When my light-skinned Black and mixed-race teenage son was little, I worried aloud to my best girlfriend about whether people would recognize him as Black—or whether, God forbid, he himself would decide to identify as even partially white. My girlfriend, who is also Black, would counter with, “Why would he want to be on that team? Seriously, have you seen that team?” Yes, I would say, all too much, for far too long. And we’d laugh, because it was funny-ish.
I was adopted by a white family and raised in a primarily white rural New England town. I then spent my life, well into adulthood, seeking out Blackness and trying to arrive at a place where I could feel unambiguous in my identity as a Black woman. My son opting to identify as white would have been the opposite of my journey. But as he grew older, I actually stopped worrying that he’d be taken as white—and became more worried that he’d be profiled by the police as Black. The irony.
Even if my son could “pass,” the concept is absolutely bewildering to him, for which I am exceedingly grateful. My white husband and I, along with our chosen Black family, have raised him to embrace and take pride in his Blackness; and while I’m quite sure that there are many more racial-identity conversations to come, at 16 years old, he pretty solidly sees himself as Black. I want that for him, because with Blackness comes a mighty legacy.
My son did have a point, though. His response underlined the idea that passing, or attempting to pass—whether for safety purposes during Jim Crow America or to survive the white-gaze in the 21st century—is a clear-eyed choice to denounce Blackness. And once you make that choice, as Passing’s co-protagonist Clare Kendry did, it isn’t always easy to live with the burden of that lie.
Rebecca Hall, the British actress best known for roles in Vicky Cristina Barcelona and The Town, who is of mixed-race heritage and who herself appears white (a different ball of wax than passing), makes her directorial debut with this stunningly deft adaptation of Harlem Renaissance writer Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel, Passing. The film stars Ruth Negga as Kendry and Tessa Thompson as Irene Redfield, childhood friends who reunite in adulthood after years of estrangement. The premise of the story is that Kendry and Redfield, both Black, are light-skinned enough to pass as white—which Kendry chooses to do, while Redfield for the most part remains in her Blackness. Kendry marries a wealthy white businessman, John (Alexander Skarsgård), and has a daughter who attends a boarding school in Switzerland. Residing with her family primarily in Europe, Kendry keeps her true racial identity a secret from both her husband and her daughter. Redfield, meanwhile, marries Brian (André Holland), a Black doctor, has two sons and serves on charity boards in high-society Harlem, where she lives with her family.