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Racism, Passing, and White Privilege in Nella Larsen's "Passing"

Daniel Merrier is an instructional designer with a specialty in accessibility and special education.

"Passing" by Nella Larsen Summary

Nella Larsen’s Passing is a powerful and poignant story about the lives of two biracial women of color in the early 20th century. It centers primarily around the life of Irene—a woman who lives a decidedly “Black” life while still passing as white outside of her own social circle. In contrast, she becomes reacquainted with her old friend Clare, who lives her daily life as a white woman, married to a white man (who is unaware of her biracial heritage) and is the mother to a daughter who has been taught that she is white. Larsen intertwines racial passing with the complicated caricatures of both white and Black men and women to illustrate that differences are more than skin deep. These themes are best dissected with both a racialized and feminist critical perspective, examining how Larsen portrays both Irene and Clare with the moniker of “innocent white woman” in need of a protector.

"Passing" was written at the height of the flapper era.

"Passing" was written at the height of the flapper era.

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The Historical Role of "Passing"

Passing is the process of someone from one racial group being perceived as someone from another racial group. This can be either intentional or unintentional. In most circumstances, it refers to a non-white or multiracial person being perceived as white by their peers.

Why Do People Try to "Pass"?

When done intentionally, passing is usually attempted to receive the safety and benefits of white privilege. This could be done for better social treatment, economic opportunities, or a variety of other reasons.

An Examination of Irene

The main characters in Passing have much in common: both are biracial women who are able to “pass” as white, both live an upper-middle-class life with wealthy husbands, and both are mothers to children.

Irene plays the part of a serious, community-minded woman, frequently hosting and organizing events to benefit the Black community. She was born into her relative wealth and has never faced poverty and many of the other threats that her wealthy counterparts have.

Historical Threats to the Black Community

Despite this, she frequently distances herself from many of the most obvious and pressing issues facing her community—namely, lynching and racialized violence. Her husband, who although he is a wealthy doctor, is a particularly dark-complected Black man who cannot avoid these issues. A critical scene in the novel involves her husband Brian explaining the meaning of a racial slur to their young son when asked. Irene has an adverse reaction to this conversation, wishing that their children could have a childhood free of such worries, while her husband argues that it was never possible to begin with (Larsen 103).

Internalized Racism and Misogny

By ignoring these upsetting topics and focusing on other more digestible issues, Irene avoids the ever-present caricature of the “angry Black woman.” Many of the traits she sees as Black she seeks to eliminate in herself, as can be seen when she works to distance herself from her darker-complected housekeeper, Zulena. Ignoring the issues that affect other, poorer, and less “passing” members of her community do not affect her, so she does not bother with them. This is part of Irene’s self-narrative, to show that she is not like other Black women: “the black female middle-class subject internalizes the cultural logic of lynching, and uses it symbolically to sustain her class position against the black working class” (Ko 238-239).

Irene's Use of White Privilege

These justifications allow her to mimic the caricature of the fragile white woman—the damsel in distress that needs racial and class differences to protect her. When she feels faint in the summer heat at the beginning of the novel, a taxi driver—a white man who would presumably be below her status if not for her race—goes out of his way to help her into the car and take her to the Drayton. She is aware that this man is assuming her racial identity and uses it to her advantage.

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An Examination of Clare

Clare, on the other hand, hides her mixed racial identity completely and with great success. She was raised poor and married into money to find a better life. This life came, of course, with one catch—that she essentially “revoke” her Blackness and marry a violent, racist white man. She recognizes that her value to her husband is in her notably white beauty and charm. Since she was married, Clare has been completely separated from the Black community and its issues, able to ignore the violence perpetrated against the Black community. Her daughter is unaware of her mixed heritage, and because of that, never faces any discrimination for her race. She does not mimic the caricature that Irene strives for—she carries it with exactness, even at the expense of others. The famous real-life Rhinelander case is mentioned and is used to show the dangers that Clare may face if found out by her husband (Thaggert).

The Risks of Passing

Clare does not seem to purposefully separate herself from her non-passing peers when not under the watchful eye of her own husband. Clare makes a point to introduce Irene and her other passing friends to her racist husband, despite their discomfort and danger. This may have been a subtle way for her to convey why she wants to go back to “her people”—her husband allows her no room to be herself at home. Her separation does not appear to come from a feeling of genuine superiority or resentment, rather, it seems a sin of convenience.

White Privilege in Passing People

Both women can live their lives from a place of relative privilege—Clare’s, of course, being higher as both her and her husband are perceived as white and are from a higher socioeconomic status. Nonetheless, the pair demonstrate how “black woman’s devalued position as the opposite of white womanhood” affected the way they lived their lives (Ko). Both women devalue Black female traits, especially when it comes to physical appearance, and use offensive language to describe a deep complexion, such as being “painted with the tar-brush” (Larsen). In integral ways, they ignored the most obvious “Black” elements of their lives in favor of an easier way of life. Irene repeatedly avoids difficult topics, even when they directly impact the lives of her immediate family members. Clare ignores and denies her race in her obvious ways, successfully hiding it from her husband throughout their courtship, marriage, and even the birth of their daughter. They revel in their light complexions, their light hair, their thin facial features and other supposedly “white” features and characteristics. Both Clare and Irene recognize that Black women are devalued in their society and attempt to live their lives as “white” as possible. These privileges are amplified by the high socioeconomic statues of both women by way of their husband’s successful careers.

Colorism in the Black Community

Clare’s presence predicates the reader’s exposure to Irene’s colorism and general denial of upsetting Black issues. She is seen by Clare largely as an affront to her current way of life and can be seen as a “highlight to… lack of expansive conceptions of racial identity within the United States” (Kucik 165). Even though she blends in so well into her chosen role, Clare struggles to wear the mask of whiteness constantly. She has what she has always desired, but it is not enough for her. The end of the novel punctuates this idea, with Clare’s death cementing her as the “tragic mulatta” from a broken family, unable to control her desires despite the broken “white savior” figure of John Bellow (Mendelman).

Race and gender are at the forefront of Nella Larsen’s “New Negro” era novel, Passing. Clare and Irene live their lives not as themselves, but an effortful caricature to separate their status as an “angry Black woman” or “tragic mulatta” and carry instead the moniker of a middle-class white woman worthy of attraction and protection, if not respect. This struggle is punctuated by the presence of a society that does not accept the nuances of their reality and treats those who fall outside these categories with social ostracization and even violence. By the end of the novel, both Irene and Clare are unable to balance the struggle within themselves, with the reader seeing the psychological disintegration of Irene and the ultimate punishment for Clare—death.

Works Cited

Ko, Kangyl. "The Shadow of Lynching in Nella Larsen’s Passing." Women's Studies (n.d.). PDF.

Kucik, Emanuela. "Fatal Categorizations: Disappearance and the Rigidity of American Racialization in Nella Larsen’s Passing and Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet." South Atlantic Review (2019): 165. PDF.

Larsen, Nella. Passing. 1929, n.d. Print.

Mendelman, Lisa. "Character Defects: The Racialized Addict and Nella Larsen’s Passing." Modernism/Modernity (2019). Online.

Thaggert, Miriam. "Racial Etiquette: Nella Larsen's "Passing and the Rhinelander Case"." Meridians (2005): 3. PDF.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Daniel Merrier

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