Skyhorse, Brando and Lisa Page, editors. “We Wear the Mask: 15 True Stories of Passing in America”, Beacon 2017.
The Need to Pass
“Passing” has come to mean, for some, opportunity, access, or safety. Then there are others who do not willingly pass but are “passed” in specific situations by someone else. This anthology of writings is illuminating and timely anthology as it examines the complex reality of passing in America.
This tradition of “passing” seems to have always been a part of American society. Originally it just meant passing as white when one has African American ancestry. Today, however passing deals with race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion and social class. In this book we get fifteen narratives from people who are (or have been) passing in one way or another. We really see this in the LGBT world where until recently many had to pass as straight for housing and employment opportunities. While this is not directly mentioned with reference to gay men in this anthology, those of us who had to do so are well aware of the challenges that it brought.
Each story we get here is a fascinating look at a person’s life. Our ideas of what it means for one to present him/herself as a member of a specific group or category changes after reading this. We see that
all of us, at some time or other, passes for something that we are not and this book helps us to think more broadly about what passing really means.
Editor Brando Skyhorse writes about his Mexican mother bringing him up as Native American despite the fact that she knew the family was really Latino. A person usually chooses to “pass,” but here it is the mother who raised her son to be something he wasn’t and the result was that Skyhorse was a member of two communities and did not know how truthful he should be.
Editor Page shares how her white mother didn’t tell friends about her black ex-husband or that her children were biracial. Gabrielle Bellot writes about truths of passing as a woman after coming out as trans, and MG Lord, who, after the murder of her female lover, embraced heterosexuality. Other examples include Patrick and how he “accidentally” passes as a waiter at the National Book Awards ceremony, and Rafia Zakaria frets over her Muslim American identity when traveling through domestic and international airports. Other writers include Trey Ellis, Marc Fitten, Susan Golomb, Margo Jefferson, Achy Obejas, Clarence Page, Sergio Troncoso, Dolen Perkins-Valdez, and Teresa Wiltz.
We read about economic “passing,” when someone pretends one is of a financial status or the opposite. We wonder about transgender persons who are living under a different gender and bisexuals who pass from one identity to the other: “straight with their straight friends, family members, or acquaintances and gay with their gay friends and lovers.” American Muslims have to make tough decisions about whether to pass as non-Muslim in order to be safe or to be who they are and remain true to themselves. I remember that during my own visits in the Arab world when I was told to keep the fact that I am Jewish to myself.
The essays here are diverse and give us a variety of scenarios and each selection has relevance and each is true. I find it interesting that in today’s world passing and identity have not become important topics. We want DNA to prove what we always knew was true. We do not want surprises. However, when a surprise comes, it is usually hidden, treated as an entertaining human-interest story, and then disregarded.
After reading this book, we see that we all pass for something. “(Think about teenagers passing as older to get admitted to a movie or a nightclub. Think about individuals who lie about their age and make themselves older or younger, perhaps to better fit their partner in a new relationship. And who hasn’t pretended to agree with an old aunty about politics while knowing that her views are the total opposite of ours? Don’t rock the boat. People pretend to be religious even though they haven’t been to church in years and may not even believe in a God, but it makes it easier to be around relatives and it keeps the family peace.)” We have all passed for something that we were not at some time and while passing is a complex issue, it is a part of American life.
I found this collection to be of uneven quality: some of the essays are wonderful while others should never have reached the printed page without having been completed edited.