The Trouble with Passing for “Normal”: Especially for our Gifted Girls, Part I
Part of a series on truth-telling in life and art. See the first post, Dare to Be Yourself, here.
“Passing” is a term from the history of racial discrimination in the post Civil-War United States. At the end of this post is a little more information about that context. I apologize in advance to anyone who thinks I am being insensitive to the history of the word in using it in the context of this post.
Gifted girls face enormous pressure to be more average than they are. Because giftedness is not a visible difference from the norm, they have the option to do this.
“Because of their enhanced ability to perceive social cues and their early conditioning about the critical importance of social acceptance, gifted girls are much more adept than gifted boys at imitation….They fit in by pretending to be less capable than they really are, disappearing into the crowd.” – Linda Silverman, Counseling the Gifted and Talented
This leads to under-identification of the giftedness in girls:
“By the age of 9, highly gifted children may hit the ceiling of the tests, and gifted girls may be socialized to hide their abilities. Unless they are absolutely certain they are right, gifted girls are often unwilling to guess, which lowers their IQ scores.”Linda Silverman, What We have Learned About Gifted Children
Highly gifted teens who suffer existential depression are at an unacceptably high risk for suicide and are adept at hiding their troubles from everybody. Because these teens often present as highly successful, they are very hard to help once they have started suffering. They have also generally learned to distrust adults and are suspicious of proffered help. Prevention is key in helping these children. And that means identifying them early and helping them see their own true colours. And, we must listen to them and take them seriously.
“Gifted people often adjust what they say so that they will be accepted. They sometimes feel that other people do not take them seriously. This can lead to not trusting themselves. Careful listening can also be a lifeline. It can convince children that there is someone who thinks that they are valuable and worth understanding.” Betty Meckstroth
**A Note About Passing
In American usage, “passing” without further reference to what one is passing as refers specifically to light-skinned black people assimilating into the white community to avoid racial discrimination. When explicit discrimination was law, any traceable mixed-ancestry qualified a person as coloured. This meant that a sizable portion of people legally identified as coloured could “pass” for white if they left the communities where their family history was known. What I know of the psychological experience of passing in this context comes from literature, in particular two books I read in my law school class on the legal regulation of intimate interracial relationships, Passing, by Nella Larson and Life on the Color Line: The True Story of a White Boy who Discovered He was Black, by Gregory Howard Williams.
Passing involved isolating oneself from one’s family, denying one’s ancestry, and constantly living in fear of being found out. For some people, it was the better of two evils, but it was an awful way to live.