In Nella Larsen’s ‘Passing,’ Whiteness Isn’t Just About Race

Passing is a work of fiction, but it is a true story about the world in which its author, Nella Larsen, lived. To describe it simply as a novel about a black woman passing for white would be to ignore the multiple layers of its concerns. Passing is about the monumental cultural transformations that took place in American society after World War I. It is about changing definitions of concepts like race and gender, and the inextricable relationship between whiteness and blackness. It is a meditation on the uneasy dynamic between social obligation and personal freedom. It dramatizes the impossibility of self-invention in a society in which nuance and ambiguity are considered fatal threats to the social order. The novel is an indictment of consumer culture and the dangers it poses to personal integrity. It reveals the power of desire to transform and unhinge us, and the lengths to which we will go to get what we want. Passing is about hypocrisy and fear, secrecy and betrayal. It is a universal story of the messiness of being human as it is portrayed in the particularly explosive relationship between two black women, Clare Kendry and Irene Redfield.

Irene and Clare have not seen each other in twelve years when they reunite by chance on the roof of the Drayton Hotel in Chicago, where both women are enjoying a respite from a blazing hot August day. The Drayton is an exclusive hotel, and not one in which African Americans, or Negroes, to use the parlance of the day, would be welcome. In fact, on the fateful day of their reunion, both women are passing for white.

‘Passing’ is a meditation on the uneasy dynamic between social obligation and personal freedom.

In Passing, race is revealed to be, in part, a function of performance (the novel is structured in three sections — Encounter, Re-Encounter, Finale — much like acts in a theatrical piece), and blackness a matter of perception. Of the two women, it is Clare who appears to be so convincingly white that not only does Irene fail to identify Clare as a Negro, she doesn’t recognize her childhood friend at all. Even after Clare introduces herself to Irene, Irene still doesn’t recognize her or her blackness. When Clare uses her nickname, Irene searches her memory: “What white girls had she known well enough to have been familiarly addressed as ’Rene by them?” By contrast, Clare identifies Irene immediately. Irene squirms under Clare’s unflinching stare, terrified of being seen for who she is, and also afraid of the embarrassment that would result from being ejected from the hotel.

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