“So What is Race Really?”: Keynote Speaker Brit Bennett Deconstructs Racial Identity

Brit Bennett, author of “The Vanishing Half,” delivered a keynote speech for the tenth annual Mixed Heritage Awareness Week in Kemper Auditorium on January 13. Hosted by MOSAIC, Andover’s mixed heritage affinity group, the event drew a variety of listeners from within and outside of the Andover community, including alumni, friends, and parents. 

Exploring the construction of racial identity in American society, Bennett’s speech centered around her acclaimed second novel, “The Vanishing Half,” which follows the divergent lives of Stella, who passes as white, and her twin Desiree, who does not. In her speech, Bennett discussed how works of literature on passing, like her novel, destabilize old understandings of race.

“Traditionally, the passer is a transgressive figure, crossing among social categories. [Stella] proves that the categories themselves are constructs. How real is race if it can be successfully performed? And what does it mean then to structure a society around a form of identity that is essentially performance? In ‘The Vanishing Half,’ Stella becomes white when she goes into an interview for a job and the receptionist mistakes her for a white girl… Race is so unstable in part because its construction requires the participation of others,” said Bennett

Unlike much writing on passing, however, Bennett did not want to dramatically reveal Stella’s identity to the rest of her community or force her towards an unhappy ending. Instead, Bennett was interested in exploring how Stella’s experience of passing changes throughout her life in ways both freeing and painful. 

“Passing teaches Stella that the rules of race that have governed her life so far are nonsense. In one sense that idea is liberating, but it also frustrates her. Race itself may be false, but its consequences are felt from the cradle to the grave… What does it mean that race is so flimsy that it can be performed, but so rigid that it can dictate the material reality of your life down to whether you have a life at all?… Ultimately, I wanted to write toward a more contemporary idea of racial identity that acknowledges that race is both a social construct and a lived reality, ” said Bennett.

Bennett’s speech resonated with many audience members, such as Una Basek, an audience member and aunt of Arjun Shah ’25. She appreciated Bennett’s examination of the experience of passing, connecting it to her own identity. 

“I was really intrigued by [Bennett’s] conversation around passing, because I was trying to think about the times that I have passed in the past. One of the ways I think I did was through assimilation. Back in the ’90s, when I went to high school, I was heavily assimilating, and actually trying to shed my Indian heritage. It made me think about the way I was passing as being preppy or athletic or anything other than being Indian,” said Bassett. 

Similarly, audience member Eliza Francis ’26 was fascinated by Bennett’s presentation. In particular, she related Bennett’s message that a person’s identity is always more complicated than language can fully capture to her academics at Andover. 

“I think [Bennett’s presentation] connects a lot to what I am learning in English class, and how language can be very diverse, and how identity is multifaceted, and cannot be defined by a singular thing,” said Francis. 

Aya Murata, the faculty advisor of MOSAIC, helped coordinate Bennett’s visit to campus after having dreamed of inviting Bennett since reading her debut novel, “The Mothers.” Murata shared her appreciation for the opportunity to learn about the thought process behind Bennett’s writing. 

“It’s always wonderful to have that up-close and personal opportunity to hear an author and think about what their writing process [was], who they are, and their humanity: how did they become a writer? What influences do they draw from? Things like that. I just always enjoy that bit of a more personal side of a novel that you might pick up and be like, ‘Oh, nice book,’ but now I know a bit more of the backstory,” said Murata. 

Furthermore, Murata also related to Bennett’s examination of the social construction and consequences of race because of her own biracial identity and experiences. 

“As someone who identifies as biracial — Japanese and white — I think there are lots of points in my life where, in different circumstances, [I wonder] how I’m being perceived, how am I changing who I am in this moment because of the influences and the spaces I am in. Lots of different parts of [Bennett’s] novel definitely gave me a lot of food for thought,” said Murata.