When it comes to Nella Larsen’s Passing, there are conflicting views on racial identity both between characters and the portrayal of the subject within the novel. Certainly, the novel itself juggles the concepts of essentialism and constructivism of race like a true professional.
The essentialist argument for race, as anyone could tell you, comes down to skin color, defining physical characteristics, or blood. However, Passing complicates this idea by having women who are white in color, with black ancestry as the main characters. Being that this is a large part of the identity of these women, it shapes their lives, so much so that it drives the plot of the story. When it comes to essentialism in Passing, where do we draw the lines? What lines do we even draw? These women have a foot in the white world, and the other in the black world. This is an extremely dangerous line to walk, especially during the rampant racism of the 1920s. We see this with Clare and the lies she’s told her husband of twelve years. If she were to expose herself as having a black ancestry, she would face heavy retribution from her “Negro”-hating spouse. Yet, she is able to flip between two worlds, both figuratively and literally, as we see her switching between black dances and the white world of her marriage.
This novel makes a much stronger argument for constructivism. This is especially true because of the notion that these women are allowed to choose whether or not they will “pass.” We see this when Clare, Gertrude, and Irene speak about their families. Clare leads a life with her white husband, and so does Gertrude. Yet, Gertrude’s family is well aware of her heritage and could care less. Meanwhile, Irene is married to someone who is also of African-American descent. We can see their portion of the spectrum that is involved here.
One of the more compelling examples of constructivism is when Irene is at the Drayton cafe and notices a woman (Clare) staring at her. “Did that woman, could that woman, somehow know that here before her very eyes on the roof of the Drayton sat a Negro?” (16). This was a surreal moment for me. For a few moments I suspected a racial appropriation of some kind. The idea of race is completely constructed here. If Irene had been orphaned as a baby, how would anyone know what race she was? How would anyone know her heritage? She certainly wouldn’t. But because she is aware of who her parents are, and who their parents were, she uses that information. She fits the puzzle pieces of her identity into the social construction of race that was so prevalent in her time, and still is. Irene views herself as black, so to herself she is black. It’s as simple as that. Just like how Clare flip-flops between white and black.
So when it comes down to what race you are, get in line and pick a flavor.