During the 2016 election cycle, “identity politics” became a dirty word to be avoided. While our identities have always been deeply political, identity politics is the idea that politicians who pay too much attention to this lose their elections. And yet, Presidential candidate Donald Trump ran and arguably won his election because of race-based fear mongering. In a political climate where advocating for yourself based on your identity loses you elections and organizing against identities wins elections, what does that mean for those whose identities aren’t so black and white?
The way that we identify ourselves is personally significant because it carries the weight of our experiences, backgrounds, and history. It can go back generations. Claiming and coming to terms with an identity can be a pivotal moment of self-realization. But our identities also form some of the most basic building blocks for how we interact with one another in society. Consciously or unconsciously, an entire system of power and privilege is netted out based on assumed identities. For example, if you are a woman, based on gender alone, you are more likely to be excluded from certain professions, salary ranges, and levels of seniority. You are unlikely to discuss the experiences that make up your gender identity with a stranger on the street, and yet that person may vary the way they interact with you because of your gender; they may choose to hold open a door for you or harass you. And your gender identity shapes the way you experience public spaces — women have been known to alter aspects of their day to ensure their safety, a consideration few men have ever had.
Because our identities inform the basis for social interactions as well as our relationship to power and privilege, these categories are often seen as absolute and binary. For example, America has a long history of the “one drop rule” as a way of categorizing multiracial, biracial, or light skinned people as people of color. The “one drop rule” suggests that anyone with even one drop of “non-white blood” is, therefore, not a white person. During and immediately following a time when the entire economic system of the United States was built on the enslavement, subjugation, and oppression of groups of people, the “one drop rule” was an incredibly important way to distinguish the haves from the haves not. When being a white man meant you were free to determine the direction of your own life and being a person of color meant that you were enslaved, forced onto reservations, or into the most dangerous and least fruitful jobs, no one could be allowed to live in between these groups. Everyone had to be easily identifiable for the system to work.
Many identities still exist in binary groups. But our identities rarely fit within these binaries — we are literally not always black or white. Binaries allow for an easily distinguishable and enforceable social order. In order to make complex identities fit into a simple, binary system, multiple groups of people are lumped together and defined as the same in opposition to the more privileged group. Within our society, you are either white or a person of color, straight or LGBT, non-disabled or disabled. There are those who would seek to exist between or outside of these categories, who would identify as biracial, genderqueer, gender non-conforming or other multiplicitous identities. But our society leaves very little room for these individuals — often erasing or delegitimizing those identities so they must constantly ink out public space for themselves in opposition to the social norm.
In a political climate where advocating for yourself based on your identity loses you elections and organizing against identities wins elections, what does that mean for those whose identities aren’t so black and white?
“Passing” is used to describe when a member of one identity category can be mistaken for and accepted as another. Passing most commonly refers to race but can be widely applied to any identity that is assumed to be easily identifiable — gender and gender identity, sexual orientation, ability, wealth and class status, etc. Passing almost always means an individual who personally identifies with a marginalized group being mistaken for and therefore receiving the benefits associated with a more privileged group. You “pass” as a more privileged group — as white or cisgender or straight. If you are “mistaken” for a marginalized group, that is more likely to be taken as an insult or a joke.
“The Changing Face of America,” National Geographic’s 2013 photo project on mixed-race identity | Source: © Martin Schoeller/National Geographic
When someone passes as another identity, that identity is placed upon them, and often that individual has little choice in the matter. Our various identities are constantly being assumed within every interaction that we have. And for the most part, this is harmless. If a stranger assumes that you are a white person when you are not, that assumption will usually have little to no impact on your life. However, there are opportunities to actively assert an identity that is contrary to that assumption, thus correcting the misidentification.
When the stakes are this high, passing can be a matter of survival. Those who pass are expected to constantly assert their identity above and beyond simply living their lives, by constantly reminding people of their identity, wearing something, or otherwise marking themselves so that they will not be mistaken for a member of a privileged group. Not passing means constantly coming out as a member of a marginalized group. However, those who choose to do this — those who choose not to pass and instead actively assert their identity — often do so at great personal risk because of the close association with identity and privilege.
As the face and voice of one of our most powerful institutions — the political system — no single person has a greater ability to set the tone of our country than the President. During his campaign, Trump made racially disparaging comments, joked about assaulting women, and refused to renounce known White supremacists. Despite this, millions of Americans voted for him and he now holds the highest office in the land. For some who hold the ideologies that Trump supports even more extreme views, this could signal an invitation to air those views more publicly. The 2016 election cycle and Trump’s election has already led to more hate crimes and an increase in anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic incidents.
Not passing requires constant work, constantly coming out. Those who pass may simply choose not to resist.
In electing Donald Trump, the political discourse in this country has drastically shifted to fear “the other.” “The other” is any group seen as outside of social norms. Marginalized groups are often othered because it is the more privileged groups in a society who get to dictate the norms. The other, by definition, is different from and outside of privileged groups. These differences are exaggerated and manipulated through social isolation and misinformation to create hatred and fear. The other is robbed of their humanity, becoming a foreigner in their own land. We have seen Trump use language that isolates and stigmatizes immigrants, Muslims, and Latinos for political gain. This increased dehumanization and the problematization of groups of people is dangerous for those groups. Hatred and fear combined with a lack of regard for the humanity of the other make it increasingly acceptable to hinder and hurt them. Marginalized groups already have less access to resources and the other must be isolated from them entirely.
Because the system of othering marginalized groups of people is tied into political power, subverting that system is harshly punished.
This raises the stakes for every group of marginalized people, but also places those who pass in an extreme position. Those who pass already face the impossible choice of losing very real privilege or sacrificing their personally held identities combined with the incredible burden of outing themselves whenever they choose not to pass. Particularly in this political climate — where marginalized groups are being othered, and the other maligned — one may simply choose not to resist an assumed identity. Not passing requires constant work, constantly coming out. Those who pass may simply choose not to resist. The risk of being othered may simply outweigh the personal, familial, even moral costs of denying personal identity. When the stakes are this high, passing is a matter of survival.
Passing as a member of a more privileged group gives you access to the privileges of that group and these privileges can be significant. For example, safety is a privilege that those of us who have it rarely think about. But for Transgender people, most specifically Trans* women of color, safety is a privilege that they only gain by passing as cisgender. Trans* women of color are being targeted, terrorized, and murdered year after year. The only way to avoid this fate is to not be identifiable as Trans*. For a Trans* woman of color, not passing as cisgender could be a death sentence, except for a limited few women whose privilege and status protect them. Choosing not to pass will necessarily result in losing some privilege and status. It is up to each individual to decide if they are willing to risk that loss.
National Geographic’s January 2017 issue, titled “The Gender Revolution” | Source: © National Geographic
Of course, those who are marginalized and do not pass do not have this choice. Being able to access the resources of a more privileged community is, in itself, a privilege. Passing as another identity does come at a personal cost, but it can secure the safety of that individual when others are still being marginalized and othered.
And passing can also be dangerous. If a member of the more privileged, “in” group discovers that a person is passing, they may feel betrayed and deceived — even if the person who had passed did not do so intentionally. For example, when a masculine of center women is misgendered, she is often met with embarrassment and confusion. Masculine of center women are outside of our perceived social norm and thus, in the current political climate, subversive. If that woman were to pass as a man, doing so would call into question the misinformation and dehumanization that would dictate that she should be othered. A masculine of center woman passing as male calls into question the entire system of othering marginalized groups, regardless of whether she wants to pass or not. Because the system of othering marginalized groups of people is tied into political power, subverting that system is harshly punished. For passing as male, even unintentionally, that woman may be met with hatred or even violence.
Our current political climate puts a strain on those who hold various identities. Those with privilege will be constantly trying to gain more privilege and those who fit the norms will be trying to prove just how well they fit them — all in an effort to protect themselves from falling out of favor and becoming othered. Those who are marginalized will be constantly trying to protect themselves from isolation, dehumanization, and the threat of physical violence. Like those with privilege, those who pass will actively parrot the norm for fear of being othered. Like other marginalized groups, those who actively choose not to pass or are outed after previously passing will face increased fear.