Essay on Passing
No human society has ever been equal nor will ever be. The universally stratified society divided into unequal categories of people can only aspire to the utopian goal of seamless equality. However, inequality hurts and damages the psyche of those that are not privileged. Although, the developed societies have ensured equal opportunities and equal treatment through legislations and constitutional reforms, yet the inborn differences of caste and color are stubbornly resistant. Passing is an expression connoting denial and non-acceptance of inequalities whether natural or imposed. No one would ever admit they are inferior because they are black, or less capable because they earn less, or less intelligent because they are not into an intellectual pursuit. It is this logic that compels them to adopt what is known as "passing" to avail the benefits denied to them. However, I will go on to argue that "passing' is certainly not only unethical but also practically a harmful strategy.
Passing is unethical because you're impersonating. You are forced to represent what you're not. When you claim what you are that you are actually not your conscience pricks. Immanuel Kant, one of the greatest philosophers of our times formulated certain rules of morality that he called "Categorical Imperative". According to the first the first formulation of categorical imperative, "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law" (Kant 30). Kant's second maxim states,"Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means to an end" (Kant 30). When you are passing as White while you are actually colored, you would never want every one to do the same. In other words, you would never want passing to become a universal law. If passing became a universal law, the colored people can never hope for gaining a respectability that might come to them otherwise. Similarly applying Kant's second maxim, when you try to pass of as white but you belong to the category of non-white, you are using yourself as a means and not as an end. The immorality of this act is a self-evident for you have used your individual personality as a means to an end. Further, we might ask whether we gain happiness or unhappiness for passing. It is quite true that you gain a temporary feeling of superiority but your conscience knows you are not what you claim to be. This fundamental knowledge in association with your act might not make you a happy person ultimately. For instance, can you openly claim that you are a truthful person along with what who secretively claim, at the same time. The answer is a clear "no".
Let me briefly explain why those that "pass" do so and how the consequences of their action can have a definite harmful impact. Those that "pass" probably think they deserve to get access to the benefits denied to them. They think they deserve the esteem and power accessible to a class or race of people. The only way those benefits can be available to them can be through the strategy of "passing". But it is a bad strategy not only because there is always the fear of getting caught or exposed but also because the strategy demoralizes the person and destroys the inner sense of self worth they may have. Also, this strategy does harm to those others of the race and class that are honest, self-confident and honorable because "passing" labels the entire class or race.
Nella Larsen's passing explores the agony of light skinned African-American women that are faced with the dilemma of which race to identify with as they fall in the gray zone. They find trapped between the two worlds of black and white. They feel lonely and isolated because they do not have a complete access to either of the two worlds. While Irene is self-consciously proud of what she is, a light skinned African-American. Clare Kendry, her friend married to a white doctor passes for white. The book explores Plessy vs Ferguson ruling of separate but equal that actually translates into separate but never equal. Light skinned African Americans are actually faced with only two choices - to pass or not to pass - both of which have adverse consequences (Larsen 2004).
It is certainly difficult to claim that "passing" is an inherently unethical act when looked from the perspective of those that are trapped in the two worlds of privileges, esteem and opportunities on one hand and the lack of them on the other. However, I personally feel despite the inherent ambiguity and repressions imposed by the forces of society, an individual must be morally competent to claim what they are because truth has an inherent force or power that defies all man made barriers to an individual's innate self worth that devolves from the glory of God. If that were not so Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. would not have stood for their conviction in face of all odds.
Conclusion: I believe there is something ethically and morally wrong in "passing". This is because passing claims to represent what is for what is not. At the fundamental level, "passing" represents an individual's claims of equality and equal opportunity denied to them. However, the strategy so chosen is not only morally and ethically unworthy but practically not very useful as well. Nonetheless, while the action may be wrong, the actors cannot be blamed for adopting this strategy because of inherently ambiguous and confusing state they find themselves in because of the lack of complete belongingness to one of the two diametrically opposed classes or races. Nonetheless, a better approach is the truthful approach that guarantees pride and an honorable position in society.
Kant, Immanuel. (translated by James W. Ellington). Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals 3rd ed.. Hackett, 1993.
Larsen, Nella. Passing, Mineola, NY: Dover, 2004