Passing for Racial Democracy

tags: racism, Brazilian History

Stephanie Reist is a writer and postdoctoral lecturer in Stanford University’s COLLEGE program. She received her PhD in Latin American Cultural Studies from Duke University. Her research focuses on youth movements, race, and public policy in the Baixada Fluminense, an urban periphery of Rio de Janeiro.

A CENTRAL POINT OF TENSION between Irene Redfield (played by Tessa Thompson) and her husband Dr. Brian Redfield (André Holland) in Rebecca Hall’s Passing, based on the Nella Larsen novel of the same name, is whether their family should remain in the United States. While Irene can pass for white out of convenience, the same is not true of her darker sons and her husband, who routinely informs his children about lynchings and white violence. Irene disapproves of this talk, despite her work for the Negro Welfare League. In one pivotal scene, she drives her tired husband home after a long day of visiting patients, and the couple discuss going to South America, specifically mentioning Brazil. The issue returns when the couple fights over the consuming role that Clare (Ruth Negga)—who has chosen to pass as white to the point of marrying a bigoted white husband and having a daughter with him—exerts in their lives and marriage.

In Larsen’s novel, Brian’s longing for Brazil, which becomes conflated with what Irene perceives as his desire for the effervescent, delightfully dangerous Clare, is even more pronounced: Brazil is the one that got away, Brian’s lost hope for a society where he and other black members of the talented tenth could be judged by their merits, not lynched because they failed to stay in their place. Irene even implicitly sanctions an affair between her husband and Clare to assuage her guilt for denying her family the chance to be truly “happy, or free, or safe”—a state she laments as impossible when speaking to Clare about her choice not to pass.

Hall captures the tension between the two women—a tension composed simultaneously of curiosity, revulsion, sexual desire, longing, envy, friendship, and even kinship—in a tight 4:3 frame that often lingers for too long on the characters’ faces. While we contemplate Irene and Clare’s faces, perhaps wondering if they really could pass (as many did on Twitter after seeing the film’s trailer), they are typically gazing at each other in order to contemplate their own choices. Just as Irene and Clare see each other as both distorting and clarifying reflections of themselves, Brazil and the United States have long looked to each other when it comes to the question of where to draw the color line.

While the film is clearly a period piece—the black and white cinematography not only “make[s] a mockery of [racial] categorizations” as Hall intended but also clearly situates us in the late 1920s of Larsen’s novel—it has already generated discussions about race in the present. Yet despite the characters’ own internationalist fantasies, those discussions remain bound to U.S. interpretations of race that stress how noxious and retrograde it is to understand race through phenotype. This argument is far from universal. In Brazilian universities right now, the Black Movement (o Movimento Negro) is fiercely defending the need to ask whether Clare or Irene could pass as black.

A 2008 article in Brazil’s newspaper of record, Folha De S. Paulo, declared former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso the “Champion of Whiteness.” A survey conducted by DataFolha, part of the same Grupo Folha media conglomerate as the newspaper, had asked nearly three thousand Brazilians to assign a color to several Brazilian celebrities. The survey limited the options to branco (white), preto (literally black, but more like dark skinned), pardo (essentially any shade between branco and preto), amarelo (literally yellow, used primarily for Brazil’s large Japanese population, especially in São Paulo, and its growing Chinese population), and indigenous (the only color that is explicitly an ethnic category). Seventy percent of participants considered Fernando Henrique Cardoso white, with his successor Lula da Silva coming in as what one can only presume is the runner-up of whiteness, with 45 percent of respondents identifying him that way. (Nearly 80 percent of respondents deemed the Brazilian musician Gilberto Gil preto, but this was neither discussed in the Folha article nor, apparently, worthy of a championship.) In explaining why Cardoso had “beat out” Lula, Brazilian anthropologist Antônio Risério insisted that “if people didn’t know that it was FHC, probably, just judging by his skin color, they would say he is a mulatto. But since it’s FHC, an intellectual, he passes as white.”

As the categories themselves, and Risério’s explanation, reveal, “color” and race are not always synonymous in the Brazilian context. Features like hair texture, education, place of origin and address, and social class all factor into how people conceive of color, resulting in what researcher Elizabeth Hordge-Freeman calls a traitocracy that is more complex than a pigmentocracy or simple colorism. Just as the Brazilian footballer Neymar has previously denied he is black, Ronaldo the Phenomenon famously insisted that he was ignorant of the racism that other players face because he’s white. But according to Ronaldo Vainfas, another academic interviewed by Folha, Ronaldo’s “hair gives him away.” In the case of Lula, respondents may have viewed him primarily as a “nordestino,” someone from Brazil’s Northeast. Nordestinos’ blackness and indigeneity—or proximity thereto, regardless of color—is believed to be the source of the region’s underdevelopment, and their accents and rural cultural habits are portrayed in films and television as the antithesis to Risério’s usually southern “intellectual.” Yet people can shave or straighten their hair, or hide where they are from and live, whereas race is generally more a question of ancestry, which may or may not be factored into color.

Read entire article at The Baffler