On Passing

This is not terribly coherent yet, but it’s a thing that has been on my mind.

We talk about “passing privilege” which is the privilege of getting to look more privileged than you actually are. Autistic people who can pretend to be NT can “pass”. So can light-skinned POC, LGB people who dress in a gender normative way and aren’t openly in same-sex relationships, etc.

It’s true that having the option of passing is a privilege. People who can pass and fit in to mainstream culture are usually treated better. However, there are some complications to this.

For starters, passing privilege is not just one thing:

  • Some people can pass in some circumstances, but not others
  • Some people choose to pass in some circumstances, but not others
  • Some people have the ability to pass most of the time, but occasionally (temporarily) lose it
  • Some people pass only because people are uninformed and don’t know what they’re seeing. For example, someone who doesn’t know much about the way Asperger syndrome typically manifests in women might not notice that a woman was autistic, even if her behavior made her very visibly and obviously autistic to people who do know about it.
  • Some people pass imperfectly, or pass for a marginalized group that isn’t the one they are actually part of. For example, being called “weird” or “crazy” instead of being seen as disabled. This is not necessarily better.
  • Some people can pass, but only by working very hard on it, when they could be working very hard on something else instead
  • Some people pass, not because they are trying to pass, but because people assume that the majority is the default. So if you don’t loudly proclaim that you are in a minority, people assume you must not be in it
  • Some people have differences that are so hard to see from the outside that people flat-out refuse to believe them when they say the differences exist; they are in a sense forced into passing, even if they don’t want to

Also, passing privilege can be a double edged sword:

  • People usually treat you better if they think you are normal
  • But sometimes your needs are not the same as a normal person’s needs
  • And if you are passing as normal, no one will know how to give you the things you actually need, as opposed to the things that a normal person would need
  • Some people suffer in ways that relate to the reasons they are not normal (for example, chronic pain). Or they suffer because of the hard work they are doing in order to pass, or because of prejudice / microaggressions / other bad things that affect people in their group, but nobody knows that this is happening to them and nobody can help them with it because they are not seen as being in the group that would be hurt by such things
  • Sometimes when you are passing well, but then suddenly have a problem that a normal person would not have, people react badly
  • Sometimes these are the same people who would deny you accomodations if you had chosen not to pass in the first place
  • So you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t

And the social pressures that come into play here are sort of weird:

  • Sometimes people are told by the majority that if they don’t try hard to act like the majority, they are being bad
  • In reaction to this, groups sometimes apply pressure in the opposite direction: passing is wrong because it caters to the oppressive majority, or because you’re not “being your true self”, or because it will encourage others to hurt themselves trying to pass the way you do, etc
  • But if you interact with more than one group of people in your life, it’s possible (and common) to face pressures in both of these directions at once
  • So it can very quickly turn into another “damned if you do, damned if you don’t”
  • Sometimes people talk as though passing privilege is the only kind of privilege
  • For example, bisexuals in opposite-sex relationships are told that they have “straight privilege”
  • Sometimes people in the majority will do a version of this too; they will tell you that if you can manage to act like a normal person, you aren’t “really” abnormal, it can’t be “that bad”, or you are just making it up for attention or being appropriative
  • This is not true and sucks
  • Being able to pretend you are a thing is not the same as really being that thing on the inside, and being on that thing on the inside will affect your daily life in All The Ways even if others can’t see it


  • People are not always aware of the behaviours that make them seem odd or not-normal (although autism social skills training sometimes tries to make us hyper-aware of these things)
  • Even if we are aware of them, that doesn’t mean we can necessarily consciously control them all the time
  • We are not always consciously aware of the behaviours we adopt in order to pass, either
  • They can be learned survival reflexes
  • Which are just as difficult to consciously control

Tl;dr passing privilege is really complicated, having a choice in the matter IS a privilege, but passing (and choosing not to pass if one is able) are not simple binary choices, and privilege is not reducible to passing.