about dealing with the consequences of being perceived as passing, that is, having an act of survival interpreted by others as an act of fraud.

Within communities that are rendered illegitimate, we might call these communities “passing communities,” those individuals who successfully pass might also acquire the status of being shadowy and untrustworthy, because by passing they might access resources that are not available to those who do not or cannot pass, including whiteness as such, whiteness as resource. This shadowy circulation is difficult and our task should not be to resolve but to explain that difficulty.

A Phenomenology of Passing

I have suggested that passing comes up for those whose bodies, whose papers, are not in the right place. I now want to shift gears slightly, and try and think of passing through the lens of phenomenology: that is by thinking of passing as a field of perception. Freud’s own description of the mixed race person who cannot pass is precisely about how difference is assumed as perceptible; difference from whiteness as what is striking, difference as what creates a strong impression.  To offer a phenomenology of passing would be to give an account of how something becomes striking. When something is striking it becomes an object of consciousness; it acquires clarity, edges that are crisp, are more or less crisp, against a background that is blurry.  To pass is to pass into a background.

When things are where they are supposed to be they are in a certain way overlooked. You know that vase that appears on the mantelpiece. You might notice it when it is missing. It becomes striking in its absence; in not being in the right place, you can be struck by its being. What happened to the vase? Where is the vase? It is the beginning of a story.  Or maybe another vase has been put there in the place of the vase that is missing. You don’t notice it at first, you are busy occupied, but then you notice something is “not quite right,” strange, different. The thing out of place: it registers as intrusion; a sensory intrusion. That is not my vase, what happened to my vase? It is the beginning of another story: a story perhaps of a broken vase; of something being covered over, a story of guilt, even.

What is registered by consciousness is what disagrees with an expectation of how things should appear. A body can be what is disagreeable in this sense: a body appears all the more striking, when a body is not expected to appear, or when a body does not appear as a body is expected to appear. In my book Strange Encounters (2000) I drew on Mary Douglas’s definition of dirt as “matter out of place” to think of strangers, as “bodies out of place.”  Some bodies stand out: they do not recede into the background. To become a stranger is not to pass through. When passing fails something is revealed. Freud misunderstood this something. It is the beginning of a story: who are you; where are you from; what are you doing here?

Passing can thus refer not only to passing as or for but also passing into or to pass through. When we speak of passing as white we might mean to pass into a community or to pass through a neighbourhood. When whiteness becomes background to pass is not to appear, that is, not to appear “not white.” When you do not pass as white, you might be stopped. Not to pass as white is when a body registers as sensory intrusion.

I have written of experiences I had growing up not white in a white neighbourhood in Australia.  There was one time a police car pulled up beside me as I was walking down a street just near where I lived. One policeman asked me “are you Aboriginal?” It turned out there had been some burglaries in the area recently. To be seen as Aboriginal is not only to be seen as out of place but as a threat to those who are “in place:” proximity as crime against person and property. I answered the question with a no. If I had not given that answer, the question would, I have no doubt, led to further interrogation. But I was allowed to pass through. In other words being able to pass was a form of racial privilege: if I was brown, I was a brown settler. Being a brown settler is still being a settler.

Race is a complicated address. The second policeman then asked, and the question had the intonation of a quip, “or is it just a sun tan?” Here colour becomes it (is it, it is all about it). Colour becomes something that has to be explained or explained away. A tan explains colour as domesticated colour; bronzed not brown. A tanned woman would be a woman who acquires colour in the way other Australians do: her colour might even be an expression of national character, of what we do in our leisure time.

I remember so many comments when I was growing up about being sun-tanned, often superficially admiring or positive comments: oh how lucky you are to brown so easily, how lucky you are; how I wish, look at me, with my burnt pink red white skin.

How I wish, wish, wish


When admiration is given as compensation it is not admiration. The effort not to be sorry can be a way of being sorry.

Oh dear

But lucky you, dear

Such comments should be grouped together as polite racism, a genre that works to deflect attention from race as if race as such is an embarrassment, something that could not or should not be brought up in polite society. Such speech acts could thus be translated: your colour is not a stain on your being; we will give you the benefit of the doubt by assuming you are white underneath or at least we will pretend you white underneath because it would be harder, hard, not to pretend.

Whiteness: when colour is something that is acquired

Becoming brown not being brown

Becoming not being (2)

Polite racism works to create “presumed whiteness.”  In other words, it is more polite to presume you are white. In order not to disappear you have to make your brownness or blackness into an assertion. You might have to be assertive just to be. Or: you might have to become willingly, wilfully, some striking feature.

More is at stake in how I was able to pass by or pass through in this encounter. I also think by speaking in the voice I have, with the voice I had, I identified myself as being middle-class, as being someone who belongs in this neighbourhood, as someone they were policing for, not against. This is what intersectionality can mean in practice: being stopped because of how you can be seen in relation to some categories (not white, Aboriginal), being able to start up because of how you are seen in relation to others (white, middle-class).  No wonder: intersectionality is messy and embodied.

In a wonderful dialogical paper, Ruth Frankenberg and Lata Mani reflect on postcoloniality as a politics of location; on how individual trajectories are shaped by histories of colonialism. In her riff, Lata Mani (writing as a feminist from India who was then working in the United States) addresses two moments of arriving at her university after hours. In the first, a white male professor opens the door, and refuses her entry : “he cannot let anyone in off the street, god knows what you might do” (1993: 296). In the second, a Filipina woman at work cleaning the corridor opens the door: “she looks up at me, smiles and without a word opens the door for me” (296).

Anyone: riff-raff.

Someone: smile, come in.

Intersectionality: stopping, starting, anybody, in, somebody, out.

Intersectionality: stopping and starting.

In one moment you are not allowed in because of how you are seen (you are a stranger, you are brown, you could be anybody). In another moment you are allowed in because of how you are seen (you are a professor, you are brown but you are someone). Depending on who encounters who, a door is closed or opened. And of course it is the Professor who holds, as it were the door, to the institution; who decides who can reside there, who can be legitimately employed there, not the cleaner.

Depending on who encounters who; passing comes up when you do not pass through. Of course some professors are assumed to be passing as professors. When some of us are professors, we are treated like temporary residents; we have to be allowed in because we are not from. Pierre W. Orelus’s reflects on how as a professor of colour he is often met with surprise. He writes: “after I formally introduce myself in class, I have undergraduate students who ask me, in a surprised tone of voice, ‘Are you really the professor?’ I sometimes overhear them asking their peers ‘Is he really the professor’” (2011: 31). Really: really? Are you sure? Orelus compares this mode of questioning, this sense of curiosity and astonishment, with the questions typically asked of immigrants about “funny accents.” Being asked whether you are the professor is another way of being made into a stranger, a body out of place. Being asked “where are you from?” or “where are you really from?” is a way of saying you are not from here.

Brown, black: not from here, not here, not.

When we are talking about passing we are talking about doors. For some to pass through the door, to enter a room, requires being given permission by those who are holding that door. A door is not just a physical thing that swings on hinges, but a mechanism that enables an opening and a closing. Some have to pass when this mechanism is working.

Some: not all. This is why it does not work to say “we are all passing,” even if we are all in some ways passing because we are all, in a profound sense, temporary residents. A category too can be a dwelling: as that which gives residence.  We might say, for instance, all women are passing as women: we pass into or through the category “women” by being assigned her or assigning ourselves as her. But if you do not constantly have your legitimacy thrown into question, if you are not asked whether you are a woman, constantly, repeatedly, if you do not have the door shut in your face when you try and enter that room, then you do not have to pass as women in the same way.

Trans women may have to pass in a way that some cis women do not: because of this constant questioning of legitimacy. To pass would not necessarily mean here to pass as women, as if trans women are not women: although the perception of trans women as fraudulent women has material life consequences (and passing we have already learnt is a matter of consequence). Juliet Jacques in one of her excellent pieces published in The Guardian, drawing on Julia Serano, explores precisely this problem: how the passing narrative casts trans women as deceivers. But sometimes, as Jacques herself notes, passing  might be a way of avoiding being harassed, and it might require a certain kind of confidence: the creation of an impression of having a right to be where you reside. Another way of saying: some have to assertive just to be.

Passing can be the experience of the requirement to justify your existence in the very manner of your existence.  Sometimes whether or not you are asked a question you feel questionable. Maybe you have been questioned too many times; you come to expect it, you become to live your life as a question. You become a question mark.  I am walking with my girlfriend. “Are you a boy or a girl?” they ask her, a question that drips with mockery and hostility. A question hovering around gender: not being housed by gender, being unhoused by gender. Once you have been asked these questions, you might wait for them, waiting to be dislodged changes your relation to the lodge. Other times I have been asked when we enter a local shop “is she your sister?”  Who is she, is it a way of saying, what is your relationship? A relationship can be questionable. Sister: a way of seeing or not seeing lesbian? Sister: a way of evoking an intimacy without naming it; sister as euphemism? Recently a lesbian couple were asked by their newly arrived neighbours: “what are you?” A relationship becomes “some striking feature.”

Heterosexuality too: can be quite a blur.  When things are aligned, we have a straight line. An alignment is often what you do not see. Think of tracing paper: when the paper is lined up you see one set of lines. It is all clear. Move one piece of paper, just a bit, a tiny, tiny bit: the whole picture is thrown into disarray. Blink. You turn up at a hotel with your girlfriend and you say you have booked a room. A hesitation can speak volumes. This reservation says your booking is for a double bed, is that right madam? Eyebrows are raised; a glance slides over the two of you, catching enough detail. This time you both appear as women. But something else is not right, then; something else, brings the picture into disarray. Are you, sure madam? Yes that’s right; a double bed. You have to say it, again; you have to say it, again, firmly. Some have to insist on what is given to others. In previous work I have offered a formula:

Rolling eyes = feminist pedagogy

When you are known as a feminist, you do not even have to say anything before eyes roll. You can hear them sigh “oh hear she goes.” I now have another formula.

Raised eyebrows = lesbian feminist pedagogy

The raising of eyebrows: lodged as a question: Really, are you sure?  This happens again and again; you almost come to expect it, the necessity of being firm just to receive what you have requested. One time after a querying, are you sure madam, are you sure, madam, you enter the room; twin beds. Do you go down; do you try again? It can be trying. Sometimes it is too much, and you find other ways of huddling. Questions follow you, wherever you go. Perhaps a following can be a promise. Those whose being is in question are those who can question being.

Institutional Passing

A social arrangement might be what does not appear. We learn then that a background is also an action: whiteness for instance is being accomplished by not being revealed. To disagree with an expectation of what should appear is to get in the way of an accomplishment.

Institutions can be built around bodies, for bodies, as Nirmal Puwar shows in her wonderful book Space Invaders (2004). For some to arrive is to fit.  We learn this too from the literatures on class and passing, for example from the work of Annette Kuhn (1995) and Valerie Walkerdine (1997). The bourgeois body is attuned to a set of requirements: a way of speaking, holding the body; what you refer to, who you defer to.  Attunement seems like magic when it works. You are expected to go there, Oxbridge say, so you have already been taught how to be there before you get there.  An institution is like an old garment: if it has acquired the shape of those who tend to wear it, then it becomes easier to wear if you have that shape.  You do not have to pass because you do not have to think about it, you just pull it on; you just move on. Easier to wear: this is why I think of privilege as an energy saving device. Less effort is required to be or to do. But if you arrive into these institutions with dubious origins, you are not expected to be there, so in getting there you have already disagreed with an expectation of who you are and what you can do, then an institution is the wrong shape; the jumper does not fit. You fidget to try and make it fit, but fidgeting shows all the more that it does not fit. Kuhn describes how as a working-class girl in a grammar school she feels “conspicuously out of place” (111). And indeed, she describes this sense of being out of place by giving us a biography of her school uniform; how by the time her ill-fitting uniform came to fit, it had become “shabby” and “scruffy.”

When there is a not a fit, you become a misfit, to use Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s (2011) important terms. You might feel like a fraud; it is all left hanging. It is probably the frauds who are our best hopes for transformations: we can only loosen the requirements to be in institutions by failing to meet them. But it is hard, painful, to fail to meet them. Garland Thomson explores how disabled subjects become misfits because or when they are not accommodated by institutions. Not to be accommodated is not to be able to pass through or by. For some to pass would require making adjustments; the pavement might have to be adjusted to support the passing through of those in wheelchairs; a podium might have to be adjusted to support those who are not the right height; a time-table might have to be adjusted to support those with child care responsibilities, and so on.  To pass through can become difficult given how spaces are organized; a space can be what “gets in the way” of a forward progression.

By progression I am not speaking of upward mobility, but just the very capacity to get through or to move along or to reside or take part or to do some ordinary thing (go the toilet, get a cup of coffee and so on). We might note that diversity is often understood and dismissed as being about career advancement. Diversity becomes another way of falsely receiving benefits. As we know: some do not have to advance themselves to advance; they are advanced by virtue of their membership of a social group. An institution can be what eases a progression. This is why, this is how: the judgment of being motivated by a desire for upward mobility tends to falls on those whose progression is not eased by an institution. Tends to fall, we call it a tendency.

Institutions: how history becomes concrete. What then do I mean by institutional passing? Institutional passing might include the effort not to stand out or stand apart (although the effort not to stand out can be what makes you stand out). When you are perceived as demanding (a space has to be modified to accommodate you) you might end up trying not to make too many demands. Institutional passing might be what end up doing when or even because you cannot pass for what you are not because of the body you have, your history, or for whatever reason. Perhaps you pass by not speaking about yourself as a minority: as if by passing over being not, you would be less intrusive to those who are; or as if by passing over “not” being white, able bodied, male, straight, cis, you would “not” be “not” in quite the same way.

I know so many “not’s;” too many “not’s.” No wonder we get lost.

Passing here would be about trying to be less noticeable (although you only have to try to be less noticeable because you are noticeable). To think about the work of institutional passing, I want to draw on some of the data on diversity work I discussed in my book, On Being Included (2012). As we know diversity is often offered as an invitation, it might be a tagline, minorities welcome. Come in, come in. We are back to that door, that mechanism that enables some to decide who is let in, who is not. But just because they invite you it does not mean they expect you to turn up. What happens when a person of colour turns up? Oh how noticeable we are in the sea of whiteness : “When I enter the room there is shock on peoples’ faces because they are expecting a white person to come in. I pretend not to recognize it. But in the interview there is unease because they were not expecting someone like me to turn up. So it is hard and uncomfortable and l can tell that they are uneasy and restless because of the way they fiddle and twitch around with their pens and their looks. They are uncomfortable because they were not expecting me – perhaps they would not have invited me if they knew l was black and of course l am very uncomfortable. l am wondering whether they are entertaining any prejudice against me.” They are not expecting you. Discomfort involves this failure to fit. A restlessness and uneasiness, a fidgeting and twitching, is a bodily registering of an unexpected arrival.

I pretend not to recognise it. Passing is work; it is the effort not to notice the bother caused by your own arrival. There is pretence involved; this is not about pretending to be something you are not but pretending not to notice you are not what they expect. The body that causes their discomfort (by not fulfilling an expectation of whiteness) is the one who must work hard to make others comfortable. You have to pass by passing your way through whiteness, not by becoming white, but by minimizing the signs of difference.  As another woman of colour describes: “I think with a person of colour there’s always a question of what’s this woman going to turn out like… they’re nervous about appointing people of colour into senior positions….Because if I went in my Sari and wanted prayer time off and started rocking the boat and being a bit different and asserting my kind of culture I’m sure they’d take it differently.” Some forms of difference are heard as assertive, as “rocking the boat.”  Some forms of difference become legible as willfulness and obstinacy, as if you are only different because you are insistent (on being different). The pressure not to “assert your culture” is lived as a demand to pass or to integrate. Note how this pressure can be affective: you experience the potential nervousness as a threat; you try and avoid the nervous glance by not fulfilling its expectation.

Indeed, the consequences of racism are in part managed as a question of self-presentation: of trying not to fulfil a stereotype, an idea of who you are, an expectation of how you will be:

Don’t give white people nasty looks straight in their eyes; don’t show them aggressive body positions. I mean, for example I am going to go and buy a pair of glasses because I know the glasses soften my face and I keep my hair short because I’m going bald, so I need something to soften my face. But actually what I am doing, I am countering a stereotype, I’m countering the black male sexual stereotype and yes, I spend all my time, I counter that stereotype, I couch my language behaviour and tone in as English a tone as I can. I am very careful, just very careful.

Passing would here be about “toning it down.” Being careful is about softening the very form of your appearance so that you do not appear “aggressive” because you are already assumed to be aggressive before you appear. The demand not to be aggressive might be lived as a form of body-politics, or as a speech politics: you have to be careful what you say, how you appear, in order to maximize the distance between you and their idea of you. The experience of being a stranger in the institutions of whiteness is an experience of being on perpetual guard: of having to defend yourself against those who perceive you as somebody to be defended against.

Institutional passing can also require working on one’s own body in an effort to be accommodating. You try to make others comfortable with the fact of your own existence. The effort to rearrange your own body becomes an effort to rearrange the past. This past is not only difficult to budge; it is often what those, to whom you appear, do not recognise as present. Institutional passing can involving minimising signs of difference from institutional norms. Or institutional passing can involve maximising signs of difference from a set of expectations about what those who are different from norms are like.  Institutional passing would then include the work you do to pass through by passing out of an expectation: you try not to be the angry person of colour, the trouble maker.  You have to demonstrate not so much that you are not a fraud, but that you are not that kind of minority. The killjoy too appears here as the one that we must give up; institutional passing as appearing to fulfil the happiness duty, softening our appearance, smiling. Of course when we pass as happy, we are not happy. And sometimes we refuse to give up the killjoy; we claim her, stake a claim to her; we might even profess to be her!

To pass might require passing over the words that register that histories of injustice are not over. Not to pass over words such as racism is to encounter the wall of racism. I am speaking of racism in a seminar. Someone comes up to me afterwards and puts her arm next to mine. We are almost the same colour, she says. No difference, no difference.  You wouldn’t really know you were any different to me, she says. The very talk about racism becomes a fantasy that invents difference. She smiles, as if the proximity of our arms was evidence that the racism of which I was speaking was an invention, as if our arms told another story. She smiles, as if our arms are in sympathy. I say nothing. Perhaps my arm speaks by withdrawing.  I turn to this willful arm by way of conclusion.

Conclusion: Willful Passing

You will remember I began with Freud and his use of the figure of the mixed race person as the one who will not pass as white because of “some striking feature or other.” Perhaps we can think of willfulness in these terms: a striking feature, a strong impression, a failure to recede or to become background. In my book on willfulness I began with a story about a willful child. It is without question a rather striking story. It is a Grimm story. Let me share it with you:

Once upon a time there was a child who was willful, and would not do as her mother wished. For this reason God had no pleasure in her, and let her become ill, and no doctor could do her any good, and in a short time she lay on her death-bed. When she had been lowered into her grave, and the earth was spread over her, all at once her arm came out again, and stretched upwards, and when they had put it in and spread fresh earth over it, it was all to no purpose, for the arm always came out again. Then the mother herself was obliged to go to the grave, and strike the arm with a rod, and when she had done that, it was drawn in, and then at last the child had rest beneath the ground.

What a story. The willful child: she has a story to tell. My book opens with this story, with this figure of the willful child, the one who disobeys; the one who is punished, who is beaten into the ground. It is a story of a child but also of an arm: the child’s willfulness is inherited by an arm, an arm that keeps coming up, until it too is beaten down.  It is a story of an arm but also of a rod, as that which gives expression to the will of a sovereign, a will that is not deemed a willful will, a will that is deemed necessary to eliminate the willfulness of others.

The willfulness of others. Willfulness is typically defined as: “asserting or disposed to assert one’s own will against persuasion, instruction, or command; governed by will without regard to reason; determined to take one’s own way; obstinately self-willed or perverse.” To be called obstinate or perverse because you are not persuaded by reason? Is this familiar to you? Have you heard this before? The rod is how the will of some is implemented as reason. The rod equals reason. We can hear why, we can hear how, willfulness is understood as a character fault or flaw, a way of dismissing disobedience as brute impulse and perversion; we can hear why, we can hear how, willfulness provides the basis of a feminist, queer and anti-racist revolt.  You might have to become what you are judged as being to survive that judgment; to become obstinate, to keep coming up; to keep speaking up, when there is a concerted and indeed collective effort to bring you down.

I am bringing this story up again because this story is also an institutional story. It is a story that circulates within institutions. It offers a warning, a threat: speak up, and you will be beaten. The story is also an invitation to those who might be at risk of identification with the wayward arm: become the rod as a way of avoiding the consequences of being beaten. Become the rod: too much violence is being abbreviated here.  And: the willful child comes up whenever there is a questioning of institutional reason: whenever, say, sexism or racism are shown to be institutional not personal, she comes up, as if to say, speak up and her fate will be yours. There are many within institutions who cannot afford that fate; there who many who cannot raise their arms in protest even when the will of the institution is exposed as violence, even when that violence is directed against this many.  A politics of willfulness is about giving support to those who are willing to expose the will of the institution as violence, we need to become our own support system, so that when she speaks up, when she is, as she is, quickly represented as the willful child who deserves her fate, who is beaten because her will is immature and impoverished, she will not be an arm coming up alone, she will not be an arm all on her own.

We know the consequences of becoming willful, becoming that striking feature; we are reminded of these consequences constantly. We live these consequences. This is why refusing to pass or not passing cannot become a political requirement without imposing another set of unjust demands. We have to support too those who cannot come up, speak up, not demand they come up; speak up. And we should not assume silence implies an agreement. And after all passing can be how we dislodge an impression. I call this: passing as willing in order to be willful. You might smile, say yes, you might appear to agree, trying not to cause trouble because then, only then, you get closer to those who you wish to dislodge. Just think of this: an arm can be passing. Just think of this: how when a teacher asks a room full of pupils, how the arms come up then, right up, as if to say yes, we have the answer, I have the answer. An arm can be raised when the arm says “yes.” The willful arm too can pass as a willing arm; an arm can appear to be in agreement without being in agreement.

Passing helps us to get through undetected. Sometimes, we have to get through as we have work to do. We have to be fraudulent to expose the system itself as fraudulent: the counterfeit money that is no different from legal tender but for the fact that it is sent out by the wrong machine (3). When the arms are raised in agreement; the arms can strike.  Something is striking not only when it creates a strong impression, but when it causes something to stop or be arrested.  When an arm goes on strike it stops working; it aims to stop the whole body from working.

We have a system when things are working. There are many ways to do the work of stopping things from working. Sometimes we pass by refusing proximity to willful subjects. We appear to lend our hand to the masters, to hear their wish as our command, but things are not always as they appear. Sometimes we refuse to pass and we become willful subjects. We act in agreement with the strength of her impression. Our hands curl into fists. Audre Lorde once said “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (1984). In that unflinching “will never,” is a call to arms, do not become the master’s tool! Whichever way we do the work of dismantling, of bringing that house down, brick by brick, it is the arms that labour away. When the arms become “some striking feature,” we become an army.  We become an army, with so many striking features, bits and pieces of bodies, all over the place, in the wrong place. The arms, the arms: they strike; the arms, the arms; they rise up; the arms, the arms; they do not give up.



Ahmed, S. (2000). Strange Encounters; Embodied Others in Postcoloniality. London: Routledge.

—————- (2004). The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Edinburgh University Press.

————— (2006). Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Duke University Press.

—————- (2010). The Promise of Happiness. Duke University Press.

—————– (2012). On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Duke University Press.

—————– (2014). Willful Subjects. Duke University Press.

Bhabha, Homi (1994). The Location of Culture. New York: Routledge.

Butler, Judith (1990). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.

Frankenberg, Ruth and Lata Mani (1993). “Crosscurrents, Crosstalk: Race, ‘Post-coloniality’ and the Politics of Location,” Cultural Studies, 7(2): 292-310.

Freud, S. (2013) [1911]. The Unconscious. London: Karnak Books.

Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie (2011). 2011). “Misfits: A Feminist Materialist Disability Concept,” Hypatia: A  Journal of Feminist Philosophy. 26(3): 591-609.

Gilman, Sander (1995). Freud, Race and Gender. Princeton University Press.

Kuhn, Annette (1995). Family Secrets: Acts of Memory and Imagination. London:Verso.

Larsen, Nella (2004). [1929] Passing. New York: Dover Publications.

Lorde, Audre (1984). Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Trumansburg: The Crossing Press.

Mullen, Harryette (1994). “Optic White: Blackness and the Production of Whiteness,” diacritics, 24: 71-89.

Orelus, Pierre (2011). Transnationals of Color: Counter Narratives Against Discrimination in Schools and Beyond. New York: Peter Lang.

Puwar, Nirmal (2004). Space Invaders: Race, Gender and Bodies Out of Place. Oxford: Berg.

Walkerdine, Valerie (1997). Daddy’s Girl: Young Girls and Popular Culture. Harvard University Press.

1. Parts of this spoken paper were published in the sixth chapter “Going Strange, Going Native” of my book Strange Encounters (2000). This chapter included sections on “consuming strangers” (drawing on bell hooks’ discussion of “eating the other”), “becoming strangers” (drawing on a reading of the film, Dances with Wolves), and “passing for strangers” (which begins with a reading of John Griffin’s Black Like Me). I mention this here as in the third section I consider “passing for black” as well as “passing for white.Despite the fact that our conference happened after the case of Rachel Dolezal had already begun to be discussed as a case of “passing for black” this case did not come up in any of the panel discussions I attended and I did not bring it up myself. I think there was too much to process. I do hope to read more of the work of Black feminists on the complexity of the situation (the lecture was written before the story broke but I have been following it as much as I can). So these are some of my reflections on “passing for black” published 15 years ago in case they are relevant or helpful: “passing for black has become an increasingly powerful individual and national fantasy. Passing for black is  enabled by ‘adopting’ elements of black culture, a process of adoption which then fixes or freezes those elements as indicators of what it means to be black. In Sunderland’s sympathetic account of white women who pass as black, she emphasises how these women imagine and project what it means to ‘be black’. To quote from one of her interviewees, ‘And I find that very much about black people. You know, I think, um. I just find warmth there.’ While Sunderland clearly supports this representation of the white self through claiming affiliation with black culture – for her this indicates a shift towards a recognition of mixed identities – we can be more cautious. Not only is there a fetishising and exoticising of blackness at stake, but we also have the recreation of the white subject as the one knows the difference, even if that difference is no longer seen as external to the white self or community….Passing for Black is a technique of knowledge insofar as it remains tied to the narrativisation of the white female subject’s knowledge of herself through her sympathetic incorporation of others….One can consider how such individuated acts of passing legitimate the national fantasy of multiculturalism, in which one passes for strangers by adopting or assuming their style” (2000: 132-133). For those interested the Sunderland piece I was referred to is this one: “You may not know it, but I am Black; White Women’s Self-Identification as Black,” Ethnos, 1-2: 32-58

2. In Strange Encounters (2000) I offered an analysis of how the becoming/being distinction is a racialised distinction (as a way into a critique of philosophies of becoming). Whiteness is becoming (movement, light, flight) insofar as blackness is posited as being (stasis, dark, weight). Some have to be so others become.

3. It is worth noting here that security systems, or anti-counterfeiting measures, also require the invention of means for “telling the difference” by making difference of origin more legible or material (holigrams, multi-colored bills, embedded devices such as strips, microprinting, watermarks and inks whose colors changed depending on the angle of light). Differences are generated by the very system that requires them. The implications for theories of authorship (and or as machinery) seem obvious.

About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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7 Responses to Some Striking Feature: Whiteness and Institutional Passing

  1. Mara Lee says:

    Thank you, Sara, for your wonderful and brave text. I am deeply inspired by the way you hold on to your figures and examples (i.e.the arm, the encounter with the policemen) and the biographical references, but each time letting their “work” manifest itself in new ways. Hereby perpetually insisting on the importance of the personal as a means to displace and recharge the definition of the political. Thanks again.

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