– Claudia MacTeer, The Bluest Eye
Racism is a social construct; it can be learned and thus, internalised; it is part of an encompassing power dynamics that defied definition by any singular entity. Rather, racism is the collective impact of actions by numerous people, effects that reinforce and reverberate with one another such that racism perpetuates. This omnipresent and multi-faceted nature of racism is particularly poignant in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. The essay shall explicate one reason behind racism – the human nature to derive self-worth from putting someone else down – through analysing the use of multiple narrators; in other words, an attempt to handle not only the hows, but also the whys of racism.
Instead of reducing racism to mere stereotypes, through Morrison’s use of multiple narratives, we find out more about various aspects of racism – inter- and intra-racial racism, discrimination of whites against blacks, of fairer blacks against darker blacks and of male blacks against female blacks. This somewhat orderly hierarchy of discrimination shares the trait of one deriving a sense of superiority by the inferiority of another; one’s self-worth comes not from self-awareness but from the knowledge that one is better off than another. From Pecola (162-163),
‘And all of our beauty, which was hers first and which she gave to us. All of us – all who knew her – felt so wholesome after we cleaned ourselves on her. We were so beautiful when we stood astride her ugliness. […]And she let us, and thereby deserved our contempt.’It is only through comparison with someone uglier, less socially adept that another can feel worthy and ‘beautiful’. It is cruelly ironic that various people around Pecola show contempt at her despite her being the source of their self-worth; this idea of scapegoating by different people is a central theme in The Bluest Eye.
Through multiple narrators – each from a different social class – Morrison represents how pervasive scapegoating/racism is. We understand its complexities and omnipresence through not only the increasingly hardened Claudia and defenceless Pecola, but also through Pecola’s parents – Pauline, Cholly – rich, pampered and ‘cute’ Maureen Peal, pseudo-religious figure Soaphead Church and middle-class black Geraldine. These streams of consciousness – random strands of thoughts running across each narrator's mind – this disparate chaos emerges to create a distinct sense of dichotomy, suggesting that racism pervades every strata of the society and leaves no one untainted. Everyone played a part in perpetuating racism, be it as victims, victimisers or helpless observers.
Besides breadth, multiple narrating lends depth to racism too; we not only understand the perspectives of the victimised but also, the victimisers. There is an initial dislike for Pauline, fermented by her cruel neglect of Pecola; Pauline devalues Pecola and is more concerned about her ‘floor’ than her scalded daughter (85); it is heart wrenching when Pauline turns to comfort ‘a little girl in pink’ rather than her own flesh-and-blood. This disdain for her fades after we find out about and empathise with her plight, her growing disillusionment and her increasing conformity to Western standards of living. Racism – in this case, intra-racial racism – is no longer faceless; it has a history, depth and personal pain to it; the victimisers were once victims – they too were hurt – and scapegoating is their only resort to inner peace. This empathy with the victimised victimisers erases the emotional distance between the multiple characters and the readers; we understand them not only as narrators but as individuals with personal history. Through multiple narratives, racism reveals itself to be a self-sustaining cycle of scapegoating.
As I write, there is a realisation that racism cannot be easily distilled into constituent effects; each point encapsulates and elaborates on the preceding and succeeding points. Through multiple narratives in The Bluest Eye, one gains glimpses of why racism takes place and how it perpetuates; the human tendencies underlying racism – the need by every character to feel worthy and thus, scapegoat – cannot be reduced into a single person’s perspectives. Rather, it must be understood as the damage caused by collective acquiesce.
This article is originally written for EN1101E: Introduction to Literary Studies.