Why Not Pass?
“The Vanishing Half” deals with the theme of racial “passing” in the 1950s. Passing is different today, but still presents a choice between safety and authenticity.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett was one of the most popular novels of the last few years—a bestseller on multiple “best book” lists. The story begins in 1954, when identical twins Stella and Desiree, aged 16, run away from home and their Southern town of light-skinned Black folks. In a year, the twins will go their separate ways, “their lives splitting as evenly as their shared egg,” when Stella crosses over to pass as White—she disappears, marries her White employer, and doesn’t look back.
American Whiteness exacts a high price in exchange for its safety and privilege. In order to pass, Stella severs every connection to her previous life so she can hide her true identity, even from her husband. As a result, she can never completely let her guard down around White people, and she refuses to have anything to do with Black people for fear that they might recognize some vestige of her Blackness.
The paranoia Stella exhibits is with good cause. As little girls, Stella and Desiree witnessed their father being lynched by White men. But Desiree takes the opposite tack to her sister’s in navigating her life as a light-skinned Black woman. She marries a dark-skinned Black man and has a child so dark that when she returns to her Louisiana hometown with her daughter, the Black townsfolk’s “obsession with lightness” leaves them appalled at the child’s coloring.
In the years since she left home, Desiree has become an experienced fingerprint analyst. Upon her return she applies for a job at a nearby police station and is almost hired. But when she gives them her address, they realize she is Black, and the position and the opportunity for a good salary are no longer available. As a light-skinned Black woman myself, who cannot pass, for a moment I thought Desiree could have given them a false address—she could have passed. Then I remembered where she was, and when. In the Jim Crow South, failing at passing could have deadly consequences.
The Vanishing Half illuminates what has changed since the Jim Crow era—and what has not. Consider the recent surge in reported and recorded hate crimes in the United States. According to the FBI’s recent hate crime statistics, in 2020 there were over 8,000 single-bias incidents involving 11,126 victims in the country, meaning people were harassed, attacked, or killed for their race, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, disability, gender, or gender identity.
This increase in discrimination is systemic as well. From local school boards to the United States Supreme Court, conservatives are working to legislate this country back to something like it was before the Civil War, when enslaved Black people were designated as three-fifths of a person and women were the legal property of their husbands and fathers. In recent years, bills have been filed attempting to control which bathrooms transgender students use, whether they can play sports, and whether their medical care should be considered a felony. Books that mention gender, racism, or the Holocaust have been banned from school libraries, voting rights are being stripped away from communities of color, and access to safe and legal abortions has been severely limited.
It’s not surprising, then, that Bennett’s work resonates with so many Americans. While most of us have not had the experience of passing as someone of a different race, many of us know what it feels like to hide parts of ourselves when we feel threatened.
Today there are myriad ways and reasons people might choose to pass, ranging from tamping down a regional accent to be taken seriously, to LGBTQ teachers in conservative towns remaining closeted for fear of losing their jobs, to students with “invisible disabilities” not seeking the services they need to avoid judgment by their peers.
I encountered the presumption of Christianity and heterosexuality on a regular basis when I did a brief stint as a cashier at a Lowe’s in a small Southern city in 2015. Women expected me to commiserate with them about their men, and men assumed I had a husband to answer to. I had to decide multiple times a day whether I wanted to out myself as gay or pass as straight.
When one of my co-workers said, “Why can’t I find a boyfriend like that?” as a customer walked away, I asked her what she was looking for in a boyfriend. She rattled off a list of positive attributes and added, “You know, a Christian.” I told her that I don’t lie, cheat, or steal, that I try hard to be a good person, and that I’m not Christian. My co-worker was quiet for a while. Then she said, “Huh, I never really thought about that.”
As a Black dyke, it feels almost impossible for me to fathom having to live incognito like Stella from The Vanishing Half. I learned from my stint at Lowe’s that I don’t like hiding who I am because who I am might make someone else uncomfortable. So when women said, “You know how men are,” I’d say, “No, but I believe you,” and when men asked, “What does your husband think?” I’d say, “My husband is a woman and she thinks I’m great.”
One time I looked up from my cash register to see a tall White man wearing a T-shirt with a picture of a long gun and a caption that said All Rifles Matter. I was livid. I was ready to refuse to serve him—the man whose shirt proclaimed his belief that his guns were more important than my life—and lose my job. Luckily, he ended up in the customer service line and not in my checkout lane. I could decide to express my anger because, surrounded by people, cameras, and a general expectation of decorum, I felt relatively safe. But safety is not a given. And still, every day people leave their homes and calculate where, when, and how they will come out or pass and hope that they get it right.
But there’s only so much passing people can do before losing track of themselves. In The Vanishing Half, Stella’s vigilant role-playing robs her of a meaningful relationship with her daughter. They both end up less-than-real, estranged from other people and themselves. I have learned that shutting down significant parts of myself puts the other parts on high alert and in retreat at the same time. Had I decided to pass for Christian or straight at Lowe’s, I would have limited my opportunity for genuine interactions and relationships.
I do not have the constitutional fortitude to engage in “lively” debates or build a bridge of understanding with people who disagree with my right to exist and to control my own body. But let us hope that there is still room—for those who can—to engage in productive discourse. And room for people like me, given the opportunity to be authentic, to drop a few breadcrumbs—revealing something about themselves to a stranger, so that maybe someone will say, “I never really thought about that.”