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Exploring Intersectionality in Nella Larson’s “Passing"

Updated: Nov 22, 2023



Introduction and background


The novel Passing by Nella Larsen examines the effects of racial "passing" on the two AfricanAmerican protagonists, Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry, and their struggle with racial identity. The novel was released in 1929. It is a Harlem Renaissance classic as well as a classic American modernist novel. Larson does some interesting and complicated work around what it means to be Black, what it means to pass for White, how these issues affect individuals’ social and personal lives, the power structuresthat define racial identity and the internalization of racial hatred andracism in this slim novel of about 150 pages.

The Harlem Renaissance is reflected in Larsen’s work. This novel was written during the Jim Crow era, which was a period in American history when Black people and White people were more separated than at any other time in their shared history.

During the reconstruction era in the late 1870s, the southern states implemented the Jim Crow statute, which separated Whites and people of color in schools, transportation and other public areas. The aim of this law was not just separation and discrimination but more about Black subjugation and isolation. This law reinforced racism and discrimination against African Americans in society as well as awareness and discussion about race and racism.

In America, the 1920s was an era of intense debate over racial boundaries, or the so-called color line between White and Black people.The movement of Black people from the south to the north of the United States sparked these debates. The Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s was a cultural explosion driven by 'New Negroes,' who created and developed new kinds of art, literature, music, and entertainment for not only black people but white and racially mixed audience.”

Set in the segregated society of Harlem, New York in the 1920s,the novel’s plot centers around how the protagonists’ identities are established. Irene, one of the main characters, iswholeheartedly committed to the Harlem renaissance and the uplifting and empowering of the Black community. On the other hand, the other main character, Clare, totally ignores it; in some cases, she is a mere consumer of that community.

When people opt to change their backgrounds or social identities to cross the color line and move from a lower to a higher casteand to achieve specific advantages, this is known as passing. Passing, in this sense, means claiming recognition in a racial or caste group other than the one to which they are supposed to belong. In the American caste system, this can only be accomplished by deception on the part of the White people with whom the passer becomes connected, as well as by a conspiracy of silence on the part of other Black people who may be aware of the situation. In US history, the most commonly discussed instances of passing are usually people pretending to be of European descent;this is because, at various points,whiteness, or being of Western European (particularly Anglo-Saxon) descent, has carried with it certain legal protections and benefits, as Cheryl Harris notes in her article “Whiteness as Property.”

The novel is narrated from a third-person limited omniscient perspective, which means the reader is grounded in Irene’s mind,consciousness and memories. The very first chapter is about Irene Redfield receiving a letter from her friend Clare, which elicits a whole memory of an interaction they had at the rooftop ofthe Drayton hotel in Chicago.This rekindles their friendship and then the whole memory of their childhood together.

As children, they grew up in the same community. However, Clare was always a bit of an outsider to that community. She wanted out of it more because she belonged to a low economic class. It seems that shewas bothered more about being poor than about being Black. Clare was sent to live with her aunts after her father’s death. That was the last time they saw each other as children. They encounter each other again on the rooftop at the Drayton Hotel many years later as adult, married women. Irene realizes that Clare is "passing" as White and has complex struggles with her identity. When Irene goes to Clare’s house, she discovers that Clare’s White husband is unaware of her Black heritage and makes racist remarks. Thereafter, she made the decision to avoid socializing with Clare.

Clare, on the other hand, keeps in touch with Irene in a variety of ways and gradually gets closer to her and her husband. Irene, whose relationship with her husband is not very secure and becomes increasingly strained, is scared that her husband finds Clare more attractive. She then sees Clare as a danger and becomes suspicious that her husband will leave her because of Clare.

The narrative finishes with the tragic occurrence of Clare's death while Clare and Irene are at a party in Harlem. The secret that Clare has kept from her husband for years is revealed. Clare’s husband comes in, voicing his racist remarks toward Clare, who is standing by an open window. Clare falls to her death from a great height, and it is unclear whether she fell or was pushed by Irene.

Through dialogues, discussions, and recollections, the author portrays two Black women and their struggle with the reality of what it could be like living as a Black person and as a woman in the United States in the early 20th century. Larson shows that there are many different aspects of human identity that are critical.

Despite these two women having similar backgrounds and growing up together in the same neighborhood, their lives take very different roads. Their choices, thoughts, and relationships with their families and particularly with their communitiesare quite different.

Both women have fair light skin. Unlike Irene, who rarely uses the advantage of passing as White, Clare almost refuses to acknowledge her Black origin. Irene is married to a Black man who is a successful doctor in Harlem, andone of her children has dark skin. She lives in a predominantly Black neighborhood. Although she is committed to her Black community and works hard to uplift that community, she occasionally passes as White to gain an advantage when it is convenient. She is quiteself-conscious about that sort of passing. The dynamics around the way that she negotiates her own femininity, her race and her class are totally different from those of Clare. Even though she is worried about her relationship with her husband, she seeks security through her community, her husband and her children. She is a mother who is very committedto her family.

Clare is also wrestling with her own identity. She is completely separated from her past Black life. That social transformation is probably a very big part of her life. She lives in an area where most of the residents are White. She is living with a White man who thinks she is White. Her husband is openly, aggressively racist and uses the N word to refer to Black people. She has a low commitment to motherhood and does not play the traditional role of motherhood. Her femininity is also shown in a free and non-traditional way.


With this brief introduction and reference to the contentsof the novel and background, the next step is to clarify the purpose of this essay. The aim of this essay is to analyze and interpret the novel Passing through intersectional theories to understand the text, the main characters’ struggles with their identities,and theirstruggle with consistently navigating multiple identities.


Theoretical Concepts


In this essay, to analyze and comprehend the content of Passing, intersectionality theory is used.However,for a deeper understanding of intersectionality, some other theories, such as identity, racism, Whiteprivilege and gender and class identity are mentioned as well.

Race and racism


Race is constructed and reconstructed to fit a particular paradigm, and it is created by people with power to solidify their power. Race has a socially constructed dimension, and because it is constructed, it can also be unconstructed. As Audrey and Brian Smedley mention, it has no biological basis. “Race as biology is fiction, [but]racism as a social problem is real.” Racism is very much tied to an economic system,particularly in the US, which is home to a capitalist system that created race to justify ways of exploiting other human beings. As Ta-Nehisi Coates says, the history of categorizing people by their physical features, putting people into different sets of categories and the tale of race as an idea, was created to justify racism, not the other way around: “Race is the child of racism, not the father. And the process of naming ‘the people’ has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy.”


Identity and its multiple dimensions


Identity is described as a mostly unconscious process that unifies personality and connects the individual to the social world. People consistently navigate multiple social identities. The starting pointof intersectionality, which emerged from women of color’sscholarship and feminist theory, is the assumed reality of multiple identities; that is, individuals possess multiple social locations that are lived and experienced parallel and collectively. Multiple identities are constructed as integrally connected and carry meaning separately and in relation to one another using an intersectional framework.


Intersectionality


The term “intersectionality” was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw “to address the marginalization of Black women within not only antidiscrimination law but also in feminist and antiracist theory and politics.” Crenshaw felt that the antiracist and feminist movements were both overlooking the unique challenges faced by Black women. She stated that legislation about race is framed to protect Black men and legislation about sexism is understood to protect White women. Therefore, simply combining racism and sexism does not protect Black women. Without an intersectional lens or an intersectional perspective, the racism or sexism that was particular to the Black woman’s experiences would not have surfaced. The first thing that intersectionality draws attention to is that this is a false dichotomy. Critical race theory uses the idea of intersectionality to show how multiple dimensions of identity impact inequality. From this perspective,inequality is not just about race, but also class, sexuality, disability, age and a whole range of different factors.

According to Crenshaw, intersectionality is a tool for expanding what feminist and antiracist theories failed to do. She claims that feminist and antiracist philosophy is a one-dimensional framework that ignores race and gender intersections. Intersectionality is a way of understanding social relations by examining intersecting forms of discrimination. This means acknowledging that social systems are complicated and that many forms of oppression,such as racism, sexism and ageism, might be present and active at the same time in a person’s life. “The term intersectionality references the critical insight that race, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nation, ability, and age operate not as unitary, mutually exclusive entities, but as reciprocally constructing phenomena that in turn shape complex social inequalities.”


Intersectionality and class


Race and economic status are intricately connected. Racism has been considered a sociological, anthropological, or ethnological issue. Recent research has revealed the economic underpinnings of racism. Racism has always been attached to the economic system in which it arises, and they are interconnected. By examining the origins and historical background of racism, one discovers that racism was used to exploit colonial peoples by imposing a system of discrimination on them; racial or national minorities have been historically and currently either dominant or dominated, depending on their economic roles in society. “In the case of dominant groups, racism appears as the mantle under which the economic antagonism between sections of the ruling class takes place. In the case of dominated groups racism is the ideological background of the discriminatory system created for the sake of exploiting a racial minority.”


White privilege


The word "privilege" has the implication of something that everyone should desire. Some privileges work to over-empower groups on a systemic level. Because of one’s ethnicity, race, sex, social class, economic class or religion, such privilege merely grants power and offers permission to control or rule. As Peggy Mcintosh points out, “Whites are carefully taught not to recognize White privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege… Whiteprivilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack ofspecial provisions, assurances, tools, maps, guides, codebooks, passports, visas, clothes, compass, emergency gear, and blank checks”


Analysis


Nella Larsen's novel Passing depicts the identity struggles of the protagonists of the novel. In a segregated society, their multiple social identities are related to a special period in American history when people were classified as either Black or White, with Black denoting deprivation and White denoting social privilege and advancement. Considering the intersectionality standpoint via the perspectives of race, gender, and class structure, this essay argues that these three-dimensional elements interact together to shape the protagonists’ identities and their struggles.

The first thing that probably comes to mind when reading this novel is to ask,what drives someone to disguise their race or other characteristics? To answer this question, one should look at the novel’s content from different perspectives.

At the beginning of Passing, Irene Redfield remembers Clare Kendry as a child, “a pale small girl sitting on a ragged blue sofa, sewing pieces of bright red cloth together, while her drunken father, a tall, powerfully built man raged threateningly up and down the shabby room.”

This image does a great job of setting the scene for the story. The contrast is between the pale young girl and her angry, drunken father. In this image, Clare appears in the novel in her most vulnerable state, a heroine who refuses to be pitied or pity herself. There are marks of poverty in these images. Irene’s attention to such details as “the ragged sofa” and “the shabby room” reveals a lot about her middle-class background, which is in contrast with Clare’s lower-class background in childhood and her upper White middle class as an adult. This image also says a lot about Claire’s later efforts to pass as White and marry a wealthy White man to escape from that stuffy, shabby room. The reader first meets Clare on the rooftop of a hotel as a delightfully fragrant woman dressed in a luxurious green dress. What Clare has always wanted is to escape the shabby room and poverty.

Passing can also be considered a novel about a longing for Blackness. Whiteness is a choice that characters slip into and out of as a matter of convenience. Clare’s desire to become White stems from her failure to be accepted in the Black community. She is not accepted in the Black community as a child and as an adult, Irene refuses to let Clare return to Black life when she subsequently wishes to do so.Instead, Irene sends her back to the White world, where she believes Clare belongs.Clare uses her passing features to her personal advantage to secure a very wealthy husband and secure the life of leisure and ease that she had always wanted.Irene,on the other hand, feels secure within racial boundaries. Her husband Brian wants to move to Brazil, which he imagines as a utopia where they will be free from American racism. Irene rejects his fantasy of a raceless nation.


Irene remembers Clare as a risk-taker, and someone who has "no allegiance beyond her own immediate desire" when she was younger.“This, she reflected, was of a piece with all that she knew of Clare Kendry. Stepping always on the edge of danger. Always aware, but not drawing back or turning aside. Certainly not because of any alarms or feeling of outrage on the part of others.”

Irene judges Clare for pretending to be White and keeping her race hidden from her husband. Clare, unlike Irene, has no internal conflict about passing as a White. Clare is not obligated to be a member of the African-American community. Her goal in passing is to ascend the social ladder, which she does when she marries her wealthy White husband.

Irene passes for White when it is convenient for her. However, unlike Clare, she is proud of her Black roots.Irene perceives herself based on her interactions with others and as a result of her social status. She is married to a Black doctor, which allows her to live a particular lifestyle and belong to the upper middle class. In social interactions, Irene seems to pay a lot of attention to the social classes of individuals, and in this way,she identifies herself through other people. Her interaction with Gertrude, who is married to a lower-class man, is totally different than with Clare, who has a better social rank than Irene. Gertrude is disregarded as a second-class citizen.

Irene is committed to the uplifting and empowering of the Black community. She is a part of the Negro Welfare League, and being committed to empowering the Black community is part of what it means to be Black for her. In contrast, Clare is someone who intentionally divorced herself from theBlackcommunity and has no such commitment toward that community. This frustrates and irritates Irene. In the pursuit of her own gain—social status, access to wealth, and access to power—Clare divorced herself from not only Black community, but a commitment to the uplifting of the Black community.

Even though she is stepping away from theBlack community, at the same time she seeks a reunion with that community and is desperate to get in close contact with her old friends as Irene. Later, she attempts to be closer to Black friends, as we see how she insists on being at the party and dancing with Black men. It is hard to tell whether this is seeking a lostcommunity or it just originated from her adventurous and risk-taking features. Both are probablyher motivation to make contact with theBlack community. Her behavior toward her community can be interpreted in a different way. She is a consumer of that community—one who not only ignores empowering and uplifting the Black community but also is a consumer of it.

It seems that Clare is conscious of how race and economic status are intricately connected,and she is aware that race, racism, and the economic system are interconnected. Clare lives and grows up in a country where the American Dream is constantly mentioned, with the slogan that you can be whatever you want to be. She is smart enough to know that the American Dream is true only for some people from a particular class, race or gender. She is aware that she as a Black woman cannotattain the ideal of the American Dream if she belongs to the Black race and lower class. Therefore, Clare is completely aware that the American Dream doesnot feel trueunless you are someone like Clare with the ability to pass and therefore access power and wealth. From this perspective, we can observe Clare’s passing and interpret it not just as a personal advantage but as a reinforcement of the power structure as well.

The novel also depicts repressed sexual tension between Clare and Irene.Clare’s beauty is attractive and erotic for her, and Irene describes Clare’s beauty with very poetic phrases. She finds her voice “appealing” and “seductive” and her mouth like a “scarlet flower.” There is constant mention of her golden hair and dark eyes, and she is captivated by her beauty. Is this jealousy? Even though it feels that she is jealous toward Clare, at the same time it can be interpreted in this way that there is arepressed sexual desire and sexual tension between these two women.

As derived from the descriptions about her, Clare dresses in ways to receive not only the White man’s gaze but also the male gaze in general. She uses her body as a woman not only togain attention and privilege but also to conceal her racial identity. She dresses in a way that symbolically communicates the level of her status in society. Her beauty might distract people in the sense that they donot even begin to question her racial identity. Therefore, her physical presentation is another function of trying to racially pass. She tries to attract attention to her body so that people don’t question other parts of her life, her identity or especially her racial background.

What makes Larson’s Passing a brilliant book is partially the author’s ability to use multiple lenses to interrogate Irene and Clare’s identity struggles. Both characters wrestle with their own multiple identities in different ways. Irene also struggles with her identity and her gender role. As a woman who has chosen to live in Harlem, she is married to a Black man, and one of her children is dark, but she can also pass as White occasionally when it is convenient for her. The dynamics around the way that she negotiates her own femininity, her race and her class is very interesting. َIn the novel, it is obvious that even though Irene is fascinated by Clare, at the same time, she judges and dislikes her. Besides her fear about her husband’s affair with Clare, she probably dislikes her because she is a representation of her repressed desire, both sexually and socially. I believe part of why Irene holds disdain for Clare is because Clare represents aspects of Irene that Irene doesnot have the freedom to pursue. Usually, people hate what they cannot have.

Apart from her flaws,Clare has the sort of audacious freedom that she lives into. Irene is overwhelmed by social and racial expectations and commitments. Clare stays on the edge of risk, but she is not suffocated by racial or social commitments. Irene has a commitment to her children, her husband and her Black community. Clare does not have those commitments. They both view motherhood in drastically different ways. Clare doesnot feel any specific sympathy toward being a parent or seeing the importance in that, and in this regard, too, she doesnot have a twinge of conscience. Irene is aware of Clare’s absence of commitment to her racial community, and this frustrates her. Clare comes in and out of that community and slips in and out in a parasitical way.

Viewing all this through an intersectionality lens, Clare represents not only some aspects of Whiteness but also an audacious femininity. She practices her femininity in a different way than Irene does. Her gender role is drastically different as well. She also represents the level of feminism that transgresses gender roles. Meanwhile, Irene seekssecurity in the frame of family. Her refusal to go to Brazil with her husband shows that she wants her social security and status quo—the security of the role of wife and mother.

At the very tragic, dramatic ending, Clare is finally exposed by her husband. Her husband bursts into the party in Harlem and confronts her. Clare’s death can interpreted in different ways. Either Clare’s life has ended, or all her dreams had come true, because now she can finally walk away and return to Black community and finally be a part of that society. That is probably why she has a smile on her face at the last moment of her life. She has been liberated from her marriage. It seems that when her husband bursts into the party, she is partly enjoying this experience.

However, at the end, Irene potentially pushes Clare out the window and kills her. Although it is ambiguous whether Irene pushed her, this moment can be interpreted metaphorically as a symbol of killing the Whitesupremacistin Clare. On the other hand, Clare can symbolize what is already in Irene. Perhaps Clare is the projection of an inner Irene. The conflict between Irene and Clare can be interpreted in this way that she is projecting aspects of herself onto Clare, and then killing Clare is a way to try to entirely cleanse herself. In other words, she dislike Clare because she dislikes some aspects of herself, such as her own desire, sadness or fear, and tries to get rid of it.

This metaphorical killing of Clare is a triumph over the internalized racism that she might have. At the same time,that metaphorical killing is anacknowledgement or perhaps submission of herself and her femininity to the repressive and oppressive roles.


Conclusion


By way of concluding this analysis, I have examined the intersection of class, sexuality, and race in Passing’s main characters, Irene and Clare, using a comparative method. I tried to analyze how their multiple social identitieswere shaped in a segregated society related to a special period in American history when people were classified as either Black or White.

Clare uses her passing features to her personal advantage to ascend the social ladder and secure access to wealth and power. She has no internal conflict about passing as White. She intentionally divorced herself not only from theBlack community but from the commitment to the uplifting of that community. She is a consumer of theBlack community. Even though she is stepping away from theBlack community, at the same time she seeks reunion with that community, whether in seeking a lost community or just from her adventurous and risk-taking nature. Clare is aware of the interconnection between race and economic status, and she is pursuing the American Dream. Even though she stays on the edge of risk, she is not suffocated by racial or social commitments. She has no commitment to motherhood, either. She practices her femininity in a different way than Irene does. Her gender role is drastically different. She also represents the level of feminism that transgresses gender roles. Viewing all this through a lens of intersectionality, Clare represents not only some aspects of Whiteness but also an audacious femininity. Clare attracts attention to her body so that people donot question other parts of her identity.

Irene, on the other hand, feels secure in racial boundaries and is committed to uplifting and empowering her Black community. She is overwhelmed by social and racial expectations and commitments. Irene seeks security in the frame of family and her commitment to motherhood and her community as well. However, she is not secure about her sexual identity, her desires and her feminine role. She identifies herself through other people, and her class and status quo are very important to her. Passing also depicts repressed sexual tension between Clare and Irene. Clare is a representation of her repressed sexual desire.

Clare’s tragic death can be interpreted metaphorically as a symbol of Irene projecting some aspects of herself onto Clare and want to be get rid of those aspects. It can also be interpreted as pushing and killing a White supremacist. Passing can be considered a novel about longing for Blackness. Whiteness is a choice that characters slip in and out of as a matter of convenience.




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