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Clearly Invisible: Racial Passing and the Color of Cultural Identity

Black news from Pasadena - Commentary - Dr. Marcia Alesan Dawkins and multi-racial issuesDr. Marcia Alesan Dawkins began a long and unexpected journey that led her to write a groundbreaking and thought-provoking book with courage, intellectual integrity and impeccable scholarly research. In Clearly Invisible: Racial Passing and the Color of Cultural Identity, she asserts that "Passing forces us to think and rethink what exactly makes a person black, white, or 'other,' and why we care . . . It makes us consider the hazards of silence and the hope of communication." Dr. Dawkins believes that she is an interesting conundrum based on her own ambiguous appearance as the author of Clearly Invisible. She offers her point of view on Passing as a chance to see what she has seen, to see further with more focus, and the possibility that readers may shift between perspectives (re)presented. She unearths the history of intercultural and interracial contact which began in ancient Greece and North America, strengthened by her experience and research to underscore that "everybody passes" even if within a moment. Dr. Dawkins believes that Passing is not passé.

She shared her first experience of Passing regarding her age and class status. Living in Queens, New York her parents wanted her to have the best primary education. This meant she had to go to a better and wealthier school district. A relative provided an address. At the age of five, in order to get into first grade, her age was raised 6½. Dr. Dawkins remembered being afraid that she was too small, could not hold the pen correctly and could not tell why. As a result, her teacher believed that Marcia had a learning disability. Both of her parents were teachers, worked with her every day and her Dad developed a set of study notebooks. Subsequently, her anxiety abated and she became one of the top students in her class.

Black news from Pasadena - Commentary - Dr. Marcia Alesan Dawkins new bookDr. Dawkins reflected that during her primary and junior high school years it was acceptable to mention her real age since issues of age and class faded into the shadows. Racial issues and labeling became an integral part of her high school experience as a multicultural and multiracial child. Fortunately, her parents helped her to craft informed answers when these issues were raised. She identified with racial disparity and in her history classes she asked questions about self identification. She came to terms with checking off her race beginning with the 2000 census because she was allowed to choose her Latino and African-American identities. Dr. Dawkins noted that before 2000 race identity choices were limited and people were forced to choose one race over another.

She described her college experience at Villanova University, New York University and the University of Southern California as "eye opening racially." For example, 98% of the student body was white. In contrast, her public school experience was more diverse. Dr. Dawkins was granted a scholarship established for "people of color." Numerous questions were raised by her classmates, for example, "What will you do when people find out you are on scholarship? What will you say?"

Dr. Dawkins tackles Passing in numerous ways. She begins with Passing as Persuasion. For example, she asserts that "passing is the phenomenon in which a person of one social group identifies and represents themselves as a member of another or others . . . using rhetoric to grapple with the crises of meaning produced when images, identities, and categories diverge." Dr. Dawkins cites as examples the movies Imitation of Life (1934 and 1950), Pinky (1949), and Devil in a Blue Dress (1995). Passing as Power is told utilizing the 1848 journey from Georgia to Philadelphia of Ellen and William Craft, escaped slaves who had to travel in plain sight as the "other" making the true self invisible. They crossed, "symbolic boundaries that were dangerous, such as gender, class, health, ability and the separation between us and them." Using the white part of her identity, Ellen Craft passed as Mr. Johnson a respectable looking gentleman whose class status was important. Since Ellen was illiterate a sling was used as a ruse. Others were asked to sign for "Mr. Johnson." William played the role of helper/slave for Mr. Johnson. Dr. Dawkins states that it is important that passers, if they are allowed, voice their rhetorical power freely and in their own words once they come out of the closet. Dr. Dawkins said that Passing as Powerful can get one killed.

Passing as Property was put into play by Homer A. Plessy who boarded a train in Georgia in 1892. "The challenge was simple . . . Pass as white. Purchase the ticket. Board the train. Pass as Black. Ensure arrest. Get political." Plessy v Ferguson went to the Supreme Court and Plessy lost. Legal experts wanted to "dismantle dominant racial categories and oppose the legitimacy of segregation." Dr. Dawkins believes that as a result of the Plessy decision, "today's identity theft law still fails to address the institutions that create the problem. Instead it focuses only on individuals as lone rangers who breach security." As a result, she introduces the notion that "Passers are treated historically as individual persons and not as part of a larger society that treats people unequally based on who they are and appear to be." Dr. Dawkins' delves deeper into other dimensions of Passing as Principle, Pastime and Paradox. She provides "Passwords for Passing" to help us understand, traverse and survive potential minefields. In her conclusion, she raises the question Passing as Progress? She believes that "Passing is both an ending and a beginning . . . because it discourages inquiry . . . invites us to pass by, to keep moving, and not to look beneath surfaces." At the same time passing is "an invitation for us to interrogate our innermost selves our motives, movements, and meanings. We are invited to explore why people pass, what happens to them and to their relationships, how passing operates and what passing expresses and embodies in our societies and worlds." Read Clearly Invisible and much will be revealed about ourselves and social realities that have the potential to enslave or free our minds. Dr. Dawkins' last sentence tells us that "only when we assert ourselves as whole people that we can acknowledge the evolution of passing, find a way to lay it to rest, compose its epitaph, and, finally, progress from passing to passed." Valerie B. Jarrett, Senior Advisor to the President stated that Clearly Invisible: Racial Passing and the Color of Cultural Identity is a thought provoking analysis of racial and cultural identities that challenges the way we view race and culture in our society. Your accomplishments and drive to make our country a better place to live are a true inspiration.

Marcia Alesan Dawkins, Ph.D. is a Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in Los Angeles, California. She earned her Ph.D in Communication from USC Annenberg School, her Master's degrees in Humanities from USC and New York University and her Bachelor's degrees in Communication Arts and honors from Villanova University. To contact Dr. Dawkins and get more information about Clearly Invisible: Racial Passing and the Color of Cultural Identity go to www.clearlyinvisiblebook.com.

 

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