How do we bridge the gap between the “real world” and the academy?

 

For the duration of the reading club we have discussed the importance race as a concept and its implications in society. We have also discussed the role of identity politics in the conception of the nation. However, an important question that has animated our book club is, how do we bridge the gap between the real world and the university? Essentially, what role does formal education have in the world beyond training a new cohort of employees? How do we make informed decisions and make knowledge accessible to diverse audiences outside of traditional institutions in order to make a more equitable society?

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Passing : A Symptom of the Larger Problem(s) of Classification?

Our group’s recent discussion of Passing has given us a greater insight into different understandings what passing means. Passing is a book about many things: race, class, (debatably) sexuality, and gender. However, I’d like to further discuss the practice of classifying individuals and its relationship to the act of passing. Although this is a central subject of the book and something Larsen highlights throughout, the problems of classification is detailed so articulately in Chapter Three when Clare’s corporal legibility is called into question.

The practice of classifying people through a visual reading of the body is detailed during a conversation between Hugh Wentworth and Irene at the Negro Welfare League dance about Clare. Wentworth states,“Everybody seems to be here and a few more. But what I’m trying to find out is the name, status, and race of the blonde beauty out of the fairy-tale” (Larsen, 115). Hugh’s statement is significant for many reasons. Like Irene, he shares the same need to neatly place Clare into the normative categories of society; he performs a visual reading of Clare’s body to try and fit her into context. In addition, this instance also details how Clare’s ambiguous nature challenges the status quo of identities; because she can fit into so many of them, Hugh cannot situate her into a category at first glance. Wentworth’s subsequent inquiry about Clare to Irene seems to imply that there is just a single answer; that each category is static and uncomplicated. Clare has to be one or the other; there is no room for multiple or overlapping answers. This moment re-emphasizes the essentialist idea that identity is fixed. Ironically, although the act of passing is meant to subvert these fixed categories — because the passer travels from one identity to the next — it also simultaneously legitimizes them.  A passer must ultimately subscribe to a stable and fixed identity in order to be successful.

In any case, Larsen’s layered characters emphasize the fact that the practice of classifying and categorizing people can never truly encompass the dynamism of human identities. This practice should not only be explored historically (like when and why people have become so transfixed with this practice), but should be questioned as well. Ultimately, what I wonder is, how do we go about disentangling ourselves from many of these problematic categories without completely feeling like we’ve lost ourselves?

Ayan

Part Two: Section Three and Four

Is ‘Passing’ a Betrayal to One’s Race?

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The word ‘passing’ has distinct moral connotations. For Irene, Clare’s act of passing serves as evidence of the other woman’s selfishness and disregard for other people. Looking back on the period that Larsen’s work is set in, it would be easy to make a similar judgment. I would suggest, however, that such a judgment should not be made without sufficient context. Without historical context – without making the effort to understand the need to ‘pass’ in American society – Clare’s actions could be construed as egotistic and potential harmful to African American society as a whole. It is only when we uncover the characters’ histories that we understand that for all their common childhood friends, these two women had entirely different experiences growing up.

Irene is able to enjoy the benefits of African American association without any of the potential drawbacks. Unlike her husband, who is very dark-skinned, Irene is able to enjoy society outside of the realm of the African American community. She was also fortunate enough to have been born into wealth. As one of our group members’ remarked at our last meeting, privilege is invisible to those who possess it. Clare, for all that she is beautiful and light-skinned, never had the same type of privilege. Clare’s father was a drunk, and she herself was the subject of many unpleasant rumours. Far from being supported by her community, she was easily discarded and forgotten. By ‘passing’ as white, Clare is able to live a comfortable life.

For Irene and those looking back on the 1920s, the notion of ‘passing’ can seem like a betrayal of community and a disregard for African American culture. The picture becomes much more complicated when we take into account the individual histories those who ‘passed’, and the conditions in society that made it desirable to do so. In order to understand the importance and the implications of passing, we must acknowledge that our understanding of ‘passing’ is dependent on our own knowledge and interpretations of race today. Rather than relying on these interpretations, and taking at face value the meaning of passing, we need to dig deeper into social history. The moral implications of passing have an undeniable impact on the way we read this text, however they do not operate outside of social life. Uncovering peoples’ stories and revealing the context in which people categorized themselves might complicate the issues, but doing so also makes it more difficult for us to become entrenched in specific ideological positions.

Claire

Picture from Google Images

Race: How should we define it?

“Did that woman, could that woman, somehow know that here before her very eyes on the roof of the Drayton sat a Negro? Absurd! Impossible! White people were so stupid about such things for all they usually asserted that they were able to tell; and by the most ridiculous means, finger-nails, palms of hands, shapes of ears, teeth, and other equally silly rot.” – Passing, Nella Larsen (16)

So far in the reading group’s discussion of the book Passing, we have found that Larsen successfully problematizes race during the 1920s. Larsen achieves this with her depiction of Irene, the protagonist, and her relationship with race. Irene demonstrates race’s nuance with the passage above. Although she believes she is black, her outer appearance allows her to pass for an “Italian, a Spaniard, a Mexican, or a gipsy” (Larsen 16).  This passage demonstrates how superficial race is and its limited influence on cultural identity. Although Irene self identifies as black, her outer appearance does not completely reflect her cultural upbringing. As a light-skinned individual she can belong to many racial categories, as evidenced in the quotation above, race is more than appearance. Irene allows herself an exploration of the different facets of identity. Although race, especially in the 1920s, is often conceptualized as a static entity, the novel exposes the multiple layers of race and identity. Larsen allows the audience to re-conceptualize how racial identity influences how we see ourselves. Identity, therefore, is informed but not limited to race and in many ways is a product of our self-understandings and what is imposed on our bodies. The book helped me realize that our mental and physical selves are not always aligned. Although she does not look “black” she feels/is “black;” the quote above demonstrates that it is not one’s skin color that dictates our racial background but many factors. I would propose that race, especially in the modern context, should be re-imagined to include social standing, class and culture.  Race is not stagnant and its definition should be expanded to include other factors in order to fully grasp its role within society.

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Meeting One: June 27th - Introduction, Critical Foreword & Part One: Section One and Two

Passing… An Introduction

“Passing insists on the fallacy of identity as a content of social, psychological, national, or cultural attributes, whether bestowed by nature or produced by society it forces us to pay attention to the form of difference itself.” – Samira Kawash

Taking inspiration from Kawash’s quote, the theme of the book club is passing. Our society is preoccupied with classifying and sorting people into categories in order to make them more legible. Legibility is significant for both official and unofficial purposes. In the context of the diaspora, legibility plays a significant role in the construction of one’s identity. Diasporic peoples are known to traverse multiple boundaries of identity to create new meanings and/or challenge pre-existing ones; the act of passing puts into question as well as reinforces the boundaries of identity. Through an engagement with Nella Larsen’s novel Passing, participants of the book club will investigate the significance of categories in the construction of the self. In addition, the group will also focus on the ontology of identity categories and their construction.

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