For those who make assumptions based on skin color, three women (Lavinia Ferguson, her daughter Patricia and granddaughter Mikaela) are living reminders of just how meaningless race has become.
Patricia Ferguson's birth certificate says "negro." Mikaela's birth certificate says "Swedish."
"I tell people that my father is 100 percent Swedish, but my mother is everything," says Mikaela.
CBS News Correspondent Erin Moriarty reports the women are like many Americans today: products of families that can best be described as colorful.
Lavinia Ferguson, with the help of archivist Kathleen Thompson, traced her family back to 1830, when her German and Caucasian great-grandfather, James Connor Bowman, moved to New Orleans, where he fell in love and married a black woman.
"If they put anything in front of me today, all I worry about is which box I don't check – Caucasian, yes; Indian, yes; black, yes; Hispanic, yes," says Lavinia.
Yet, Lavinia remembers a time when one box, and how it was filled out, determined everything -- livelihood, neighborhood and quality of life.
Lavinia notes, "My mother, and this would give you a good example, she got an excellent job at the time with the telephone company. She had a beautiful speaking voice. And she won awards and commendations. She was just doing fine. But apparently, someone became aware and made a report. They came in one day and they said, 'Eunice, we've gotten some information here that says you have colored blood. Is this true?' And she said, 'Yes.' And they said, 'Well, you know, in that case, we have to let you go.'"
Until the 1950s and 1960s, Jim Crow laws denied blacks the same jobs, rights and educational opportunities that whites took for granted. But the fair skin that Lavinia's family and others had allowed them to surreptitiously slip across the color borders, a process known as "passing."
"It was a way of life," explains Lavinia.
But it wasn't an easy way. Movies and literature are rife with stories of people who passed into the white mainstream, only to be doomed to a lifetime struggle to conceal their true identities.
"Lost Boundaries," a movie made in the 1950s, was about a doctor (one of Lavinia's relatives) who successfully passed as white until he tried to enlist in the Navy during World War II.
Lavinia, who says she had never passed herself, is ambivalent about those who do.
"It's a rejection of so-called colored blood, our black blood, and living as white and rejecting all of the background ancestors who were not white," says Lavinia.
New York University professor Brooke Kroeger says that passing is not a thing of the past, nor is it simply a black-and-white matter.
"We had Jewish passing for Gentile in much the same way," Kroeger explains. "Certainly, gay passing for straight is a common one and has been for a long time. Lower class for upper class. I think that's something we see a lot."
Kroeger had no trouble finding such people when she wrote her book, "Passing: When People Can't Be Who They Are."
What's really the difference between passing and impersonation?
"Well, one big difference is that this is not done to harm people," says Kroeger. "This is done really to achieve ordinary ends. This is not like, you know, the suicide bombers next door borrowing your sugar. I mean, it's not like that. It's just people who just want to do what you and I get to do."
Kroeger calls passing a very reasonable thing, which might offend others because of the deception and denial of heritage.
"While there are people who will criticize someone who'll pass, particularly in the black community, most people will not 'out' a person," says Kroeger.
Kroeger explains, "There's a sense of being sort of delighted to see people get one on people who deserve it, who more than deserve it."
Jim Crow laws were long gone by the 1980s, but in Baltimore, Md., David Matthews says, even as a child, he could see that barriers for young blacks were still there.
"You're like 'OK, I can be treated like this group of kids who the teachers automatically assume aren't going to do well. They're going to sort of get the minimal amount of attention,'" says Matthews. "The group of white kids, who are probably 20, 30 percent of the population in the school. But I just noticed that they got more attention. Teachers assume that they somehow had more on the ball."
Matthews, the son of a light-skinned black man and an Israeli mother, who walked every day to a school in a primarily white neighborhood, simply chose to be white.
"Walking those three blocks, I knew all I needed to know about where I wanted to be as I watched property values the Volvos as opposed to burned-out, you know, Cadillacs," says Matthews.
He began hanging out with friends who were almost all white and Jewish. But when Matthews entered high school, he says girls and their fathers wanted to know his background.
"Every girl I dated, the parent's first question was 'What nationality are you?'"
Matthews would say his mother was Israeli, but he wouldn't mention his father's race, categorizing the elder Matthews as Presbyterian.
Matthews, whose father is a newspaper editor, would just avoid mentioning which newspaper his dad worked at because he was the editor of the Afro-American newspaper, and that might have given something away.
And passing as white meant that Matthews, raised entirely by his father after his mother returned to Israel, couldn't bring most of his friends home.
"I think that at that point, I was in such denial," says Matthews. "I didn't know what a treasure I had in my dad. All the things he had been through and the circles he ran in. I mean, my dad was like a star and I didn't know it until I was an adult. Yes, I was just in complete denial."
David Matthews' father, Ralph, who is fair-skinned, says he would be highly insulted if anyone suggested he pass as white.
"My father's black and my mother was black. That's how they viewed themselves, and I grew up in the black community," says Ralph Matthews.
When David Matthews' father discovered his son was passing for white, the elder Matthews says he was bemused.
The father says, "I wasn't going to call him out. And he wasn't, in my view, passing ... He may or may not withhold information. I don't call that passing. I call that, you know, social strategy."
It was not until David Matthews went to the University of Maryland, and a young black movie director named Spike Lee came out with "Do the Right Thing," that Matthews finally realized the rich heritage he was giving up.
Matthews, now a 37-year-old screenwriter, describes himself as mixed race.
Some people in the black community may say Matthews was committing cultural betrayal when he chose not to tell society he was black.
Matthews says, "I see it as being efficacious. I did what I had to do in order to get along every day. So, I didn't see it as a betrayal."
"If you ask me, 'Is lying self-serving; deceit, problematic?' Yes. Absolutely," says Rabbi Joel Alter.
But he is hardly in the position to pass judgment.
Alter explains, "There's no question that I was passing at the seminary, because now I know I'm a gay rabbinical student and I'm at a seminary that won't knowingly ordain gay or lesbian students. So, yeah, I'm passing."
Alter, considered a model student at the conservative rabbinical seminary he attended in New York City, knew that honesty would end any chance of becoming a rabbi.
He was learning to be a man of God, but deceiving the very same institution, Alter says, he adores, which was uncomfortable.
"Every single day for five years I'm thinking, 'OK, I'm done. I have to leave the program. This is crazy,'" remembers Alter.
He stayed, and today he is an ordained rabbi. While he still regrets the deception, Alter believes it is the only way to force open closed doors.
Today, the conservative movement still does not ordain gay men and women.
Brook Kroeger refers to passing as deceptive, but conflicted and interesting.
Kroeger says the reason for such deception is limiting a person based on superficial characteristics (skin color, religion or sexual orientation)seems equally wrong.
"The people in my book are really honorable, nice regular folks, and yet, it forces them into situations that require deception," says Kroeger. "That requires covering. That requires hiding parts of themselves that are central to who they are."
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