Passing

“So you haven’t ever thought to?”

For me, the film Passing raises the thought-provoking question posed by Clare (Ruth Negga). Clare is passing as a blonde white woman and is married to a white man who not only has no idea that she’s Black but has a strong antipathy towards Black people. The protagonist Irene, on the other hand, is living as a Black woman even though she could, within the parameters of the story world, pass if she chose to. Sometimes she does. When she first runs into her childhood friend Clare, she’s passing to gain entry to the rooftop restaurant of a fancy hotel and escape the debilitating New York City heat. 

Passing Movie Clare on Phone

The topic of passing as white and the choice to do so has come up before, in the wake of last year’s Lovecraft Country. In the dark and disturbing episode “Strange Case,” one of the characters, Ruby, is put under a spell that allows her to change into a white woman. 

Shannon Houston, one of the series writers, expressed conflicts about Ruby’s storyline. On the Lovecraft Country Radio podcast, she said:

“I personally started the room really hating the idea of a Black woman choosing to be white. . . . Ruby is passing… in ways that make us deeply uncomfortable, in ways that most of us would claim we never would do.” 

As the writing of the episode progressed, Houston became more understanding of Ruby’s choice, and confronted a more complex reality of Black existence in America: “Don’t we all do different versions of passing, and what do they look like?”

Shortly after I talked my friend into watching Lovecraft Country, she had to discuss that episode. “It brought up all kinds of uncomfortable feelings,” she said, before asking me, 

“Would you ever change into a white woman if you could?”

“Absolutely I would have,” I said. “In high school.”

I’m half white on my mother’s side. I don’t pass for white, because I consider myself Black. I never had a cruel childhood awakening of “Oh, shit, I’m Black.” I just always knew. Also, I’m pretty sure I couldn’t pass for white if I wanted to.  Very few people look at me and think “white girl,” even if their brains are going crazy trying to figure out “What are you?” They’d ask, because they knew I was . . . something other than. A few times, friends revealed their confusion with comments such as, “Your hair is naturally curly? Not a perm?” Or, “I thought you just had a really nice tan.” 

My absolute favorite: “You know what I think is really gross? When a Black man has sex with a white woman.”

Bitch, what? “My dad is Black.” 

Expression of shock. “I didn’t know! Please don’t be mad at me.”

I was mad, and totally over it. I ended that friendship then and there. 

Never was my Blackness more painful and acutely evident than in high school, which is when that last incident took place. The high school I went to was the whitest high school in a white town. One day in class the girl next to me said to some guy she was trying to impress, “I have this really funny black joke. Wait, are there any black people in here?” She looked around the room until her eyes landed on me, sitting right next to her. She leaned across the aisle and asked, “Are you black?” 

Passing Movie Irene in Hat

“Um, yeah.” I couldn’t believe I was having this conversation. She gave one of those expressions like oops, then turned around to the guy in question and whispered her really funny black joke in his ear. I sat there stunned. No one at my previous school, located in a city that had far more Black people, would’ve tried to do what this white girl just did. I was in for three really long years of high school. 

I was sixteen. My self-esteem and sense of security had already been compromised by the move and leaving all of my friends behind. The in-my-face racism exacerbated feelings of isolation and loneliness. I also wanted a boyfriend and dates so badly it was physically painful. But nobody at that school was asking me out. They were too busy telling black jokes and referring to me as “the girl with the weird hair.” 

I would have done anything to end that misery. I would’ve done anything to get asked out and have the opportunity to kiss a guy I liked. I would’ve done anything to feel like a teenage girl instead of a grotesque being with no sexuality whatsoever. 

“Something is missing”

There’s this scene in Pretty in Pink where Andie (Molly Ringwald) asks Iona (Annie Potts) if she should go to prom. Iona tells Andie she pretty much has to go, backing it up with a story about a friend who didn’t go and to this day feels like she’s missing something. 

That exchange is painful for me to watch. I shouldn’t care anymore that I didn’t go to prom. It’s been years since high school and all its infantile bullshit. I’m grown and should be over all that nonsense. Oh, but I do care. I do feel like something’s missing.

It makes me feel silly and naïve to remember this incident. My history teacher, one of the few teachers I had who valued me as a student and cared about my future, was seriously advocating that every senior go to prom. He went out of his way to try to help students get paired up and ask out the person they wanted to ask. He announced the prom dance lessons and encouraged everybody to go so that they could actually, you know, dance at prom. I knew there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell that I could go to prom. We had no money for me to rent or buy a dress. Not one boy had given me the time a day my entire three years in high school. No one was asking me to prom. Yet, I let myself believe that if I took action towards something I badly wanted, magic would happen. So, I went to those dance lessons. I put myself through the embarrassment of having two left feet and none of the natural rhythm that being half Black theoretically should have given me. I tried to ignore the choking awareness that whatever boy had the misfortune of being paired with me was looking over my head the entire time, refusing to make eye contact. 

A couple of days before prom, surprise surprise! Nobody had asked me. My history teacher who was so keen on all his students going to prom asked me if I was going. I said no. He knew the reason why. And he knew that he could not try to hit up any of these white boys to ask me. He said, “Well, it’s not the most important thing in the world.” Trying to make me feel better about missing the very experience he’d been broadcasting for the past three weeks as a definitive part of being in high school.

But not for the Black girl.

To this day, mentions of prom, seeing people young and fresh faced and all dressed up with their dates evokes a weird pain in my chest. That feeling of something missing, something lacking, not being qualified to participate in the rights of young personhood. 

In the movie Passing, Irene is increasingly aware of the things she’s missing out on, things that Clare gets to enjoy because Clare is passing for white. The ability to order fancy food and champagne from room service, plenty of money to provide her daughter with a posh education, the physical freedom to pass between two worlds. The ability to present as more feminine. Irene wants to experience the fun and freedom she sees Clare enjoying. To have, as Eric Eddings from the For Colored Nerds podcast put it, “the freedom of I’m just going to do what the fuck I want.” The more she perceives Clare’s advantage, the less she’s able to hide her depression and paranoia.

Ashley C. Ford, the Lovecraft Country Radio podcast co-host, shed light on the motivation behind Ruby’s choice to transform into a white woman. As a white woman, Ruby could walk down the street without being harassed. She could get hired for a job she’d been after for years. She could enter an ice cream shop and actually just order ice cream. No worries about her safety, or whether she’d live. The best thing about being white: “not being interrupted.” 

I’m still haunted by the things that I missed out on because I was a Black girl in a virtually rich, all white school. So, yes. If I could’ve changed myself into a white girl before going to school and then changed back to me as soon as I got home, I would have. Because I didn’t want to lose who I truly am. I just wanted to experience the things that were denied me because of who I truly am.   

“These women look Black. How could they even pass?”

This sentiment was voiced by many after the trailer for Passing dropped. 

The movie toys with the idea of people being perceived because of what one expects them or wants them to be. Sometimes people see whiteness just because they’re not expecting to see Blackness. Some of my friends not realizing I was Black was probably because they saw me as their friend so by default, I had to be white. I was a friend, not “other”. I was a friend, not Black. Clare’s husband hates Black people, so there’s no way that his wife could be Black. He’s unable to see her that way, even though the clues are there.

“Passing isn’t a one-sided thing. There’s the intent of the person who passes, but there’s also the perception of the person who’s looking at the person who’s passing.”

—Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR’s Code Switch

My senior year in high school, a girl showed up in one of my classes who appeared to be Black and Asian. She was exquisitely pretty. She was petite and she had the means to wear current stylish clothes. Her curls were tame and she knew how to wear makeup, including the trendy robin’s egg blue eyeshadow of the day. She had popular white friends and carried herself as if she were one of them. She possessed all of the qualities that I lacked. I used to watch her with an uncomfortable mixture of envy and hostility, fueled by plenty of self-loathing. What was I doing wrong? Not only was I failing as a teenage girl, I was also failing as a Black person. I couldn’t pull off the privilege of pretend, the veneer of whiteness the way this Black girl could. I measured her success as a Black girl by her ability to go through white spaces as if she weren’t Black. Nobody would look at her and think that she was white, not with her skin tone, her curly hair, and the shape of her eyes. But because of the way she carried herself, and who she rolled with, she may as well have been white.

Did she date? Did boys ask her out? I never saw any evidence of it, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Did she go to her prom? I’ll never know. What I do know is I would often look at her and think, how does she get away with pretending she’s not Black? For me, Blackness at that high school was a heavy shroud of otherness and undesirability I couldn’t get out from under. 

What if I could’ve just pretended I wasn’t Black? What if I’d just acted as if? As if I were a privileged pretty white girl who deserved to get asked out on dates and go to prom? No magic spell complete with gnarly shedding to transform my skin into that of a white woman, no bleaching my hair and smiling while my husband tells me how much he hates Black people, just acting as if?

To wonder far too late the power I could’ve wielded, to think that I could’ve avoided the pain and lingering sense of loss if I’d just pretended, is like a sucker punch to the soul. If only I’d had enough self-esteem and street smarts to even try. 

“How you move through the world is as much about who you believe yourself to be as how you seem to other people.”

—Brittany Luse, co-host of the “For Colored Nerds” podcast.

Who knows if this girl I fixated on back then was as okay on the inside as she appeared to be on the outside? Maybe it was about how I perceived her. Often these two things are not the same, or work at cross purposes with each other. Which explains why the movie Passing and the Lovecraft Country episode stir up such uncomfortable feelings. They raise questions with no satisfying answer, and pose conundrums we are still grappling with, and possibly will for the rest of our lives.

The abrupt and unsatisfying ending of Passing hints at the idea that pretending to be something you aren’t will leave you in a situation that you probably don’t want to be in. There’s truth to that. Part of the reason why I never pretended or even considered pretending to be white back then was because I’m Black, goddammit. I identify as Black and I’m proud to be who I am. But man, knowing now how lasting the scars would be, how long the pain would linger, if there’d been a way for me to get what I wanted, experience what I never got to experience, I would’ve done it. Even if it had been as difficult as stuffing my unruly curls under a blonde wig, living in constant fear of exposure, or shedding sheets of bloody skin.

Further Exploration

Here is the link to the Pop Culture Happy Hour review of the movie Passing. The pullout quotes are from this episode: https://www.npr.org/transcripts/1050622533

Here is the link to the Lovecraft Country Radio podcast on episode 4 “Strange Case.” Warning: this podcast contains multiple episode spoilers and heavy discussion topics: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/lovecraft-country-radio/id1526066728?i=1000491144364

Here is the link to the “For Colored Nerds” podcast episode on the movie Passing. Warning: this podcast episode contains spoilers for the movie Passing: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/passing/id957205646?i=1000542789683


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