Seeing Color: Race in American Literature and Society
“I don’t see color” is a phrase white people use.
“I don’t see color” is a phrase only white people use.
As a white person myself, I feel almost discouraged to speak about race. I often think of race as something on which I do not have the right, or, perhaps, have not earned the right, to opine. I often cower from racial discussion, not knowing exactly how to express my thoughts, not wanting to accidently offend or upset, ashamed of what my people have done, and continue to do, to others. But when I hear the phrase, “I don’t see color,” something inside of me shudders, flinches, and I become inflamed.
This so-called “colorblindness” is a recent phenomenon: it must be. It was not so long ago that our country was nose-deep in color, determining its lines and limits every chance we got. And although we may have fast-forwarded decades and movements into the future, our reality is really not so changed. We may no longer segregate them, but the colors BLACK and WHITE still exist. Maybe that is the biggest difference between then and now. The colors exist, but only now, it seems, have we begun to claim that they don’t. But how can we? We live in country, a world, so defined by color that to look away from its existence seems both demeaning and foolish. What is this colorblindness if not ignorance in disguise, racism by omission?
I may not know current politics, I may not know economics, facts or figures, but I do know literature, and it is from literature that I draw my ideas on race and racism.
In probably one of the best essays on American literature, ever, Toni Morrison writes on exactly this issue. For Morrison, “colorblindness” is nothing new: literary criticism has been ignoring the presence of race in literature since, well, the dawn of literary criticism. The essay, “Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination,” discusses American literature’s role in this so-called “colorblind” world. In the essay, Morrison argues that race has been such a part of US history that for critics to deny or ignore its existence in US literature is impossible and unwise.
Morrison describes canonical American literature as the tale of the “new white man,” the fable of the American Dream. We all know them, we’ve all read them: the works of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, The Grapes of Wrath, Melville and his tale of big, white whale. The Great American Novel is nearly always about freedom: the freedom of a new world, a new life. But, as Morrison points out, this “freedom [does not] emerge from a vacuum,“ it has to come from somewhere—it has to come from the not-free. “Nothing,” Morrison goes on to write, “highlight[s] freedom—if it did not in fact create it—like slavery.” Light cannot exist without dark, and in our tales of “impenetrable whiteness,” an equal yet opposite force exists: blackness.
This black presence, or, as Morrison defines it, this Africanism, resides in every US narrative. On every page of US literature, one will find the dichotomy, the back and forth, between black and white: for every white whale, there is a dark and mystifying sea. And, for Morrison, these images are wholly racial, because as a country that was founded upon the differences between freedom and slavery, “there is no escape from racially inflected language.” Race is in our history, in our blood and in our words. But, as the essay informs us, literary critics are often “too polite or too fearful notice.” Ignoring race is often seen as “graceful, even generous” in literary discourse. But ignoring race is also a “bad habit” that leaves the reader “bereft” of a true understanding of American literature.
“The act of enforcing racelessness in literary discourse is itself a racial act,” Morrison writes. And can’t the same be said of the act of enforcing racelessness in society? Perhaps that is what sets my teeth on edge: when one says, “I don’t see color,” he is in fact acknowledging that color exists, but instead of embracing it, he simply disregards it. “Deep within the word ‘America’ is its association with race,” writes Morrison. Like the letters of our literature, we too as a society see things in black and white, and to ignore that fact is to ignore a long, profoundly ingrained struggle in our country’s history.
To say we do not see color only silences serious racial discussion, ending a conversation that has really only begun. We need to see color because we need to remember our past struggles, our sordid beginnings. We need to see color not only to honor a people that have long lived, and still live, in the shadows, but also to ensure that those shadows do not reemerge, and that our future corrects the discrepancies that still abide. We need to see color because we need to know ourselves as a country, and recognize, for better or for worse, our origins. We need to see color to see how far we’ve come, and how far we need to go.
No one can emerge from a vacuum. Let’s stop pretending that we do.