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The national response, culminating in a , was extreme.Some were outraged by her deception, while others drew parallels between her right to live her “truth” the same way Caitlyn Jenner embodies hers.
Rachel—or “#Black Rachel” as she trended online—never once “broke character.” Later that month, the reported on Andrea Smith, an Anglo woman and esteemed professor of Native American studies at the University of California, Riverside, who presented as Cherokee for over twenty years.
She had a long history of American Indian activism and published articles and books purporting to speak on Indian issues despite not a trace of Indian ancestry being found after two rounds of genealogical research.
Why, then, did “#Black Rachel” fascinate and outrage so many of us?
The answer lies in the complex phenomenon of “Passing,” as Brando Skyhorse notes in his essay, “is when someone tries to get something tangible to improve their daily quality of life by occupying a space meant for someone else.” Many Americans believe—or insist—our country operates on a color-blind system of meritocratic fairness.
If you’re looking for historical precedent, how about jazz clarinetist Mezz Mezzrow?
A middle-class Jewish kid from Chicago, he married a black woman, moved to Harlem, self-identified in the 1940s as a “white Negro” and was listed by his draft board as “Negro.” His understanding of being a black American was an odd brew of sincere cultural musical appreciation and promoting the oversimplified “shuck and jive” stereotypes.
Others are passed on by gatekeepers, who see in the person they’re passing some kind of kinship, an element that says, “You’re like me.
And now, you belong.” Passing is an intensely personal issue for both editors of this book.
Patrick Rosal, who writes about being mistaken for the help at the National Book Awards, asked if we had considered disability passing.
Ashamed of his hearing impairment, Rosal realized he was pretending his tinnitus didn’t exist and was passing as a man without hearing loss.