11/10/2003 at 01:00 AM EST
As Coleman Silk in the film version of Philip Roth's novel The Human Stain, Anthony Hopkins plays a light-skinned African-American who pretends to be white to avoid '40s racism. Unimaginable in this more tolerant age? Not so, says New York University professor Brooke Kroeger, author of Passing: When People Can't Be Who They Are, a study of people today who try to "pass" as a different race, religion or sexual preference. Like the individuals from her book featured here, most deny their true identities for acceptance and opportunity and adventure, says Kroeger, 54. But they pay a price. "You have to lie," she says. "That has a way of poisoning the soul."
Living a Great White Lie
David Matthews has always admired his father, Ralph Jr., a prominent African-American journalist. But growing up in Baltimore, he treated his dad's identity like a shameful secret. Why? Strangers assumed the light-skinned Matthews was white—and he liked it that way. "I'd see black kids pulled over by cops just for walking in white neighborhoods," says Matthews, 36, a waiter and aspiring screenwriter. "No way did I want that for a life."
Instead, Matthews passed himself off as Jewish. It wasn't such a stretch—his mother, Robin Golden, was a Jew who emigrated to Israel when he was an infant. Raised by the divorced Ralph, now 76, in a black neighborhood, David attended integrated schools, where he found he had more in common with white kids, who like him preferred the Beatles to the Jackson 5. He dated white girls, but rarely brought any friends home. Ralph says he was unaware that David was "actively campaigning" as Jewish. "Had I known, I would have been less than thrilled," he says. "He had too rich a heritage to throw it away."
It was only after his son left home, traveled and graduated from American University in Washington, D.C., that he finally embraced that heritage. "In other places it's cool if you're more than one thing," says Matthews, who now lives in Brooklyn. But while he speaks proudly of being of mixed race, he has another identity crisis. "People don't believe me," he says. "I talk about my father all the time—but I'll have to look at a friend and say, 'Will you tell them my dad's black?' "
Yearning to Fit In
Vivian Sanchez has long been conflicted about her working-class Puerto Rican roots. "I don't like to be stereo-typed," admits Sanchez, 31, a technical trainer for a Manhattan investment firm. Growing up in Middletown, N.Y., that's just how she felt. Alienated from wealthier Anglo peers, Sanchez instead briefly hung out with black and Hispanic dropouts who did drugs and spoke street slang. She outgrew that crowd by college—then took a religious journey. Disenchanted with Christianity—but with a strong belief in God—Sanchez was intrigued by Judaism. She joined a Jewish study group in 2000 and converted, adopting the modest skirts and blouses required of Orthodox women. But her surname marked her an outsider; marriageable men literally walked away. And so Sanchez passed—as a descendant of Spanish Jews or Sephardim. She felt some of the spiritual kinship she'd sought, but says it also felt "horrible" to lie about her family and to stifle her true self. After a romance with an Orthodox lawyer, she now dates a non-Jewish former coworker, who challenged her adopted beliefs. The events of 9/11 dashed her faith entirely. "I no longer believe in anything," she says.
Sanchez still calls herself Jewish, but she's no longer observant and now favors tank tops and high heels. She also has a new network of educated Latina friends. "I realize I'm an articulate, intelligent woman who also speaks slang and listens to R&B," she says. "For the first time, I feel free to be me."
Stain Star: Black, White and Proud
Growing up in Brooklyn, Wentworth Miller never thought much about race. That is, until he gave a sixth-grade report on his family tree and his girlfriend—who didn't realize his dad was African-American—dumped him. Her exit line, as he remembers it, was: 'N——-, go back to the cotton fields.' " Other than that, Miller, 31 —who plays the younger version of Anthony Hopkin's character in The Human Stain—has felt comfortable in his own skin. "Passing has never shown up on my radar," he says. "I'm part of a generation where I can be who I am." That would be the Princeton-educated son of a now-divorced black father and white mother. Stain was his first movie and an education in the racism of another era. "[My character] wants the freedom and opportunities that came automatically to a white man in the '40s," he says. "But he is jumping into another prison of his own making."
Written by RICHARD JEROME; reported by EVE HEYN in New York City