Brooke Kroeger, associate professor of journalism at New York University, has published acclaimed biographies of women writers Nellie Bly and Fannie Hurst. Fascinated by Hurst’s novel about passing, Imitation of Life (1933), Kroeger decided to write a non-fictional study of passing in contemporary America. Research for the book convinced her that the practice continues to be widespread, even though its surreptitious character makes it impossible to quantify.
Kroeger’s selections include a light-skinned African American screenwriter passing for a white Jew, a white teacher in the South falsely presumed to be black, a working-class Puerto Rican woman taking on a upper-class Jewish identity, a lesbian naval officer and a gay Jewish seminarian pretending to be heterosexuals, and a male poet utilizing a female name to write articles about rock and roll music. From a moral perspective, Kroeger finds that these persons mostly practiced “officious lying,” designed to avoid harm, in contrast to “malicious lying,” which has the opposite intent. Selecting sympathetic persons, she decided not to complicate her book with cases of individuals concealing socially condemned attributes like felony convictions, paraphilias, or drug additions.
These six interesting stories, interwoven with others from literature and history, demonstrate the complexity of passing and its various motivations. While our society has clearly become more accepting of different racial and ethnic identities, Kroeger emphasizes the extent to which old stereotypes continue to have an impact on opportunities and social acceptance. In regard to sexual orientation, moreover, her two examples illustrate that gays and lesbians are forced to engage in painful deceit if they wish to pursue careers in the military, most religious denominations, and many other organizations.