Commentary: What exactly is 'Passing'? A film brings to light a historical conversation deeply buried in American culture

Cyraina Johnson-Roullier, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Op Eds

Rebecca Hall’s feature directorial debut, “Passing,” now streaming on Netflix, strikes at the core of the divisive argument about race in mainstream American culture. Adapted from Harlem Renaissance author Nella Larsen’s work of the same name and set in 1920s New York City, the film’s examination of “passing” reaches deep into a buried racial history specific to America and vital to our understanding of race in today’s cultural moment.

So what exactly is “passing,” and what is its buried racial history?

“Passing” is grounded in a complex net of laws created over time in America to support the institution of chattel slavery and, following the Civil War, to ensure a cheap and readily available labor force. During the Reconstruction era of 1865-77, these laws were called the Black Codes and were mostly concentrated in the South, though some were also enacted in the North.

The most important of these laws were put into effect in the South over the two years following the Civil War. One result of these Black Codes was to create a radical and artificial separation between white and Black individuals, described as “the color line” by the Black sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois in his 1903 collection of essays “The Souls of Black Folk.”

This then set the stage for legalized segregation or Jim Crow. Under Jim Crow, a complete separation between the races was legally sanctioned for 58 years, from the landmark case Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which established racial segregation through the idea of “separate but equal,” to Brown v. the Board of Education (1954), which declared “separate but equal” unconstitutional and legally demanded racial desegregation of schools and all public life.

During 1920s Jim Crow, racial segregation prevailed. These laws limited Black life to the extreme, and “passing” as white, for those who could, represented a way to get around them. But in order for Black people to “pass,” their external appearance could not betray their racial origins. In other words, they had, for all intents and purposes, to look white, while possessing black ancestry, no matter how far back in time.

The most common understanding in America of “passing” has been the choice made by a Black person who appears white to entirely deny their racial origins, their family, friends and personal history, so as to live a new life as a white person. This is the case of main character Clare Kendry, who chooses to “pass” while being the wife of a white racist, clothing her racial origins in absolute silence.

The act of “passing” hides the color line in all its potential violence at the very heart of Kendry’s marriage. And though both film and novel would seem to examine something we can safely observe from a different time, is our own time really so different with regard to that same line?

America has had a difficult time facing up to the tough reality of its historical racial truths, often preferring to hide from, distort, ignore or in some other way neglect what is available to all in the historical record. Laws have changed, many racial injustices have been addressed, the untenable situation that gave birth to “passing” no longer holds sway — at least not objectively.

But is there no longer any reason to consider the color line or to try to understand its origins and effects?


The truth is that although “passing” to escape the law is now not necessary, the color line it implied is still with us. If we choose to see, we can recognize it everywhere in the present moment, from the enormous controversy surrounding Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah Jones’ “The 1619 Project,” to the vigorous public debate on critical race theory and the teaching of American history in K-12 schools, to the violence in response to the passionate protests of the Black Lives Matter movement, to the racially determined health inequities exposed by the pandemic and even in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, for which a huge Confederate flag served as an emblem.

As an African American, I have seen this line and its conflicted relation to “passing” even in the academic circles I frequent as a tenured professor. At one point, long before the pandemic’s scientific skepticism, I was explaining to a group of colleagues at dinner that my daughter was born with deep blue eyes. I’m married to a French citizen not “from the islands” — as someone uncomfortable inquiring about my husband’s race once assumed. I’m also of mixed heritage, something for which I am recognized in France, though not America. I explained that my husband and I are both heterozygotes, each bearing one dominant gene, brown, and one recessive gene, blue. Our daughter received two recessive genes; otherwise, her eyes would have been brown, like ours. “Remember your high school biology experiments with fruit flies?” I asked. There was only one response, from a high-ranking professor at an East Coast university. “If you believe science,” she said with quiet conviction.

Perhaps a more complete knowledge of America’s racial history could have helped. But this silenced reality, entangled in centuries of shame, dishonor, violence and exploitation, is not happily embraced.

Yet without it, our efforts to eradicate systemic racism will remain only gestures toward the ungraspable hope of finding an ultimately unrealizable future.



Cyraina Johnson-Roullier is an associate professor of modern literature and literature of the Americas at the University of Notre Dame, an author and an essayist.


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