"Passing", in sociology, is the state of living one's life as a member of another sociological group be it ethnic, racial, gender, class, or sexual. It's a complicated matter in real life, what with humans so rarely fitting into the ever-shifting categories we up make for them. Indeed, there are times at which we categorise individuals in ways that they themselves do not acknowledge, or based upon merely tangential connexions. For example, why does an "octoroon" (7/8 "white"/European, 1/8 "black"/non-European) in a U.S. Reconstruction-era novel have to identify as 'black' in order to be "true to herself?" It reflects many racial ideas still present, if less explicit these days, in 'Western' society * Europe and its offshoots, such as Canada and Brazil. Most notable in the Anglosphere is the USA, which has a troubled history of race relations only surpassed by that of South Africa on account of its history of ethnic-African slave-use. The USA's pre-Civil Rights Movement * wherein the U.S.A.'s ethnic non-European population was recognised as having equal rights to that of its ethnic European populace "One-Drop Rule" stated that 'one drop' of non-European blood made a person non-white and thus deprived them of the rights of a full citizen.
Likewise, there are huge social pressures keeping many homosexual people "in the closet," and many women have cross-dressed not because they are transgender or even transvestites, but because they want to do something they would only be allowed to do as a man.
Luckily, most modern fictional representations have simplified this complex state of being into An Aesop: "Don't try to be something you're not." Because you will fail, and miserably. And as bad as being discriminated against may be, it's still not as bad as having to be a traitor to your own identity.
The Reveal is usually a part of this (including Death Bed Confession). Rife with Unfortunate Implications. Compare In Another Man's Shoes and related tropes. Glamour Failure is a more fantastic version.
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In Robert Graves's novel Claudius The God, a lawyer who has pled cases in front of Claudius and his predecessors for decades is unmasked as a slave by one of Claudius's friends, who pulls aside the lawyer's toga to expose his brand. When an American critic howled at the "unreality" of this, Graves pointed out that it had actually happened in real life.
Michelle Cliff's "No Telephone to Heaven" has the trans/genderqueer character Harry/Harriet (also known as H/H), who is biologically male but identifies as a blend of male and female. At the beginning of the novel, s/he has a totally masculine appearance but wears bikinis, puts on make-up, and occasionally dresses in the genderfuck style (for example with both a tuxedo and very campy make-up. This impish black Jamaican character passes for an African man to fool an American tourist, who really thinks he has just met "King Badnigga of Benin"). Towards the end of the novel, H/H starts living and presumably identifying as Harriet, a white nurse, which involves double 'passing'. H/H is very aware that even as 'she' is respected as a generous nurse, s/he could literally get lynched for being trans and for passing for white, but makes this choice because a black man couldn't become a nurse. This character plays a huge role in the development of the very confused main character Clare Savage, a white-looking middle-class mixed-race Jamaican woman who questions the racist standards of her formerly slave-owning family and might further be bisexual. His/her ability to transcend social boundaries and to fool racists and homophobes/transphobes is part of his/her attributes as a Trickster figure.
Live Action TV
Adam in Degrassi has some trouble coming across as a guy, particularly in his early appearances. Played with an element of Cringe Comedy. Booyah!
Played for Drama in later chapters of Wandering Son. Nitori's voice deepens and she starts looking less androgynous due to puberty. One scene has a clerk gossiping behind her back that she's a boy due to her voice. Makoto always suffered from this, even when she was prepubescent, as she doesn't fit the ideal fora girl.
From the same game, Kanji Tatsumi's arc centers around him struggling with his own sexual identity.
A short-term and more light-hearted example occurred in Ozy and Millie, when the two titular characters decide to 'switch genders' for a day, to find out how differently members of the other gender are treated. Nobody sees through the Paper-Thin Disguise, and both of them come away from it with a greater insight into the opposite sex.
It wasn't until jazz musician Billy Tipton died that even his adopted sons learned that Dad was born Dorothy Lucille Tipton. He had been living as male for nearly 50 years (with only two female cousins and possibly a lover or two knowing his status as a trans man), including sexual relationships with women, at least one of whom was firmly convinced her partner was male.
This is the basis of the book Self-Made Man: One Woman's Journey into Manhood and Back Again by Norah Vincent. For about a year and a half, she masqueraded as a man among various groups of men (in a monastery, at a business, in a strip club, etc.) to see how their interactions varied from what she experienced as a woman.
"Passing" is a common term in the transgender and transsexual community, meaning just what you would think.
A trans-woman's ability to pass can be greatly affected if she started transitioning before the onset of her male puberty. Puberty not only affects secondary sexual characteristics like breast development, but also skeletal changes, such as the pelvis widening and moving forward, or hands and feet staying smaller, or the vocal cords not lengthening. Most trans-women who transition after puberty have a harder time passing.
Gay actors of yesteryear were pretty much required to pass as straight. Rock Hudson is one of the more famous examples.
Race and Ethnicity
Kallen Stadtfeld/Kallen Kozuki of Code Geass is a half-Britannian/half-Japanese Terrorist and Student. She was able to pass as a Britannian student by day, and joined her brother's resistance cell by night. She preferred to think of herself as Japanese rather than as a Britannian or a "half-breed". Despite finding out that she's a half-breed, her Britannian friends don't lose any respect for her at all, and try to petition their very well connected friend to have her pardoned for her terrorism. In fact, the show, despite having overcoming racial supremacy and segregation as a main theme, has surprisingly little incidence of named people actually caring about race, to the point where the President of Japan at the end of the series is married to a black, Britannian woman, despite years of ruthless oppression and cruelty. It would have been touching if anyone had actually remembered that used to be a theme, or if the guy in question wasn't a complete idiot.
Apparently, it was intentional that the main protagonist and his foil were designed in such a way that they could conceivably pass for the opposite race, whom they were fighting for.
The graphic novel Incognegro is a period-piece about a light-skinned reporter who passes for white in order to write about racial hate crimes in the South.
Sally Juspeczyk in Watchmen covered up her Polish ancestry for the sake of her career, renaming herself Sally Jupiter, and firmly denies it when she is sort-of confronted about it. Her daughter Laurie has no such hang-ups and uses her mother's original surname.
The Human Stain. The Movie of the book had an African-American character played by Anthony Hopkins.
Imitation of Life follows Sarah Jane, a mixed-race girl who can quite easily pass for white, trying her best to deny her mother and her previous life altogether. It doesn't end well. Her white boyfriend beats her senseless when he finds out, and she gets fired from her job as a cabaret dancer when her mother comes looking for her.
Slow Burn; a white DA has been braiding her hair and passing for mixed in order to foster support in her African-American constituency.
The unfortunate implications here are as much about the Aesir as the Jotnar... the latter society is portrayed pretty unpleasantly but the former has raised a child to so despise another race that discovering he's one of them leads to the automatic assumption that the reason he's felt inferior his whole life is because he's really a monster, which, no matter how much his family tells him otherwise, is too much for his emotional stability to bear.
The film version of Watchmen includes another example in addition to one mentioned in the comic book section above. Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias is portrayed as German enough to still have something of an accent, which he conceals in public by shifting to a newscaster-perfect, "generalized" American accent instead. In private, he has no qualms about letting his natural voice (which sits somewhere between American- and German-sounding) show through. Matthew Goode, who played Veidt, stated in behind-the-scenes interviews that this was not based in Veidt having any shame at simply speaking German as a first language, but rather because his parents had had ties to the Nazi party, and Veidt wished to distance himself from that as much as possible.
Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! gets mixed up with this trope and Half-Breed Discrimination as more of the back story about the back story coming out comes out. Although it being Faulkner, a lot of the point is just impressing upon the reader what a total Jerk Ass the lead really is.
Kate Chopin's story Désirée's Baby is a particularly brutal twist on the trope. The bigoted Armand kicks out his wife Desirée for having a dark-skinned baby, which supposedly proves that she's not completely white. It's revealedat the end that he's the one with mixed ancestry, although it's left up to interpretation whether or not he's aware of this.
In The Ballad Of Lee Cotton, the title character is born into a black family, but with an Icelandic Disappeared Dad and a mixed race mother he's born looking looking entirely white. Even though he doesn't attempt to pass as white, he gets problems anyway just because people refuse to believe he's black; for instance, he has to get certified black by a lawyer just to get a school to accept him. The lawyer explains the One Drop Rule to him and his mother: "even if you're only one-sixty-fourth part black, Mississippi will give you the other sixty-three parts for free. In fact, they insist upon it."
The Benjamin January series, set in New Orleans in the 1830s, contains several characters with black ancestry passing as white; it's made clear that exposure will have awful consequences, even several generations down the line.
Black Like Me is an example of short term passing, and a rare example of a white man passing as a black man.
'Black Like Me' could actually count as a Real Life example, since the book is nonfiction. The author John Howard Griffin actually artificially darkened his skin under the care of a doctor and journeyed through the American South to get a first-person perspective on what it was like to be black.
One of the main themes of Caucasia. Birdie and Cole Lee are both half-black-half-white and at different times must attempt to pass for one or the other to fit in or blend into the surroundings. Cole has darker skin and kinky hair, so she has difficulty passing as anything but black, but Cole uses speech, mannerisms and even modifications to the way she looks to try to pass as either.
"Clotel; or, The President's Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States" by William Wells Brown features Thomas Jefferson"s slave daughter escaping captivity. Yeah.
Same thing happens at the end of Ann Rinaldi's Wolf By the Ears, as mixed-race Harriet opts to leave Monticello and pass for white.
Angua of the Discworld series passes as human instead of as a werewolf.
In Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, George Peavey has twin sons, Jasper, the light-skinned one, and Artis, the the dark one. Jasper later joins a club in Birmingham whose members are so light their pictures have made it into the paper as those of a white organization. There's a chapter where his daughter goes shopping in a department store, pretending she's white, when her uncle Artis runs into her. She reacts in such a way, though she knows who he is, that the store staff believes he's harassing her.
The Garies and Their Friends (1857) by Frank J. Webb.
In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Madame Maxime is half-giant, but is trying to pass as "big-boned". You can't really blame her, considering how much Fantastic Racism ensued after Hagrid was outed as a half-giant. Also, pure-blood wizards are rarer than the bad side likes to think they are, and it's suggested in Half-Blood Prince that most Death Eaters are probably half-bloods passing as pure-bloods. When Voldemort takes over the Ministry of Magic and passes the Nuremberg Laws against Muggle-borns in Deathly Hallows, Ron suggests that his family could protect Hermione by swearing that she was their cousin. Of course, as Hermione points out, it's a non-issue since they're on the lam anyway.
Similarly, Lupin tries to pass as human instead of as a werewolf, at least with those who don't absolutely have to know.
A subplot in The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, concerns a mixed-race girl who was given up for adoption by her mother because she looked white, and in 1950's Mississippi the social pressure on the mother was too much. The girl later returns to her birth mother in Jackson, where she deliberately passes for white at a Daughters of the American Revolution meeting, then lets everyone there know that she is, in fact, black (and indeed, a member of the Black Panthers). It does not end well.
Fannie Hurst"s novel "Imitation of Life" is an interesting case, as it was adapted into a movie in both the US and Mexico, showing the differences in views of passing in both nations.
A weird version of this occurs in Hari Kunzru's The Impressionist. Pran Nath Razdan is the product of his Indian mother's one night stand with a British man, but his family passed him off as the son of his mother's husband, a wealthy and educated Indian man. When the man dies, Pran Nath is thrown out on the street and spends some time desperately trying to reintegrate himself into Indian society. Failing at this, he eventually makes his way to England, where he successfully passes as 100% white and British. When, some time later, he tries to reveal his true heritage, he is not believed.
Gustave de Beaumont's novel "Marie; ou, L'Esclavage aux Ã‰tats-Unis" ("Marie, or Slavery in the United States"), published in 1835, is the first known novel featuring Black-White racial passing.
Narrator: "Public opinion, ordinarily so indulgent to fortune-seekers who conceal their names and previous lives, is pitiless in its search for proofs of African descent.... There is but one crime, of which the guilty bear everywhere the penalty and the infamy; it is that of belonging to a family reputed to be of color."Though the color may be effaced, the stigma remains."
Nella Larsen's 1929 novel Passing is entirely about examining this phenomenon- it contains three "black" women, one who has basically switched to a white identity by continuously passing, one that can pass, but doesn't,and one who passes occasionally out of convenience. It does not work out well for the first two in the end.
Mark Twain's Puddin' Head Wilson played with this, with the son of a wealthy family in fact being the child of one of the slaves Switched at Birth, and was sold into slavery immediately after his true heritage was discovered.
Although this is an example of the "one-drop" rule described above. Tom Driscoll, the son of a slave, who is black according to antebellum society and is only "passing" for white actually has only one black great-great-great-grandparent (he is 1/32 black).
Not quite an example of the "one-drop" rule. One-drop rule did not become the law in most of the South until early 20th century (in fact, no state actually adopted it as law until Tennessee in 1910, largely in response to the Plessy vs. Ferguson case and the problems it exposed with respect to the fractional rules—so-called Blood Quantums—that existed previously). The rules governing slavery in most of the antebellum South were, in fact, not based on race at all, but the legal status of the mother. The child of a slave woman was, in most cases, automatically a slave, regardless of the ethnic makeup, which is the legal rationale behind some of the abolitionist pamphlets (described under "Real Life" below) about children born of runaway slave women and free white men being claimed as "slaves."
The "One-Drop Rule" gets blackmailer Monte Field killed in The Roman Hat Mystery by Ellery Queen. One of Field's victims was white to any standard of appearance, but had a distant ancestor who was a slave. Said victim was engaged to a lady whose family would have immediately have banned the wedding and destroyed the man's career if the One-Drop had been revealed.
In a rare reversal this trope, the titular character of The Sheik is a European pretending to be an Arab. He mostly gets away with it, too; the only way the female protagonist finds out he's not is because his best friend, a Frenchman, gives him away.
A racial Pass Fail is the Dark Secret in the Sherlock Holmes story "The Yellow Face". Effie Munro, married into white British middle-class society, was previously married to a black man in the United States, and has a daughter who is darker than he was. (Scientific footnote: this usually only happens when both parents are mixed-race, and being a "passer" herself would explain some of the curious inconsistencies in her backstory. If either Holmes or Watson caught on, they kept quiet about it.) Fortunately, Grant Munro is big-hearted enough to accept the little girl.
This is part of the backstory of the Fannie Flagg novel Welcome To the World, Baby Girl! The (blonde, blue-eyed) protagonist's mother turned out to be of mixed race - the daughter of a German woman and a very light-skinned African American man who had moved to Europe to escape from the racial discrimination of the United States, but had been forced to move back with the rise of Hitler. She could, physically, pass for white without trying, but had spent her adult life in terror of being "outed" by someone who knew about her background - which was the reason for her secretive and evasive behavior during the protagonist's childhood.
In the Worldwar series by Harry Turtledove, Mordechai Aneliwicz is a Polish Jew fighing in the resistance. While traveling in the countryside, he encounters a farmhouse, and attempts to pass as a Polish partisan (A Catholic Pole). He manages to eat the ham they're serving without hesitation, but is caught out when he crosses himself wrong. Fortunately for him, they aren't upset about it.
The entire point of James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. The nameless protagonist is a very light-skinned "octaroon" (or less) in the late 19th-early 20th century, who is nonetheless raised as black—albeit a very sheltered kind of black, only mingling with the black upper crust and with an unusually large number of white people in his social circle (easier to believe in New England). A gifted pianist, he spends his young adulthood in that field, eventually learning ragtime music and touring Europe with a rich white man. However, he eventually quits ragtime after seeing a lynching, decides to pass as white, and becomes a businessman and marries a white woman, who does not realize his heritage. The book is based in part on Johnson's life (he could pass if he grew his facial hair right), but also on the lives of others Johnson knew.
In The Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman, a girl who counts as white in 1960 goes back in time to 1860, where - because of her suntan, curly hair, and resemblance to her plantation-owning ancestors - she is classified as black and assumed to be the offspring of a wayward son of the family and one of his slaves, making her a slave herself. After she returns to her own time, she is assumed to have run away and an advertisement is issued. In the description of her it says, "Could pass for white." Researching her family history, she learns that after the Civil War, the aforementioned wayward son inherited the plantation and passed off his former-slave wife as a white woman from France - so as their descendant, the protagonist really does have a few black genes.
Live Action TV
The Angel episode "Are You Now, or Have You Ever Been" involved a half-black woman who was fired from her job at a bank in the 50s when it was learned she had been passing as white. The earlier episode "Hero" also has a demonblooded youth sneer to Doyle that Doyle's life must have been a cakewalk compared to his own, as Doyle, while also part-demon, is "passing" (i.e., looks human, unlike the boy).
One episode dealt with the murder of a pale-skinned Negro who had been passing as a white in the 1950s.
Another episode had an aversion with a black female victim from the early 1930's or so, whose secret white lover tried in vain to get her to pass for white so they could run away together. The actress was clearly black but camera effects lightened her complexion.
"Colors" featured an African American baseball player (the victim) and his passing-as-white girlfriend.
Brought up in passing on The Drew Carey Show—in an episode where Drew's dad wants him to join a country club he's a member of, Drew and his friends are appalled by the casual racism displayed by one of the club members ("So you work downtown—I hear it gets pretty dark at night"). Oswald asks what would happen if someone weren't pure white, say 1/16th Cherokee, and when this is laughed off, says that one of his great-great grandparents was Cherokee. (This fact is never brought up again on the show, so he wasn't just passing in-universe but to the writers as well! For his part, Drew doesn't join, and his dad admits he's only a member because of the connections it gives him and he dislikes the racist undertones.)
This reflects a strange notion of what a "Hispanic" is that is peculiar to United States. Many "Hispanics" are in fact also of Italian heritage (as many Spanish-speaking countries received numerous Italian immigrants. Many Italians themselves are of Spanish descent (e.g. Armando Diaz, the World War I era Italian war hero and Marshal of Italy) and many Spaniards are of Italian descent as the Spanish Kingdom of Aragon ruled much of Southern Italy in the past and the King of Spain retains the title King of Naples, in honor of this history to this day.
One episode of Law & Order has a black guy who spent his whole adult life passing for white. He's only found out after his second wife was killed when they considered taking back their darker-skinned baby they had given up for adoption. His first wife killed the second in order to maintain the illusion of an all-white family for her son, who was attending a very upper-class-white school with subtle social discrimination against non-whites. Or, so she said, until it was revealed that she'd never wanted to take custody of their son in the divorce, had to be bribed to do it, and she was really just a big ol' racist.
The best part of that show was toward the beginning, when the detectives are operating under the belief that the "white" man killed his wife because she gave birth to a black infant. After they find evidence that he has been passing, the white detectives can't get him to admit it. Lt. Van Buren shoos them out of the interrogation room, closes the door, gives the man a knowing look, and sarcastically congratulates him on passing, asking what white people are like among themselves. Feeling guilty, he finally admits to having passed as white for years in order to climb the corporate ladder, something that would have been much harder to do had he lived as a black man since he joined before the Civil Rights era, and by the time he became an executive he'd been passing as white for so long that he didn't want to reveal the truth. The irony is that when the police question the suspect's superiors at work, they say that had they been aware that he was African American, they probably would have promoted him to the Board of Directors as their Token Minority.
On Sons of Anarchy, it has transpired that Juice's father is actually African-American, and he has been passing as Hispanic. In the show, as in real life, Hispanics and Asians are allowed in white motorcycle clubs, African-Americans are not.
The 1901 hit song "Coon! Coon! Coon!", featured in part on the quotes page.
Big Black's "Passing Complexion" is about a black man who "could mix with ordinary white company" without being noticed as long as the subject of his race never came up in conversation.
Played with in Show Boat. Steve is white, and his wife Julie is mixed-race, passing for white—their marriage was a crime in the South at the time. When someone tips the local sheriff off and he comes to arrest them, Steve quickly cuts Julie's hand and swallows her blood; when the sheriff arrives, he asks, "You wouldn't call a man a white man that's got Negro blood in him, would you?" He swears to having that blood in him (and thus, he pretends to be passing for white); the two are able to leave the boat, and the South, in peace.
In the Eberron campaign setting of Dungeons & Dragons, some members of the shape-shifting Changeling race try to avoid the distrust other humanoids have for their kind by creating a single false identity for themselves and living as members of a different humanoid races. These individuals are known among Changelings as "passers". This is in contrast to "becomers", who maintain multiple identities of varying races, or simply create, steal, and abandon identities whenever they find it convenient or amusing; and "truthseekers", who live openly as changelings and only rarely use their shapeshifting abilities.
On Futurama, Leela grew up thinking she was a one-eyed alien abandoned as a baby on Earth. She later discovers that she is a relatively normal-looking mutant; because mutants aren't given legal rights, while aliens are, her parents left her at an Orphanarium so that she could grow up without having to suffer like they did. (It might sound ridiculous, but it was actually rather touching when they were reunited.)
Inverted on South Park:Tuong Lu Kim turns out to be a white man with multiple personalities, one of whom thinks he's Chinese.
On Young Justice,Megan passes as a Green Martian when she is really a White Martian. Note that this is only possible for her on Earth: on Mars, everyone is a telepath who can read minds, so it's impossible to even try.
Older Than Radio: 19th Century literary trope of the Tragic Mulatto, in which a beautiful woman in good standing in her community has her reputation and often life destroyed when it is revealed that one of her distant ancestors was in fact a slave owned by her household. Such an idea seems horrific to the modern eye, but as a wise man once said, if your friends are going to abandon you to die in a poorhouse after finding out that you're one-sixteenth Black, they probably weren't your friends in the first place.
Subverted in the same way but with inverted genders in the film "Angelitos Negros". The happy ending has the wife realizing after discovering that her biological mother was her black nanny that she has been a complete jerk to her family and that race is utterly meaningless. The family reunites.
The Brazilian Soap OperaEscrava Isaura (Isaura The Slave) has a twist on the titular character tragedy: it isn't her racial background that's the problem, because she can pass for white with no problem (partly for her looks, partly because her original owners gave her a polished education), and most of the people she loves and befriends already know or don't care when they learn about it; it's that she is still legally owned by her most obssessed admirer and he doesn't want to give her up so easily. If he has to use the Race Card to discredit her and make her go back to him, he will do it.
Charles Chesnutt's The House Behind the Cedars: the light-skinned son and daughter of a former slave move to another town and pass for white. The daughter becomes engaged to a white man, and she starts to have doubts about deceiving him, so she points to a black servant and asks her fiance if he would still love her if she were that woman. He misunderstands it as her asking if he would still love her if she were a poor servant, and says he would. Then he finds out later that her mother is a black woman, and tragedy ensues for everyone.
The North used this trope during the Civil War to drum up support for their side among the British and other Europeans. They distributed flyers with the pictures of beautiful blonde, blue-eyed little girls who were slaves in the South solely because they were one-sixteenth or one-thirty-second black, and pointed out that if the South won, those girls would end up having to service their masters in the same way that black women did. The Values Dissonance in this campaign ("if the South wins these pretty white girls are going to be sexually abused!") means that not many modern people have heard of it.
Abolitionists held mock "fancy girl" slave auctions in the North at universities to titillate, then outrage white Northerners. "Fancy girls" were attractive slave women, usually mixed race, who were sold at slave auctions in New Orleans as sex slaves. The abolitionists would auction lighter and lighter women, displaying their bodies like cattle, until, to the horror of the white crowd, they finally started auctioning off blond haired, blue eyed women who in the South would legally be considered black.
There was a pamphlet abolitionists were circulating in Great Britain about a Scottish man traveling through the American South who had encountered a house slave he perceived as white. What the Scottish traveler found exceptionally alarming was that the slave had red hair and a Scottish accent. When the Scot brought the matter up, the slave's master grew indignant, and insisted the slave's hair was slightly wooly, and his nose slightly full, which proved he was black. The Scot saw none of this, and thought the slave owner was reaching, but the slave owner told the Scot not to feel ashamed, that he hadn't lived around blacks long enough, so his untrained eye was easily fooled. It turned out the slave had been born free and believed himself white, up until slave hunters had shown up one day to recapture his grandmother. The man's grandmother was a runaway slave who had passed as white, and married a Scottish immigrant. The grandmother, her children, and her grandchildren were all reclaimed as lost property and enslaved. The slave's white relatives were still trying to buy their freedom back before they could be split up and sold off to different owners. Whether the pamphlet's story is true or not is anyone's guess.
Actress Merle Oberon hid her mixed race parentage, and birth in Mumbai India, throughout her entire career, claiming to have been born in Tasmania Australia. That her claimed early life was a total fabrication didn't become known until after her death, and her actual parentage is still somewhat in doubt.
Subverted in real life by Homer Adolph Plessy, who as an octoroon, was able to pass easily as a white man, when buying a "white" ticket on a segregated train. When he was asked for his ticket, he outed himself as a black man in order to challenge segregation, which led to his arrest and eventually, the infamous "separate, but equal" ruling of Plessy v Ferguson.
Relics of this are still in law. Native-American religious rituals using controlled hallucinogens can only be legally participated in if the person can prove a certain level of blood membership to the right tribes, essentially making it illegal to convert to those religions. A man who is 1/16 the right bloodline could do so, but his wife who wasn't, and any children they had, could not.
19th-century Finnish orientalist and explorer Georg August Wallin spent years traveling in the middle east while disguising himself as an Arab Muslim, including a pilgrimage to Mecca. He was in several situations where having his true origins revealed would have meant certain death.
T. E. Lawrence also visited Mecca in Arab guise.
Important note: Mecca is of course the holiest place in Islam, and non-Muslims are forbidden from entering. The punishment for getting around the ban has varied based upon the dynasty that happened to rule at the time, from "get out and never come back again" to (if the ruler was feeling particularly fanatical/vindictive/bad) death.
Shows up in Australia: laws introduced to improve the lot of people living in rural Aboriginal communities give an unfair advantage to other people with as little as 1/8 Aboriginal blood. Combined with the fact that the genes Aboriginals have for dark skin and the like are mostly recessive, most people who take advantage of these laws appear white.
Australian history, especially that of the stolen generation, has made discussions about mixed race and exact categorization of aboriginals into a taboo topic amongst people with any sense. Suffice to say that in many cases, even aboriginals who could pass for white have still suffered as a result of racist politics- in fact, there are people alive today who were taken from their families by the government specifically because they could pass. It's considered incredibly offensive to challenge someone who identifies as aboriginal Australian, even (especially) if they look white.
For a country that is so obsessed with race, Americans are really bad at being a proper racist.
In the past, American with low fractions of African blood would sometimes appear white to the average person.
So white people adopted the habit of being rude to anyone who associated with obviously black people. They could be 100% white, but why risk it.
People with low African blood fractions would sometimes just leave town and go to a new town where nobody knew about them. In these new towns they would be treated as white since nobody "knew better" and the person never spoke about their heritage or contacted their old family.
There is a story about a mixed black/white girl. She attended a mostly white school where she wore "white" clothing and talked in a "white" manner and she was treated as white. But when she attended her dance class she dressed "black" and talked in a "black" manner and was treated as black.
Quick examples of famous African-Americans
John Wayles Jefferson, a grandson of Thomas Jefferson (probably) and Sally Hemings, settled in Wisconsin, became a prosperous property owner, and served as an officer in the Union Army during the Civil War, all as a white man.
Frederick Douglas says in his autobiography that his master was his father but could not find any documents telling about his mother's bloodline, meaning that he was possibly even more than 50% white.
Walter Francis White, head of NAACP between 1931 and 1955, was 5/32 black (that is, five of his 32 great-great-great grandparents were black) and was, in appearance, completely white, with pale skin, blond hair, and blue eyes. Yet, he considered himself a black man and presented himself as such, being an active civil rightsman most of his life, except, when he went "undercover" as a white man to investigate the activities of the Klan and other racist organizations.
Malcom X = 25% white, 75% black
Homer Adolph Plessy of Plessy v Ferguson fame was 12.5% black and 87.5% white. In fact the reason he was involved in the case in the first place was not to allow blacks to be in whatever rail cars they wanted, but rather to show that that a racially based system was stupid since things are not so simple when it comes to race. The US-SC didn't see it that way. In fact, in a case of Nice Job Breaking It, Hero, many Southern states began adopting "one-drop rule" as the law governing race because this case showed that defining race based on ancestry and "blood quantums" led to ambiguous cases, as per Mr. Plessy. (Because of the difference in laws, Mr. Plessy would have been considered white in some states but black in others, including his home state of Louisiana.)
Tiger Woods = 25% black, 12.5% Native American, 12.5% white, 25% Southeast Asian, 25% Han Asian. Sort of an inverted Pass Fail—when asked during the early years of his superstardom, he would say that he personally never identified as being of one race, but he couldn't avoid the world assigning him race. Comedienne Wanda Sykes made a point about this that was disturbingly prophetic—that the more he won, the more the media would downplay his being part black and play up the other parts of his heritage, but that if he ever fell from grace the criticism would be aimed straight at his blackness.
Oddly enough, when white men who tried to have their marriages annulled when they claimed their wives had tried to pass, and the wives said they had told them of their black blood, the women overwhelmingly won. Then, the men would be asked such question about whether they had normal eyesight and the like to imply that anyone could have told that she was "really" black.
Some slaves in the antebellum south sued for freedom on the grounds they were really kidnapped whites. Sally Miller, who claimed to be born Salomé Müller, was perhaps the most famous.
Clarence King, one of the founders of USGS and a celebrity scientist/explorer in late 19th century New York City who had zero drop of black blood still passed himself as a black man and had a secret black family, as noted by Martha Sandweiss in her book Passing Strange.
"Freedom suits," where a slave claimed to be illegally held in slavery, were fairly common in the American South in the antebellum era. In several of these cases, slaves who looked "sufficiently white" claimed to be white persons who were kidnapped and held illegally in slavery. The case of Sally Miller/Salome Mueller in 1845 Louisiana is a well-known case.
In various iterations of Shazam, Captain Marvel uses his adult superhero form to conceal the fact that he is actually a child. Other heroes are naturally reluctant to let a ten-year-old fight super-powered murderers.
One of the more interesting aspects of this is a Justice Society arc where young Billy Batson started dating Star-Girl, since they are both heroes and are roughly the same age. However, from the perspective of the rest of the team who didn't know Marvel's true identity it seemed like the Captain was getting way too close to an underage girl and it got him in a lot of trouble.
In Billy Batson and the Power of Shazam Billy, who is an orphan and formerly homeless, uses his adult form to pose as his own father and rent an apartment.
In thisWatchmen fanfic, Adrian Veidt has been dyeing his hair for most of his life, and with good reason. His mother's husband was a blond, blue-eyed German in 1939 Berlin, but Adrian takes after his mother's Jewish lover in looks.
In a Real Life incident described in Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith, the young Charles Darwin passed as a devout Unitarian, and his father urged to him to do so even with his fiancée/wife. He eventually decided to out himself to her, and eventually, of course, to the rest of the world. Rumors of a deathbed conversion were greatly exaggerated.
Live Action TV
An episode of Just Shoot Me! inverted the SVU example above, with Elliot's brother having spent years posing as mentally retarded due to a head injury as a child to get out of having to support himself. He's outed only after Jack's foolishness causes a Rant Inducing Slight.
One episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit featured an autistic guy who somehow managed to convince everybody (including his own mother!) that he was neurotypical.
Chirinide of Drowtales refers to herself as a "half-breed" because she has a light elf father and a drowussu mother, and goes so far as to wonder if she should commit suicide to keep her "impurity" from spreading through the Kyorl'solenurn clan. Despite this she really doesn't look any different from other drowussu, which turns out to be a big hint that the drowussu are actually descended from light elves.
A young autistic man managed to fool people into believing not only that he was neurotypical, but that he was a rich, young executive planning to buy their company. Apparently due to his autism he didn't have any of the physical signatures associated with lying. Autistic people in general try to pass for normal as much as possible if they can, which often means higher functioning members of the spectrum are less willing to seek assistance as to not break the passing.
Franklin D. Roosevelt. Many people knew that he couldn't walk, particularly the press and White House staff, but publicly he worked hard to conceal his disability. For example, he had a customized car made that he could drive with his hands* This before power steering, power brakes and automatic transmissions, so it was far from the relatively simple one-lever-for-gas-and-brake affair seen today and required a great deal of strength to operate. Of course, upper-body strength is one thing FDR had in spades.. He painted his leg braces black and nearly all of his photos show him either sitting in a regular chair or leaning on somebody or something. (There is only one photo of him in his wheelchair.) In films that show him "walking", he's always surrounded by people so he could hide the fact that he was using them for support.
True Life examined people who were trying to avoid this for various reasons. One person highlighted was a transgender woman who passed so well nobody knew (because for all intents and purposes she had lived as a woman since she was a child), and had to tell her boyfriend. There was some humor, when she was in a club and a man was dancing with her and she became...aroused. Another person profiled was a biracial (black and white) girl passing...as Nicaraguan. She was too dark to pass for white, so she went for Latina instead. This caused problems when her friend set her up on a date with an actual Nicaraguan.