Invisible Identities, Part 3: The Privileges and Pains of Passing

Invisible Identities, Part 1: Invisible to Whom?
Invisible Identities, Part 2: The Default Human


I’m told that in the American context, when speaking about race, the term “passing” is most associated with black people due to a pretty loaded history. This is not the case where I live, simply because that’s not the history we have with the term. As such, when I speak of passing race-wise, I am not speaking only of light-skinned people of African descent who can do so. I realise that this post could therefore be a somewhat uncomfortable read for people in that context, and am putting up this note to therefore hopefully address some of that discomfort.

It’d probably be a good idea to read the previous posts in this series if you find anything else in my word use or context confusing, especially as many of the points in this post build on the previous posts.

Comments that say it’s wrong to try and pass, or conversely that someone ought to try and pass, will not be tolerated. Either way attempts to take away something of someone’s choice, experience, decision making. How one negotiates one’s own life, how one chooses to deal with all the oppressions on hir back, is hir business.

Being able to pass is a privilege. Passing privilege means that others don’t grab my body or assistive devices, people I’ve never met don’t look at me with pity or disgust and I am less likely to face intrusive and upsetting questions. Those are amazing privileges that many of my fellows in the disability community don’t share with me. Passing privilege means that I am not watched suspiciously in stores, negative comments are not made about my features, white people feel comfortable to interact with me and strangers do not expect me to act as an example of what all people of my background are like. Those are incredible privileges that many of my background do not share.

First up, we must address the nature of passing. Sometimes it is active (one chooses to pass) and sometimes passive (one is passed). Sometimes it’s an interaction of expectation and experience, habit and circumstance. One cannot untangle one’s own efforts to pass or to not from the point of the idea of passing. That is, whether one passes or not is dependant on the outside observer. The whole idea of passing hinges not on what the (non)passer does, but on the observer’s response to that person. There’s an extent to which one can control it – and people have developed quite some techniques – but it’s not always a matter of choice as to whether to pass or not.

There’s a friction between passing and solidarity with one’s group. Those who can pass as being a member of a dominant group may miss out on many experiences and forms of discrimination that are held to be facets of that group’s commonalities. One of the main problems with passing is that in doing so an inequitable system is being held up (by those who pass others, by those choosing to pass). This is to say that passing supports the idea that equality, better treatment, is gained by melting into the dominant group. This is of course true, as is evident in, for instance, shifting definitions of whiteness; but one shouldn’t have to lose their own identity to the “good,” dominant identity in order to be dealt with well. We should work not until identities disappear but until they’re all okay to have.

That burden should be placed on those making the assumptions of – enforcing – default identities, not on the passers. Passers frequently report hostility from within their own groups, and accusations of not really being a member of their community from all sides. No one is less a member of the group for other people’s perceptions and it’s incredibly offensive to suggest otherwise. Passing is not always a choice; when it is, it’s presumptuous to resent someone for that and just outright wrong where safety is involved. How one deals with one’s own experiences of oppression is one’s own concern.

Being able to pass really messes with my head. I’ve frequent bouts of intense guilt about it, and I feel sick when people in my communities admire me for the features that make me more likely to pass (‘look at her beautiful skin.’ Increasingly I need to get the nearest bathroom and scrub and scrub where they grab my arm). Sometimes I don’t feel quite real or as though I’m cheating, an intruder in someone else’s identity. With regard to being disabled, this has some nasty consequences: in the past I’ve not gotten needs met, either because I can’t bear to out myself or because someone doesn’t quite think I’m truthful. Passing doesn’t mean I’m not struggling to remain standing while we’re talking. I struggle with passing and being passed. Sometimes I try and do it to feel safer (never safe) and lose my integrity. Sometimes I am passed, and it’s a mix of delight and loss and damage. Whatever I do, it’s never enough, I’m never enough.

Now I just mostly let people think what they will. The glowing effects largely disappear once I give off too many cues. Because so much of my identity, experience and expression is tied up with those of my identities that are invisible, the effects are frequently fleeting.

Being invisible doesn’t mean I face no discrimination but that I face less individualised discrimination in many contexts. Looking like I do has not prevented, upon the acknowledgement of my identity, looks of disgust, offensive remarks about my family, having to listen to racial hatred. It has not prevented the fear in me, the way I have not felt safe since I was a little girl. It has not prevented that I modify my dress, my speech, my movements, my stories in order to appear as “normal” as possible, just like anyone else trying to not face the wrath of whiteness. Attempting to invisibilise difference is hardly restricted to those of us who can pass.

The thing is, I’ve done everything. I’ve been loud and proud about my invisible identities. I’ve done my best to make them disappear. I’ve allowed myself to be passed, I’ve actively worked to pass. I’ve just been myself, I’ve made my identities explicit. At the end of all this anxiety and modification and thought and care, one thing remains constant: it’s the perceptions and actions of people in dominant bodies that count. When I pass, there’s still the weight of many manifestations of oppression on my shoulders. And irrespective of whether I pass or not, people outside of my groups still get to determine how I am treated and how I am perceived. There is no way to win.

[Cross-posted at Zero at the Bone and Feministe]

14 thoughts on “Invisible Identities, Part 3: The Privileges and Pains of Passing

  1. Thank you. My disabilities are invisible. I pass a lot, though when asked about them, I tend to be open. But only when people ask or they come up in the context of a class I’m taking. I really like the way you articulated that being passed or passing sometimes means you don’t get the help you need. It is true and then you face the dilemma of outing yourself and getting help, but being labeled ‘that kid with the problems’ or staying silent and having to work harder/not do as well.

    I also have noticed, at least on a personal level, I tend to be more open about my learning disabilities than about my mental illness. People are more likely to be sympathetic to LDs, especially dyslexia, because everyone knows what it is. They are less kind about my non-verbal learning disorder, because most folks don’t know what it is and assume I’m lying. And my mental illnesses- a good number want to tell me that it’s not possible that I have GAD and MDD because, gosh darn it, I get good grades/smile.

    Passing is an interesting topic and I hope you will continue this series.

  2. I have a bunch of mental illnesses, but most commonly GAD and major depressive disorder (recurrent). With the exception of one horrible therapist I had at age 18 (who basically told me I was toxic and incurably insane), the therapists and psychiatrist I’ve worked with have labeled me not only as a depressive with a “good prognosis” but one who is also “high-functioning.”

    I think I’ve shocked them when I have told them that calling me “high-functioning” is a terrible insult, and that they shouldn’t say it because it perpetuates a system where PWMIs (my shorthand for people with mental illnesses) like me who can “pass as normal” are seen as more worthy of treatment and time than PWMIs who are “low-functioning.” There are times in my life where I have been passed, and times (as in college) when I could not pass because my symptoms were unmanaged or being managed by a shitty, laisse-faire and ableist team, or because I had not learned to “manage” them yet. Actually, I have a lot of problems with a lot of CBT and other forms of therapy because, to me, they encourage hiding/denying symptoms and faking emotions that one is not feeling in order to feel them, which seems bass-ackwards. And sometimes I wonder if I have “gotten better” or just gotten better at denying what I feel.

    Although this is definitely an issue people with “invisible” disabilities face, I think it’s one that effects people with mental illnesses in a very profound and regularly ignored and undiscussed way. Thank you for this post, Chally!

  3. Thank you for another thoughtful post, Chally.

    The word pass is just pregnant with meanings. To add to your list, I often think of the pass/fail grading system. When I pass, then I haven’t exposed myself as the “failure” disabled people are assigned.

    While I don’t out myself to random strangers on the bus, I do make it clear to new friends that I have mental illness as well as physical and cognitive difficulties. Because I don’t have an employability reputation to maintain (I’m on full-time disability benefits), I believe it’s important for me to be open about these impairments. On the other hand, I’m concerned that other people interpret this as “obsessed with disability.”

  4. Like JoSelle, I have the invisible disabilities of generalized anxiety disorder and major depressive disorder (currently in the midst of my second major depressive episode at age 20, which, to be honest, is balls). Chally, I think one of the things that you didn’t emphasize in this essay but that is most relevant to me is that those who pass are often exposed to a lot more pervasive, generalized ableism. People are less careful about what they say when they don’t think there’s anyone it applies to around, and I think that can be just as painful as individualized ableism. I would certainly hope that people wouldn’t use “crazy” as an insult around me if they knew that I’ve been dealing with mental illness for the past seven years, with it not well controlled for the past year. But I don’t look crazy, and perfectionism is symptomatic so all of my work gets done

    I guess the upside to that is that, when I have the spoons, I can engage in activist moments and be taken seriously. Tonight at dinner, for instance, a friend of a friend said, “Lady Gaga is crazy.” I said, “What’s wrong with being crazy?” He didn’t have an answer. It was exhausting and more than a little scary, but it felt kind of good. Maybe I planted a little seed of something. And if I had been out about my disability, or had experienced something more severe like a highly public psychotic break, I never would have been taken seriously–but he probably would have been more careful about using “crazy” in the first place.

    And JoSelle, it’s interesting that you bring up faking and CBT, because I also have trouble reconciling it sometimes, especially since I’ve been a big big faker all my life–what else can you do when you’re five years old with generalized anxiety disorder, only you don’t have the words for it? I just thought there was something very deeply wrong with me, and if anyone ever knew it would be the absolute end of the world. I think that’s one of the reasons I’ve been able to pass–I finished last semester afraid I’d kill myself two nights a week, and came back for this semester two days after leaving a partial hospitalization program–because I’ve been passing before I knew what it meant.

    The way I deal with the behavioral aspect of CBT is by thinking of it as moderated, assisted faking. I don’t do all of the things that I would do if I weren’t depressed, but I do some of them, and I acknowledge that I feel shitty while I’m doing them, and I don’t try to pass for my support people. But I do find the cognitive stuff to be fairly helpful.

  5. @Monica, on being exposed to more generalised discrimination, there’s a bit in the previous post on that if you’re interested. 🙂

    Thank you for your comments so far, everyone. 🙂

  6. It’s funny, switching from crutches to a service dog has given me the option to pass once again – something I lost years ago and am to be honest almost bewildered by now. You see, people will notice me doing something that they assume blind people cannot do – going shopping by myself, for instance – and they’ll assume I’m training the dog for someone else to use. The part that really gets me is the approval they radiate when they assume that I’m doing something to help the poor disabled people.

    They never quite seem to know how to react when I state that no, he’s my dog. Particularly if they’ve seen me do something that obviously proves I’m sighted, like driving. They usually settle for telling me how attractive Hudson is, and they’re suddenly terribly uncomfortable thinking about me.

    I do pass on a different plane, though – I’m bisexual, but in an exclusive long-term relationship with a man, so it’s assumed I’m straight. I’m not, and a good number of the people I’ve known who take my breath away have been women. But I rarely bring it up, mostly because it’s…easier this way. I loathe the sudden leers and assumptions I get from many men, and my sexuality is one point on which I’m uncomfortable confronting people’s reactions to my ‘real’ identity. It feels cowardly, but I don’t know what else to do, y’know?


  7. I love how this coincidentally hit Internetland on a day when no fewer than three people told me, “But you don’t *look* like you’re in pain.”

    Which, no, I don’t, usually. I’ve long ago discovered that alerting people to this fact (with visual cues, by talking about it, whatever) tends to make them uncomfortable.

  8. I’ve had the experience of passing, for the first 26 years of my life and sporadically since then, and not passing for much of the last 7 years, and overall I greatly identify with this anaylsis.

    I do disagree, however, with the idea that passing includes not having others grabbing my body. My last year without an assistive device, people grabbed my body all the time. They tapped me on the shoulder. They pulled at my arm. And invariably, they knocked me over. Because passing for a non-disabled person didn’t mean I had the balance of a non-disabled person, the protective instincts of a non-disabled person, or had outgrown my startle reflex like a non-disabled person. The grab and topple routine was one of the main motivators in my decision to start walking with a cane. People still grabbed me, but at least I had a better chance of preventing the subsequent fall.

    No one has yet grabbed my cane, but one person has grabbed a suitcase out of my hands as I was lifiting it up onto a rack. And ten minutes ago, a nurse where I work every day as a physician grabbed my arm and took a cup of tea out of my hands because I looked unsteady carrying it. I was walking without my cane (so I could use both hands to carry the tea) and I suppose she forgot I was disabled? Or just figured she, better than I, could tell when I could and couldn’t safely perform a task.

    My experience has ranged from being percieved as an incompetent non-disabled person, to a disabled person with all the assumptions piled on. I’m not sure what happened this morning. But it will be a good while before I dare undertake the five minute walk to the microwave for tea in this hospital where I have worked for three years. Someone might decide to grab my body, whether disabled or non-disabled but incompetent. After all, it’s just MY body.

  9. Once again, this is a wonderful serries.
    To Monica, I agree with you about having to hear people who assume your normal say derogatory things about your disabilities. I have ADHD, but when I was kid, most people assumed I didn’t because I have a tendency to withdraw into myself when my senses are overwhelmed, which used to happen frequently in large groups, and unlike most people with ADHD who spend a lot of time running around as a kid and turn the energy into fidigiting as an adult, I was fidgity kid who only discovered the curative powers of exercise once I overcame my devlopmental delays. This meant that kids would reguarly make fun of peolpe with ADHD in my presence to the extent that I used to wish I could trade in my ADHD and other learning disabilities for a wheelchair or black skin. Admitably my commotion loving side did enjoy it the few times I found the courage to correct people. Once when I heard one kid teasing his friend for acting silly by saying, “do you need the little green pills,” I looked up from my book, said “actually they’re more greenish,” and continued reading.

    Like Tori, I have also heard my share of “you’re not really disabled” or “but you don’t look disabled.” When people respond to my stories of childhood speeche problem with, “I want to scream what do you call not being able to say you’re own name until you were 8?

  10. ‘I do disagree, however, with the idea that passing includes not having others grabbing my body.’

    It’s not really a question of disagreeing though, seeing as I wasn’t talking about passing in general, but about my personal experiences of not being perceived as a person it’s okay to touch specifically because they’re a poor helpless PWD. I’m sorry about the tea. :S

  11. I can’t say anything about passing in the racial sense because I’m very obviously white, but I *am* one of the people who has a largely invisible disability.

    I am bipolar, as well as having a stress-related seizure disorder. 99% of the time, someone just *looking* at me is not going to know that I am disabled. If they actually *talk* to me, they might. Part of the bipolar for me is that I frequently blurt out things that really aren’t a good idea to say. Also, the meds make swiss cheese out of my memory and are probably a chunk of why I weigh considerably more than I should.

    I’m quite sure I have it a *lot* easier than many people who are “disabled”, but I’d like to see some supposedly “normal” people spend a day in my head. Every once in a while, I actually do wish my differences from the middle of the bell curve were a little more obvious because it might get more of a “okay, you really *are* disabled” response.

  12. The post does a good job of explaining the phenomenon of passing as determined by the perceiver, not the person being perceived. That’s why the term always feels funny to me, though, because it places the person being perceived in the subject position in the sentence.
    “Being passed,” as it is used here, shifts the agency in the right direction, but it’s still kind of cumbersome, although that may just be because I’ve never heard it used that way before. Plus, we still can’t take that phrase, “being passed,” and turn it around to put the perceiver in the subject position: “she passed” doesn’t mean the same thing as “she assumed incorrectly.” I don’t have a really efficient way to express the concept, but I tend to favor words like “assume.” People incorrectly assume X.
    It’s true that sometimes people can actively cultivate those incorrect assumptions, but the assumption itself is always the responsibility of whoever is assuming.

  13. There’s more on that in the first post, if you’re interested. You can turn it around to say ‘she passed him’ I suppose. 🙂

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