Internalized Racism. Longing for Whiteness in Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye
Race has been for a long time a problematic issue almost present at a large scale in everyday life, and since it has been an inevitable issue faced mostly by ‘black’ people, it has moved to touch different literary forms such as the novel. Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, as a case in point, orbits around the theme of race in a thorough manner to the extent that it brings the reader closer to the inner psyche of the discriminated characters namely Pecola (the main character) and Cholly (the main character’s father). Toni Morison in her debut novel tackles racism in the context of 1940s just after the WW II. This period of time is characterized by the “Female Phase’’ which paved the way for the emphasis on the women’s psychology, their experiences and characteristics (Peter Barry 118). Drawing on the psychoanalysis of the French scholars of the 60s and 70s of the previous century, Toni Morrison has obtained a timely possibility to cleverly depict what is taking place inside the psyche of each character. One of these psychological issues is ‘Internalized Racism’. Internalized Racism is a self-oppressive attitude that assures the continuity of race among the racialized stratum of people, or in Kira Hudson Banks’s and Jadah Stephens’ terms, “Internalized racial oppression [is] the ways in which a member of a target group is in relationship with the dominant group’s ideology and the extent to which they accept their subordinate status as deserved, natural, and inevitable” (93). In other words, this debased view about the self is an accepted and a well-constructed ideology going hand in hand with the Whites’ standards and principles held on the basis of difference (Whites versus Blacks).
1. Stereotyping Blackness
Internalized racism is both an ideological problematic and psychological issue. It starts first as a social construct then it goes deeper and deeper to become an embedded and internalized issue—accepted and rarely questioned. That is to say, it is assured by “the acceptance of the negative societal beliefs and stereotypes about themselves” (Kira Hudson Banks and Jadah Stephens 94). The social touches on the construction of this self oppressive experience can be felt first and foremost in relation to beliefs and stereotypes. In The bluest Eye the color black is excessively linked to bad stereotypes such as ugliness, savageness, dirtiness among others.
The color black throughout the novel is associated with dirtiness and filthiness. It is given a bad image on the basis of social generalization which goes down from an old generation to a young one to stick profoundly to their mindset and attitudes. The niggers of the novel are far distanced from neatness and cleanness due to their skin color which is much more close to blackness. This stereotype is refashioned mostly at an early age as is the case in The Bluest Eye. White kids of the novel are inculcated into the belief that Niggers are dirty while Whites are neat and identifiable; they are marked by both whiteness and cleanness: “his mother did not like him to play with niggers. She had explained to him the difference between colored people and niggers. They were easily identifiable. Colored people were neat and quiet; niggers were dirty and loud” (Morrison 87).
This link which associates blackness with dirt and filthiness continues more overwhelmingly to reach people of color, and they adopt it as a natural fact. It becomes an internalized attitude even among blacks. In this regard, Frantz Fanon in his renowned book White Mask, Black Skins stresses that the youngsters are more likely to adopt “a white man’s attitude” and assume it is a sort of “sacrificial dedication” which is at the same time a self-oppression that batters their own race (114). Similarly, Pecola, Frieda and Claudia, who represent the young generation of people of color, go through the same sacrificial dedication of Fanon. They always regard dirty places as their place where they should belong; they hang out only in the filthy places and “could go up the alley and see what’s in the trash cans” (Morrison 26), being dressed in dirty clothes:
She looked at Pecola. Saw the dirty torn dress, the plaits sticking out on her head, hair matted where the plaits had come undone, the muddy shoes with the wad of gum peeping out from between the cheap soles… (Morrison 94).
On the other hand, blackness in the novel is a very identifiable standard on which white people could build a difference between brutality and gentleness. When Pecola, for instance, goes to the doctor to examine her pregnancy conditions, she is put under the white’s gaze that reduces Pecola’s humanity to a mere animality (a horse): “They [blacks] deliver right away and with no pain. Just like horses” (Morrison 124), and earlier when she visits the store , the storekeeper’ s humiliating glance turns her to nothing: “ He looks toward her …. he senses that he need not waste the effort of a glance”( Morisson 48). It stands clear, then, that Morrison tries to depict how prejudices held against African American community go farther to humiliate and turn them into ‘animals’ who are noteven worth looking at, as Weiqiang Mao and others assume, “For Morrison, white gaze would render blacks as merely low forms of animals”(25). In other words, “the black body was subhuman and didn’t deserve the rights of human beings” (Corrin Pinkney 94).
Besides, the black color, also, has been associated with ugliness; that is, the blacker a person is the uglier he/she becomes, and such a flawed relation is prevalent and accepted without questioning it. African American characters (namely Pecola) in The bluest Eye are “poor and black … they believed they were ugly… they had each accepted it without question” (Morrison 39); they are distanced from beauty on the basis of their possession of a black skin, curly hair and flat noses. These features, in Ela Przybyło’s opinion, “are essential to constructions of ‘difference’, ‘abnormality’ and ‘ugliness’”(7). In other words, being a black is a pretext to be marginalized and spotted as a different, abnormal person and thus ugly. Likewise, Pecola grabs this attitude by being exposed to the whites ‘dominant attitudes and taking them for granted. So, the image of beauty becomes always attached to whites’ features and facial appearance and distanced psychologically from blacks’, because The former are glorified and depicted “in positions of power” and superiority and their whiteness is a privilege, while the blacks who are “the marginalized group [are] often framed as inferior or less than the group in power [the whites]” (94).
2. Longing for Whiteness
Going through this cheap and stereotyped signification of blackness and its being deeply embedded in the psyche of blacks, the internalized connotations of whiteness on the other hand has been associated with positive images: beauty, freedom and superiority. Being affected by the dominant ideology of white people, blacks have become more integrated into the constructed longing for white beauty standards, and they have gained a strong willingness to become whites to the extend they prefer the white standards over theirs. In this vein Corrin Pinkney assumes that the preference of whiteness over blackness among blacks is just an ideology which is deeply rooted in their psyche: “The ideology that being white was better than being black became imbedded into the black psyche as a result of this treatment” (94), as stated, it is a result of the treatment of whiteness as a privilege and blackness as a demerit— this treatment constructs a preference of white values over blacks’ when it is compared with the mistreatment of the latter. In the novel the reader will learn that the people of color are stripped of all kinds of humanity and cast away from humane treatments, unlike white. For instance, the comparison that Pecola makes when she meets Maureen Peal at school is one way of constructing this eagerness after whiteness, her focus is laid mainly on what makes the less dark girl better than and superior to her; the brown girl is regarded “as rich as the richest of the white girls”, with expensive clothes and well treatment:
She enchanted the entire school. When teachers called on her, they smiled encouragingly. Black boys didn’t trip her in the halls; white boys didn’t stone her, white girls didn’t suck their teeth when she was assigned to be their work partners; black girls stepped aside when she wanted to use the sink in the girls’ toilets, and their eyes genuflected under sliding lids (Morrison 26).
As a result of this treatment, Pecola concludes that being less black or white is far better than being black. Her journey to the imaginary metamorphosis into a blue-eyed girl starts when she begins ‘worshiping’ white models like Shirley Temple and drinking a lot of milk from the white cup on the bottom of which the image of Shirley is drawn. In this respect Adrian Goldman assures that the constructed image of beauty is fashioned through media texts such as model’s postcards, social effects and comparative judgments, as he states, “Young women’s ideas of beauty are created in part by mediated images, interpersonal influences, and social comparison” (Adria Goldman 5).
This interpersonal influence is felt at a superficial level particularly when Pecola’s friends become aware of this adoration: “We knew she was fond of the Shirley Temple cup and took every opportunity to drink milk out of it just to handle and see sweet Shirley’s face” (Morrison 23), and also they are affected by Pecola ‘s adoration, and they learn later on how to love, adore and “worship” Shirley Temple as if she were a real temple, as Claudia blurts out in her narration: “It was a small step to Shirley Temple. I learned much later to worship her, just as I learned to delight in cleanliness, knowing, even as I learned, that the change was adjustment without improvement” (Morrison 23). Although she hated this model at first, her ideas changed later as a step to assimilate with white standards and thus stigmatize the black ones. However, in Claudia’s case, whiteness is also associated with having romantic relationships, that is, being white or at least having some white spots on her skin will assure her a partner or partners in the future: “My supply of ideas exhausted, I began to concentrate on the white spots on my ﬁngernails. The total signiﬁed the number of boyfriends I would have. Seven” (Morrison 27). In other words, being too black is the worst luck one can have because it has become an internalized stereotypical fact among black communities that being too dark means too ugly and then no boy would approach them—a fact which is supported by the light-colored young girls’ ongoing and supportive stereotypes in the novel, such as Maureen’s conception of darker people: “I am cute! And you ugly! Black and ugly black e mos. I am cute!”” (Morrison 73). That is to say, even though Maureen belongs to a black community she stigmatizes others of a darker black color, forgetting that she is also a member of this community.
Also, the image of whiteness is regarded as a sweet thing. Alongside its constructed beauty, whiteness gains a ‘sweet’ connotation: the white people are sweeter than the black as Pecola and Claudia conceive it in their interactions with Whites:
Each pale yellow wrapper has a picture on it. A picture of little Mary Jane, for whom the candy is named. Smiling white face. Blond hair in gentle disarray, blue eyes looking at her out of a world of clean comfort. The eyes are petulant, mischievous. To Pecola they are simply pretty. She eats the candy, and its sweetness is good. To eat the candy is somehow to eat the eyes, eat Mary Jane. Love Mary Jane. Be Mary Jane” (Morisson50) (emphasis is mine).
Naming candy after a white model with ‘blond hair’, ‘smiling face’ and ‘blue eyes’ is to associate white, ‘beautiful’ people with sweetness, and to eat candy is “to eat the eyes” of white people and dream day in day out to some point where she cannot give up on dreaming nor succumb to praying:
Each night, without fail, she prayed for blue eyes. Fervently, for a year she had prayed. Although somewhat discouraged, she was not without hope. To have something as wonderful as that happen would take a long, long time. (Morrison 46)
So, being affected by this adoration and its psychological consequences, Pecola gives an ideal definition to beauty: to be beautiful is to have blue eyes.
By way of conclusion, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye tackles the issue of internalized racism through a twofold inspection which examines the stereotyped conception of blackness on one hand, and the ideological conception of whiteness on the other. The black skin, throughout the novel, is stereotypically associated with ‘ugliness’, ‘dirt’ and ‘animality’, which is a view that goes deeply into the recess of Pecola’s, Frieda’s and Claudia’s psyche. Contrariwise, the white skin and blue eyes are ideologically idealized by connecting them with beauty, superiority, and sweetness. Thus, the black community of the novel goes around the adoration of white standards, and they neglect their beauty which dwells in celebrating their black race (negritude).
Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. 3rd edition. New York: Palgrave Mcmillian, 2009.
Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. Trans. Charles Lam Markman. UK: Pluto Press, 2008.
Hudson Banks, Kira and Richard D. Harvey. ‘The Intersection of Colorism and Racial Identity and the Impact on the Mental Health’. Making Meaning, Internalized Racism, and African American Identity. Ed. Jas M. Sullivan & William E. Cross Jr.. New York: Suny Press, 2016.
Goldman, Adria. ‘Identifying Ugliness, Defining Beauty: A focus Group and Reaction of Ugly Betty’ . The Qualitative Report, Vol. 19, No. 10, 2014, pp. 1-19.
Mao, Weiqiang and Migquan Zhang. ‘Beloved and Oppositional Gaze’. English Language Teaching. China: CCSE, Vol. 02, No. 03, 2009, pp. 27-34.
Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. New York: Vintage Books, 2009.
Pinkney, Corrin. ‘The Effects of Internalized Oppression on the Black Community’. Fall 2012 ENC 1102, 2012, pp. 94-100.
Przynbylo, Ela. ‘The Politics of Ugliness’. The politics and Aesthetics. University of Alberta, No. 16, pp. 1-26.
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