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Passing is the ability of a person to be regarded as a member of social groups other than his or her own, such as a different race, ethnicity, social class, gender, intelligence, age and/or disability status, generally with the purpose of gaining social acceptance.[1] This may take the form of changing only one group from the person's own, such as a person's dressing such as to pretend to be of a higher social class.

Etymologically, the term is simply a clipped form of the phrasal verb pass for or pass as, as in a counterfeit passing for the genuine article or an impostor passing as another person. It has been in popular use since at least the late 1920s.[2]

Social classEdit

Class passing, analogous to racial and gender passing, is the concealment or misrepresentation of one’s social class. Whereas racial and gender passing is often stigmatized, class passing is generally accepted as normative behavior (see Norm (sociology)).[3] Class passing is common in US media and is linked to the notion of the American Dream and of upward class mobility. English-language novels which feature class passing include The Talented Mr. Ripley, Anne of Green Gables, and the Horatio Alger novels. Films featuring class-passing characters include Catch Me If You Can and Andy Hardy Meets Debutante.[4] Class passing also figures into reality television programs such as Joe Millionaire: contestants are often immersed in displays of great material wealth, or may have to conceal their class status.[5]

Motives for class passing might include:

  • Achievement of class mobility. Individuals may class pass to achieve social mobility. For instance, working-class students may class pass in educational institutions to obtain academic credentials and the associated rewards.[6]
  • Concealment of previous class status. Upwardly mobile individuals may class pass to conceal previous membership in the lower or working classes.[7]
  • Membership in the Working Class. Membership in the working class can be construed from multiple viewpoints: on the one hand, working-class identification can be a source of positive identification; on the other, working-class identity can be a source of stigma. Working-class individuals report fear of disclosure of their identity, particularly if poor performance at work or school or deviant behavior may be attributed to them.[8] For instance, a study of working-class students found that they link the fear of performing poorly on standardized tests to a fear of being discovered as working class.[9]

Ethnicity and raceEdit

Main article: Passing (racial identity)

Passing as another ethnicity is a common phenomenon.[citation needed] Discriminated groups In North America and Europe frequently modified their accents, word choices, manner of dress, grooming habits, and even their names in an attempt to appear to be members of a majority group or of a privileged minority group. [citation needed]

For example, South Americans and Spaniards in the U.S. may claim Chicano descent for the purpose of enjoying benefits under affirmative action programs and practices.[10]

Circumcised Jewish males in Germany during World War II attempted to restore their foreskins as part of passing as Gentile.[citation needed]The film Europa, Europa explores this theme.

Gender and sexual orientationEdit

Template:Expand section

Main article: Passing (gender)
See also: The closet

Passing as a different sexual orientation has traditionally been an action taken by homosexual men and women who pretend to be heterosexual to avoid social bigotry. The phrase "in the closet" is often used for a secret homosexual (or bisexual).


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Passing among persons with disabilities is a complex situation more commonly addressed via the parallel terms visible and invisible disabilities. Visible disabilities'are those impairments which are readily apparent to a non-disabled person: for instance wheelchair use or facial disfigurement; invisible disabilities are those which are not immediately apparent: for instance hearing impairments, mental health or neurological disorders. Whether a particular disability is "visible" or "invisible" can vary on both individual and contextual bases; a wheelchair user may only use the wheelchair under certain circumstances and move apparently normally under others, a prosthetic limb may or may not be apparent, depending on clothing. A particular disabled person may often have both visible and invisible disabilities.

Whether a disabled person is invisibly or visibly disabled or both can affect the provision of services and the likelihood and types of discriminatory behaviour which is experienced. Visibly disabled people are more likely to suffer random harassment for appearance; invisibly disabled people may experience harassment when attempting to access facilities provided for people with disabilities. A disabled person with both visible and invisible disabilities may experience substantial difficulty in directing attention to the less apparent invisible disability.

The inherent visual aspect of a visible disability provides a visual foundation for building charitable or campaigning activity around, for instance the March of Dimes; while this foundation is absent for invisible disabilities. This dichotomy may result in less funding and care for invisible disabilities. For whatever reason, Medicare in the United States provides much less funding for mental than physical disabilities.


Passing as a member of a different religion or as religious at all is common among minority religious communities, such as Jews living among Christians at certain times, or Shi'i Muslims living in Sunni communities.[citation needed]

In an intentionally humorous echo of homosexual passing or "being in the closet", many Wiccans refer to hesitating to admit their religion as being in the "broom closet".[citation needed]

Passing as less intelligent is not uncommon, especially in teenagers. Peer pressure may insist that they not be a "dork" or a "geek". These teens say that they just want to be normal.[citation needed]

See alsoEdit


  1. Daniel G. Renfrow, "A Cartography of Passing in Everyday Life," Symbolic Interaction, Vol. 27, Issue 4, pp. 485-506; Maria C. Sanchez, Passing: Identity and Interpretation in Sexuality, Race, and Religion, NYU Press, 2001.
  2. Nella Larsen, Passing, 1929. Caroline Bond Day and Earnest Albert Hooton, A Study of Some Negro-White Families in the United States (Cambridge MA: Harvard University, 1932). Melville J. Herskovits, The Anthropometry of the American Negro (New York: Columbia University, 1930). Cheryl I. Harris, "On Passing: Whiteness as Property," 106 Harvard Law Review, 1709-1795, 1710-1712 (1993)
  3. Foster, Gwendolyn Audrey. Class-passing: Social Mobility in Film and Popular Culture, Carbondale, Il: Southern Illinois University Press, 2005, pp. 1-5.
  4. Foster, Gwendolyn Audrey. '',Class-passing: Social Mobility in Film and Popular Culture, Carbondale, Il: Southern Illinois University Press, 2005, pp. 6-13
  5. Foster, Gwendolyn Audrey. Class-passing: Social Mobility in Film and Popular Culture. Carbondale, Il: Southern Illinois University Press, 2005, p. 6.
  6. Reay, Diane. "Finding or Losing Yourself? Working Class Relationships to Education", The RoutledgeFalmer Reader, in Sociology of Education, ed. Stephen J. Ball. London: RoutledgeFalmer, 2004, p. 33.
  7. Foster, Gwendolyn Audrey. Class-passing: Social Mobility in Film and Popular Culture, Carbondale, Il: Southern Illinois University Press, 2005, p. 89.
  8. Skeggs, Beverly. Formations of Class & Gender, London: SAGE publications, 1997, pp. 74-77.
  9. Reay, Diane. "Finding or Losing Yourself? Working Class Relationships to Education", The RoutledgeFalmer Reader, Sociology of Education, ed. Stephen J. Ball. London: RoutledgeFalmer, 2004, pp. 39-41.
  10. Victor Davis Hanson. Rep Loretta Sanchez and Racial Bathos. URL accessed on 2010-10-10.

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