On “passing”

US flags as “disidentifiers,” separating “loyal Americans” from suspected terrorists    (cover: Carter Goodrich)

Passing (as conceptualized by Goffman) is when people with a stigma that is not known about (the discreditable) “pass” in public as someone “normal” (i.e., s/o without a stigma).  This was discussed in class, and there are illustrative examples of passing in the article “Being Middle Eastern American: Identity Negotiation in the Context of the War on Terror” by Marvasti (pp. 540-541).  Passing is addressed briefly in the assigned text from Goffman, but it’s more fully developed in another section on “Information Control and Personal Identity,” pasted below:

The Discredited and the Discreditable

When there is a discrepancy between an individual’s actual social identity and his virtual one, it is possible for this fact to be known to us before we normals contact him, or to be quite evident when he presents himself before us. He is a dis-credited person, and it is mainly he I have been dealing with until now. As suggested, we are likely to give no open recognition to what is discrediting of him, and while this work of careful disattention is being done, the situation can become tense, uncertain, and ambiguous for all participants, especially the stigmatized one. The cooperation of a stigmatized person with normals in acting as if his known differentness were irrelevant and not attended to is one main possibility in the life of such a person. However, when his differentness is not immediately apparent, and is not known beforehand (or at least known by him to be known to the others), when in fact he is a dis-creditable, not a discredited, person, then the second main possibility in his life is to be found. The issue is not that of managing tension generated during social contacts, but rather that of managing information about his failing. To display or not to display; to tell or not to tell; to let on or not to let on; to lie or not to lie; and in each case, to whom, how, when, and where. For example, while the mental patient is in the hospital, and when he is with adult members of his own family, he is faced with being treated tactfully as if he were sane when there is known to be some doubt, even though he may not have any; or he is treated as insane, when he knows this is not just. But for the ex-mental patient the problem can be quite different; it is not that he must face prejudice against himself; but rather that he must face unwitting acceptance of himself by individuals who are prejudiced against persons of the kind he can be revealed to be. Wherever he goes his behaviour will falsely confirm for the other that they are in the company of what in effect they demand but may discover they haven’t obtained, namely, a mentally untainted person like themselves. By intention or in effect the ex-mental patient conceals information about his real social identity, receiving and accepting treatment based on false suppositions concerning himself. It is this second general issue, the management of undisclosed discrediting information about self; that I am focusing on in these notes, in brief, `passing’. The concealment of credit-able facts— reverse passing – of course occurs, but is not relevant here. (Goffman 1963, pp. 41-42; emphasis added)


2 responses to “On “passing”

  1. As a funny anecdote to Goffman, I am Facebook friends with this girl I met while spending a semester abroad who lives in London. Today she updated her Facebook status with:
    “I don’t think there’s ever been as many chavs in Parsons Green as there are today… Thanks CFC for bringing them here! Not.”
    (She is talking about the Chelsea Football club)
    After our chav convo in class, I found this to be great and had to share!

  2. Ha! There’s a lot of overlap between the “chav” and “football hooligan” stereotypes. In Egypt, the latter are known as “Ultras,” and interestingly the reason they’ve been gaining more notoriety lately is because they’ve become increasingly politicized. Socioeconomically, this group is quite marginalized and precarious, not made up of “model revolutionaries,” in Marx’s sense. But it seems like over the course of the popular uprisings against the military regime, new connections and networks are being formed between this long depoliticized group and trade unions, student organizations, etc. People are breaking old habits and behavior patterns, “innovating” in different ways. This includes how people think. In the course of these events, the reputation of the once-stigmatized Ultras may be changing.

    One of the main arguments, or criticisms, in Owen Jones’ book on chavs is how commonplace it is to hear expressions of contempt for chavs from well-educated, self-described “liberals,” the same liberals who are constantly calling out the white working class for racism. Jones argues that the liberal “chav-haters” use chavs’ presumed bigotry to justify their own bigotry.

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