California State University, Fullerton

News Categories

Racial Passing and the Color of Cultural Identity

Marcia Dawkins tackles race, sociology and culture

Aug. 24, 2012

Former College of Communications faculty member Marcia Dawkins' award-winning dissertation is attracting a fresh round of attention, thanks to the publication this month of “Clearly Invisible: Racial Passing and the Color of Cultural Identity” by Baylor University Press. A wide-ranging exploration of passing — "the phenomenon in which a person of one social group identifies and represents herself as a member of another or others” — the book was published two years aftershe receivedthe African American Communication and Culture Division’s Outstanding Dissertation Award from the National Communication Association.

Dawkins's contribution to the  study of race and culture offers powerful testimony to the fact that race is more a matter of sociology than of biology. 

Both an updated take on the history of passing and a practical account of passing’s effects on the rhetoric of multiracial identities, “Clearly Invisible” questions whether passing can be a form of empowerment (even while implying secrecy) and suggests that passing could be one of the first expressions of multiracial identity in the U.S. as it seeks its own social standing.

Now serving as Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, Dawkins joined the CSUF human communication faculty as assistant professor in 2009. She received her bachelor’s degree from Villanova University, her master’s degree from New York University, and her doctorate from the University of Southern California. 

Passing as Persuasion: An Excerpt from "Clearly Invisible"

In “Passing as Persuasion,” Dawkins explains how circumstances gave rise to one of her central hypotheses:

It was one o'clock in the morning when I made a starling discovery. Insomia led me to my iPad in search of new applications to pass the time. While scrolling through the iTunes App Store, I came across a game called Guess My Race . . . a ten-question "quiz" that presents striking portraits of real people's faces. The user is asked to guess how these otherwise anonymous people answered the question, What race are you? After selecting from among six options, the user discovers how the person actually identifies him- or herself, or how he or she is identified by family and friends. Each answer is accompanied by a quote from the person in the photograph regarding his or her identity or experiences with race. For reasons you will soon see, Guess My Race piqued my interest immediately, so I downloaded it and began to play.

My first score was "1 out of 10 questions correct." Disappointed, I played again: "1 out of 10 questions correct." I wondered if something was wrong with me or with the game. My next attempt yielded "3 out of 190 questions correct." Frustrated with myself and with the game, I put it down and endeavored to get a few hours' sleep. It was a useless attempt. I had been too intrigued by the game, and my mind was flooded with explanations for my poor scores. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that each picture and set of answers in the game creates a momentary crisis of meaning. I did not consider categories like "Haitian," "Catholic," "Hick," and "Undocumented" as racial, so I did not know what answer to select. But by forcing me to consider the possibility that others may think of these categories as racial, the game made me aware of just how inarticulate all racial signifiers can be. My every guess forced me to question what I really know about race. I saw no right way to guess which answers were correct. I wondered if this was what it was like for others during countless real-life, guess-my-race encounters for which I served as subject. Most people did not ask. They just stared in a way that expressed that they were interested by difference. When close friends asked me this question directly, I told them about my ancestry and family history, although I must admit that I used to guard this formation from people at large, sometimes disclosed it selectively, and on occasion said nothing or followed Jean Toomer's example and said "the first nonsense that entered my mind." For me, the difficulty was not so much in looking like one race or another, whatever that means, but in the unpredictability concerning how the next person I encountered would view or communicate with me.

Guess My Race turned the tables. Not only was I now the bearer of the awkward "what are you" question, but the answers I received confounded me completely. Most of the people I guessed as "white" did not refer to themselves as such. Instead, they referred to themselves as "multiracial" or in ethnic terms such as Jewish, Italian, Arab, Armenian, Hispanic and so on.  Conversely, the majority of people I guessed were "multiracial" referred to themselves as either "white" or "black," even when they acknowledged their multiracial and multiethnic ancestries. Eventually it dawned on me that my problem was not one of knowing the right answer across all ten questions. My problem was of knowing what answer was right in each distinct question. The more I thought of it, the more valid my hypothesis appeared. Guess My Race was not just a lesson in racial identification practices and diversity. It was a lesson in rhetoric and passing.

Rhetoric is all about identity, symbolic expression, and how our identities and expressions can change when we encounter new situations and social networks. Passing — the phenomenon in which a person of one social group identifies and represents herself as a member of another or others — is about using rhetoric to grapple with crises of meaning produced when images, identities and categories diverge. Rhetoric and passing struggle with the insecurities of our knowledge, categories, vocabularies and identities. I take up these insecurities here, exploring what rhetoric says about passing and what passing says about rhetoric. 

Excerpted from "Clearly Invisible: Racial Passing and the Color of Cultural Identity" (August 2012) by Marcia Dawkins with the permission of Baylor University Press. Learn more at www.clearlyinvisiblebook.com.


By: Christopher Bugbee, 657-278-8487

Tags:  Arts & CultureAcademics & ResearchTitan Pride