Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Nella Larsen’s Passing: An Exploration of Performed Identity

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Aly Sebright

Aly Sebright

My name is Alyson Sebright. I was born in Boise and grew up in Nampa, where I still reside. I’m currently a Junior majoring in English with an emphasis in Literature here at Boise State, with plans to study abroad in Stirling, Scotland this coming Fall of 2019. I chose to study literature because of my deep passion for storytelling, not only in telling my own stories but better understanding those of others. I believe wholeheartedly that sharing stories can change the world and for that reason I study literature with the intention of one day working in the publishing field as a developmental fiction editor. After graduation I am planning to pursue a graduate degree, either through a Fulbright program or a graduate school here in the States. When I’m not studying, I can usually be found loitering around the Writing Center with my coworkers, doing photography around town, or working on my latest creative writing project.

Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Nella Larsen’s Passing: An Exploration of Performed Identity

Nella Larsen’s novel, Passing, centers around the experience of two biracial women whose identities are primarily performative as they navigate life with the privilege of “passing” as White. Through this narrative, Larsen suggests that both racial and gender/sexual identities are as largely performative as they are inherent. Passing explores the ideas of both these identities as they exist in a world where passing is possible. Larsen calls into question the very nature of such concepts and their intersections: how identity shapes the experiences of individuals, and how those individuals shape those identities in turn.

The novel evaluates racial identity in several ways, but centers upon the socially-enforced performative nature of biracialism. In one of the opening scenes, Irene is waited upon in a rooftop cafe where she is passing as White in order to exist within the space and receive the service she desires. Larsen explains of Irene: “Never, when she was alone, had they [White people] even remotely seemed to suspect that she was a Negro” (Larsen 8). This is one of the first moments in which the reader sees Irene engage in the activity of “passing”, and it emphasizes the nature of race as a performative identity in the case of “mulatto” or lighter skinned Black individuals, whose biracial identity is largely ignored, forcing such individuals to “choose” to perform one race or another. As one scholar explains: “the act of passing both subverts racial categories and reinforces them, employing the logic that people of mixed ancestry are ‘really’ black but pretend to be white” (Nisetich 350). In this moment, Irene’s choice to pass, while it does afford her the desired effect of being treated as a White citizen, necessitates her to temporarily deny her racial identity. This choice is inherently ironic, as Irene becomes obsessed with the idea of racial “loyalty” as the novel continues, in relation to her perceptions of Clare’s decision to pass as White.

Irene focuses heavily on the idea of “uplifting the race”, referencing and engaging with her identity as a Black woman, but in doing so is also ignoring the fact that her identity is inherently Black and White, due to the fact that society forces her to choose between one of these labels in her performance of identity. In contrast, Irene criticizes Clare’s decision to pass and lead the privileged life of a White person in America, while also sporadically engaging with her Black identity when it suited her. Larsen explains, “the trouble with Clare was not only that she wanted to have her cake and eat it too but that she wanted to nibble at the cakes of other folk as well” (38). Irene’s frustration with Clare comes from her understanding of Clare’s positioning within the social hierarchy, and the way in which Clare manipulates her performed identity to best suit her interests. Clare chooses the privileges of a White lifestyle rather than making an earnest attempt to be a good representative of the Black race and attempting to uplift it in the “talented tenth” sense as established by W.E.B. Du Bois. Here, Irene is struggling with the core issue of the biracial identity: how one occupies two identities that are widely considered to be contradictory or opposing. Both Clare and Irene represent opposing ends of of this ideological spectrum in their performances of their racial identities, and in doing so further perpetuate the socially enforced idea that biracial individuals must “choose a side” to perform, rather than embracing and performing their biracial identity.

However, the idea that biracial individuals embody two contradicting identities is inherently problematic. There is no logical reasoning for such identities to entail an inherently antagonistic relationship. In asking biracial individuals to choose a race to perform, society additionally asks them to ignore an aspect of their identity while also being excluded from both communities as they occupy their biracial identity, which is widely perceived by American culture to be nonexistent. Due to the historical establishment of ideas such as the “one drop rule”, wherein a White individual with even “one drop of black blood” could and should be racially categorized as Black, American society has embraced the idea that an identity that is both Black and White is impossible.

Applying this to Larsen’s novel, critic George Hutchinson explains: “the difference between Irene and Clare is not that Clare escapes from the [one drop] rule, which she does not recognize, but that her attempt to live free of its sway is in the end defeated by the way in which others, including Irene, view her” (345). In this way Hutchinson suggests that, despite her performance of racial identity, Clare cannot escape her Blackness due to the perceptions of others within her community. Hutchinson suggests that what Clare did not consider in her performance of identity is audience, and that ultimately her identity has to be externally recognized in order for it to be real, due to the nature of a performed identity.

Additionally, Larsen emphasizes the hypocrisy of Irene’s criticism of Clare through her actions as a Black woman in the domestic setting. Whereas many Black upper-middle class citizens of this era employed White servants (due to the fact that many Black individuals would refuse to work for Black families), Irene’s servant is Black and incapable of passing. When this character, Zulena, is introduced, she is immediately objectified and dehumanized in her description as a “small, mahogany-coloured creature”(Larsen 40). Despite a third person limited perspective in the novel’s narration, the reader is aware that these descriptors are at the very least informed by Irene’s own opinions, and therefore reflect her own perceptions of Zulena. As one scholar explains,“introducing Zulena into a reading of Passing reveals the domestic sphere as a fraught arena for the development of African-American female selfhood, in which ideologies of middle-class domesticity intersect uncomfortably with service and servitude” (Wilson 980). This suggests the conflict between Irene’s ideology and her actions, as she firmly commits herself to be an “uplifter of the race” while she simultaneously perpetuates stereotypical career roles for Black women.

One of the most important aspects of Passing in terms of its role in the American canon is it’s expression of intersectionality in the American experience, particularly in terms of gender/sexuality and race. As Irene and Clare’s narratives develop, the moments in which issues of race and gender intersect are critical to understanding Larsen’s depiction of how one’s expression of their identity shapes their experience. In many ways, Clare serves as the uncanny doppelganger to Irene in the Freudian psychoanalytic sense. As Freud describes, “the uncanny is that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar” (515), and the double, which instills a sense of the uncanny as it is “marked by the fact that the subject identifies himself with someone else, so that he is in doubt as to which his self is, or substitutes the extraneous self for his own” (522).

Freud theorizes that what makes the double uncanny is its role in confusing the idea of the “self”, that providing a duplicate of the self that draws into question who or what can be identified as the “real” or “true” self. Thus, Clare occupies the narrative space as the uncanny double figure of Irene, embodying the familiar in the sense that she seems to share the same racial, sexual, and gender identities as Clare while also being a representative of the unknown, as she chooses to live her life as a White woman. This explains some of Irene’s frustrations with Clare, as Irene can recognize the strong connections between her and Clare’s identities, and this forces her to consider the morality of how she chooses to pass permanently as Black, only engaging with her own White identity when it suits her interests.

The theory of the uncanny double helps explain Irene’s hatred of and obsession with Clare, as she simultaneously represents everything Irene is as well as everything Irene chooses not to be. The best external example of this narrative device comes in the form of Irene’s husband, Brian, and his implied attraction to Clare. Irene describes: “that old, queer, unhappy restlessness had begun again within him; that craving for some place strange and different, which at the beginning of her marriage she had had to make such strenuous efforts to repress” (Larsen 36). While this quote is directly addressing Brian’s desire to move to Brazil in order to escape some of the discrimination him and his children experience as Black Americans who are incapable of passing, it also foreshadows Brian’s interest in something “strange and different” that puts stress upon his marriage— an interest in the uncanny. By expressing a preexisting and persisting tension caused by Brian’s desire for something “different”, Larsen suggests that perhaps this issue is not necessarily limited to racism in America, but a deeper issue within Brian and Irene’s marriage. This issue will then be further explored with the introduction of Clare, the double, as it presents the opportunity for Brian to explore everything Irene might be lacking.

Once she has convinced herself that Brian is having an affair with Clare, Irene surmises: “She [Irene] was, to him, only the mother of his sons. That was all. Alone she was nothing. Worse. An obstacle” (Larsen 74).  Here, Irene seems to be suggesting that Brian’s interest in Clare stems from the fact that he cannot remove Irene’s identity marker as the mother of his children enough to be sexually interested in her, and she now only serves as an “obstacle” over which he must hurdle to attain the object of his desire. She has become, as Freud would describe, the “heimlich” or familiar, of which there is a sense of safety and consistency, but also homeliness, in the sense of both the literal definition of “domestic” as well as the connotative definition of “unattractive”. Clare, in contrast, supplies an alternative version of Irene: a shifted version of the same biracial straight woman that at one time Brian loved, but now with the new context of choosing to pass as White. This also seems to imply a certain level of internalized racism in Brian, as he seems to desire the “White option” of Irene in the form of Clare the double, thus perpetuating certain stereotypes of American beauty standards that profess Whiteness is inherently more beautiful or attractive.

Once Irene assumes that Brian holds these ideas (as it is never actually confirmed or denied by him), she seems to lose all sense of her own sexual identity. In a Freudian sense, Irene  has submitted her sexual identity to her double, as Clare is the presumed sexual partner of Brian. Additionally, this could account for Irene’s own implied sexual interest in Clare as a projection of her own sexuality. In this way Larsen seems to be implying that Irene’s sexual identity centers around her marital relationship with her husband, and that whoever is engaging with him sexually is the “true” version of Irene. In this way, Brian represents the crux of the intersectional issue of both Irene’s racial and gender/sexual identities. His desire for the “other” version of Irene represented by Clare implies a preference for a White Irene, which is in turn related to beauty standards that are inextricably connected to Irene’s identity as a woman.

Once Brian favors that which Irene is not, Irene must reconcile with what that means for her as a wife, and by extension, a woman. In the attainment of the defining female role of mother, Irene seems to have lost her sexual appeal to her husband and now faces the crisis of such a paradox. In her decision to pass as Black she feels she made an unintentional decision to give up her chance at the traditional American standard for beauty and desirability: Whiteness. It is in this way that Larsen draws a direct connection between race, gender, and sexuality as they inform one another due to socially accepted perceptions of beauty standards that inform gender expectations which in turn affect the sexual relationships of those raised in that society.

In turn, the understanding of Irene and Clare as doubles also makes interesting suggestions about their social experience of race. In choosing which identities they perform, each character formed for themselves a unique lifestyle and experience of American culture. While both of these doubles engages occasionally with their “other” racial identities when it is advantageous to them, the vast majority of their adult lives are experienced in a performance of one side of their biracial identity. However, both women seem to have ended up in relatively similar socioeconomic statuses, calling into question the “correctness” of either perspective. Both women reap the benefits of passing as Black or White—the feeling of community supplied by Harlem as well as the privilege of being allowed to exist in White spaces—while also feeling the costs of the race they chose to “give up” for the majority of their day-to-day lives. Irene must reconcile with the “cost” of having children that cannot pass and the risks this poses to them in a pre-Civil Rights era, and Clare longs for the community and connections with her own Black identity.

In this way, both women reflect different aspects of the African-American experience, as they experience their racial identities in inverse manners. Part of the crisis that Clare forces Irene to face is the hypocrisy of passing, as she reflects the subverted versions of the same beliefs Irene holds. In this way Larsen identifies the ways in which “identical” experiences of race can also be inverse of one another. Scholar Patricia Hill Collins evaluates this idea in her book “Black Feminist Thought”, and suggests: “these ties between what one does and what one thinks illustrated by individual Black women can also characterize Black women’s experiences and ideas as a group” (24). Considering this, Larsen seems suggest through her narrative that the inverted experiences of these doubles represent how performed identities inform the experience of those community members, but also contribute back into how these identities are shaped for other similarly-identifying individuals going forward.

Passing is a novel highly concerned with the reality of uncertainty, specifically in terms of identity. With the understanding that identity shapes experience, Nella Larsen creates a narrative in which characters are forced by society to choose their experience. By identifying those aspects of identity that are performative, Larsen asks her readers to consider the ways in which they also perform their own identities. Through the inverted images of Clare and Irene, Larsen explores performances of identity and their effects on the individual experiences of race, gender, and sexuality. However, Larsen also seems deeply interested in how these performances and engagements with externalized identity will inform experiences of the generations to come. While the novel does not spend much time considering the upcoming generations, it is clear Larsen is attempting to question the performances of identity reflected in her characters and suggesting that perhaps there is a different approach that has been left unconsidered as of yet: the idea of embracing the duality, rather than choosing to fight it.

Works Cited

Freud, Sigmund. “The Uncanny.” The Critical Tradition, 3rd ed, edited by David H. Richter, Bedford/St. Martins, 2007, pp. 514-532.

Hill Collins, Patricia. Black Feminist Thought : Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. Vol. Rev. 10th anniversary ed, Routledge, 2000. EBSCOhost, libproxy.boisestate.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=70795&site=ehost-live.

Hutchinson, George. “Nella Larsen and the Veil of Race.” American Literary History, vol. 9, no. 2, 1997, pp. 329–349. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/490290.

Larsen, Nella. Passing. Knopf, 1929.

Nisetich, Rebecca. “Reading Race in Nella Larsen’s ‘Passing’ and the Rhinelander Case.” African American Review, vol. 46, no. 2/3, 2013, pp. 345–361. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23784063.

Wilson, Mary. “‘Working Like a Colored Person’: Race, Service, and Identity in Nella Larsen’s Passing.” Women’s Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, vol. 42, no. 8, Dec. 2013, pp. 979–1009. EBSCOhost, libproxy.boisestate.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mzh&AN=2014393372&site=ehost-live.