An Examination of Racial Passing at Dartmouth

by Haider Ghiasuddin | 5/8/14 3:58pm

Dartmouth was the first Ivy League institution to admit a black student — Edward Mitchell, Class of 1828. No doubt his success story has been often told before; Mitchell passed his entrance exams, but the Board of Trustees revoked his acceptance, fearing the ensuing campus chaos. Following this decision, a student committee wrote a wonderful letter conveying its distaste for the Board’s decision, and the College reenrolled Mitchell. One of the letter’s four signatures belonged to a “dark-skinned Caucasian,” Charles Dexter Cleveland, Class of 1827.

Though Dartmouth celebrates Mitchell’s story, one would be naïve not to ponder the pressures that came with being black in an elite institution during that period. As with much of the past, we must account for the stories that were hidden, particularly on purpose — of those who could conceal their identity and felt forced to do so. I speak of the passing, the practice where some black individuals presented themselves as white, that must have occurred at Dartmouth to the same extent it did at other elite American colleges. In the process of exploring historical passing, I interviewed four Dartmouth undergraduates on their feelings about passing and its relevance, if any, to black students at Dartmouth today.

Prejudice about intellect and race that promoted passing in the past are alive and well, seen in the experiences and sentiments some students relayed to me.

“Racial passing at its core is about making a part of yourself more palatable,” Chloe J. Jones ’16 said. “I think doing so in order to feel welcome or accommodated in certain spaces is a common thing.”

Jones cites selective self-censorship in the classroom as an example of the sort of sacrifice she has made.

“Sometimes I feel like I have to pick my battles and what I’m being critical of,” Jones said. “People will see me being critical of what is this one tiny, minute thing to them and it makes everything else I say after that inflammatory.”

In the 1890s, Anita Florence Hemmings hid her race to gain admittance to Vassar College. Weeks before her graduation, Hemmings’s roommate had her father hire a private investigator to confirm her suspicions, creating a controversy that nearly prompted Vassar to rescind Hemmings’s diploma. At later reunions, the roommate would complain about her “painful experience.”

A Boston newspaper at the time implied that passing was not a strategy Hemmings pursued actively: “Miss Hemmings certainly did not go to Vassar under an assumed name, nor did she give a fictitious residence.”

It would appear that, simply due to her presence at an elite academic institution, Hemmings was assumed to be white with little effort on her part. This sentiment seems to still hold some relevance.

On her arrival back home to Zimbabwe after her freshman year at Dartmouth, Tendai Masangomai ’15 recalled a family friend saying, “Now that you’ve come back from the U.S., you sound like a white person.” This was intended as a compliment and for this reason she didn’t let it upset her, though she said it did made her feel awkward for a second. She spoke to how at home “speaking like a white person” correlates to a mastery of English.

“It’s why people say that to very smart black people, ‘Oh, I don’t see you as black,’” Jeremy Whitaker ’15 said. “‘Oh, I don’t see you as black because you’re from this rich, well-off family’ ... [As if to say] if someone’s black they have to be poor, unintelligent, unattractive.”

Whitaker said this problem is part of a dichotomy that exists for black students. Either they are categorized as non-black (“I don’t see you as black”), he said, or only identified in terms of their race (i.e. being someone’s “black” friend).

“You’re black. You’re at Dartmouth,” Jones said. “The assumption is you’re here for very specific reasons, and you come from a very specific home life.”

Jones said she felt that her high school peers resented her success in college admissions, attributing it to her race.

At the end of his freshman year, Abdul-Rashid Alhassan ’16, who is from Ghana, recalled his friend telling him that before he came to Dartmouth, he thought Alhassan “was another charity case from Africa.”

“His assumption was that me being a black African meant I was here off of American generosity as opposed to academic achievement,” Alhassan said. “I don’t feel like he meant to intentionally insult me. His assumption was a product of an inaccurate American perception that is a remnant of the historical racism that led to passing in the past.”

Indeed, Alhassan sees the problems of elite institutions like Dartmouth as uniquely American.

“Before coming to America I wasn’t aware I was a black person,” Alhassan said. “I knew I had melanin in my skin, more than everyone else, but that was just a fact. I came to America, and being black is an identity.”

Jones said she has found her place through the Afro-American Society, to the surprise of her parents.

“We lived in a middle-class suburb, and I went to a tech high school in a very specific STEM program where you cannot find many African-American or Latino students,” she said. “That was my friend group. I didn’t have a presence of black or Latino communities always present.”

When she arrived at Dartmouth, Jones said she felt most comfortable in the AAM’s space. If someone made a comment in class that she did not feel confident calling out, the AAM offered her a group with whom she could discuss these topics.

Whitaker noted that perhaps asking if the phenomenon of passing is now obsolete is the wrong question to ask.

“I’m afraid of how people are going to try and sweep it under the rug,” Whitaker said. “You know, well, we all personalize differently, we are all social creatures, we are all wearing masks in a sense ... In what ways is it [much more] dangerous to have a racial mask? What ways is it dangerous to have a cultural or religious mask? Like you feel that you can’t be the more vital parts of yourself in a certain environment. Are these things being un-accommodated in that environment?”