In a previous blog post of mine entitled Dark Enough to Relate, Light Enough to be the Oppressor , I addressed the idea of and the stigmas surrounding what it means to be considered “Latino”. In Passing by Nella Larsen, we encounter two mixed- race African American women struggling to understand what it means to be “black”, but also what it means to be “white”. I want to take an opportunity to reflect on my musings from my previous post and re-pose my question: What does it mean to be black, or white, or anything?
I think this, like the question of “What is identity”, is a difficult one to answer. This is especially difficult for Irene and Clare, who are struggling to understand where they fit into a society where “you are damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t”.
If they play into the role of being “black women”, then they’re proving the point of white men and women in that if you even have any type of African roots in you, you’re black and nothing else. True, you might be considered black, but you could most certainly be considered other things as well. And what’s wrong with being “only black” if that were to be the case? The only reason the society these women live in is so against them identifying themselves as white is because the majority of that population is white, and since the beginnings of racism, there has always been this utterly ridiculous idea that if someone within the “perferred” race was also some other ethnicity, that that stray from the central race would create an impurity amongst it. Essentially, people were and in some places are afraid to create “mixed- breed muts” of interracial children, as if the value of a person diminishes based upon their culture background. And if Clare and Irene identify as only black, they’re cheating themselves of and neglecting a culture that although like their own in some respects(but no white person at the time would dare admit it), is also different and something that could expend the ways in which they leave. The issue here, is how that expansion would come about. Because in this case, it seems like it would involve a whole lot of negative. If they claimed to be “white” then all of their black friends and family would call them out on being “fake” and denying their African roots and the long story of tradition that comes along with it. So basically, these two are in between a rock and a hard place, and either way it seems like they’ll get crushed.
You might be thinking “Wouldn’t it just be easier to say that you were both white and black, because then you’re offending everyone, sure- but at least you’re also making everyone happy?” I wish I thought it was that simple to just openly admit to being what you are and say “Hey, I’m ___________”, but in Passing, that is not so easy. There is an excessive amount of pressure for people to be either on one “side” or the other. You’re either black or you’re white, you’re either inside or outside. And both of these sides are going to fight a lot to keep you out. No half- white woman id really a true black woman, and no half- black woman could ever be considered a white one, no matter how far the roots trace or how fair the skin. So in the end, Clare and Irene are really just total outsiders in a place where they don’t really fit in, and nobody is letting them either.
Something I spoke of in my previous Latino Heritage Month post is why it’s important to identify with your culture in a positive and uplifting way in order to show one another within your culture, and others outside of it the good things about your “people”. But neither whites not blacks in the 1900s during the timeframe of Passing were really doing anything to portray themselves in a positive light to people like these two women. This makes being both black and white totally unappealing to them. Which brings me to a second point that I want to make, which is in a sense a recant of a point I made in my Heritage Month post.
Why does it matter what we “are”?
Why does it matter so much that we fight others outsides of our culture and even those within it just to make people feel excluded, or included or be “the best_____” out there? How about just being the best people out there? Yes, I do agree that your culture has a great deal to do with your upbringing if you are in individual that has taken the time to learn about and identify with it in your lifetime- but what if you just decided not to identify with or as anything at all?How would you learn? How would you be? Where does your morality as a human being really stem from. In my life, I have met some very nasty and very good people of all races and walks of life- I promise you, being a good person or a “valuable” person does not come from your roots, it comes from your heart. And I feel like through reading Passing, we kind of forget that people’s value shouldn’t be based on what they are or what other people want them to be, but how they relate to others in a kind and caring way.
As much as I take pride in identifying as a Latina, would I be doing my culture any justice if I was a unkind, unfair and unjust? Both white and black culture make themselves a terrible name sometimes, for those who aren’t sure where they fit in, even today. Depending on the situation, you don’t wanna be “too white”, or “too black”- but if you’re one, the other, neither by force or by choice, how do you fair well in the unwanted limbo stage?
If you would like to continue reading on with me in Passing, a free online link to it can be found in my previous post entitled “What are We Passing off as our “Identity”. I have now completed part II in my American Women Writers class.