Racial Passing and The Real Mitt Romney

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...full text also available at Huffington Post and The Root

With Rick Santorum now out of the way it looks like the road is clear for Mitt Romney. That is, if anybody knows who he really is.

The Romney campaign has been plagued with accusations of Mitt’s “passing,” or representing himself as a member of a different social group than the ones to which he belongs—like the “one percent.”

None of this particularly surprised me, as I wrote several weeks ago about the power of passing, here on Huffington Post. My assessment of the role of passing in fashioning American identity was drawn from my new book, Clearly Invisible: Racial Passing and the Color of Cultural Identity, which covers the same ground as many of Romney’s political and social critics. We come to the same conclusion: passing is definitely not passé. We need to pay close attention to passers--and fast.

Most recently, Saturday Night Live aired a skit called “Road to the White House,” in which Romney was accused of passing and “claiming to be interested in things we know he’s not interested in.” Topics ran the gamut from sports and geography to cat neutering, piercing, diabetes, and Judaism. Romney’s insincerity embarrassed himself and those around him. When his falsification and concealment became too much for audiences to bear they shouted out, “we don’t believe you!”

The SNL skit comes on the heels of Hugh Atkins’s viral video “Will the Real Mitt Romney Please Stand Up?” In this video politicians and pundits admit that nobody knows who Mitt Romney is and so they call for some sincerity from the candidate and his campaign. In just under three minutes, the video mashes up carefully selected snippets of Romney and others and transforms them into a cover of Eminem’s 2000 classic, “The Real Slim Shady.”

Before these videos emerged one of Romney’s personas did come out of the closet. His name? Mexican Mitt. In a two minute video Mexican Mitt casts himself as a member of the “Juan percent” out to be the first “Latino President” of the United States. Although Mexican Mitt raps about who he is and what he’s all about he appears only in the form of a human shadow. This image suggests that the “Real Romney,” Mexican or otherwise, is really the full manifestation of unmeasured and unseen identities in a society brimming with secrets. What’s more, Romney’s shadow implies that a space exists between lights and shadows, between fiction and reality, and between black and white.

To be sure, the media’s focus on Romney’s acts of passing is fascinating. And in some ways the accusations make Romney more like President Obama, who has also been accused of passing as an American, a Christian, and as a Harvard Law graduate. Obama is president but not necessarily considered American. Romney is American but not necessarily considered presidential.

In very different ways each politician is showing us how passing works as a form of identification within particular social networks. And Romney’s passing is taking things a step beyond race and color--including verbal and nonverbal symbols such as speech, clothing, hobbies, performances, Facebook posts, physical and social mobility, and many other symbolic exchanges that influence thought and behavior in the interests of identification and social action.

Here’s the takeaway. The "Real Mitt Romney," whoever he is and for however long he’s with us, reveals that access to reality is sometimes based on fiction rather than fact. He also shows us that identities are understood best in terms of the stories we tell about who we are.

So, even if The Real Mitt Romney is a real life passer he isn’t to be considered irrelevant. Rather, he presents a fresh look at passing that privileges different points of view at different points in time. Sometimes what passers say is most relevant, and sometimes it is not. Sometimes what passers’ friends and families have to say is more revealing. Sometimes what courts, crowds, and critics say takes precedence. And sometimes what goes without saying says more than everything else.