In Nella Larsen’s Passing, we get both essentialist and constructivist views on race.
On the essentialist side, the most obvious example is essentialist racial views comes from John Bellew, the racist husband of Clare. In the book, he says that people of color are “Always robbing and killing people”, and that he knows this by reading the paper. So, in this way, he is attributing characteristics to the blanket group of “black people”. Because of their skin color, they must always be killing and robbing, right? Of course, this doesn’t make sense – the idea that a skin color variation causes someone to steal or kill is ludicrous.
The most interesting and present view we get of race, however, is the constructivist view. Throughout the novel, the characters of color reference the idea of “passing”, or presenting themselves as white. To “pass” in this novel means to go throughout daily life and have those around you perceive you as white, so that you may reap the social benefits of being seen as a white woman rather than a black woman in society. For Clare, passing is essential to maintaining her lifestyle. Through being married to John Bellew, Clare has been able to live a fairly wealthy, privileged lifestyle. This lifestyle, however, hinges on her being read as “white” by those around her.
The novel brings up an interesting constructivist idea – that it does not matter what the character’s cultural heritage is, or what color their ancestors were, or how other characters that are of color may read them. All that matters is that the dominant socially constructed group – those who are thought to be “white” – believe that the people of color are actually white. This brings up an interesting notion though – if a character is read as white, are they then white? We know that race is socially constructed, and that in reality, the variations between skin color and physical features are very insignificant when it comes to comparing human beings to one another. Being “black” or “white” does not inherently make one human any different from another – it is the societal repercussions that make all the difference. So, that being said, is Clare actually white, or is she black?
Difficult question. I think what makes the difference is that Clare knows that at some point, she was read as black. That makes her emotionally vulnerable to the hatred spewed by characters such as John. The other issue is that she could potentially have a “dark” child, which would then give away her position. However, had Clare not known that at some point, she could be read as “black”, and if she had no desire to have children, I think there could be an argument for her being a white character, since race is constructed.