Obama’s sudden rise from part-time legislator/part-time lecturer to Presidential Timberhood was conventionally interpreted as the triumph of his supreme personal merit over discrimination’s crushing weight. A less-popular suggestion was that in 21st-century America, identifying as black is good for your career.
One way to test this question is by looking at the phenomenon of people changing their racial identification, AKA “passing.” Traditionally, mixed-race people tried to socially separate themselves from the black masses, and some tried to pass as white. Is that still true? Or has the flow reversed in recent decades, with racially ambiguous people now asserting their blackness?
Passing is back in the news because of the curious onslaught that famed novelist Philip Roth (Portnoy’s Complaint) mounted last week against Wikipedia over its allegation that one of his better novels might have been inspired by the glamorous man of letters Anatole Broyard (1920-1990), one of the last Americans known to have passed as white for career reasons.
Are there any celebrities since Broyard who are now known to have passed for career purposes?
I'm thinking of "passed" in the active rather than the passive sense, of cutting ties with tell-tale kin to change one's racial identity. I'm sure there are people today whose, say, 1/4th black grandparent switched and now they are 1/16th black and don't make a big deal about it. That's what I would call the passive sense of passing.
Also, I'm sure there are people who insist they are all white for personal rather than career reasons -- such as mom cheated on her husband with the saxophonist, but eventually they reconciled and decided never to mention that one child doesn't the really look like the others.
Broyard told, I believe, his daughter that he switched to white because he didn't want to get stuck being the Negro literary intellectual, that he really wasn't that interested in race stuff and wanted to follow where his tastes led him. That sounds a slight bit high-minded. Or maybe he did it just for the girls.