The Problem With Passing

Humans tend to make snap judgements about other humans, categorizing them into neat groups. This predisposition to categorize means we often sympathize and identify with those that are most familiar—those that look most like us, or those that align with society’s perception of the ‘default human’. The ‘default human’ is crafted by media portrayals, and in Western society this typically translates to white, straight, and Christian representations. As a result, those who diverge from this default are marginalized, under-represented, and frequently discriminated against.

But what about those that pass for white, straight, or Christian? There are numerous individuals who might be bi-racial or black but can pass for white, LGBTQ+ individuals who might pass for straight, trans people who pass as cisgender, or individuals of diverse religious backgrounds, such as Jewish or Muslim, who pass as Christian. Society, sometimes out of so-called concern, often nudges them towards passing, compelling them to suppress vital parts of their identity. Yet, this suppression, masked as a safety net, is a subtle act of violence, an erasure.

When one’s identity is overlooked or invalidated, it fosters a sense of invisibility within broader society. This not only perpetuates existing prejudices but also obstructs opportunities for sincere connection. Genuine compassion and empathy tend to flourish when we recognize and embrace diversity. A society that only reserves these emotions for familiar groups loses out on the profound growth that stems from inclusivity.

When people internalize the need to pass and begin to deny their identity, it becomes an act of alienation and estrangement from their experience and inner life.  The pressure to continuously conform and mask one’s true self can also have profound mental health implications, from anxiety to depression. The act of “passing” isn’t just an external facade; it infiltrates the psyche, leading to internalized conflicts, guilt, and a profound sense of loss.

Moreover, those who opt to “pass” inadvertently contribute to the erasure of their own rich cultures and narratives, depriving society of opportunities for deeper understanding.

Stereotypes, unfortunately, serve as rigid molds, dictating how specific groups “should” appear or behave. This harms not just those who can pass, but also those within marginalized communities, further cementing divisive expectations.

Thankfully, there are positive shifts occurring. Emerging media representations are beginning to highlight the vast tapestry of human diversity, though the journey to true representation remains ongoing. Allies, too, play a crucial role. By dismantling societal expectations and creating safe environments, they pave the way for authentic self-expression.

For those familiar with someone who can pass, recognizing and validating their identity is paramount.  Believe people when they tell you who they are. True support means seeing beyond superficial traits and acknowledging the intricate depths of individual identities. Just because certain dimensions aren’t immediately visible doesn’t negate their existence. Support means honoring, acknowledging, and accepting their identity.

For individuals who can or choose to pass, it’s vital to strive for internal harmony, to integrate and unify their identity into a whole. Discarding or suppressing parts of oneself equates to self-mutilation, leading to a fragmented existence, a half-lived life. True fulfillment emerges when one acknowledges, accepts, and carries their entire identity with courage and pride.

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