In the novel Passing by Nella Larsen, we get a glimpse of how society constructs the power of racism based on thought rather than actual cultural difference. In simple terms, the people of the white neighborhoods in this novel are like that picky kid who hates eating their green beans but never gives them a chance. They don’t know why they hate them, they just say they do. When putting this novel into a constructivist and essentialist frame, you can see that the entire story follows the difference between these two ideas in the minds of the characters we meet, as well as society as a whole.
The most obvious example we see throughout the story comes when Clare is explaining the idea of ‘passing’ in white high society. Her light skin and hidden black features allow her to get by, or ‘pass’ as a white person within the eyes of the upper class citizens she surrounds herself with. Irene, pretty disturbed by this idea, already shows us a peak into the opposite side of thinking. “Irene could only shrug her shoulders. Her reason partly agreed, her instinct wholly rebelled. And she could not say why.” (190). Clare is demonstrating essentialist thinking here in the fact that she is recognizing her advantage as light skinned and using that to get in with high class white society. On the other hand, Irene recognizes that society has built a distinct disapproval of black citizens and that even if she was a well respected member of white society, the citizens would turn on her in an instant after finding out her true ethnic background.
Constructivist theory plays a major role throughout the entire novel. The fact that black citizens are able to get away with being black based on outwards appearance shows in clear form that racism and bigotry is simply passed down in white culture during this time and had absolutely nothing to do with facts. The ideas we hear from racist characters, such as John Bellew, are nothing but frequently recited stereotypes drilled into the heads of white high class citizens based on societal belief in history.
With that being said, this novel does a fantastic job with showing us how blinded society can be with what is acceptable amongst everyone else. We see trends in modern day come from fashion, music and many other forms; but in this novel we literally see racism being a sort of trend amongst high class white citizens.
Just remember, if the green beans are hidden in a tasty stew, you’re still eating the green beans. If black citizens are around white citizens without “shooting and robbing people”, then I’m pretty sure that is white and black citizens coexisting, whether both parties know the truth or not. Maybe some green beans hiding in the stew is what it takes to prove they’re not actually bad.