“Passing” is the movement of a person who is legally or socially black designated into a white racial category or social identity. “Passing”; a product that came out of Plessy v. Ferguson indicating the equalities between racial identities to become very blatant in social, political, educational, and economic areas that increased and mainly focusing on visually light-skinned women and men being declared “Colored” or “Negro” and more associated with a second class citizenship. Within Passing, Larsen portrays Clare and Irene as women who choose their racial identities. Defining it as “passing in a meeting between Clare and Irene as a simple but ‘hazardous business’,” requiring the “breaking away from all that was familiar and friendly to take one’s chance in another environment that isn’t entirely strange or friendly” (Larsen ix).
By changing the definition of the ability to read racial and social contexts and changing their environment or social class disrupts the ultimate stereotyping that occurs in society. This entitles individuals to both basic human and constitutional rights. However “passing” raises issues forcing to conform to a stereotype that embraces the appearance of skin, color and race. Appearance, racial, and social identity are constructed to suppress the individuals heritage and history which is shown somewhat in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson, but is better portrayed in the infamous Rhinelander case that occurred during the same period as Passing. The argument presented is that women, in particular, should not have to physically and mentally askew their appearance, racial, and social status to meet the basic standards of citizenship.
Larsen provides more than one direct way of expressing “passing” because her entire novel is a story that is based on its existence entirely. The argument that is posed is why ‘passing’ is looked down upon but at the same time embraced and admire it because of the exciting repercussions that are instantaneous. Why is ‘passing’ protected? The answer could not be more clearly said than “Instinct of the race to survive and expand” (Larsen 56). Women’s involvement and social growth of the time of the Harlem Renaissance was exponential at the time giving ideas and explanations as the social roles of being “white” and how women at this time were using products to physically make them visibly white. Appearance is the main factor in ‘passing’ and inevitably the entire novel of Passing. Larsen plays upon this role by first introducing the act of passing and its relevancy to appearance and social class. The idea of rejection forms within the beginning of any relatedness to being “tar-brushed”, or being a descendent of a black relative. Fear is intricately shown throughout the novel by the usage of rejection, which was a main idea that paved the way after Plessy v. Ferguson. Showing equality yes, but to the fullest extent creating more of a barrier between classes, races, and appearance of the individual and how it relates to their future.
Using irony and symbolism upon dealing with these reoccurring themes of identity, “passing”, race, consciousness, sexuality, and class distinction mainly between the white and black social classes and citizenships. Larsen uses irony and symbolism to dispel the tragic mulatto literature and give insight on how “passing” affects an individual’s identity and appearance in society. The irony in “passing” is that it is well known and looked down upon, but at the same time vast amounts of others are using the act of “passing” to create and develop a better future for either themselves or their family. The irony and symbolism is that there is a clear and well developed understanding of the consequences of “passing” yet everyone gets involved with it at some point in their life to better themselves. Not realizing the repercussions that may hurt their upbringing and enforce a stereotype trying to be expelled. Throughout the novel Larsen presents the outcomes of “passing” but never compares the role to herself or her actions but rather plays it upon someone else.
Irene references the legal trial of the Rhinelander case involving the issues and knowledge of the act of passing and the interrogation of women and their race bound upon by the act. The Rhinelander case involved Leonard Rhineland, a wealthy white man who has tried to get an annulment of fraud with his wife Alice Jones. Claiming he didn’t know Alice was “colored” even though she was light skinned. The reference at the end of the novel when Irene suspects Brian of having an affair with Clare is sparked with this reference. Irene wonders what might happen if Clare’s spouse, whom throughout the novel clearly showed his distaste and dissatisfaction of being “tar-brushed”, found out that Clare has “colored” blood rather than the discovery of the affair.
Relating to this is the case where Leonard reported the marriage to be full of joy and happiness and how Leonard’s spouse racial background had no concern of what may to come. Later, Leonard’s father makes him get an annulment for the sake of the family’s name and social class relations. This claim was upon how Alice lied of her race and deceived him into marriage. Even though previously reported by reporters he had said there was no concern of matter. The trial then escalated when Alice’s body became the evidence where she was force to disrobe in front of the judge, lawyers, and an all white male jury. This was to prove she had never lied to her husband about her race and they found evidence and could “see” her true color.
Irene’s remark about the historical case is almost ironic. Symbolizing the similarities between the major dynamic characters of the novel and trial; ironic in a sense conventions and methods of central idea and argument that had arose within the Rhinelander case. This case infers the objective of the novel Passing to question cultural practices associated with race and social classes complicating the true identity of race within politics and society. Irene and Clare portray and use social and racial codes to evaluate the look of the female body and how racial and social conventions are redefined in the court case revealing violence and dehumanization within social codes. Creating the symbolic meaning of “passing” as a stereotype and a racial embracement how the enforcing acts of social, racial, and citizenship class/roles come together.
Irene and Clare both use etiquette and selection of words, social interventions, and actual social company are behaviors to reimburse the idea of race. They choose to life a differently lifestyle than their own and camouflage themselves in their true appearance. The ideas of representation and how readable a person is pertains to both cases and Passing. Invoking the societal pressure of being identified as white. Appearance, one of the central themes of Passing, is a societal role placed upon mulatto women during this time and continues today. Where the physical act of whitening the skin affects their overall beauty, class status, and sociability. The best example of this is how Irene states mysterious and concealing eyes that admire her charm and ‘indifferent assurance’. Playing upon the role of how every action they are apart of is seen but continue with no reassurance of the current action that is ongoing (‘passing’).
Referring back to the traditional meaning of the female body, Passing breaks the racial and sexual stereotypes of race association shown with Irene and the black social class and race; Clare being associated with white social class and stereotypes. Tied to the reader’s view is a comparison to the jury involved within the Rhinelander case, representing a choosing which social and racial class to associate the dynamic characters of Passing and those involved within the court case. Not only does that representation occur but the distinguishing of social and racial background but the ability to “read” ,or better worded by the courts, to “see” the distinction of that individual and make a probable choice. This act is shown throughout the novel to show uncertainty of race and its assimilation to the act of ‘passing’ and ultimately the jurisdiction of the placement of social citizenship and racial entity.
Creating the fact that a person can be comparable to their race or identity as by physically showing their bodies doesn’t give the truth about an individual’s heritage, social class, or citizenship. The fact of the matter is that all of these ideas are based off of stereotypes being upheld in a white dominated society within politics. Where change is unforeseen by fear and the act of ‘passing’ to become a better individual within society. Reintegrating society’s outlook pressuring everyone who isn’t considered “white” to literally change their social ties, personality, choice of words, actions, affiliations, and physical self. Where the color white is a distinction of power and acceptability. Fear distinguishes these flaws within a person and is socially pressured and instilled within individuals to create an image of perfection. Appearance and image of an individual turns the perspective on how the individual is looked upon by society. Finalizing the instillation of “passing” as a stereotype, but concludes to the fact as a necessity of life.
Larsen, Nella. Passing. New York: Penguin, 1997. Print.
Thaggert, Miriam. “Racial Etiquette: Nella Larsen’s Passing and the Rhinelander Case.”
Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism 5.2 (2005): 1-29.