Internal Racism in Nella Larsen’s “Passing”
How internal racism affects the characters
“Passing” by Nella Larsen follows a Black woman by the name of Irene Redfield as she discovers that her biracial childhood friend, Clare Kendry, who is forced by her childhood circumstances to “pass” as a White woman. Clare Kendry can bypass the hate and systematic racism that would have befell her, but at the cost of her identity as a Black woman. Larsen writes how she attempts to keep that part of identity but struggles to accept herself. Clare Kendry becomes a whole new woman in the span of twelve years going from Black to White and poor to rich. Her light skin tone enables her to pass from a young age; however, she did not until her father died and she was forced into a new identity by her White aunts. She was not allowed to take pride in her whole heritage and developed internal racism for herself. It is true that it is easier to be White in the 1900s, but she was not given a choice of who she wanted to be. Her only choice to have a happy life from the perspective her aunts forced upon her is to be rich and White.
There were plenty of rumors that surrounded the disappearance of Clare Kendry. After her father died, twelve years before the novel picks up, rumors were spread about Clare and where she may have gone, mostly basing around the girl’s poverty ridden childhood. Instead of realizing that she was with a White man because she was married to him, they assumed, “well, maybe she got a job or something,”(545) because it seemed impossible that a Black woman would be able to snag a rich White man. Well, it kind of was impossible for her to marry a rich White man as a Black woman, so it was true in a sense. He just did not know that his wide was Black. This is what made Clare’s new life surprising to Irene Redfield. The first chapter of the novel gives childhood background to Clare. Larsen writes, “Clare had known well enough that it was unsafe to take a portion of the dollar that was her weekly wage for the doing of many errands for the dressmaker …she had taken the money to buy the material for that pathetic little red frock” (539). Clare took risks from a young age to make herself happy and try to fit into the lifestyles of her peers. She risks putting herself in danger for a red “pathetic” frock, so she would take an even bigger risk by lying about her race to her own husband. In both instances, the risks have lavish rewards of money and status, but do not seem to have any rewards of the moral kind.
While Clare could be applauded for taking advantage of a racist system and making it her own, it also reflects the internal racism she is forced into by her aunts. While as a child her only insecurity seemed to be money, as an adult she became the product of twelve years of colorism and racist ideals forced unto her by her own family. Clare has to have had some internal racism placed in her heart by her aunts. In a conversation with Irene Clare says, “The aunts were queer. For all their Bibles and praying and ranting about honesty, they didn’t want anyone to know that their darling brother had seduced---ruined, they called it---a Negro girl…they forbade me to mention Negroes to the neighbors, or even mention the south side” (550). Irene did not even know that Clare was part White and assumed she was just light skinned. Clare went from being only Black when she was a child, to being only White. This choice was not hers to make as she was a child when she disappeared. However, she never went against her aunts when she got older. Clare has some sort of trauma related to her identity, one half of it being erased from her by her guardians.
Clare became accustomed to the privilege she now had as a White woman. She had a solid backstory to work from and a White community that supported her. When a White suitor with money came along to sweep her off her feet, it seemed like an obvious choice. She would live lavishly and put her poverty-stricken childhood to rest. In a conversation with Irene, Clare explains how she met her husband: “When Jack, a schoolboy acquaintance of some people in the neighborhood, turned up from South America with untold gold, there was no one to tell him that I was coloured, and many to tell him about the severity and religiousness of Aunt Grace and Aunt Edna” (551). Clare knows she is Black, but the religiousness of her upbringing would make Jack think that she is an honest and submissive woman. It was easy for her to let him pretend he was in control of their relationship while she sat with a huge secret.
Clare not only risks her own livelihood by “passing” while married to a racist White man, but she puts her own children at risk. A common thought among Black parents is the color of their children’s skin. The lighter the skin, the easier it would be for a child to actively or non-actively pass. Irene does not pass as a White woman on purpose but acknowledges that she is less likely to be removed from an anti-Black business. When Irene was sat at a café, she was worried about being removed. Larsen writes, “They always took her for an Italian, a Spaniard, a Mexican, or a gipsy. Never, when she was alone, had they even remotely seemed to suspect that she was a Negro” (543). Assuming that Clare is of the same skin tone or lighter, Clare has an easy time passing and so does Irene. Skin tone does not always reflect that of the parents, though. Parents, for the most part, want what is best for their children, so having light skin would be preferential for the safety of their children.
Clare can only hope that her complexion would pass onto her children but is not guaranteed. This outs her children at risk of rejection from their father, rejection from society, and possible physical harm. Gertrude, a friend of Irene and Clare’s said “It’s awful the way it skips generations and then pops out… But, of course, nobody wants a dark child” (556). This reinforces the colorist rhetoric that plagued and still plagues the Black population. They are often told their skin is dirty, so the whiter the better. While Irene disagrees, this rhetoric has been drilled into Black people for generations because the color of their skin was the only thing that put them below other races in the eyes of the racist system. Clare’s risk is selfish but she sees it as necessary because of how she was raised by her aunts.
She is also risky in who she picked as a husband. Now, Clare could have tried to find a more liberal, less racist husband. Jake Bellew is racist and makes multiple racist remarks in one conversation with three passing Black women. In reference to Black people Jack says, “I don’t dislike them, I hate them. And so does Nig, for all she’s trying to turn into one…They give me the creeps. The black scrimy devils” (559). “Nig” is the affectionate nickname he gave to his secretly Black wife, Clare. Or at least, he thought it was affectionate, but it was something different to her. It is a reminder of her secret that could tear her whole life apart. Jack is casually racist, which means that it is normal for him to show this kind of hatred and it is no secret about his feeling towards Black people. She would have known his true colors when she married him.
Clare is smart. She has been able to lie to her husband about her race for years already, and willingly married someone who would hate her real identity. Her aunts made sure no one would know that Clare is Black. Clare says to Irene, “After he came, stopped slipping off to the south side and slipped off to meet him instead. I couldn’t manage both. In the end I had no great difficulty in convincing him that it was useless to talk marriage to the aunts” (551). Clare knew what she was getting herself into when she married Jack and saw it as a way to make her lie even more solid. Clare is like an undercover cop who does drugs to prove that she is also a criminal. Clare married a racist White man so no one would doubt her race. However, she did not do this for the advantage. She saw this as a choice of survival. Her psyche was broken down by her aunts, making her identity something shameful and wrong. Clare sees her race as something shameful to the White people that she was raised with during the second part of her life. She ends up leaving it behind for a White life.
The poverty of her childhood was a factor in who she decided to marry. As seen the quote previously stated bout a red frock and that she took dangerous risks for money. Jack had “untold gold” and was interested in her. Marrying Jack gave Clare the wealth that she was lacking in her childhood. In a conversation with Irene, Clare asks about why Irene does not attempt to “pass”. Irene says that she is happy with her life as it is, “Except, perhaps, a little more money” (551). Irene has the life that Clare might have had if her father had not died, and she did not have to move. They lived in the same area in similar circumstances, but Clare’s life changed without her having a choice. Clare replied to Irene, “Money’s awfully nice to have. In fact, all things considered, I think ‘Rene, that it’s even worth the price” (551). Her race and poverty were what put her into a mentally abusive household, so it seemed her only escape into her ideal world was to put herself at risk with Jack. If her identity is never revealed, then she would have the life she always wanted.
Clare is not even worried about possibly revealing her secret to her husband and makes some risky decisions, to show herself she has some sort of control in the relationship. Clare has been powerless for most of her life but invites Black women over to meet her racist husband. Clare has secret control in their relationship. Clare not being worried about her secret shows she has a control over her life she did not have before. When she was a child she had no control over the money she made or who she was allowed to be. Clare picked the ideal life that she hoped would end all her problems. Instead, she lost control of her lie and paid the price. Clare is open about the rashness of her decisions. Clare says in a conversation with Irene, “Can’t you see that I’m not like you a bit? Why, to get the things I want badly enough, I’d do anything, hurt anybody, throw anything away. Really, ‘Rene, I’m not safe” (583). Clare does not distinguish whether she herself is not safe or she is not safe to be around, but it is presumed to be both. She puts herself and others in danger of her husband and his community. This is a conscious decision she made, and it ruins her.
She put herself into a position that would wear her down psychologically for a long period of time for material wealth. Irene does not understand it and it really does not make any sense to put themselves through that kind of emotional torture. Irene wonders to herself, “Why, in the face of Bellew’s ignorant hate and aversion, had she concealed her own origin? Why had she allowed him to make his assertions and express his misconceptions undisputed? Why, simply because of Clare Kendry, who had exposed her to such torment, had she failed to take up the defense of the race to which she belonged” (564)? Clare willingly put her friends into an uncomfortable situation to show that she had complete control of the situation but revealed the daily mental abuse she must face. Clare could not stand up for herself or the community she grew up in. Instead of showing the control she had, she gave her friends insight to the unknown daily mental abuse that she faces by her husband.
Even in the end of the novel, she gives the illusion of her control over the situation. In part three of the novel Irene asks Clare about what she would do if her husband found out her identity (597). It turns out that she does have a plan that she does not stick to or does not share. What Clare told her friends was that she would “come up here to live. Harlem, I mean. Then I’d be able to do as I please, when I please” (597). It seems like she would take advantage of being let out of her marriage to join her childhood friends and reconnect with the community she first grew up with. There is the desire to reconnect with her roots, seen as she reconnects with her childhood friends after twelve years in a strictly White environment. She was starting to push past the internal racism that she had been conditioned to believe for twelve years. Her actions after this are a complete turnaround from what she thought she would do in the event of her husband finding out about her identity.
When Clare was finally confronted by her husband about her identity, Clare was calm. However, she deviated from the original plan that she told Irene about. So, either moving to Harlem was never the plan at all or her change was sudden. Clare was calm, so committing suicide was always the end for her in case her secret come out. There was no other way she saw it going but did not expect for secret to get out. For twelve years she had been careful and convincing. Irene describes Clare as “unaware of any danger or uncaring,” as John yells at Clare (601). She was standing by the window, so she had easy access to her own end. In her mind, she had no other choice but to end the lies along with herself. In the chaos, her death happened so fast. There were no declarations or statements to signify her intention; “One moment Clare had been there, a vital glowing there, like a flame of red and gold. The next she was gone” (601). When her husband confronted her, she saw no possible way of moving on after twelve years of mental abuse turned into internal racism. She could not believe that her husband would have wanted to move on with her or her child. Clare would lose everything. Yet, even as she jumped, her husband cried “Nig! My God! Nig” (601)! Of course, years of marriage and love do not suddenly go down the drain, and Clare thought it would.
Clare put herself in dangerous situations throughout her life, always yearning to be someone more than she saw herself as. When she was poor, she would steal money to buy herself a nice dress. Then, she picked a rich White man to fulfill her ideal adulthood of a lavish and privileged life. The external and systematic racism that was forced upon her as a child manifested into internal racism that motivated Clare to pass as a white woman. Later, she would regret it and ultimately commit suicide because of her reckless decisions. Passing became a survival tactic to keep her family intact, while putting herself through daily unintentional mental abuse. Passing was not as glamourous as she had hoped and betrayed herself when she put herself further into her lie. Clare Kendry did not pass as a white woman for the advantage of being a White woman, but because it was the only way the thought she could keep on living.
Larsen, Nella. “Passing.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature, edited by Robert S. Levine et al., 9th ed., D: 1914-1945, W.W. Norton & Company, 2017, pp. 538–603.
About the author
Hello! I am one semester away from graduating with my English BA. I work as an informal STEM Educator and Writing Tutor. I like to write and get my thoughts out in my essays and short stories. Stay tuned :)