Passing (sociology)

Passing (sociology)

Passing is the ability of a person to be regarded as a member of a combination of sociological groups other than his or her own, such as a different race, ethnicity, social class, gender, and/or disability status, generally with the purpose of gaining social acceptance. [Daniel G. Renfrow, "A Cartography of Passing in Everyday Life," Symbolic Interaction, Vol. 27, Issue 4, pp. 485-506; Maria C. Sanchez, Passing: Identity and Interpretation in Sexuality, Race, and Religion, NYU Press, 2001.] This may take the form of changing only one group from the person's own, such as a person dressing such as to pretend to be of a higher social class, or may take the form of simultaneously changing multiple groups, such as a male suicide bomber who shaved off his beard, dressed and wore makeup to appear as a Jewish woman in order to enter a hotel in Israel. [ Margot Dudkevitch. Shin Bet: Israel has tracked down all those involved in Netanya attack [Passover Massacre] , "Jerusalem Post", April 14, 2003.]

Etymologically the term is simply a clipped form of the phrasal verb "pass for" or "pass as" as in a counterfeit "passing for" the genuine article or an impostor "passing as" another person. It has been in popular use since at least the late 1920s. [Nella Larsen, Passing, 1929; Caroline Bond Day and Earnest Albert Hooton, A Study of Some Negro-White Families in the United States (Cambridge MA: Harvard University, 1932; Melville J. Herskovits, The Anthropometry of the American Negro (New York: Columbia University, 1930); Cheryl I. Harris, "On Passing: Whiteness as Property," 106 Harv. L. Rev. 1709-1795, 1710-1712 (1993)]


Circumcised Jewish males in Germany during World War II attempted to restore their foreskins as part of passing as Gentile. (See also the film, Europa, Europa on this theme.)


Passing as another ethnicity is a common phenomenon. Discriminated groups In North America and Europe frequently modified their accents, word choices, manner of dress, grooming habits, and even their names in an attempt to appear to be members of a more mainstream majority group.

ocial class

Passing as another social class is historically common.

One example often used in the plots of fictional novels and movies is the poor young man pretending to be of higher class in order to woo the daughter of a rich man.



In the disabled community, Passing describes those with "invisible disabilities" who can pass for able-bodied: for example those with autism, hearing impairments or depression-spectrum illnesses, as compared with those who have facial disfigurements, motor impairments (cerebral palsy) or paraplegia.

There is a certain amount of rivalry between passing and non-passing groups in the various communities. Disabled persons who can pass are viewed as having advantages that those who don't pass do not have -- less discrimination and public attention. This can lead to a view that they are not "properly disabled." Conversely, in many parts of the world, funding and care is less available for invisible disabilities. For example, Medicare in the U.S. provides much less funding for mental than physical disabilities.

exual orientation

Passing as a different sexual orientation has traditionally been an action taken by homosexual men and women who pretend to be heterosexual to avoid social bigotry associated with homosexuality. The phrase "in the closet" is typically used for a secret homosexual or bisexual; the word "passing" is not common in this context.


Passing as a member of a different religion or as religious at all is common among minority religious communities, like Jews living among Christians or Shi'i Muslims living in Sunni communities. In an intentionally humorous echo of homosexual passing or "being in the closet" many Wiccans refer to the hesitance to admit their religion as being in the "broom closet".


ee also

*Ethnic group
*On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog
*Passing (gender)
*Passing (racial identity)
*Sexual orientation
*Social class

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