Things Are Never Black or White: Review of I Passed for White (1960)

Ifeanacho MaryAnn
8 min readDec 21, 2021
I Passed for White (1960)

Synopsis

Based on a memoir of the same name, I Passed for White (1960) revolves around Bernice Lee (Sonya Wilde). Though she is mixed race and black-presenting, she is often mistaken for a white woman. This makes her life more complicated than the life of the average black woman. After many attempts to get work under the umbrella of her black identity, Bernice leaves Chicago for New York City, where she adopts a new, whitewashed identity as Lila Brownell.

Things go smoothly until life throws a spanner in the person of the tall, handsome, and effortlessly charming Mr. Rick Leyton (James Franciscus). After a whirlwind romance, Leyton proposes and love-struck Bernice accepts. However, what should have been the first step in their happily ever after turns into a nightmare, as Bernice realizes her real background could mess with things. And this is where the lying games begin.

Analysis

Diversity

99.999%

That is how similar we (humans) all are according to the human genome project. 0.001% of the human genome accounts for all the differences (in eye, hair and skin color, body shape, height, intelligence, personality, etc.) that we see. Unfortunately, because of the in-group out-group bias, this 0.001% becomes our primary focus and the reason we aggregate in (similar) groups and fight and segregate against other groups.

To paraphrase a quote from Adichie, I Passed for White (1960) was funny in the way sad things are funny. It becomes even funnier when you realize the producers had to cast a white actress as a mixed-race character because they felt an interracial romance would upset many white audience members. Phenotypically, our protagonist Bernice Lee is white. She has fair skin, European features, and type 2 hair and is consistently mistaken for white by Caucasians. However, Bernice is biracial. While I won’t deny the privileges Bernice has, when juxtaposed against the background of racially sensitive 1960s America, her life is frustrating and complicated. One minute, a recruiter offers her a job and assures of success…

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Ifeanacho MaryAnn

Storyteller, Long Distance Cat Mom. A quiet voice rambling in an isolated corner of the internet. I write on psychology, films, books and my random thoughts