I am currently working on an article about Levantine Sephardic
immigrants in the U.S. and the phenomenon of their passing for other ethnic
and racial groups. The article is for a forthcoming volume on
definitions of passing. What I have observed from my research of secondary
and primary literature on the subject of passing is that it is almost always
limited to the "passing" of African Americans for "white," or women passing
for men, etc. Even the literature that discusses femininity and "African"
qualities in American Jews (read: Ashkenazic Jews) does not present a useful
paradigm for the case of Levantine Sephardim.
Can readers suggest sources for passing among American ethnic groups
that would more accurately parallel my own research? To provide a bit of
background on my topic, Levantine Sephardim were not recognized as Jewish by
their Ashkenazic brethren and were often mistaken for non-Jewish Latin and
Mediteranean peoples (i.e. Hispanic, Italian, Greek, Arabic, etc.)
Thank you in advance.
RE: Aviva Ben-Ur
I was not sure from your post who was passing as what and if you were only
interested in a strict definition of passing in racial terms.
I do some work on "passing" among ethnic groups in Brazil. One of the
things I have found is that "Syrian-Lebanese" (the term generally used to
refer of those of Middle Eastern, non-Jewish, descent) use name changing to
pass as "white" or "European" Brazilians. Most interesting are the coded
ways in which this is done so that the new "Brazilian" names are in fact
carefully contructed from the original Middle Eastern names.
A different kind of "passing" can be found among those North African Jews
who migrated to the Amazon in the 19th century. They often assumed
Brazilian identities (including via naturalization) in order to return to
Morocco as a kind of "poor person's protege."
Visiting Associate Research Professor
Center for Latin American Studies/Watson Institute for International Studies
Providence, RI 02912
[Melissa Meyer <meyer@HISTORY.UCLA.EDU> writes:]
While I don't know anything specific about the group you're interested in, I
have done extensive research of my own about people of mixed descent. My
main focus is on native peoples of the Americas. I would just say that the
whole field has gotten much more sophisticated than focusing on passing.
The role of the state and law and the courts is central, as is peoples'
strategies for negotiating within economic, political, and social constraints.
I'll pass along a few citations:
-Virginia Dominguez, White by Definition: Social Classification in Creole
-Nancy Faires Conklin and Nora Faires, "Colored and Catholic: The Lebanese
in Birmingham, Alabama," In Eric Hooglund, ed., Crossing the Waters:
Arabic-Speaking Immigrants to the United States before 1940
-Marilyn Halter, Between Race and Ethnicity: Cape Verdean American
-Ian Haney Lopez, White by Law: The Legal Construction of Race
-James Loewen, The Mississippi Chinese: Between White and Black
-Karen Leonard, Making Ethnic Choices: California's Punjabi Mexican Americans
-Melissa Greene, The Temple Bombing
-J. David Smith, Scenes in Red, White and Black: The Eugenic Assault on
-Gerald Sider, Lumbee Indian Histories: Race, Ethnicity and Indian Identity
in the Southern United States
-Karen Blu, The Lumbee Problem: The Making of an American Indian People
-Jack Forbes, Africans and Native Americans: The Language of Race and the
Evolution of Red-Black Peoples
-Christopher Benfey, Degas in New Orleans: Encounters in the Creole World of
Kate Chopin and George Washington Cable
My entire bibliography is much, much more extensive than this. I selected a
few sources that seemed relevant to what you are interested in.
Professor Melissa L. Meyer
Department of History
6265 Bunche Hall
University of California, Los Angeles
Los Angeles, CA 90095-1473
This is an interesting topic. I can think of Jewish and Italian American
boxers who fought under Irish names, and at least two Boston politicians
who took Irish names (Foley and Malone) to advance their careers. Some
businessmen did this also. There must be many other examples. I hope we
hear more about this legal or informal name changing.
New England Historical Association
One can, I think, point to individuals who changed their names to "fit in"
or advance their careers. Having a Polish name, for example, is still
considered a liability by some and treated as such by many Americans. Dan
Rostenkowski was Dan Rosten for many years, before he decided to run for
Congress in Chicago, when he changed his name back to Rostenkowski. In the
1870s, a Polish politician named Smarzewski changed his name to Schermann
to appeal to the city's German voters (his ability to speak German was also
Of more interest are whole groups who take on other identities. I can think
of any exact parallel to the cited example of a group consciously taking on
another identity, but there are cases of groups taking on other identities
because they initially had a very weak or non-existent national identity.
The strangest case I've heard of lately came from Minnesota where a small
community of Carpatho-Rusins adopted a Slovenian identity. This may have
been due to having a Slovenian pastor, but they continued to read
Amerykansky Russky Viestnik, a Rusin newspaper.
With regard to the recent discussion of passing, I've recently had some
discussions with a documentary filmmaker who is interested in a late 19th
century individual who was of black and white parentage and who passed for
white. This is outside my usual field. Is there recent work on this topic?
Bob Cherny, History
San Franicso State University
The popular immigrant writer, Louis Adamic, did an analysis of the
phenomenon of name-changing by immigrants and their children to "fit in" to
"American" society in What's Your Name? (Harper Bros., 1942). Adamic
sometimes altered and exaggerated facts for dramatic effect, but he had a
very good feel for prevailing opinions and popular behavior.
Dept. of History
I'm not sure of very recent literature, having looked at the issue in 1991,
but there are a number of works that would help on the subject of
African-American racial passing. It should be noted, however, that most of
this literature discusses passing as represented in the works of important
writers like Jessie Fauset (who wrote Plum Bun in 1928) and Nella Larsen
(who wrote her novel Passing around then). Joel Williamson's New People:
Miscegenation and Mulattoes in the United States ( New York: Free Press,
1990; reprinted by Louisiana State University Press, 1995), would probably
be the best start given the period you are interested in. Also relevant are
F. James Davis, Who Is Black: One Nation's Definition (Pennsylvania State
University Press, 1991) and Judith Berzon's Neither White Nor Black: The
Mulatto Character in American Fiction (New York University Press, 1978)
Melvyl searches produce Juda Bennett, The Passing Figure: Racial Confusion
in American Literature (New York: Peter Lang, 1996), Merrill Horton,
Blackness, Betrayal, and Childhood: race and identity in Nella Larsen's
passing, CLA Journal, v38 no.1 (September 1994): 31 (15 pages); Jonathan
Little, "Nella Larsen's 'Passing': irony and the critics," African American
Review v26, no 1 (Spring 1992): 173 (10 pages); Mark J. Madigan,
"Miscegenation and 'the dicta of race and class': the Rhinelander case and
Nella Larsen's 'Passing,'" Modern Fiction Studies v36, n4 (Winter 1990):523
(7 pages); Mark J. Madigan, "Then everything was dark"? The two endings of
Nella Larsen's 'Passing.' Papers of the Bibliographical Society of
America, v83, n4 (Dec 1989): 521 (3 pages).
There were also debates in African-American newspapers such as the Chicago
Defender, the Afro-American and the Houston Informer and in white
newspapers like the Atlanta Constitution and the Washington Tribune during
the early Twentieth-Century and clippings from these papers are located by
subject in the Tuskegee papers microfilm collection in the Newspaper and
periodicals room at UC Berkeley.
Lastly, you might try write to Tamara McNeill at the history department of
U.C. Berkeley. She has worked on mixed race women in New Orleans during the
late 19th century and therefore may know the literature well that you are
As a sidenote, the most recent literature seems to be interested in the
opposite phenomenom of whites temporarily passing as blacks. See for
examples the discussions of minstrelsry shows in the early republic found
in David Roediger's Wages of Whiteness and Alexander Saxton's Rise and
Fall of the White Republic and the more recent passing of Jews as black
actors discussed in Michael Rogin's recent work.
I've been reading and saving all the messages regarding this issue, which I
happen to think as fascinating. I'd like to know if anybody has come across
or has studied contemporary Brazil in this specific regard. For what I have
seen as a Brazilian and by means of comparison with the United States,
passing as something else is not an issue in Brazil because Brazilian
society has grown to acknowledge the possibility that the offspring of a
black parent, for instance, may be white if the one happens to have a white
phenotype. This is still unconceivable in the United States where recently
advocacy groups for multi-ethnic people have tried to assure a multi-ethnic
category in the forthcoming census (note that the multi-ethnic category
tries to acknowledge different racial and ethnic heritages in one
individual). Since census classifications are not even close to influence
a Brazilian's everyday life as his/her phenotypes are, white-looking
Brazilians are white as far as common sense is concerned, regardles the
race of either parent. Are there any other example out there of such ample
possibilities of passing?
LBJ School of Public Affairs
University of Texas at Ausitn