The problem of racial identity as part of an understanding of one’s identity as a whole is one of the most sensitive topics in contemporary society, in which racial discrimination and ethnic tolerance coexist. The strict separation of people into races based on the color of their skin could catalyze the desire for identity, but the presence of passing inhibits this identification. Passing is an exception to the racial differentiation, but it does not create a universal problem for the representation of true identity. This essay will assess this phenomenon in the contemporary novel The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett.
Bennett chose to race as a form of personal identity as the central problem of her novel. Bennett tells the parallel story of two twin sisters, Desiree and Stella, who belong to a passing family. Growing up, the daughters could not stay in their town because of childhood trauma, so they moved to New Orleans, where their stories temporarily diverged. Having light and dark skin affects the sisters differentially: while Stella sees this as an opportunity for active career advancement as a white woman, Desiree feels like a dark-skinned woman.
The critical core of this separation is the perceived opportunities for identifying one’s identity through passing. Passing gives each of the sisters the ability to define themselves as white or dark-skinned, depending on their desire. As seen in the story, Stella and Desiree took advantage of this freedom in diverse ways and began to identify themselves as white and dark-skinned women. In The Vanishing Half, however, the problem is not how each of the women defines themselves but what exactly drives them to consider only one part of themselves, whether white or black. Passing in this sense should not be seen as an advantage for light-skinned black people but as a barrier to genuinely identifying oneself.
In the story told, too, Stella cannot see herself as a whole person but instead focuses on one side of her skin: white skin. Indeed, Stella only sees career opportunities based on the fact that she can be white. In this consideration, it is not difficult to see a crucial bias in how society affects identity. Stella sees no realistic way to develop herself as a successful black woman, which is due to the socio-historical development of American society. The character’s further evolution also supports the intended path of the white person-she runs away with her white boss, lives in a white neighborhood, and profoundly feels like a well-to-do middle-aged white woman. For Stella, “to be white is to exert control over life” (Griffith 113). It turns out that Stella, by being a light-skinned black woman, contributes to the professional stigmatization of the black community herself. However, the woman cannot be blamed for this, as she is the bearer of cultural stereotypes and the public agenda embedded in society’s constructions of her identity socialization.
In contrast to Stella, Desiree seems like a wiser woman because she is not ashamed of her. Desiree does not use just one of her skin tones but instead lives as a proud, light, dark-skinned woman raising her dark-skinned daughter Jude. This is perfectly clear in Desiree’s refusal to use lightening creams to appear white to others. The woman does not need social approval but feels like a meaningful social unit. Thus, unlike Stella’s case, passing is not a problem for Desiree’s identity, even though the woman has faced racial discrimination throughout her life.
The effects of passing have been actual for the protagonists’ daughters. As a dark-skinned girl, Jude was not ashamed of her background and instead felt a sense of belonging to the black group. However, her skin color did not allow her to be viewed by those around her as purely black or white, so Lonnie displayed ambivalent behavior toward her; mocking and kissing at night because “in the dark, you could never be too black” (Bennett 104). This example illustrates the impossibility of holistically accepting a person as an individual but the need to label a person racially and stick to it only when convenient. Stella’s daughter was not dark-skinned, but her skin color was lighter than her mother’s. The presence of Kennedy’s passing was not a problem in socializing her identity, although she was genuinely interested in her family’s history, which was carefully concealed by Stella. However, the intertwining of the two narratives, Jude and Kennedy, was a prime example of how a perceived identity can be disrupted instantly. It is proper to quote Griffith, who said that “it is difficult to pin down identity if we are not identical to ourselves” (Griffith 115). In realizing her origins, Kennedy found herself confused about who she was.
In conclusion, skin-passing is not a universal problem for identifying oneself. As illustrated in Bennett’s novel The Vanishing Half, two twins with the same background and skin color can take differential paths depending on their motivations and goals. For Stella, passing has created a barrier to a holistic perception of herself as a person, which cannot be said for Desiree. At the same time, passivity led to ambivalence toward Jude and caused Kennedy to doubt her confidence. These examples described by Bennett demonstrate the impossibility of viewing passivity as a universal barrier to personality perception, and thus there are many more unexamined factors.
Bennett, Brit. The Vanishing Half. Riverhead Books, 2020.
Griffith, Tallulah. “The Vanishing Half: Brit Bennett Dialogue Books” Wasafiri, vol. 36, no. 4, 2021, pp. 113–115.