In Passing, Nella Larsen presents black characters who “pass” as white to varying degrees, moving back and forth between different outward identities as it suits them. Some of Larsen’s characters pass only occasionally, when it is convenient and beneficial to them, but live in black communities and embrace their black identity, while others live their lives as white people, keeping their black heritage secret.
Irene is an example of a character who passes as white only when it suits her. For example, she passes at the beginning of the book so she can drink an iced tea in the white hotel Drayton’s. While at Drayton’s, Irene notes that she only passes when she is alone, associating the concept of passing with isolation from the black community. In general, Irene embraces her black identity, and is proud of her black community in Harlem, where she lives with Brian, who cannot pass, and her children. To Irene, passing is a convenience that allows her to move through the white world without ridicule or exclusion, but not a lifestyle. Irene also takes care while passing at Drayton’s to remind herself that she is passing for convenience, not because she rejects anything about her black identity.
Irene’s commitment to her black identity distinguishes her from other characters who pass not for occasional convenience, but because they prefer life in white communities. Take, for instance, Irene’s childhood acquaintance Gertrude, who has married a white man, and who says she prefers to have light-skinned children. Gertrude seems to be willing to reject blackness, or at least dark-skinned children, in order to become a part of the white community.
Other characters, such as Clare, have passed completely, totally rejecting and hiding their black identities. Clare has forgone her black identity to live among white people as a white person. Clare lies to her husband, John, who believes she is completely white, and who is openly racist around her. At the beginning of the book, Clare seems to think that her lifestyle, in which her black identity is totally erased, is better than Irene’s. During a conversation with Irene, Clare professes not to understand why more light-skinned black women do not also cross over into white society and leave their black identities behind. In doing so, Clare clearly implies that she thinks her lifestyle is superior.
Certainly, living as a white woman has afforded Clare many privileges, from her massive wealth to her safety from discrimination, exclusion, and racial violence. However, as the book goes on, Larsen shows how passing takes a massive toll on Clare psychologically and does not insulate her from everything she thought it would. During the painful scene of Irene’s first meeting with Clare’s husband, John expresses vitriolic racism and calls his wife the racial slur “nig.” The slur is a “joke” about Clare’s supposedly darkening skin color, as John does not realize that Clare (or Irene, or Gertrude) is black, or comes from a black community. Still, the moment reveals the unknowing abuse that Clare must suffer daily, and suggests Clare would likely suffer violence should she ever renounce her white identity and embrace (or even reveal) her black one.
As the book progresses, Clare expresses a desire to leave John and rejoin the black community, and she recruits Irene to help her do so. Irene, however, feels massive resentment towards Clare for a myriad of reasons. Irene certainly is jealous of Clare, but her anger may also stem from the fact that Clare has said many negative things about blackness and has benefited from passing for so long. Irene’s resentment calls into question her own passing, although she passes only occasionally. It forces the reader to ask: if Irene sees Clare as an outsider to the black community, at what point does passing make you one?
Moreover, the way that Larsen portrays passing troubles the idea of race as inherent or genetic. The word “passing” has a kind of double meaning, as it could be read as “being taken for” or, more literally, as passing the threshold from one identity to another. The second meaning shows just how binary racial identities were in the imagination of 1920s America, since the idea implies that black identity and white identity are two distinct categories.
But contrary to this way of thinking about race, the characters in Passing constantly transgress, muddle, and trouble the idea of race as binary as they move back and forth between different identities. In Drayton, Irene mockingly thinks how white people believe they can always “tell” a black person from a white person, but then they are constantly fooled, because black heritage does not always correspond to the stereotypical images they hold. Essentially, the racial ambiguity and fluidity of characters like Clare and Irene call into question ideas of race as inherent and distinct genetic categories, because they show how race, although it has very real implications for people’s lives, is constructed and performed. This idea is important, because it constitutes a radical threat to racism, which depends on the idea of race as innate. At the same time, however, it also could threaten black identity, or at least visions of black identity that are based in genetics rather than shared experience.
Ultimately, Larsen seems to feel ambiguously about the idea of passing, and what it means for black identity and race. The reader might take one of Irene’s comments on passing as the book’s thesis on the subject: “It’s funny about ‘passing.’ We disapprove of it and at the same time condone it. It excites our contempt and yet we rather admire it. We shy away from it with a kind of revulsion, but we protect it.”
Passing, Black Identity, and Race ThemeTracker
Passing, Black Identity, and Race Quotes in Passing
This, she reflected, was of a piece with all that she knew of Clare Kendry. Stepping always on the edge of danger. Always aware, but not drawing back or turning aside. Certainly not because of any alarms or feeling of outrage on the part of others.
You can’t know how in this pale life of mine I am all the time seeing the bright pictures of that other that I once thought I was glad to be free of….It’s like an ache, a pain that never ceases.
White people were so stupid about such things for all that they usually asserted that they were able to tell; and by the most ridiculous means: fingernails, palms of hands, shapes of ears, teeth, and other equally silly rot. They always took her for an Italian, a Spaniard, a Mexican, or a Gypsy. Never, when she was alone, had they even remotely seemed to suspect that she was a Negro. No, the woman sitting there staring at her couldn’t possibly know.
Later, when she examined her feeling of annoyance, Irene admitted, a shade reluctantly, that it arose from a feeling of being outnumbered, a sense of aloneness, in her adherence to her own class and kind; not merely in the great thing of marriage, but in the whole pattern of her life as well.
He roared with laughter. Clare’s ringing bell-like laugh joined his. Gertrude, after another uneasy shift in her seat, added her shrill one. Irene, who had been sitting with lips tightly compressed, cried out: “That’s good!” and gave way to gales of laughter. She laughed and laughed and laughed. Tears ran down her cheeks. Her sides ached. Her throat hurt. She laughed on and on and on, long after the others had subsided.
Oh no Nig…nothing like that with me. I know you’re no nigger, so it’s all right. You can get as black as you please as far as I’m concerned, since I know you’re no nigger. I draw the line at that. No niggers in my family. Never have been and never will be.
It’s funny about ‘passing.’ We disapprove of it and at the same time condone it. It excites our contempt and yet we rather admire it. We shy away from it with an odd kind of revulsion, but we protect it.
Irene…had the same thought that she had had two years ago on the roof of the Drayton, that Clare Kendry was just a shade too good-looking. Her tone was on the edge of irony as she said: “You mean because so many other white people go?”
You didn’t tell him you were colored, so he’s got no way of knowing about this hankering of yours after Negroes, or that it galls you to fury to hear them called niggers and black devils. As far as I can see, you’ll just have to endure some things and give up others. As we’ve said before, everything must be paid for.
She…let her gaze wander over the bright crowd below. Young men, old men, white men, black men; youthful women, older women, pink women, golden women; fat men, thin men, tall men, short men; stout women, slim women, stately women, small women moved by.
Did you notice that cup…It was the ugliest thing that your ancestors, the charming Confederates, ever owned…What I’m coming to is the fact that I’ve never figured out a way of getting rid of it until about five minutes ago. I had an inspiration. I had only to break it, and I was rid of it forever. So simple!
She was caught between two allegiances, different, yet the same. Herself. Her race. Race! The thing that bound and suffocated her…Irene Redfield wished, for the first time in her life, that she had not been born a Negro. For the first time she suffered and rebelled because she was unable to disregard the burden of race. It was, she cried silently, enough to suffer as a woman, an individual, on one’s own account, without having to suffer for the race as well.
Above everything else she had wanted, had striven, to keep undisturbed the pleasant routine of her life. And now Clare Kendry had come into it, and with her the menace of impermanence.
“I want their childhood to be happy and as free from the knowledge of such things as it possibly can be”….
“You know as well as I do, Irene, that it can’t. What was the use of our trying to keep them from learning the word ‘nigger’ and its connotation? They found out, didn’t they? And how? Because somebody called Junior a dirty nigger.”