Irene, the central character of the book, believes in the power of systems and rules yet frequently finds herself in situations where the rules do not provide the orderly life she longs for. Although Irene is, like Clare, light-skinned enough to pass as white, she takes pride in living as a Black woman and feels a loyalty to her race. Irene draws a distinction between her passing for convenience in public white-only spaces, such as the Drayton Hotel, and Clare’s decision to pass socially in both public and in private, allowing those who know her personally to believe she is white. However, Irene’s decision to pass at the Drayton leads to her social passing in the privacy of Clare’s home, in the presence of Jack Bellew. Ultimately, Irene finds herself caught out for that action when Bellew encounters her with Felise and realizes she is actually Black. In this moment, Irene’s loyalty to her race causes her to snub Bellew, an action she quickly laments as she denounces her instinctive fidelity. The pride she holds so important has suddenly become impractical and burdensome, and the rules she lives by are now uncomfortably indistinct. 

Many of Irene’s decisions are driven by a desire for personal safety and the safety of her family, friends, and Black people as a group. This motivation sometimes places her in a contradictory position and forces her to act against her other values. Because she feels a duty to protect Clare, as a fellow Black person, she ironically cannot defend Black people in general against Bellew’s racist comments, since doing so would put Clare at risk of discovery and subsequent danger. Irene’s constant drive to keep herself safe makes her essentially conservative in many of her actions and puts her at odds with Brian: she will not consider his request to leave the United States for Brazil and objects to his efforts to teach their sons about topics she considers too adult. Paradoxically, her desire to protect the boys from knowledge of racist violence may make them less safe: Brian argues that shielding them from knowledge of racism will only leave them unprepared when they inevitably encounter it.