“White people were so stupid about such things for all that they usually asserted that they were able to tell; and by the most ridiculous means: fingernails, palms of hands, shapes of ears, teeth, and other equally silly rot.”

This quotation occurs in Part One, Chapter Two, as Irene sees Clare looking at her at the Drayton and wonders whether Clare, whom she has not yet recognized, might be staring because she suspects Irene of being a Black woman in a white-only space. Irene immediately dismisses the fear as absurd. She believes Clare is white, and that no white person can tell she is Black as long as she is not with other Black people. Larsen uses this moment to introduce the theme of the heightened awareness of marginalized people. Although white people believe they know enough about Blackness to keep segregated spaces white-only, Irene has contempt for their failure to see her Blackness. As a Black person, she believes she has a keener eye for racial identity. However, even as she thinks this, she believes Clare to be white, an example of irony in the text. 

“Yet lots of people ‘pass’ all the time.”

“Not on our side, Hugh. It's easy for a Negro to ‘pass’ for white. But I don't think it would be so simple for a white person to ‘pass’ for colored.”

“Never thought of that.”

"No, you wouldn't. Why should you?”

This quotation is a conversation between Hugh Wentworth and Irene at the Negro Welfare Dance, in Part Two, Chapter Three. The conversation at the dance underscores Larsen’s theme of marginalized people’s heightened awareness, as Irene corrects or adds greater nuance to many of Wentworth’s ideas about race. Wentworth’s speculations on Clare’s racial identity lead to a discussion of Irene’s understanding of Blackness as an intangible quality she discerns regardless of physical details. In this quotation, Irene points out that while Black people can pass as white, the reverse is not true. Larsen implies here that Black people can pass because whiteness can be studied and copied, while Blackness is a quality a person does or doesn’t have, one which cannot be faked. The connotation is that by necessity, Black people in the United States must learn how white people behave in order to mimic whiteness, while white people, as the dominant group, do not pay the same level of attention to Black culture. Wentworth’s comment that he has never considered the idea of a white person passing as Black underscores the ways he, even as a white person who socializes with Black people, does not have the heightened understanding Irene believes that she has. 

“I can't understand how anybody as intelligent as you like to think you are can show evidences of such stupidity.”

Brian says these words to Irene in Part Three, Chapter Four, as they argue over Brian’s desire to talk openly with their sons about racism and racist violence. While Irene wants the boys kept in a state of happy innocence, Brian understands the impossibility of keeping them ignorant. He points out that avoiding talking about racial slurs with them did not prevent Junior being the target of a slur. Brian understands racism differently from Irene, because he has dark skin and cannot pass, and therefore his awareness of what it means to be a marginalized person is more heightened than her own. Irene is Black, but she has light skin and thus avoids some of the discrimination Brian faces. Brian understands that Junior, who is also dark, will not have Irene’s privilege of overlooking racism when she wants to. In this scene, he is frustrated not that Irene’s experience is different, but that her experience has left her naïve to his. As someone more marginalized than Irene, Brian has a greater understanding of the lived realities of racism than Irene does.