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You Fail as a Society

By fff | Books | August 24, 2010 |

By fff | Books | August 24, 2010 |

Every time I put on a suit, I feel unnatural. I know I have to put it on to pass for that job interview, or presentation, but it feels wrong, and I think it looks completely wrong too. A friend who wears a suit to work everyday told me you get used to it, it starts to feel more natural. You go from feeling like you’re dressing up in a costume, passing as a suit-wearer, to being actually comfortable and not feeling like you’re playing a role.

We all ‘pass’ at one thing or another. In some cases, the stakes are higher: if you’re transgender and don’t pass, you could get murdered, instead of just looking awkward in a suit. Nobody Passes is a series of essays that explores the process of fitting in and passing for something else, from the high stakes cases we all know about — like transgender folks, or immigrants having to pass as citizens to stay in the country — to more thought-provoking categories of passing, like the woman who has to hide her interest in BDSM from her partners, the woman who has to pass as mentally ill to get public assistance, or the one who has to pass as middle-class, but then can use her poor Okie roots to get out of a tight spot with some cops who also turn out to be Okies.

Taking into account these varied life experience, Nobody Passes becomes ultimately about more than just “passing” or “not passing,” but about our own constructions of our identities, how the way we tell the stories of our lives become part of those stories. One of my favorite essays, “Origins” by Kirk Read, comes towards the end, and deals explicitly with how we construct our identites; in Read’s case, how he has constructed his identity as a sex-worker around his first client.

Some of the essays were challenging; I found myself resisting the idea that some of the writers were actually relating experiences of oppression — usually these were the essays that tackled issues I don’t know as much about, or have to work on, like class issues, or gender identities among lesbians. These negative reactions are the ones I learned the most from, about my own biases and negative perceptions.

The most salient point in Nobody Passes is the damage done by the mere idea and practice of passing. “Passing” denotes an in-group and an out-group, something about your identity that is so fundamentally bad, it must be hidden to make others comfortable. It stops us from acceptance of others with complex identities, and mandates conformity to already privileged identities. Nobody Passes is not a basic analysis of identity politics, it requires previous knowledge or a very open mind, but it’s worth taking the time.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. For more of fff’s reviews, check out the blog.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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