The friend is Clare Kendry, a light-skinned Black woman who for years has been living as White. Since the two reconnected during a chance encounter in Chicago, Clare has been writing to Irene in hopes of meeting again and fulfilling a desire to be among Black people once more. Irene, who is also fair-skinned but lives a firmly Black middle class life in Harlem, is irritated that Clare wants it both ways — having acquired the privileges of Whiteness, she now longs for the community of Blackness.
“You’d think they’d be satisfied being White,” Irene remarks to her husband, seemingly referring to Clare and other Black people living as White.
The exchange in the film, now on Netflix and based on Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel of the same name, alludes to many of the questions that drive narratives about racial passing — questions about the fluidity, incoherence and performance of identity, and what they can tell us about ourselves and society.
The term “passing” has historically referred to mixed-race Americans without visible African ancestry who posed as White to escape oppression or to gain access to social and economic benefits. Since the 19th century, writers both Black and White have explored the phenomenon through their work — Hall’s film adaptation of “Passing” is the latest such project in a long canon of stories on the topic.
For Hall, the subject of passing is personal — her maternal grandfather was an African American man who passed as White for much of his life. Larsen’s novel, and the process of adapting it for the screen, helped her make sense of her family’s complicated history, she said.
“The act of passing calls into question the stuff we talk about when we say race is a social construct and what that means,” the English writer-director told CNN. “But underneath that construct, it also points out how powerful it is and how real and human it is to long to be part of a category, even if it is limiting.”
Stories about passing have a long history
The first stories about passing in African American literature are about people who fled enslavement, said Alisha Gaines, an associate professor of English at Florida State University.
While early narratives depicted passing as a means of survival, the stakes started to change in the early 20th century as shown through works like Larsen’s “Passing.”
By that time, Gaines said, passing had become a vehicle through which to obtain privilege and security. Authors writing about passing began considering murkier questions — what it meant to be loyal to one’s race, what was the value of Whiteness and what was lost when a person decided to pass. And it wasn’t just Black authors taking on the subject. White writers wrote about passing, too — notably, Fannie Hurst whose 1933 novel “Imitation of Life” was adapted twice for film.
“Why we can trace them throughout time is because the questions around who is fit to be a citizen are underlying all of them,” Gaines said. “Who gets to live the alleged American Dream?”
They point to the messiness of race
“Our society — in much of the way that it has been structured historically and contemporarily — is very much built and founded and grounded and structured on the notions of race as an important determinant of one’s identity because it’s also a determinant of one’s position in society,” said Blay.
“Passing” — and stories about passing — destabilize those rigid categories of race and highlight their inherent contradictions, Blay said. If a person who is ostensibly Black according to the prescribed definitions is able to cross the so-called color line and pass themselves off as White, it calls into question the entire concept of race.
“If there’s power and privilege isolated in Whiteness and you have the potential to possibly get it, then what is race?” Blay said. “What is a racial identity?”
That idea of race as both fictional and real is what Brit Bennett wanted to explore when she set out to write “The Vanishing Half.” The novel focuses on two identical twin sisters, Desiree and Stella, whose paths diverge dramatically: Desiree marries a dark-skinned Black man and gives birth to a similarly dark-skinned daughter, while Stella leaves behind her family to pass for White. The choices they make end up shaping the trajectories of their lives and of their children’s.
“I kept coming back to the inherent absurdity of the idea that race can be successfully performed, but at the same time, the implications of race and of racism are felt generations deep,” Bennett told CNN. “They follow people from the cradle to the grave.”
“The Vanishing Half” and other passing stories resonate because they challenge the ways we think about identity, Bennett said. They push against our instincts to swiftly categorize people and force us to sit with the discomfort of those categories being blurrier than we imagined. That the character of Stella is able to transform into a White woman just because people assume so — and that she would choose to go along with it — is a reality that’s difficult to comprehend.
“There is something about that that becomes fascinating to readers and to audiences — to see characters that are challenging those categories that we take as given, to see characters push back at these labels that we assign very quickly and easily when we encounter people in the world,” she added.
“We’re starting to have more complicated conversations where we realize that the binary is not just Black and White,” Gaines said. “But we’re still a work in progress.”
The pressure for people to “choose a side,” however, hasn’t faded, she added — meaning the questions explored in stories about passing remain relevant as ever.
They allow us to imagine other possibilities
In a nation so consumed with identity politics, it’s perhaps no surprise that stories that challenge the very concept of those identities would resonate.
“There’s something about American society that’s been very invested in maintaining, enforcing, legalizing these racial categories or gender categories or sexual orientation categories or categories dealing with citizenship status that don’t actually represent the ways that people actually experience and live their lives,” she said.
At the heart of passing stories are universal questions of identity: How we make sense of ourselves and how we create our own realities. Those questions continue to permeate our society.
“Passing is really much more universal than we think of it as being,” Hobbs said. “We often think about it as a Black person passing as White, and we don’t really realize that in fact, all of us pass in some way at some time.”
It’s a thought also voiced by the character Irene in “Passing,” when a White man she’s friends with asks her why she too hasn’t chosen to pass.
“We’re all of us passing for something or other,” she muses during the film. “Aren’t we?”