Passing — And Passing


Intersectionality is a recent term, defining the experience of living within two or more marginalized groups. I have lived in the junction of minority culture and disability for far longer than the junction has been recognized. Dehumanized as a Jew and again dehumanized as a disabled person, both detrimental to self-actualization. Both situations resulted in the need to “pass,” a term common in communities of color, less so in some Jewish communities, although it is equally applicable.

Passing – while it is often defined as based upon race – can also involve a divergent culture, a “hidden” disability, or both. It is a way of trying to fit in, by denying one’s core identity. It takes a toll, in self esteem, energy, stress, and watchfulness. One is always “on guard,” lest a slip be made that could lead to discovery. It can even result in one of the “co-morbids” so-called, to Autism – generalized anxiety disorder.

As a child, my labels were Jew, underachiever, and oversensitive. We lived in a White Catholic neighborhood, one of three Jewish families within miles. At certain times of the year, if I did not fly under the radar, terms like “Christ killer” were bandied about. This was because the others never saw me at Mass, not because my family actually engaged in any Jewish practices, for they had assimilated so well that I never saw a synagogue until I was 10 years old.

At school, I had a target on my back. I read years above my level, created outstanding art, had few friends, and was bullied unmercifully by kids and even some teachers. I struggled with rote memory out of context, and escaped into theater, which gave full context. Theater also taught me about passing, because I practiced being somebody else. Having a script made the difference between making it through the day at school and melting down in terror and frustration.

I grew up learning that Passing was Necessary and hating that I had to Pass. I passed so well that, after moving to yet another neighborhood in which we were the minority, a kid at the school bus stop told me that some “kikes” had moved into the neighborhood. I broke his nose for that, even though he probably outweighed me by a good 50 pounds. That was when I stopped Passing, at least a little. It was the beginning of a journey.

As an adult, I tried the ultimate in passing. Not only did I pretend to be“normal,” I lived as a Christian, and studied in a Christian seminary. My experience there taught me that I would always be “the Jew,” so I decided to returned to the roots my parents (they who had made passing into an art form) had denied in my childhood. Upon fully practicing Judaism, I found that employment became challenging, unless I passed as a member of the dominant culture I had rejected, worked on holy days, concealed my culture, and quieted my culturally exuberant communication style. Not passing resulted in queries such as “Do you wear your hair curly to hide your horns?” (Yes, even in the last quarter of the 20th century, folks.)

Well into my sixth decade on the planet, and after more than three decades of wondering if speaking Autistics existed, came an Autism diagnosis. While I knew it was another undesirable (from society’s viewpoint) identity, it was finally one that made sense and I embraced it. Fortunately, I had been involved in the disability rights movement for decades by then, so passing was never an option – any more.

With respect to Autism, the norm in treatment seems to be training us to pass for non-Autistic. Written goals often require more perfect behavior than is ever expected for a “typical” student. Such programs teach the Need to Pass, and in so doing devalue the Person one Is. The programs euphemistically termed “social skills” remind me of historic persecutions – the conscription and indoctrination of Jewish boys in Czarist Russia and the Boarding Schools to which Native children were sent to eliminate their cultures.

Teaching rules is one thing; putting higher expectations on the “special education” student and grading on how well they can fake it is an entirely different kettle of fish. I often wonder how children brought up with the emphasis on fitting in even survive, why they are not crushed by the weight of living as another.

I know that when I was finally given a diagnosis that fit and was able to embrace it, my previous anxiety and depression lifted. It was as if a two-ton canary that had been sitting on my head finally took flight.

How many of the so-called co-morbids to Autism are a direct result of “treatments?” I doubt this will ever be researched, as the possibility of harm being discovered if such a study were honestly conducted is too great a risk for the “treatment industry” (including Universities) to countenance. It would also require that those developing and executing the research program first honestly look at the system requiring those of non-dominant races, cultures, neurologies, and abilities to deny their validity as productive members of society. Above all, it would have to take into account the harm done by passing and acknowledge that intersectionality exists.


(Photo: gato-gato-gato)