Dreisinger: Anytime you’re talking about the cultural domain, it certainly can be advantageous to pass as black. In many ways, particularly when you’re talking about the discourse around authenticity in jazz, the most authentic jazz players had to be black. And so if you’re a white jazz player who believes that—and that’s the paradoxical irony of being a white jazz musician, is that many of them were quite traditional in their sense that it’s an authentically black music, and so a black person must play it—but what do I do, because I’m not black?
Certainly, then, because we’re talking about the era of Jim Crow, that means subjecting yourself to all kinds of racism and segregation and putting yourself in that boat, but ultimately it’s an advantageous thing from the perspective of authenticity within the arts.
Appelbaum: There are two constructed notions of race interacting in each of these cases, though, because to pass as black means to reject another, prior identity. What do these cases tell us about what it means to be white?
Dreisinger: The notion at the beginning of the phenomenon of white passing is that whiteness is a dangerously at-risk entity, that it can become black at any point. And again, this goes back to the anxieties surrounding nineteenth-century scenarios of passing, that whiteness is vulnerable, that with too much contact with blackness in any capacity it can get lost, it’s weak, it can be taken off.
That changes, with time, as white passing becomes advantageous, and whiteness becomes a much more stubborn entity that can’t be gotten rid of so easily, and requires a lot of finesse.
Appelbaum: The case of Rachel Dolezal has received enormous attention. Is there a way in which this broader context ought to inform our understanding of it?
Dreisinger: Definitely. For one, it is important to recognize that her passing does have a history—it’s not just this lone incident, which is often how it’s being portrayed. Not to say that this history is as deeply rooted in American history as the traditional form of passing. I’m not the only one who’s written about it. But my book is as much about racial appropriation as it is about racial passing, and racial cross-identification, or what she’s calling “trans-raciality.”
I think it’s critical to recognize the ways in which American whites have a long legacy of fetishizing blackness, whether they’re literally passing or not, but the ways in which their notions of blackness are based upon caricatures, and not characters. They’re based on idealized or cartoonish notions of what blackness is.
Appelbaum: And Dolezal?
Dreisinger: We haven’t heard from her, but some of the discussion is obscuring the potential touchstone moments here and the potential for talking in a really serious intellectual way about the concept of trans-raciality, and about the one-drop rule, and about how malleable and subject to perception race is in American culture.