“Race is a delusion,” my friend sighed. We had been discussing passing, the act of someone from one race being accepted or perceived as a member of another, usually a marginalised race to white. After numerous anecdotes about the ridiculous race science-y tactics — gauging the slope of a nose is a popular one — that people employed to categorise others, this was our conclusion.
A week later, our Twitter timelines were scattered with comments on a tantalizing trailer for Passing, a forthcoming Netflix movie based on Nella Larsen’s 1929 novella of the same name. The film, which will be released on November 10, stars Ruth Negga as Clare and Tessa Thompson as Irene. According to Larson’s original story, both Clare and Irene are supposed to be white-passing.
Still, no matter how good their acting is, Negga and Thompson are not Clare and Irene. They’re not “dark-white” or “olive-skinned” characters on a page onto which we can project our own individual images. They’re flesh and bone people that the public solidly recognises as Black women. There’s no real chance of delusion because we already feel in the know. Because of that, Twitter debated whether these two women could actually be white-passing. For many, the idea was ridiculous. They pointed out the features of Negga and Thompson’s flesh and bone — their skin, the shape of their noses, the curl of their baby hairs — to say it was impossible that these two women could have passed for white in the 1920s.
Whether Thompson or Negga could pass is irrelevant; the irrelevance is the point of the book and is the very essence of “passing” itself.
Whether Thompson or Negga could pass is irrelevant; the irrelevance is the point of the book and is the very essence of “passing” itself. In my familial and social experience, white-passing Black people are not defined by how white or Black they look. They are defined by how they can, through varied means not at all limited to physical appearance, illuminate the fact that race is a delusion, thereby discomfiting and fascinating others. Those varied means can include the ability to codeswitch, their style aesthetic, the food they eat, and the company they keep. Their features are an important part of that, of course, but nothing is more powerful than the overall delusion.
Identifying who can pass as white is an act of obsession, and while race may be a social construct, obsession is innate. White-passing Black people are a source of anxiety and fascination because they encourage that obsession. When confronted with them, people will go over every detail of their bodies and complexions, the tone of their voice, their family histories, you name it… all with no real result except to highlight the ridiculousness at the core of the concept of race.
Like all social constructs, race is real because we have made it so, and it seems immutable because we wish it to be. It’s no less powerful because humans invented it as a means of control. In fact, that may make it even more powerful. In the name of this deeply silly idea, my people have been plundered and enslaved and tortured, raped, incarcerated, shot, and starved. This deeply silly idea is, in fact, the only reason that my people are my people or why I exist in the first place. Race, although it may be a delusion, is one that has entranced the entire world and changed the course of human history forever.
That’s why, I think, people have such an obsession with white-passing Black people. Larsen embodies this by infusing the novel with Irene’s near-erotic, often violent, and perhaps paranoid preoccupation with Clare. Passing converges all our vices and fears — an unhealthy preoccupation with attaining whiteness and controlling Blackness. It reveals a desire to neatly categorise what we find confusing, and most of all, to expose some big secret, to be the one to pull back the curtains and reveal the county fair magician (the person attempting to pass) for the fraud they are, and through that, how honest and pure we are. Humans love to feel pure, after all.
It also allows us to indulge in race pseudoscience, something which has been clumsily wielded by white people as a means of maintaining their colour line and has nonconsensually seeped into the psyches of the rest of us. On the relative ease of passing casually, in the novel Irene thinks “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.”
What has been lost in the knee-jerk reaction to the film’s trailer is the nuance found in the novel — but within the knee-jerk reaction is also the nuance.
It is the consequence of racism that makes passing such a fraught act and yet such a common one. That’s because there are two different kinds of passing. Historically, white-passing Black people often casually flirted with the colour line. In Passing, it is Clare’s act of “passing over” — meaning disappearing almost completely into whiteness on a permanent basis — that is the source of tension and dread, and yet the novel opens with Irene, a proud Black woman with “adherence to her class and race… in the whole pattern of her life,” casually passing so she can get a glass of ice-cold tea in a swanky Chicago location. For Irene and most white-passing Black people of the era, this temporary act of passing was routine. A slight of hand. But Clare’s transgression is, as Irene describes it, “abhorrent.” Clearly, there is a difference between a party trick and a web of deception.
Irene’s disgust at Clare is at the heart of the Twitter debate about both characters’ casting. White people don’t see Clare for who she is, but her own people do. Similarly, we see Thompson and Negga as Black, and can’t imagine them as anything else. When among Black people, Clare doesn’t really pass, nor does she want to pass. Surrounded by white people though, even Irene has a hard time identifying her childhood friend. But that’s the thing about passing. It’s so ridiculous and so dependent on several factors, many of which have nothing to do with the person themselves. It’s more about who they are with or how they are portrayed (it’s interesting to note that director Rebecca Hall’s choice to shoot Passing in black-and-white makes both characters appear whiter).
Standing next to a dark-skinned Black person, a white-passing Black person finds the feat to conceal their true identity almost impossible, while it might be easy in a room full of white people. What has been lost in the knee-jerk reaction to the film’s trailer is the nuance found in the novel — but within the knee-jerk reaction is also the nuance. Because once Irene recognises Clare, what was to her unmistakably a white woman becomes her sister in race. “Ah! Surely! They were Negro eyes!”, Larsen writes. This is not much different than commenting on how Black Negga’s nose appears, or how Thompson is one of us because “look at her.” A shared bond does a lot to shatter the delusion of race, while still enforcing it. Casting two characters that don’t look white just makes us think about this more.
The act of crossing over the supposedly unbreachable rivers of race is meant to be shameful. The shame is amplified more by knowing Black people like Irene are disgusted by the act more than the danger of being found out by white people, who never seem to hold their incognito Black loved one’s entire hearts (consider Stella in Brit Bennet’s The Vanishing Half, and her detachment from her own daughter, a pattern that Clare repeats with hers). But the thing about Clare is that she has no shame and that’s what turns Passing from a mediocre novel with a “tragic mulatto” trope into almost a thriller, one that asks us real questions instead of continuing banal discourse about “choosing between two worlds.”
No, with Passing, Larsen did something much more powerful. The reactions on Twitter — including complaints about our “cultural fixation” with white-passing people, since in Larsen’s novel, questioning the fixation is the point — only solidified the power of this nearly century-old book. Instead of ruminating on the consequences of passing, Larsen used passing to pull the cloak off the concept of race itself. We, as the readers, are in on the absurdity and performance of it all. When Clare’s racist husband declares there will be “no n*gg*rs in his family,” the room of white-passing women he’s surrounded by fight to stifle their laughter. If the movie does Larsen’s novel justice, which is still to be seen, this debate over whether two light-skinned Black actresses could pass as white will seem as irrational as race pseudoscience. In the book, we witness how these two characters both perform and lie to themselves about race, for survival or love or money or fear. Doing Larsen’s novel justice would also mean questioning the concept of race itself.
As the readers, we’re not asking why Clare chooses one race over the other — the economic benefit makes it quite clear — but we’re asking what the nature of race must be to inspire such obsession, callousness, love, intimacy, and at the same time, such violence and loyalty between Clare and Irene. In the end, Clare’s misadventure in passing has so little to do with whether white people find her out based on how she looks. It has to do with how Black people — including Irene — perceive the core of who she is, beyond appearance and into a deeper place of unfathomable and perhaps terrifying depths. Because if race is a delusion, do any of us really want to know what it’s concealing?
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