Allyson Hobbs on the Chosen Exile of Racial Passing

Allyson Hobbs, an assistant professor of American history at Stanford University, discussed research from her award-winning book, A Chosen Exile: A History on Racial Passing in American Life, at a Women’s Studies Colloquium.

IMG_7157PROVO, Utah (Mar. 25, 2016)—A young Chicago girl awoke one summer morning in August in anticipation of the Bud Billiken Parade – the longest-running African American parade in the history of the United States. Absorbed by the marching bands, the cheering crowds and elaborate floats, she could not anticipate that this Bud Billiken Parade would also be her last.

This young girl was a distant cousin of Allyson Hobbs, an assistant professor of Stanford University. In a women’s studies colloquium about racial passing, Hobbs explained that the goal of her research and presentation was not to determine what is gained by racial passing, but rather, what is lost.

“My project was inspired by a story that my aunt told me about a distant cousin of ours who grew up on the south side of Chicago in the 1930s,” Hobbs said. “She was black, but she was very light skinned. In fact, she looked white, and at the insistence of her mother, after she graduated from high school, she would move far away from Chicago’s south side to Los Angeles to live the rest of her life as a white woman.”

Hobbs’ cousin eventually married a white man and raised white children. Her children, Hobbs said, were unaware of their mother’s African American heritage. So when Hobbs’ cousin received a phone call from her mother to call her home to see her dying father, she knew she could not possibly return to her past life.

“Despite these dire circumstances, she would never return to Chicago’s south side,” said Hobbs. “The young girl who had once sat on a curb in Chicago’s most historic black neighborhood to watch America’s largest black parade was a white woman now, and there was simply no turning back.”

Hobbs said that for years she was haunted by the story of her cousin and the phenomenon of passing, yet it was also this story that would lead her to years of research on the little-known history of racial passing in the United States.

“I went into the archives looking for ghosts, hoping to tell their stories,” she said. “To find these ghosts, historians must seek out unconventional sources. These sources reveal passing to be a deeply individualistic practice, but also a fundamentally social act with enormous social consequences.”

Hobbs argued that while passing is often presented as a story of gain – particularly during the time of legalized segregation and slavery ­– examples like the story of her cousin reveal that to write a history of passing is to really write a history of loss.

“Racial passing is an exile, sometimes chosen, sometimes not,” Hobbs explained. “From the late 18th century to the present in the United States, countless African Americans passed as white, leaving behind families, friends, communities and roots. Lives were lost only to be remembered in family stories like mine.”

Studying the lives of racial passers offers a glimpse into the complexity of the human experience during times in which racial tensions were high. For example, during the era of slavery, passing as white was used as a means of escape, not from blackness, Hobbs said, but from slavery.

Racially ambiguous slaves drew on highly sophisticated understandings of racial, gender and social norms to enact whiteness,” Hobbs explained. “By doing so, many successfully passed to freedom.”

Hobbs’ favorite account in the archives was the story of a black female slave named Ellen Craft. Craft, who passed as a white man to escape slavery, was able to cross not only the line of race, but gender as well.

She ingeniously played the role of a white southern gentleman while her husband played the role of her slave. Yet it was not Craft’s light skin that helped her succeed, but rather her knowledge of how a southern gentleman might comport himself – a feat that Hobbs said was accomplished by her subtle and nuanced understanding of social and gender norms.

“Ellen played the role of a southern gentleman so well that white southern ladies reportedly swooned in her presence,” Hobbs said.

She continued, “In a country obsessed with racial distinctions, passing demonstrated just how unreliable one’s appearance was in determining their race.”

Ultimately, Hobbs explained that understanding a history of passing allows us to gain meaningful insight into the lived experience of race.

She concluded, “Some African Americans used passing as a crucial channel leading to physical and personal freedom. They declared their rights as American citizens and insisted on their humanity. What they could not fully know until they had successfully passed, was that the light of freedom was often overshadowed by the darkness of loss.”

­—Sylvia Cutler (B.A. English/French ’17)

Sylvia Cutler covers events for the women’s studies program for the College of Humanities. She is pursuing a double major in English and French and a minor in women’s studies.