Racial Discrimination is an Oppresion of African American

From the start women of all colors have been subjected to patriarchal oppression in copious forms. From social customs like submission in marriage and sexual objectification, to economic hardships, like wage gaps. It has been seen that women were consistently treated as second- class citizens without a voice. For African American women they have faced these gendered challenges as well as racial discrimination. Passing by Nella Larsen illustrates two African American women who are the focus of the novella that experience racial and gender oppression in various ways. Larsen’s novella explores social and feminist issues like oppression through her characters by showing loss of identity, and how relationships are dictated by gender, race and class.

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When you look up the definition of oppression the dictionary defines it as “the state of being subject to unjust treatment or control, prolonged cruel or unjust treatment or control; mental pressure or distress” (oppression, 2020). The novella Larsen wrote is a tale of two childhood friends who crossed paths in adulthood, who were both light skinned African American women who could easily “pass” as white. Those who are passing embody the paradox of race and color because they are, black yet appear as if they are “fully” white. Many times, responses to this paradox defies audience’s expectations. Kathleen Pfeiffer said that “they may believe, on the one hand, that it is possible for blacks to aspire and succeed in America, they nevertheless decide, on the other hand, to seize their own opportunities for success by passing as white. It is predicated, so the argument goes, on renouncing blackness—an ‘authentic’ identity, in favor of whiteness, an ‘opportunistic’ one” (Pfeiffer 543). Which is shown by one of the central characters as the story continues on.

Larsen’s use of imagery was effective throughout the story by using vivid details of the characters and scenes depicted to show oppression. For example, early in the story during a flash back, Irene describes a memory involving Clare. “And for a swift moment Irene Redfield seemed to see a pale small girl sitting on a ragged blue sofa, sewing pieces of bright red cloth together, while her drunken father, a tall, powerfully built man, raged threateningly up and down the shabby room,” (Larsen 5). The use of imagery in this fashion not only provided us with a vivid and detailed description of the scene but provided insight as to the characterization and personality of Clare Kendry. This part from the novella is able to depict the psychological oppression that Clare faced, which was set by her father. A man who was an alcoholic, who verbally abused and may have physically abused Clare as well. Not only was Clare oppressed by her father but also her aunts, who helped raise her. “The aunts were queer. For all their Bibles and praying and ranting about honesty, they didn’t want anyone to know that their darling brother had seduced – ruined, they called it a Negro girl,” (Larsen 19). This quote from Passing helps depict the psychological oppression Clare was subjected to by her aunts.

Irene, in the entire novella, appears as a foil to Clare Kendry, which Larsen was able to contrast these both of the characters. Irene, who could “pass” for white, was proud of her roots, but Clare was ashamed of her race and lived a lie by hiding her ethnicity from most of the people she encountered. Irene chose to “pass” at times when it was practical or suitable, but Clare’s life, which was under different circumstances than Irene, was subject upon her “passing”. An example of this is given when Irene ran into Clare before figuring out who Clare was. “Did that woman, could that woman, somehow know that here before her very eyes on the roof of the Drayton sat a Negro?… No, the woman sitting there staring at her couldn’t possibly know,” (Larsen 10-11 ). After being reacquainted, it became clear that Clare was just the opposite of Irene. Ashamed of her roots and intrigued with “passing”, became evident when Clare began asking copious amounts of questions to Irene. “As if aware of her desire and her hesitation, Clare remarked, thoughtfully: “You know, ‘Rene, I’ve often wondered why more coloured girls… never ‘passed’… It’s such an easy thing to do,” (Larsen 18). It was unmistakable that Clare was content not only with her choosing to pass, but with her social status as well. The plot begins to climax when Irene joins Clare for tea. “But of course, nobody wants a dark child,” (Larsen 26). The views of the Gertrude infuriated Irene. Unfortunately, as the tea continued Irene was in for more disappointment as Clare’s white husband, John Bellew arrived.

The husband, a racist white man, believing his wife is white, mistakes Irene and Gertrude for also being white. “Hello N*g,” was his greeting to Clare (Larsen 28). The greeting from Mr. Bellew showed his true thoughts on African Americans. His views revealed the extent of the jeopardy Clare would be in if he discovered she had just been passing for most of her life. In reality, she was not happy. Which is why Clare made sure to show how tedious it was to live a lie with the risk of being outed. It is only ironic that she worked so hard to become white only to be called a derivative of the derogatory name she thought she would avoid by passing as white. The climax and the theme come together joining the plot, setting, and characters identifying the levels of oppression highlighted in the story.

Irene and Clare in this novella were subjected to various types of feminist/ social oppression as well as living in a patriarchal society. The purpose of practicing patriarchy is to ingrain in women’s heads that they must be noticed by the opposite sex in everything they do, that is their “job”. During Passing, Larsen is sure to put out numerous times that Irene recognizes Clare’s unmatchable and inescapable attractiveness. During Miriam Thaggert’s critique of Passing she talks about Irene’s “evaluations of Clare are almost obsessively concerned with… clothing details… and that she can never quite measure up to Clare’s beauty feeling dowdy and commonplace to her friend” (Thaggert 512). This quote from Thaggert supports the idea that Larsen wanted Irene’s own insecurities to become transparent in a undeniable hatred for Clare. Irene starts to have these different emotions in comparison to Clare, she begins to this restricted and inferior kind of emotion. Irene starts to feel that since Clare has this certain image, she has to match this beauty because of the things Clare is able to do more freely. Through Nella Larsen giving great images of Clare, as an audience you can start to image that she is more attractive than Irene. With Clare’s undeniable beauty she is able to pass with what seems like hardly any effort at all.

Through Irene and Clare’s “friendship” and other characters relationships such as the Clare’s aunts, the husbands, and Gertrude, the story provides a great example of how relationships are influenced by race, class, and gender. For example, the aunts that took Clare in and raised her were poor and white. To earn her keep, Clare was expected “to do all the housework and most of the laundry because she had Negro blood” (Larsen 18). They wanted to make sure that she did not speak of African Americans in anyway shape or form. Despite them being related to her, Clare’s relationships with her aunts were solely built around her race and gender. From what Nella Larsen has given her audience we could predict that if Clare was “fully” white or a male, she wouldn’t have been responsible for all the chores her aunts bestowed upon her. In Passing we saw that Clare had experienced loss numerous times throughout her life, from the loss of her parents, to her “true” identity. Clare’s losses were just some of the many forms of how she had fallen victim to oppression. Clare’s experience with oppression related mostly to race, wanting to “pass” for the benefit of social and economic advancement.

In Passing you will also see that Irene experiences oppression related to race. Being that Irene could “pass”, she was undoubtedly treated better when mistaken for being a white woman. Unfortunately, Irene felt oppression related to race, when being subjected to the racist conversations made by Clare’s husband during tea. Clare’s husband made it very apparent that he felt that the white race was superior in society. And although Irene did not focus her whole life around her racial identity, she still felt that she had to compete with Clare to be the “better” one. In Jennifer Brody’s critique of Passing she determines that “…Irene is threatened by Clare’s ability to simultaneously imitate and denounce white society” (Brody 397). Brody is trying to show here how Clare is able to still get all the reward or “satisfaction” of passing while being able to stay true to her actual racial background. Which is not the same for what Irene does, she does not get any benefit when facing her racial identity. But the reality is that Clare is trying to get the most out of everything. By Clare doing this she riles up Irene’s emotions because as mentioned she’s doesn’t get any benefits like her friend does.

Nella Larsen’s novella explores social and feminist issues like oppression through her characters by showing loss of identity, and how relationships are dictated by gender, race and class. Even with Larsen’s novella being fiction, it revealed and conjured up the reality of various forms of oppression that some have to face in day to day life. Hopefully by reading the novella some can utilize the lessons of oppression and continue to advance by accepting everyone as we are all. 

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Racial discrimination is an oppresion of African American. (2022, Sep 05). Retrieved October 3, 2022 , from

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