“I Don’t See Color”: Racism

Personally, few things are more infuriating when you can see that there is a problem and others can also see that there is a problem but the supervisor/teacher/parent/authority figure denies it or just claim not being aware of it. Sometimes, it’s laziness. Sometimes, it’s an “ignorance is bliss” defense but it is indefensible to those who are affected.

This is essentially what color-blind racism is. It boils down the present as to be just being the present with no historical, social or political influences taken into account and looking at an individual as having full agency instead of being one part of many within our society. None of us are truly self-made beings; our values and beliefs are shaped by the society we grow up in, our attitudes and behaviors are modelled by those we deem role models, and punishments and lessons teach us what’s right and wrong. It is not until we are at a significantly ripe age mentally that we are even able to self-reflect and see the effects of our environment and the people around us on our development and what we hold dear. However, these are just values and beliefs and behaviors that everyone is subjected to within a society. Other factors like gender, race, class, sexuality, gender identity, sexual orientation, ability, etc. limit us in other ways.

Our societal systems ascribe certain essential attributions to groups of people under each of those categories and these attributions may come in the form of stereotypes but also manifest within our policies, our culture, how employers hire new employees, the production and consumption of media, and similarly pervades every other facet of society. There might be some inclination of guilt if one is privileged by such a system that disadvantages everyone else but again, the individual often has little to do with the power structure already in place so rather than a passive hopelessness and paralysing guilt, there needs to be a proactive effort to seek out the ways how this privilege manifests and to challenge it wherever it is seen in your life. As he does best, here’s James Baldwin on color-blindness in 1968:

Here’s a transcript for some of what he says that are particularly relevant today:

“I don’t know what most white people in this country feel, but I can only conclude what they feel from the state of their institutions. I don’t know if white Christians hate Negroes or not, but I know we have a Christian church that is white and a Christian church that is black. I know, as Malcolm X once put it, the most segregated hour in American life is high noon on Sunday.

That says a great deal for me about a Christian nation. It means I can’t afford to trust most white Christians, and I certainly cannot trust the Christian church.

I don’t know whether the labor unions and their bosses really hate me — that doesn’t matter — but I know I’m not in their union. I don’t know whether the real estate lobby has anything against black people, but I know the real estate lobby is keeping me in the ghetto. I don’t know if the board of education hates black people, but I know the textbooks they give my children to read and the schools we have to go to.

Now, this is the evidence– you want me to make an act of faith, risking myself, my wife, my woman, my sister, my children on some idealism which you assure me exists in America, which I have never seen.”

**If you haven’t read or seen any of his work, I highly suggest checking them out.**

Let’s look at a modern-day example:

The San Francisco Housing Crisis

There are several examples I would like to look at within the context of this housing crisis. First, there is the invisibility of poverty that is relegating the homeless people of San Francisco to the sidelines and the physical fringes of society because people don’t want to see them and local governments take great pains to keep them out of public spaces. Then, there are the historical processes that started with slavery and continues today with redlining, income inequality and other everyday cases of racism that further push and keep minority populations down the socioeconomic ladder.

Then, there is the circular relationship between reality, perception and discrimination. There is a racist preconception existing in the American psyche that black men (especially those of lower socioeconomic status) are violent and a danger to society and themselves, that black women are nymphos that have kids from multiple men and live off of government welfare.

The perception of black people as being the majority of the homeless and the meritocratic assumption that people are homeless because they’re lazy and/or are drug addicts leads to less effort to support the homeless community and ignores existing racist institutional practices and historical maltreatment which does nothing to alleviate the problem and so the cycle continues.

News footage shows us the homeless population in these urban centers as being predominantly black, which is not reflected in the statistics (over 30% of the homeless population in SF are black while they make up less than 10% of the city’s overall population).

The statistics above show us two things: 1) African-Americans are overrepresented in the homeless population, 2)African-Americans are overrepresented in the media.

People naturally seek out what confirms their preconceptions (confirmation bias) and the media footage proves that. That confirmation strengthens the previous biases and justifies them. Meanwhile, the underlying reasons why this huge population of people are homeless remain untouched.

Why are there so many single mothers caught in the mass evictions in San Francisco? Does it have anything to do with the over-policing of black communities that often land black men in jail? Perhaps the lack of access to adequate education and the school-to-prison pipeline that lock members of the community out of a job market that increasingly sees a college education as a minimal requirement, therefore keeping them poor and uneducated? Is it the lack of good financing options/de facto segregation that pushes minority populations out of desirable housing markets and into situations where they’re more likely to default?

It’s all three and more. What mass incarceration is doing to the men of minority communities, eviction is doing to the women. It pushes the narrative of this dysfunctional community of thugs and loose morals and a regressive lifestyle. But hearing the news stories and seeing the pictures of homeless black women with their children don’t tend to evoke these discussions about how the system has consistently treated them as second-class citizens or why so many of the minority populations have ended up concentrated on the lower rungs of the social ladder.

Color-blindness ignores all context and points at an individual’s shortcomings to blame for their situation in life. Why are there so many single black mothers? Because the men were taken away to be locked in jail. Why were the men committing crimes? Crimes rates are higher in majority-minority communities and also for lower-income communities. Is it because these communities had more criminals or were there just more policing? In these communities and for those targeted as part of the “efforts to crack down on crime”, even (jay)walking can turn into tense, potentially life-threatening encounters.

As far as it goes, fraud and embezzlement are as much stealing as larceny or burglary and the former often involves far greater amounts of money but it’s easy to see how the treatment of those convicted of them differ vastly from each other.

However, even that is questionable because we’ve seen over and over again how the criminal justice system treats those who pass through it. As far as it goes, fraud and embezzlement are as much stealing as larceny or burglary and the former often involves far greater amounts of money but it’s easy to see how the treatment of those convicted of them differ vastly from each other. The way we see those crimes as a society and how they’re portrayed in the media are certainly different because it’s not that richer people don’t commit crimes, it’s that their crimes and their actions are afforded more privacy and, with more power and better lawyers, they can more often get out of convictions (just look at what’s come into light since #MeToo).

There are so many layers to how our society and its institutions consistently favor some over others and once you start looking, it never ends. It’s hard not to get overwhelmed. For example, social mobility in the US is minimal; very few actually move up the socioeconomic ladder. For a country where social mobility (i.e. The American Dream) is lauded as one of the nation’s great virtues, its social classes are remarkably stable. That’s because social and cultural capital figure into how many and what type of resources people have access to and the ways upwards are increasingly exclusive and hostile to those trying to move up.

Intergenerational wealth is also a huge factor; there is very little an individual can amass against the power and influence of a fortune that’s been accumulating for several centuries; even more so in a country with minorities like African-Americans who literally didn’t have any money for most of American history and were kept from any significant means of supporting themselves even after “liberation”.

“…there is very little an individual can amass against the power and influence of a fortune that’s been accumulating for several centuries…”

Let’s talk about something else. Native American mascots:

I could only find partial clips on YouTube but the entire documentary is worth watching.

There is this notion that everyone is somehow “equal through consumption”. You can see it in how minority cultures are seen as things to be appropriated and gentrified. For example, black culture has long been commercialised to great success by celebrities and artists to be “edgy” and “counterculture” but the people that the cultural symbols came from whether it be the way they speak, the clothes they wear or the music they create, the original creators and holders of this culture are ridiculed and seen as uneducated, “ghetto” and a multitude of other stereotypes and slurs.

It is the same way with Native American mascots. We say, “What? It’s just a mascot. It’s not hurting anyone.” But it is. By commercialising and making a cultural symbol a commodity, a spectacle, it is the erasure of the original purpose and meaning of this symbol. It is the usurpation of what a community holds dear and is part of their identity. But it is not all abstract either. The reactions to abolishing Native American mascots are very real. Activists get attacked, spit on and receive death threats. If it is only a symbol, only for fun, as they say, then why such a hostile reaction to doing away with it?

It’s the sense of entitlement and the interruption of the comfort people had twisting another people’s sacred symbols for their own entertainment. This interruption of their comfort zone, this accusation of racist intent, of insensitivity. How dare they make me uncomfortable in a place I should belong?

Of course, this sort of casual comfort with disregarding the sanctity of others’ culture doesn’t limit itself to thoughts and “harmless” fun for sports games. Something else that Charlene Teters (the Native American woman speaking in the documentary) mentions later on is that the vestiges of Native American culture are doubly precious because its preservation has been fought for through bloodshed and struggle. To diminish that culture is to mock those ancestors who died being ripped from their homes, those that died fighting to protect their people and their lands, those initial Native Americans struck down by foreign disease and the Native children that were “re-educated” through Indian boarding schools.

That is what people don’t think about when talking about political correctness. That is what people don’t think about when they see paraphernalia for sports teams with Native mascots in gift shops. It should be. It’s not some abstract concept about what is an “appropriate” opinion in polite society. It affects real people. Looking at it from a colorblind stance where you only see the mascot as a harmless bit of fun during football halftimes is willful ignorance of a people’s heritage and history. A true understanding of the situation requires knowledge of history and an awareness of others and their perspectives.

“…politics is what gets to decide if you are counted as a person. It decides your rights and your access to resources and public facilities…. whether the law will protect you or hang you out to dry.”

Then, there are those like the Yale professor in the James Baldwin video above that was about to say “Not all white people are racist!” and more or less did complain about Baldwin “pulling the race card”. You might complain, “why does everything need to be political?” But you have to remember that politics is what gets to decide if you are counted as a person in this country. It decides your rights and your access to resources and public facilities. It decides whether the law will protect you or hang you out to dry.

Things like the Census are integral to this. For example, the first Census had three categories: free whites, all other free persons, slaves. Since it is a Census year in 2020, this is a reminder to take the Census seriously because it not only determines the distribution of representatives, it also determines the resources allocated to a population and if minorities are undercounted, as they likely will be, then the government funds set aside for our development won’t reach the communities that need it.

Only those who can live comfortably knowing that their government and elected officials will represent them and have their best interests at heart can afford to hold the worldview that the personal, the moral and the political can be separated. For the rest of us, colorblindness makes us invisible and that is deeply problematic where the visibility of a population dictates how kindly we are treated.

More Reading Material

Police Bait Truck: Entrapment?

Bubble Tea and How it Figures into East Asian-American Identity

Race, Class, and the Framing of Drug Epidemics

**Featured Image is of the payroll of African-Americans, both enslaved and free, that built the Capital.**

July 2019 Quote of the Month

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” 

― James Baldwin

Othering and Purity Culture

I recently finished Pure, a book about the purity movement in evangelical Christianity (and beyond)and the psychological effects it has left on the generation of girls that grew up under it. It’s a really good read and offered me a lot of insight into the minds of a community that I have always had a hard time understanding. (I don’t have firsthand experience being immersed in this sort of culture so please read the book if you’re interested in learning more.) In it, there was one idea that really struck a chord with me — a lightbulb went off:

Othering (n.) – The process of perceiving or portraying someone or something as fundamentally different or alien.

So today, we’re going to explore a little part of the purity culture with the concept of othering as well as some other topics to explore a little more about the human condition. **To be clear, in relation to our discussion about purity culture, I will be focusing on the effects on women; for some sources exploring how it has affected people more broadly, check out the bottom of the article for additional resources.**

Purity Culture

In the book, the concept was introduced when the author pointed out that many within the communities that adopted the purity movement saw how it was affecting their children negatively with none of the benefits that it was supposed to guarantee (lower sexual activity, delayed sexual “debut”, lower teen pregnancy rates, etc.) and yet did nothing about it. The leaders of the communities often also refused to acknowledge the damage done to the members of their community. Even those close to victims could often found to be unsympathetic or worse, judgmental. Why?

There is a prevalent sense of shame associated with any deviation from this culture. Those who deviate aren’t worthy, unsaved, dirty, used, and somehow less. To further enforce these ideas, some communities associate the deviations with biases and prejudices the community may hold, subconscious or otherwise. These biases/prejudices may be based on race, class, ethnicity or religiosity (and obviously, being a gendered issue and also affecting women disproportionately, gender). This, then, introduces a strong divide in what people perceive that those that are like and those that are unlike themselves. Since much of the US’s, and indeed, the world’s Christian communities are heavily influenced and dominated by those considering themselves Caucasians and evangelical, the out-group will be made of those who are decidedly not those things. Subconsciously or not, people who are sexually active, sexually expressive, sex positive, have been r*ped/assaulted etc. will be thought of being black/brown, poor, uneducated, atheistic, etc. and therefore, not the image of a good, white Christian so these sort of things will never happen to them. This obviously will play out in the many ways these beliefs can manifest in racist acts etc. but we won’t talk about that now.

There is a prevalent sense of shame associated with any deviation from this culture. Those who deviate aren’t worthy, they’re unsaved, dirty, used, and somehow less. To further enforce these ideas, some communities associate those who deviate with biases and prejudices the community may hold, subconscious or otherwise. These biases/prejudices may be based on race, class, ethnicity or religiosity (and obviously, being a gendered issue and also affecting women disproportionately, gender). This, then, introduces a strong divide in what people perceive that those that are like and those that are unlike themselves.

Since much of the US’s, and indeed, the world’s Christian communities are heavily influenced and dominated by those who identify as Caucasians and evangelical, the out-group will be made of those who are decidedly not those things. When being a virgin and untouched is synonymous with being a good Christian girl while those used as an example of a sexual sinner is someone who is homeless, a minority, an immigrant or someone who dresses “immodestly”, then when confronted with a Christian girl who isn’t sexually “pure”, many would try to ignore it in hopes of denying the fact that it could happen within a good Christian community. This is especially troubling when faced with issues like pedophilia, r*pe and other forms of sexual abuse.

Failing to conform to the standards of sexuality makes one as other as someone who is not accepted within the community. Such guidelines create room for other implicit interpretations which leads to ostracizing the “others” instead of addressing whether their inability to conform is their fault or if the guidelines themselves too unforgiving. Someone who is sexually assaulted is at fault for “not fighting back hard enough” or for being a “tease”. Nonconformity immediately places one outside the umbrella of protection offered by the Christian community. No longer are you a child of God being tested by the devil but someone who must be avoided so that the unacceptable behavior does not become acceptable by mere exposure or “infect” the rest of the pious community. The book goes into more detail with personal accounts of how this culture has created an atmosphere of almost constant shame and anxiety even when individuals hadn’t done anything to be ashamed or anxious about.

And the thing is, this doesn’t even touch on the fact that this seems to leave some Christian minorities perpetually with two bad options. If you fit the stereotype, then it enforces their beliefs and is used as justification for ill treatment. If you don’t, there is still a sense of shame and fear moreso because you’re seen as more likely to “succumb” to it. For example, black girls are often seen as more sexually mature and more capable of adult-like thought than their white counterparts and are punished more severely as a result. This happens despite the fact that black girls cannot control the rate at which their bodies mature and are often sexualised at a young age (starting as young as five). This intersection of both race and gender under this religious context creates a doubly toxic environment for those growing up with it.

Intra-Racial Dynamics

The effects of interracial dynamics whether positive or negative are well-documented especially between groups that have in contact for thousands of years but those within a race are less obvious and less understood. There is othering within racial groups as well that cause significant social issues. Race has been simplified in large part to skin color in the history of the US and it plays a huge role in how the in-groups are formed within a racial minority. In Asia, colorism is highly prevalent and can be seen in everyday media, marketing and in the popularity of whitening creams. This exists to a large extent in most of the world touched by Western influences. White was beautiful, dark was not. This creates the lighter-skinned in-groups and the darker-skinned out-groups.

This not only impacts people’s opportunities for social and economic mobility but also exposes them to discrimination from their own racial group in an effort to distinguish more markedly the difference between the two groups, though oftentimes the differences were non-existent and based on stereotype. Think of Dr. Bledsoe‘s character in Invisible Man.

Because of these divides within the communities, it undermines any effort to progress the group’s rights or status as some within the group are content to cater to the majority by stepping on others within their group.


I didn’t go into a lot of detail in this second part so I’ll leave some supplementary material below if you would like to learn more.

Let us know what you think in the comments or the contact form, follow us or leave us some appreciation on our Patreon if you would like to support future articles.

In any case, hope you’ve learned something new and we’ll talk to you next time,

——

Written by LtDemonLord
Edited by Nemoulysseus

4-Part Analysis of Invisible Man (Part 4)

[Synthesis with “Nomenclatures of Invisibility” by Mahtem Shiferraw]

This poem resonates with Brother Clifton’s last moments and what his actions near the end meant. There are two things to be considered when talking about what happened when the IM sees Brother Clifton for the last time. One side says that Brother Clifton, by trying to sell the Sambo dolls, is mocking those who smile and let others step on them like the caricature that the Sambo dolls represent. His actions could also be explained by the fact that he’s given up hope, seeing the organisation he’s worked in moving further and further away from its original goal and is acting out of desperation or a sense of hopelessness. This can be seen in the lines highlighted in the second to last stanza where it refers both to the “yes” man Sambo represents and the fact that the white man is untrustable when it comes to the fate of the brother, where, in almost every instance in the book, the white men (except Emerson Jr.) have been working against the black people, working ruin among the black community with honeyed words and empty promises (in Clifton’s case, the power-hungry Jack).

The second stanza, with brothers being lost at sea, can also be linked to the fact that not all the black characters in the book like Brockway and Bledsoe are interested in the advancement of their people aka being lost at sea. The next section is about mothers burning without being able to put it out. The first thing I thought of was the memory the IM has about his grandfather and how his mother had reacted to his grandfather’s words, ushering the children out of the room. She could be one of the brothers lost at sea too, a Sambo doll. On the other hand, it also reminds me of how black women were often raped by their masters and they couldn’t do anything about it. Nobody would listen to them and it happens over and over again. This ties back to the prologue where one of the things that the IM hallucinates while listening to music was a black woman talking about her mulatto sons and about how she both hates the man who raped her and loves him for giving her her sons so she is tormented by this paradox. I think this is characteristic of a lot of people are told to listen to others. Their instructors try to force them into a reality that the listener knows is somehow wrong but they’re unable to grasp it because it’s all they know so they get confused. This is true of the oppressed whether it be a race or an innocent child.


[On how the IM was able to portray the realities of living as a black man]

Since we’re nearing the conclusion of the book, I want to look into the effect of political satire and the sort of cynical commentary featured in this book.

To start with, it has been noted that the late night shows have been instrumental especially in the past two years in keeping people informed. With the official news outlets being bombarded with new scandalous headlines every day, viewers aren’t able to focus on any one issue for a significant time and the result is that often, the trivial and the scandalous takes prominence over the more mundane aspects of national news and this is dangerous. The mundane may consist of Congress’s activities, it may be events in foreign policy or it may be about the numerous movements taking place in the country right now.

http://www.oxfordhandbooks.com/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199793471.001.0001/oxfordhb-9780199793471-e-29

Excerpts:

Early studies of the content of late-night comedy monologues suggested that late-night political jokes tended to focus on the executive branch and were almost “devoid’ of policy content, focusing instead on personalities and weaknesses of individual politicians (Niven, Lichter, and Amundson, 2003). Recent research on the content of televised political humor complicates these initial observations. The themes included in the content of The Daily Show, for example, are often more issue-oriented than those of Leno or Letterman (National Annenberg Election Survey, 2004). In fact, scholars have found comparable treatment of substantive issues across the content of The Daily Show and network news broadcasts during the same time period (Fox, Koloen, and Sahin, 2007).

 

During the past decade, several reports from the Pew Center for the People and the Press concluded that young people, more so than older people, were increasingly reporting learning about politics from comedy shows (Pew, 2004). At the same time, young people were reporting lower rates of learning from traditional news programming. Yet the contention that young people are abandoning traditional news in favor of comedy programming is not supported by existing research (Young and Tisinger, 2006). Youthful late-night comedy viewers are more likely to be consuming news on cable networks, on the radio, and online than their non-comedy-viewing counterparts. Cross-sectional studies also contradict the assumption of the “politically disengaged” audience, as late-night comedy viewers, particularly those of the Daily Show, are more politically knowledgeable, more participatory, and more attentive to politics than non-late-night viewers (Brewer and Cao, 2006; Brewer, Young, and Morreale, 2013; Cao, 2010; Cao and Brewer, 2008; Young and Tisinger, 2006).

 

Qualitative and cultural research has chronicled how and why the once-strict divide between entertainment and news no longer exists (Baym, 2009a; Williams and Delli Carpini, 2002), and that scholars should explore political humor not as an alternative to political information, but as an alternative form of political information (Baym, 2009b). Work by Baym (2005, 2009a) highlights how political humor challenges the notion that journalistic practices such as objectivity and sensationalism are necessary or beneficial to society. Work by Jones (2009) and Van Zoonen (2005) suggests that by addressing political themes outside the traditional elite model of political discourse, political humor might invite more people into the political conversation.

 

Analysis:

One of the points raised in the paper was about how political commentary is more engaging to the audience so people pay more attention and connect more personally with what’s being said. I think this is true in a lot of instances in IM. The IM himself doesn’t have a name nor does he have a physical description so he is supposed to be the ultimate conduit to conduct us into his world and experience his frustrations and setbacks from his point-of-view. Since the narrator is the IM from the future, the tone in various parts of the story has a sort of irony where the situation at hand is described and the IM having an inadequate reaction. It is as if he was mocking his past naivety. Ellison also draws upon the political climate during the 50s and makes parallels to historical figures like W.E.B Du Bois and Carver Washington. More importantly, because the IM has a relatable background as a college-educated citizen, even those who aren’t able to identify with his plight can imagine the scenarios described may affect themselves. By making scenarios really personal with parallels to real life, Ellison not only can provide criticism especially when the innocent IM is horribly mistreated but also put these scenarios in a more pronounced setting than what a typical person would experience, safely removing the reader from experiencing too personally some of the more morbid and graphic scenes in the book. In all, the form of a novel allowed Ellison to more deeply explore the more nuanced aspects of a black person’s life and allowed the readers to better understand them and be more willing to accept them as real. 

4-Part Analysis of Invisible Man (Part 3)

[Synthesis with “Caged Bird” by Mary Angelou]

I thought this poem was very representative of the IM’s internal dissonance in what he’s doing and in what he’s feeling. This something that we see throughout the book but in these hundred pages, we also see him assume another identity; one of a public speaker for the Brotherhood. When he makes the speech for the old lady who was getting kicked out, he got his first taste of power. Before, when he makes speeches, he was ignored and talked over. This time, he had the power over the crowd and managed to make the authorities lose ground. After he joins the Brotherhood, he is indoctrinated into the ideals of the Brotherhood and he’s taught to use the science-oriented rhetoric they use. However, with his newfound ability, he also has restrictions on him that he’s never had before. This is can be seen in how although the IM is “allowed” to sing, his wings are still clipped and his feet are still tied. They tell him that he has to make speeches the way the Brotherhood makes speeches (through an appeal to logos, not to pathos like he’s used to) and he was specifically told that he shouldn’t “underestimate the discipline [of the Brotherhood]” meaning that although he’s been given an elevated position, he is still tied to the Brotherhood and has to listen to what the group decides. This will come up later during the trial, which we will not talk about just yet.

Like a caged bird who sings fearfully, the atmosphere of uncertainty that surrounds his position in the Brotherhood and as he became more involved in the Brotherhood, a feeling that something bad is going to happen grows. The first big cue for this was in the scene where the IM was taken to El Toro in the middle of the night. There are several things that gave off a bad vibe. First is the calendar that he notices. The date is April 1st, April Fool’s Day. So, whatever is coming up isn’t going to be good for the IM as he’s been playing the fool the entire book. We know enough of Brother Jack’s character now to know that he’s in the Brotherhood more for power than for change as he treats the IM as a means to an end and not as an individual. The other smaller detail is in the name of the place, El Toro, or the bull in Spanish. So, effectively, the IM is getting bull and being played for a fool.


[The IM treated as a means in The Brotherhood]

The Washington Post on how the fate of the Dreamers was used as leverage for the 2018 funding bill (link):

AFTER ALL of President Trump’s bluster about his “great love” for “dreamers,” brought to this country as children through no fault of their own, it turns out he’s content to use them as leverage in a high-stakes game of political horse-trading. Mr. Trump seems willing to strip them of jobs, security and homes unless Democrats buckle on a range of Republican immigration priorities, including an even longer-standing object of the president’s ardor: a beautiful border wall.

In September, it was Mr. Trump who terminated the Obama-era protection for dreamers that shielded them from deportation while granting them work permits if they had clean records and met certain other requirements. At the time, he gave Congress six months to fashion a legislative fix; failing that, the president suggested he would act unilaterally to ensure their protection.

It soon became apparent that Mr. Trump’s passion for his base, whose anti-immigrant fervor he stoked in the course of the 2016 campaign, exceeded his feelings for the dreamers. Prodded by White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller, a nativist hard-liner, Mr. Trump has made clear that his price for helping the dreamers is steep — not just the wall and additional funding for border security but also an overhaul of the immigration system to end family-based migration and the visa lottery, whose beneficiaries are mainly from developing nations.

That agenda is anathema to Democrats and would harm the country. It’s worth debating the merits of expanding visa quotas to allow more high-skilled and highly educated immigrants, but that’s not what the White House is pressing for. Rather, Mr. Trump is more interested in tearing down programs than building new ones. And, as he made clear, he now regards dreamers as a means to that end. Democrats, he said in a tweet last week, are on notice that dreamers are out of luck “without the desperately needed WALL” and “an END to the horrible Chain Migration & ridiculous Lottery System of Immigration.” But the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program cannot and should not be the mechanism by which the United States’ immigration system is refurbished.

The clock is ticking for Congress. The grace period extended by Mr. Trump to dreamers expires in early March but, as three former homeland security secretaries told Congress on Wednesday, the real deadline is mid-January. Unless a bill is passed and signed by then, there will be insufficient time to establish a system by which dreamers can apply and be vetted for whatever new status is available. Without such a system in place by March 5, dreamers will lose not only protection from deportation but also their work permits — a disaster for them and a blow to the businesses that employ them.

Many Americans may regard congressional dysfunction as a given. That doesn’t mean they will easily forgive a failure to protect dreamers, which would expose so many blameless young people to calamity with so little justification.

This article was written earlier this year when there was major concern over whether Congress would be able to pass a spending bill for the new year especially when the new bill would be cutting a lot of programs and be funnelling the money towards things like the potential wall at the Mexican border. In this case, the Dreamers were held as bargaining chips to get the Democrats to agree to the other “terms and conditions” that the Republicans put in the bill. Effectively, what happened was that a small nation of citizens was left as human collateral in a political game in which they had no say.

This, in a lot of ways, is what’s also happening in the Invisible Man. There are multiple characters who seek to capitalise off of the situation as it is with the black race and the white race. Even Brother Jack, the leader of the interracial Brotherhood, is in it only for the power. His view is very similar to what America’s Founding Fathers thought of democracy — they didn’t like it, stating that “The United States is not a democracy, never was, and never was intended to be.” Brother Jack thought the average man didn’t know what was best for him and that they needed some superior mind to guide them, much like how the Founding Fathers characterised democracy as “mob rule” and for a big chunk of American history, voting rights were only restricted to those who owned a significant amount of land and had to meet certain incomes (some would argue that this is also how politics are run nowadays but I digress).

In this case, the IM was used as a tool to gain support with Harlem and with his talk with Brother Hambro, the IM realises that they never really cared about Harlem anyway. Once Harlem was perceived as not beneficial to their quest of power(“weak”), they abandoned it. The IM then realises that to the Brotherhood, his race wasn’t what made him invisible, it was his “functionality”. They saw him as a tool and when they didn’t have a use for him anymore, they just threw him away along with Harlem. The mysterious letter he received is evidence of that (one of Ellison’s foreshadowing devices), warning him that while his work is to support the black community, his real allegiance should be to the Brotherhood and that if he tries to “go too fast”, they will oust him. It is like Trump having Omarosa and Ben Carson by him, both of whom, mind, the black community do not think represents their race and using that to say that he’s not racist. It’s like a misogynist saying he likes at least one woman and using that to justify that he’s not misogynist. So, as an educated black man, the IM is being used as a connection to the people the Brotherhood is trying to gain power from. He’s just a superficial puppet that smiles and stands behind the leader that uses him to gain something from his people and the IM was an unsuspecting host. Of course, Omarosa and Ben Carson was never the spokesperson that the IM was but that’s besides the point.

If the Dreamers weren’t such an essential point to getting the Democrats to sign the new funding bill, then they would have been thrown aside in a heartbeat in a similar fashion.


[On the mysterious letter that the IM recieves]

“Brother, This is advice from a friend who has been watching you closely. Do not go too fast. Keep working for the people but remember that you are one of us and do not forget if you get too big they will cut you down. You are from the South and you know that this is a white man’s world. So take a friendly advice and go easy so that you can keep on helping the colored people. They do not want you to go too fast and will cut you down if you do.”

The first layer of meaning that I thought of when I first read this was, “Wow, what an obvious threat.” The words “cut you down” was written twice, that’s how serious it is. Yikes. This was the first clue that the Brotherhood wasn’t working towards the progression of the black race because, in this letter, the progression of the black race was merely a front; the real focus of its members should be in expanding the influence of the Brotherhood. The diction of this letter, the two appearances of the word friend, is kind of sinister. It reminds me of mafia interrogation where the inquisitor is implying castration or torture by fingernail removal all the while insisting that they’re here to help and that they can be trusted.

Besides the blatant paradox between the Brotherhood’s supposed goal and the obedience this letter is demanding, the phrase “you can keep on helping the colored people” as if they themselves weren’t colored leads me to believe that whoever wrote this was someone who would feel threatened if the IM got too popular and that they weren’t black. Of course, the obvious suspect would be Brother Jack; he has the most to lose if the IM does keep on going fast.

Another layer of meaning lies in what it’s saying about real life social movements. One side effect of social movements like the rise of black civil rights sentiments in the 50s and onto the 60s is that people see opportunities to gather an audience and through their audience, gain power and influence. Riding the wave, so to speak. This can be clearly seen when Ras accused the black Brotherhood members of being sellouts. They were seen as partnering with a group of white people who were simply using the black members to pull the wool over the populace’s eyes with a false ideology. Again, this is the question of whether people can actually affect change. People like Bledsoe only believes in power within the system. He would also be labelled a sellout. These are people who are, on the surface, protesting against the establishment while taking advantage of it as well which is why intersectionality is such a big deal when looking at issues like sexual harassment or racism because, in the end, different groups experience different forms of the same thing and have more or fewer options based on gender or race or income etc etc. For example, when women got the vote in the form of the 19th Amendment, those rights were reserved for white women. Black women still struggled under Jim Crow for decades to come. We see here advantaged people fighting against the thing they’re advantaged by while simultaneously also benefiting from their advantage. The most obvious current example of this would be in the increasingly popular beauty trends based off of black culture, in other words, cultural appropriation aka taking the culture’s characteristics while at the same time believing the culture is bad. On Kylie Jenner, big lips and cornrows are attractive and a ground-breaking fashion trend. On a black woman, it means she’s not as accepted because she doesn’t adhere to the beauty standard set by white women. Social movements are complex and contain many personalities, many of whom are actually sabotaging the group’s efforts. It is no different in today’s environment as it was in Ellison’s era.


Discussion Questions

  1. How have the words of the IM’s grandfather changed in meaning in this section of the book?
    1. At the beginning of the book, the grandfather’s words could be seen as a dying confession of the guilt he’s harboring over betraying the dignity and identity of his people. The IM didn’t understand why his grandfather said that and he didn’t until this section of the book when he sees really how the system, though professing its support for the black people, is really corrupt in its own greed. In Bledsoe, he was disillusioned about his mentor’s character. In Brockway, the old man clearly had a few screws loose. However, in the Brotherhood, there were no excuses that the IM could find to justify what happened. He’s followed the system even now, listening to a white man and accepting a name given to him by a white man. There is something strange about a white man appointing a black man to be a spokesperson for the black people. Isn’t the whole point to having the black people’s voices be heard so shouldn’t the black community decide who their spokesperson is? Before, the grandfather’s words had a message of rebellion, warning the IM from the system and the IM feels uneasy about it since he’s been taught to follow “the straight road”. Now, it is one of bittersweetness, of not realising soon enough or not having the strength to buck the system. It says something about the tone of the rest of the book where marginalised groups had to learn, either through their parents or through experience (the hard way) that there really is no place for them, inside or outside the system. That people are born in a skin or an identity that can be perceived as inherently wrong and inferior and not being able to get out of it. The IM had to grow into the realisation and it’s painful and ultimately, he breaks down and gets out of the system, believing a non-existence is better than conformity and degradation.

 

  1. What is the meaning of the Sambo doll?
    1. The Sambo doll in the scene was another one of the shock factors in Ellison’s book. It is a grotesque caricature of a black man. The IM notices that the doll is controlled by an almost invisible string. This symbolises the hold that society has on them in various forms of oppression and microaggressions that they often cannot grasp or articulate. The words that are used to sell this doll also suggests a degree of dehumanisation, a circus act, if you will. A toy. What I think Ellison is trying to get at here is Brother Clifton’s breaking point and it kind of predicts what will happen in the 60s. It reminds me of McMurphy’s plight in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Basically, both characters are pushed past their breaking point but they’re forced to live on in this institution called society. In McMurphy’s case, his death liberated the rest of the patients in the ward. With Clifton, there was no savior moment. All that signified his death was the pool of blood after he was shot. This was a man that became too self-aware and so he was punished. There are no saviors in this world. Really, the Sambo doll and what it represented and what happened to Clifton was the despair event horizon for the IM. I think that this was a bigger turning point in the book than anything else before it because it physically showed what the IM was experiencing over the last dozen and a half chapters and he was forced to come to terms with it and with that, came the same realisation that Clifton had (although the IM did take his sweet time about it even after witnessing Clifton’s death).

 

  1. Was Ras’s approach better or the Brotherhood’s?
    1. For this question, I want to talk about the historical context. The setting is the Civil War era. Lincoln was forced to make the Civil War about slavery (the details of which I won’t go into but Lincoln was definitely not the progressive guy everyone thinks he is). Since the slavery issue was forced, Lincoln had to decide what to do with the black people he emancipated. Some wanted them to be moved to Liberia. A minority thought that they should carry through and integrate black people into white society. Many others had opinions in between and a lot of them thought that the emancipation was a bad idea. So, those that wanted the freedmen to be moved Liberia would be Ras’s ideology and those who wanted integration would be the Brotherhood (if the Brotherhood wasn’t corrupt). Historically, integration won out and that’s what started to happen albeit at a painfully slow pace. The project to make Liberia a haven for freedmen ultimately failed so although I can’t say either approach was better because, to be honest, neither have the right attitudes, I would say that integration historically has worked out better.

4-Part Analysis of Invisible Man (Part 2)

[Synthesis with Rudyard Kipling’s “If“]

I thought that this poem really fit with what’s going on in the story. It is also kind of ironic to apply this poem to Invisible Man when Rudyard Kipling is someone who also wrote “The White Man’s Burden” but that’s a topic for another time. Here, the poem is detailing the various milestones to becoming an adult. Furthermore, the poem talks about dealing with problems being treated unfairly. It talks about being the bigger person. Here, we can measure the growth of the IM’s character. In these hundred pages, we see the IM really grow. We see him dealing with Bledsoe’s betrayal, we see him accepting his race, we see him realising a new power and we see him starting to let go of his old mindsets. After he was disillusioned as to the contents of Bledsoe’s “recommendations”, the IM was understandably angry. He wants revenge and actually plans on murdering Bledsoe. The IM’s straightforward nature by this predictable reaction would soon change as we see him grow more cynical in the following pages. In previous scenes in the book, the IM was really self-conscious about how his race is perceived (like how the IM got offended at the drugstore because they recommended him a Southern breakfast) and tries to separate himself from the rest of his race’s “dirt”, but we see him starting to not feel ashamed about his race anymore in the scene where he buys the yams despite the stereotype. We also see him starting to have doubts. In the scene with the black man with the heap of blueprints, the black man symbolises a collection of unrealised plans and latent future action. The IM doesn’t like this because he believes that once conceived, an ambition/dream should be carried out. This continues in the scene where the IM meets with Emerson’s son and he tries to get the IM to let go of his attachment to the college. The IM defends his ambition before being shown the true contents of the recommendation letters. That night, he questions his identity for the first time while trying to sleep. This marks the turning point in the IM’s characterisation.

Using his anger at his betrayal at the hands of Dr. Bledsoe, the IM then redirects his energy into earning money in order to survive in the short-term. He goes to work at the paint store and here, his preconception of a more egalitarian North is also undermined. I talked about Mr. Norton a lot last week and his more subtle brand of racism and we can see it here at Liberty Paints where they literally boast about the white paint’s ability to cover up black. When the IM was told to mix the paint, he notices that one of the ingredients used to make the paint was a darker chemical. This ties into the invisibility theme where the black man is only seen through the white man and how America was built on the backs of its slaves but the credit and power remain in the hands of the white men. This is further amplified by Mr. Kimbro telling the IM not to think and to just follow directions, treating him like a machine. Then, when the IM was sent to the basement, he meets Brockway, who seems to embody everything that the IM was before, happy in a position that is clearly degrading to his value as a human being(paying him very little although he is experienced) and his complicity with the whole broken system that’s taking advantage of his race (“white is right”). Then, later on, after the IM passes out after the accident, he wakes up from “treatment” and realises he didn’t know his name. He is on his way to becoming the character we see in the prologue. We see him slowly filling up the requirements listed in the poem…


[Liberty Paint]

“Our white is so white you can paint a chunka coal and you’d have to crack it open with a sledge hammer to prove it wasn’t white clear through.” (Ch. 10)

The first and most obvious meaning of this quote is in the attitude of some black people that are either resigned or have accepted the way they are treated. This quote was spoken by Brockway and he embodies the surrender of the fight to have true equality. Instead, like Dr. Bledsoe, he’s integrated himself into the system instead and fights to defend his situation even though he’s being undervalued and being paid way below what his experience in the company should gotten him. Not only is he content with his situation, he actively opposes any progress that could be had by labelling the unionists upstarts and being paranoid about being replaced.  He, like the Mr. Nortons of the world, holds the word ungrateful over the heads of black men so that he can keep his place in the world. In a way, Brockway is the more pitiable version of Dr. Bledsoe where at least Bledsoe knew what a rotten world it is and fights for the betterment of his own situation while Brockway is content to waste away in a job that goes nowhere and earns him no recognition. It is more ironic, then, that his name is Lucius (meaning light). It might signify his desire to be white or at least to blend into white like the paint that he helps make or it might be that he has lost his dignity and identity and tried to cover himself in the same blinding white that he makes in paint and allying himself with the factory owners against the rest of the workers. This reminds me of a lot of the older generations within the populations that are trying to affect change but they tell the youngsters to follow the grain to “stay out of trouble” and “be humble” etc because they’ve lived out most of their life already and they don’t want any trouble in their established routines. For example, the reason why there was a lot of teenagers involved in the protests during the Civil Rights Movement was because the older generations couldn’t risk their livelihoods to protest and many wanted to maintain status quo and slowly work for change while the teenagers had less of a risk of endangering the rest of their family if they participated in protest.

In Brockway’s character, there exists another instance of illusion where he believes that he has control over his white “masters” due to him being indispensable to the operations at the paint factory. Despite that, he is afraid of losing his job to the point that he becomes violent. This was the same case with Bledsoe where although he claims he has control over what the school’s trustees see and believe about said school, he felt so threatened that he sent the IM to New York on a goose chase.

The quote implies how the system benefits those who create and maintain it. Liberty Paints is just a metaphor for the different brand of racism in the North. The word liberty in the shop’s name is meant just for those that are favored by the system. Everyone else in America has no part of that same liberty. I’ve mentioned it before but this can be seen in how Mr. Kimbro treats his employees. To him, his employees are nothing more than entities to extract labor out of and he gives no acknowledgement of his employees’ thoughts or feelings. They even call him a slave driver if that wasn’t obvious enough. When the black “dope” ran out, the IM was tasked to refill it and when he refilled with paint remover instead, he was punished and had to redo all the paint he’s made so far. He wasn’t given adequate direction and was punished for his mistake. This is exactly what happens to those without the protection of the selective liberty. This can be seen in a lot of authority figures like Bledsoe where the IM, in his naivety, was sent to drive a trustee out and was punished when he committed a taboo that he didn’t know about. This selective liberty also extends to the labor union that the IM walks in on. Earlier, when he was being shown around, it was mentioned that black people were being brought in to oppose the labor union and I know that historically, a lot of labor unions excluded a lot of black people and women and this was a hint of racial tension between the union workers and the black workers brought in to potentially replace them. This resembles the ever-present pointing finger of Americans who think that some minority group were threatening their jobs and in the 1950s and 60s, since the influx of Asian immigrants had proven themselves to be “model minorities”, the finger that had originally been pointed at them turned back to the restless black population especially since the 1950s was during the Great Migration where there was a shift of the black population out of the South into Northern urban centers and with immigrants came prejudice from the majority population.

Another layer of meaning lies in the denial of the African American culture through individuals like the IM ( where the black coal is covered by the blindingly white paint). One of the character developments that the IM goes through is the acceptance of his race and all the good and the bad that is associated with his skin color. The IM tries to cover up his blackness the best he can in the beginning by speaking carefully and he feels embarrassed at his race’s examples of baseness and tries to separate himself from them as it can be seen in his internal dialogue during the Trueblood scene. When he comes to the North, he tries to hide his Southerness as well, taking offence when offered pork chops and grits. After the accident and his electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), he doesn’t feel as bothered by his Southern black identity anymore and indulges in some buttered yams (much like today’s fried chicken and watermelon stereotype, I assume). Only after a dissociative experience does he break free from the stigma of being black and is comfortable in his own skin. To achieve this, he had to acknowledge that the system wasn’t designed for someone like him in mind and he had to let go of his anger because, on a deeper level, he knew about this and he just decided not to acknowledge it.


[On the IM’s “treatment scene after the paint shop accident]

Since the IM went under electroconvulsive therapy for his accident with Brockway, he experienced a sort of dissociation with his former identity and I want to research into the history of the treatment. They did compare ECT to lobotomy in the book and some of the effects of lobotomy include loss of personality, instability with mood, a breakdown in reasoning abilities etc. On a side note, the IM mentions seeing a third eye on one of the doctor’s faces (which was a flashlight) but a third eye has the connotation of power and the ability to see truth and after the ECT, the IM gained a new perspective so the procedure could have been symbolism for a rebirth of the character in the light of truth.

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/electroconvulsive-therapy-a-history-of-controversy-but-also-of-help/

Excerpts:

On why ECT is under attack: By acting so directly on the body, without any delving into the life history of the patient, ECT’s powerful effects raise questions about what mental illness is, and what kind of psychiatry is best. It evens raises questions about who we are, and what a person is.

 

“There is no question that ECT was benefiting patients then, but there is also a lot of evidence from that period showing that ECT, and the threat of it, were used in mental hospitals to control difficult patients and to maintain order on wards.”

I found it coincidental in the mention of identity in the article and while the article does mention Kesey’s work in Cuckoo’s Nest, the IM wasn’t mentioned at all.

The article talks about the fact that while ECT is used to treat depression and other mental illnesses now, it was used on a wide range of patients before the physiological effects of ECT were truly understood. I know that ECT was used to “treat” homosexuals (obviously doesn’t work) and it is still being used today in places like conversion camps. Bad history with ECT where it was used unwillingly on patients and to control them like stated above (also in One Flies Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and in the doctors’ brazen use of this treatment with only anecdotal evidence of its effectiveness meant that many patients who didn’t need the treatment were subjected to it and sometimes unwillingly as in the case of the IM where the “treatment” suggested ranged from ECT to castration all just to treat a hit to the head.

Basically, as a cure-all, ECT was used often without the administrator of the treatment knowing much about the patient or their condition and we see this in IM where the IM given the treatment although he had no mental illness and the doctors performed the treatment when he didn’t have his mental facilities about him and they didn’t ask for consent or inform him of what they were going to do to him. In fact, the doctors talked about his treatment right in front of him. This could be an extension of the theme of invisibility where what is best for them (a treatment for black people) is discussed right in front of them without their being able to contribute to a discussion involving their own fate. What’s more telling is the fact that afterwards, the IM had to sign a paper releasing the company from any responsibility of his injuries and was assured that he would receive a compensation check. So, the society that forced “treatments” upon a marginalised group can be absolved of any guilt or responsibility if the treatment happens to not work out. If it doesn’t, then it’s the colored population’s fault for not carrying through and not because the treatment may have been harmful and ineffective. This lack of understanding, in history and in modern times, have led to mass actions against and within the black population by authorities to solve some problem that the authorities clearly didn’t understand the causes of or didn’t want to understand and caused more trouble than good in those populations while also blaming the black population for ineffectual results (a very big example: the authorities’ actions against gun violence and drug usage in cities, often implementing policy that encouraged abuse to the people that they were supposedly trying to help, again, directed at minorities). Some of the treatments, like the stop-and-frisk policy implemented in cities like NYC, were used as threats against the minority population and was marketed as an effective way to deter crimes like what the second excerpt says except it was just as ineffective as deterring crime as ECT is at treating physical head trauma and unconstitutional to boot.

All in all, what this brief segment in the story shows us is the systemic misdiagnosis of a minority population in an effort to “solve its problems” without any input from the population in question, contributing to their sense of invisibility. While the treatment may have turned out okay for the IM (with only temporary memory loss), we can’t entirely attribute his “rebirth” to the ECT as he also suffered a blow to the head which may have also produced the same effect. So really, we don’t even know if the treatment worked and if it didn’t work out and the IM ended up with mental impairments or something, those who imposed the treatment couldn’t be held accountable for it anyway because of that paper he signed. This is especially prevalent today in the light of police brutality and the number of acquittals of the police officers guilty of shooting someone with little to no reason to. Overall, this scene is an extended metaphor for the external locus of control when it comes to having decisions made for the minority population and for the theme of invisibility.


Discussion Questions

1. How does the IM go through rebirth in chapter 11 and what does it signify?

When the boiler explodes, there was a lot of water imagery and he wakes up to a light in his face with his memory temporarily gone. At first, I thought he had drowned or drowning and hallucinating the doctor scene. Then, I realised that, in a way, he was able to throw off his current situation through this experience. With the water being symbolic for a baptism (How To Read Literature Like a Professor) and the doctor’s light being the beacon toward a new being (like the light that people supposedly see right before they die that calls them to heaven). This scene could be the transition between the IM trying to be seen and then him becoming the IM and beginning to really see what it’s like to be invisible.

2. Being a submissive black person was ideal for the white community and is an enabler for their further mistreatment of black people. Why does the IM keep acting submissive even though it’s detrimental for him to act this way?

I was thinking about the behavior of children and how some who are abused or treated badly by their caretakers but still defend them and cry when their caretakers get taken away. This is kind of what I imagine is happening here. The IM was raised to be obedient and be grateful for what they’re given and never question what the “gentlemen” higher up say or do. This occurs throughout the first part of the story in the mannerisms and beliefs of the IM in the various scenes where he admires Mr. Norton and how out-of-reach his existence seemed to be to someone of the IM’s station as a black scholarship student. The IM wants praise and recognition from what he believes is a higher form of living with the millionaires and the affluent white people he comes into contact with so he aspires to be like them, more “civilised” so what he’s trying to do by submitting under their rules. He wants to be like Dr. Bledsoe where he acts civilised and is able to speak to the trustees on a more equal term than what the IM had ever seen before from a black man. He sees that to achieve that, you have to bow and scrape and he uses that modelled behavior to try to also get the same recognition. The only problem, of course, is that his motives are too naive and he doesn’t understand that this behavior doesn’t gain him anything if he doesn’t have anything to offer to the millionaires like the Bledsoe does.

 

3. What do you think about the “wrong” that the IM committed? How does it actually threaten Dr. Bledsoe’s position?

I think the scene where Dr. Bledsoe revealed his true colors surprised most who read it because he was described as a stately, well-spoken man and the scene in his office was the first time we see him act anything but. Why was he so incensed? You would think that he was mad because the IM lost face for the school by showing Mr. Norton “the dumps”. He talks about how he had bow and scraped to have enough “fine lanes” to show the trustees so what the IM is doing isn’t humiliating the school, rather it is undermining Bledsoe’s facade that he’s trying to present to the trustees to keep them happy and think that they’re contributing to racial progress. So even in that respect, Bledsoe isn’t thinking about the good of the school or even about what he supposedly believes in (his mission to bring enlightenment to his race by educating the young men). In a way, Bledsoe is like a dystopian dictator that paints an ideal facade and the trustees are the sheep who are led along to continue fuelling this facade so that Bledsoe can continue his reign. He says as much in the book and he claims that he has the support of the trustees and therefore has power through them and that although the trustees have the appearance of power, he’s really the one that directs where their power goes so he’s the one in charge of the school. So, in conclusion, what the IM threatened wasn’t the image of the school or the reputation of Bledsoe, it was the threatening of Bledsoe’s ego by challenging the idealistic facade he built for the school, therefore, the unproportionate punishment by exile. Before considering this point, it didn’t make sense that his punishment would be so disproportionate to what he did wrong but if it’s a question of ego, then it makes more sense.

4-Part Analysis of Invisible Man (Part 1)

Originally written for my AP Lit class
IM stands for the main character, the titular Invisible Man
Each part of this series will cover material on approximately every 100 pages of the book, although there will be some overlap.

[Battle Royal scene]

The blacks in this society are treated as little more than circus monkeys, there to mock and as entertainment. What praise they get are for performance measured in standards humiliating their individuality and intelligence. It’s like how a raven is judged to be smart because it knows how to use a stick to get at a morsel of food. The IM is similarly being judged to be smart based on the presumption of his inherent stupidity and the reward he gets (the scholarship) is something that is not worth anything to the people he gets it from. When he performs a seemingly unlikely feat for his race (being intelligent and articulate), the so-called patrons of the advancement of black youth congratulate themselves, crediting themselves with the work he did. They were the ones responsible for pulling up his race’s dignity and intelligence because they were the ones that allowed him the opportunity of education. They see the rise of black people from a “lower” society as a sign of their own generosity, never thinking that the right to life, liberty and prosperity is truly unalienable to any man. The discrimination and microaggressions in IM is subtle and often hard to grasp because it’s layered in honeysweet words and actions. Everything is done in insinuations and the threat of ingratitude and a return to poverty hangs over the black people who are gifted this taste of a white man’s “superiority”. It is similar to a government cruelly taxing its citizens to the point of famine and then demanding gratitude when they decide to redistribute a little of the food stores. This way, there is no way for people to address this attitude because they would be seen as a troublemaker and ungrateful. The patrons speak of the black race through their own perspective which is why Mr. Norton was fascinated with both Trueblood and what happened at Golden Day because while he was going on about how his fate was tied to the success of the black students, his experiences with Trueblood and in Golden Day affirms his superiority over the very race he’s trying to “raise” and empowers him in this task by making him a saintly figure gracing these fallen people with his gifts when really, he and his kind are what took these people and crushed them under their well-shined shoes and then put themselves as false prophets bringing to the people something which should have been a natural right. A modern example can be seen in the label of ungrateful over social movements like TakeTheKnee and Black Lives Matter.


[Dr. Bledsoe’s Meeting with the IM]

“The only ones I even pretend to please are the big white folk, and even those I control more than they control me… These white folk have news… to get their ideas across. If they want to tell the world a lie, they can tell it so well that it becomes the truth; and if I tell them that you’re lying, they’ll tell the world even if you prove you’re telling the truth. Because it’s the kind of lie they want to hear… I’ve made my place in it and I’ll have every Negro in the country hanging on tree limbs by morning if it means staying where I am. I had to be strong and purposeful to get where I am. I had to wait and plan and lick around… Yes, I had to act the nigger!” (pg 142-3)

Here, we see a more vicious side of Dr. Bledsoe. We see that the IM is starting to get a taste of what it is outside of his idealistic world. We see that the mild-mannered Dr. Bledsoe is actually someone who is very pragmatic in his methods to gaining and keeping his power. He is willing to sacrifice one member of his race in order to maintain the status of the rest, especially of himself and his institution. He has no illusions about uplifting his race to an equal level to the whites that he pleases on the surface. He wants to keep what he has and is content to work his “power” from the shadows.

Like with every other social issue, the question of racial equality is something that many people have different opinions about. Some take the high road with peaceful protests and civil disobedience. Others don’t wait for change to happen, they respond with terrific passion and sometimes, it leads to physical confrontation. Still others believe in reforming the system from the inside. There is another type who, like Dr. Bledsoe, is someone who is jaded about how society works and doesn’t hold any ideals or illusions of changing the way things are and instead choose to focus on elevating themselves; the fate of similar others are a secondary priority and oftentimes neglected altogether. This brings the motif of power. All of these methods are to gain power. With Dr. Bledsoe’s two-faced act, he doesn’t pretend to really care about the rest of his race. It just happened that his position is the director of an all-black school. Everything he preaches is just something for the patrons to hear; he’d rather see the rest of race lynched if only he could retain his power. However, his method does seem to have worked out for him; it’s been noted that he was the only black man the IM has seen who is able to touch a white man and he does have a measure of immunity against the distaste and contempt the rest of the white folk seem to show so far in the story. Meanwhile, the similarly intelligent but blunt doctor from Golden Day can’t bring himself to scrape and bow and is instead institutionalised. So, the theme here seems to be that pragmatism about your cause in some cases can bring better results than facing a problem head-on which, when you think about it, is something that Booker T. Washington employed with his intent to slowly empower his people through education to become more like the white folk rather than to use blunt force to change legislation and people’s perceptions of black people. I also have a strong suspicion that the Founder is based on Washington; the book even mentions the ambiguity of the statue where the IM isn’t sure the veil is being lifted or brought down on the slave and this reflects the conflict between Washington and W.E.B Du Bois’s views on how to go about bettering the situation of the emancipated slaves with Du Bois believing that a more direct approach would yield better results. By mentioning this, Ellison is weighing in on the debate and it’s clear that he supports Du Bois’s philosophy.

This was the first time that a character acknowledges the invisibility forced onto black people. For all of Dr. Bledsoe’s faults, he is being honest here and this is the first major blow that the IM gets to dispel his illusions about the purpose of the white people. He learns from his most respected role model that lying to the white people is how you please them and that lying is the best way to accomplish anything if you’re a black person in this society. Lying is so integral to the position of members in this society that the white people would be more willing to believe lies even if they know otherwise. So the illusions in this story are present two-fold: in the narrator (aka the IM) and the white folk. People like the IM are what feeds the self-illusion of the white folk. The white folk self-deceived because it will be too much if they were to see how things really were (like with Trueblood) and see that their philanthropy was a sham and that the students they educate are just tolerated. The IM perpetuates this self-congratulatory cycle by showing the dull intelligence and obedience that they would expect out of a well-trained dog and they compare that to the violence and baseness they think is inherent to the black race and say that they’ve contributed to the empowerment of the race.


Applying psychodynamic concepts to IM (Mr. Norton, on hindsight, is super creepy)

https://www.simplypsychology.org/defense-mechanisms.html

Defense Mechanisms with Mr. Norton-

Sublimation – satisfying an otherwise unacceptable impulse in a socially acceptable way

Examples –

-racist beliefs (that black people are inferior)

– absolved with sublimation where he supports a black college by hiding behind a screen to philanthropy but holds the belief of the “white man’s burden”

–  delights in the ways the that the black people are inferior to justify his cause

– “rewards” Trueblood by giving him a lot of money after he was told the story about incest with his daughter. He definitely enjoyed the story and walked away feeling superior to this moral-less man. By giving him money, he also absolves himself of the guilt of his social conscience by feeling this way

– his actions are definitely not fuelled by his daughter’s death. Rather, it seems like Mr. Norton personally related to Trueblood’s story especially with how he had previously described his own daughter’s perfections. So, it may be a way to defend himself against his own thoughts about his late daughter. Human psychology is hard to understand and is oftentimes disturbing.

Repression – preventing disturbing or anxiety-causing thoughts from rising to consciousness

Example –

-what I mentioned about Mr. Norton towards his daughter (the money could also be used as a distraction from his thoughts)

Displacement – satisfying an unacceptable impulse to a substitute and

Projections – attributing unacceptable thoughts or impulses to another person

Example –

– battle royal

– displacement – any anger from other sources (argument with wife, feeling inadequate, feeling that they’re treated unfairly at work etc.) is directed towards the blacks instead and they get to yell obscenities and threaten physical violence, letting them vent their anger and frustration onto people that can’t defend themselves (aka kicking the dog or beating your wife).

-projections – (once again, Mr. Norton’s fascination with his daughter) The violence and hatred that the patrons of the “fight club” feel is exemplified in the blindfolded participants of the battle royal and they get to avoid responsibility for their own feelings because they can then attribute these feelings to a people that they feel is safely separated from them

In reality, the Mr. Nortons of society is more poisonous to social progress than the overt racists we see in the battle royal scene. Both promote the worst parts of the black race and reward them but the covert racists like Mr. Norton are able to do so with a smiling front and are harder to confront because their methods of undermining the people’s dignity and status are more subtle and casts doubt on people’s suspicions.


Discussion Questions

  1. What fears does this text generate?

The fear of not being seen, the fear of being powerless and the fear of not knowing what’s going on. One of the running themes in the book is in how people see what they want to see of you and not what you really are. Your existence depends on other’s validations of you so if you’re denied of that, especially when it’s a core trait of yourself, you lose your sense of self and you feel invisible. The book demonstrates this right out of the gate with the IM, after being humiliated in the battle royal, was to give a speech and while he was speaking, the men he was supposed to be giving the speech to ignored him. Then, there’s Mr. Norton in the car scene where instead of asking what aspirations the IM has for the future, he instead talks about his own vision and his daughter and in asking the Invisible Man to confirm his fate, he is showing that his philanthropy is just for the statistic of how many people he helped and how many careers he helped make. These people to Mr. Norton are merely numbers, a trophy to add to his wall of accomplishments. So when he asked to know his fate, what he’s asking isn’t in what happens to the people he helps but in what he can use to as evidence of his own goodwill.

With power also comes with influence over reality. Dr. Bledsoe talks about how the white people can make others believe whatever they want through media and that he can make the white people think what he wants them to think and see what he wants them to see (which is why he is threatened when the IM brings Mr. Norton to the old slave quarters). This brings up the second fear of being powerless. The IM is told explicitly that he has no power because his opinion can be overridden and he can be easily discredited.

Then, there’s the big reveal of Dr. Bledsoe’s true self and how the IM doesn’t know what’s true and what’s false because reality seemed so contradictory to his idealistic worldview and he has trouble reconciling the two. This is the fear of not knowing what’s going on. The IM has always carried around a sense of unease about his lack of knowledge about the world ever since his grandfather’s dying words implicated that things aren’t always the way they seem. Together, these fears are what contribute to many of the plot points and revelations in the book and through these fears, Ellison is then able to articulate the more subtle aspects of racism that is otherwise hard to grasp and empathise with especially for those who have never experienced it before.

 

  1. How is the IM able to maintain his identity if there’s no one to confirm his existence?

Since we’ve established that a person’s identity is through the perceptions of others around him, the IM is a paradox where, in the present time, he isn’t acknowledged by anyone but he still retains a strong presence in his environment. The way he seems to confirm himself is through light. Light is the source of our primary sense: sight. Through light, his solid physicality can be confirmed in the form of a shadow. In a sense, this could be a physical manifestation of cogito ergo sum where it’s instead I see therefore I am. He also triumphantly declares his existence through his thousand-plus light bulbs. He is able to exert influence on the outside world even though he’s invisible by leaching energy from the electricity company and racking up electricity bills. This is the biggest confirmation of his existence. Although they know the electricity is being used up, they couldn’t figure out that it was him and so, ironically, in being invisible, his presence is louder than when he was trying to be visible. In becoming invisible, he can live outside the laws and basically squats in an unused living space right underneath the people who refused to acknowledge his existence and syphon free electricity.

 

  1. In the story, being invisible is a sign of discrimination, however, what are some advantages to being invisible?

Under the cover of invisibility, the IM can punch someone out and have them be clueless as to who the culprit is. With this anonymity, the IM is able to move around and do more without anyone knowing. This reminds me of masks and other face-coverings associated with protests and activism. The massive anonymity in those protests has the powerful effect of protecting the members and making them more menacing since you don’t know who they are. If you take activist groups like Anonymous where the members wear Guy Fawkes masks, the effect of thousands of masks becomes eerie since the masks also suppress any signs of humanity the wearer shows by blocking the entire face and our ability to read intention and emotion in facial expressions. In wearing the same mask, the wearers can also assume a collective identity instead of being individuals.

In this case, the collective anonymity of a race can also be advantageous to its members where it’s hard to pick out an individual among a sea of faces and where because people take less notice of what you do individually, you’re able to slip under the radar as the IM did. This was the purpose of the slave codes pre-1860s and many of the laws in the slave codes were to prevent slaves from communicating so that they couldn’t plan revolts. Those codes were in part fuelled by the need for control and also by the constant fear of the slaves’ masters because, in many places, the numbers of slaves significantly outnumbered their masters. So, in numbers come strength and if the whole of the race were to stand together, then their invisible status would make them a formidable threat both physically and psychologically since the segregation of white and black also meant that to the white folk, the black people’s culture would be alien to them and the lack of knowledge would breed fear. It’s scary to think of the Mr. Nortons that existed and still exist, working a persistent poison among the people. The same powers that work in the IM are at work today and in a lot more ways than just towards someone’s race.

On the other hand, this invisible status means that people are more likely to generalise about the entire race so the attributes of one person or a group within the race are generalised to the rest of the population. This results in persistent stereotyping and subsequent bad treatment to all members of the race.