Blackness, Whiteness, and the Legacy of “Passing”

Leah Andelsmith | March 1st, 2019

Blackness, Whiteness, and the Legacy of “Passing”

Arts, Culture & Community


Dr. Audrey Elisa Kerr and Dr. Siobhan Carter-David. Leah Andelsmith Photo.

In 1970 in Louisiana, you were considered “colored” if you had “1/32 Negro blood.” Before that, you were considered “colored” if you had “a trace” of Negro blood.

Wednesday evening, Dr. Audrey Elisa Kerr presented many such examples of the problematic ways race has been defined in our country during a lecture at Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU). The talk, titled “‘Colored’ Women, Whiteness, and the Legacy of the Rhinelander Case,” was the latest installment in SCSU's the 1619 Lecture Series. It drew an audience of around 50 to the Adanti Student Center.

Organized by Dr. Siobhan Carter-David, an associate professor of U.S. history at SCSU, the 1619 Lecture Series aims to give some of SCSU’s African-American faculty a forum to share their research with students and the public. This year, they are all based around the quadricentennial commemoration of the beginning of slavery in the United States.

Kerr is a professor of English at SCSU. During her talk, she related two historical court cases that highlighted the concept of “passing,” a term used here to describe instances in which people of African-American descent can “pass” in white society because of they possess certain physical features (lighter skin, for example).

The first case involved Alice Jones, a working class woman whose father was part Black, and Kip Rhinelander, a wealthy New York socialite. The pair met in 1921 and dated for three years before marrying secretly. By many accounts, they were deeply in love, but when their marriage became public, so did Jones’ racial identity. Rhinelander subsequently filed for annulment on the grounds that Jones falsely represented her race. Jones successfully argued that Rhinelander was in fact aware of her race at the time of their marriage, winning the case but losing her relationship nonetheless.

The second case involved Susie Phipps of Louisiana, a white woman who applied for a passport, discovered that her birth certificate classified her as “colored,” and fought the state to have the classification changed to white. The state traced her genealogy back 222 years, finding a great-great-great-great grandmother who was Black, making Phipps one thirty-second Black. The midwife who delivered Phipps apparently knew that family history and marked “colored” on Phipps’ birth certificate.

“I was brought up white. I married white twice,” Phipps is reported to have said. “Take this color off my birth certificate. Let people look at me and see what I am.”

In 1986, the case rose all the way to the Supreme Court, where Phipps lost to Louisiana.

The takeaway? Race is extremely difficult to define, and racial categories are shaped primarily by the political and social mores of the time.

In the question and answer period, Kerr and her audience delved further into the concept of passing and the many ways it relates to broader racial and social concerns.

Considering the current diversity, inclusion, and equity work underway at institutions both in Connecticut and across the U.S., Kerr pointed out that current efforts primarily result in representation: just getting a seat at the table. She said true equity remains an elusive goal.

“People of color asked to represent in exclusive environments also have to pass,” she said, explaining that there is a great deal of assimilation required to fully function in these spaces. Folks sometimes need to “reinvent themselves.”

Several attendees brought up the idea of reparations for slavery and how that might work in a world where racial definitions can be so muddied. How do we decide who is entitled to reparations? Would DNA testing be appropriate in cases where Black ancestors may have passed for white?

“The problem is that race isn’t real. It doesn’t exist … so the DNA can’t bear it out,” said Kerr, referring to the fact that race is a potent social construct, but not a biological reality. Placing weight on genetic testing is looking to science “to enforce categories that never existed in the first place,” she said. “That’s the problem of the ‘one drop’ rule.”

Kerr said that when it comes to reparations, the DNA wouldn’t factor in—“the legal system won’t look at that”—and racial categorization won’t cut it either. Instead, the focus should be on people who are descendants of slaves.

“It’s family name that would qualify for reparations,” she said. She also stressed that she doesn’t see financial reparations as a realistic or imperative option, and that there are other, more holistic ways to make reparations.

“The recognition and acknowledgement of the history” is what’s most important, Kerr said. “The reckoning is the first part.”

In a quiet moment after the talk, Carter-David said that discussions of reparations go hand-in-hand with commemorating slavery’s 400-year history.

“It’s the perfect time to talk about it,” she said. “We’re in the position we’re in now as a nation because we haven’t had those conversations about our legacy.”

Kerr said that “the residue of this legacy”—the legacy of slavery—touches the academic work of every faculty member presenting in the 1619 Lecture Series, and even, perhaps, “the work that all of us do as Black people.”

Both Kerr and Carter-David said that acknowledging the nation’s racial history includes honoring the struggle for equality, and that feels immediate and personal to them. Kerr recalled arriving at Rutgers University as an undergraduate and feeling that “someone’s blood was shed in order for me to walk through this gate.” Carter-David said she has a similar feeling every time she enters a voting booth and remembers those that died fighting for civil rights.

“It doesn’t feel like it stretches out 400 years. It feels like it was done for you and me right now,” said Kerr. “That is awe-inspiring. To meet your maker because you think that someone coming after you needs you to do that. It’s a shared legacy.”

The next installment of the 1619 Lecture Series is on March 27. Assistant Professor of Political Science Dr. Jonathan Wharton will discuss presidential hopeful Cory Booker.