A system of Racism



Toni Morrison

I have been challenged by some of my friends about my claim that there is in Canada and the United States a system of racism. I stand by my claim. In fact I believe the evidence of systemic racism is overwhelming. It is all around us. Sometimes it is hard to see because it is all around us. At least it is hard for whites to see. As I have said, it is the water in which we swim.

It is particularly difficult for white people to see the system of racism. That is because they don’t see race. To people of colour race is everywhere. To whites everything is natural and comfortable. That is because they are part of the dominant group. To the group being dominated it is not so natural nor comfortable. Far from it.

I want to look at some examples but this will take a few posts. But before I do that I want to consider a person who really understands racism—Toni Morrison. She has lived racism since she was a little girl and she is wise—wise beyond belief. She is certainly one of the top 5 American novelists of the 20th and 21st centuries.

When my friends challenged me, I thought of her when I considered how I would respond to their criticism. Then I remembered I had recently recorded a documentary on her and had not watched it yet. It was called The Pieces I am. So I did. And was I ever glad I did.

I thought she shed some powerful light on a very dark subject—systemic racism or the system of racism. She spoke about anti-black racism in the United States, but much of what she said applied equally to anti-indigenous racism in Canada.

In the documentary I watched she commented on her first novel, The Bluest Eye. To my surprise I realized I had written a review of this book for inclusion in my blog about a year ago but had  never posted it. Me bad. I will post it soon, because it is so topical.

In the documentary film she noted that she wanted to write seriously about a young girl. She thought no one had ever done that before. Her novel is decidedly not a novel targeted for young adults. She said, “In every book I ever read about young black girls they were jokes or props. For example, Topsy, the young black slave girl in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. No one looks at them seriously, Morrison said, and that is what she wanted to do in her novel. And she certainly accomplished that.

Morrison said that in The Bluest Eye she wanted to explore how a child learns self-loathing. Where does that come from? Who enables it? And what might be its consequences? I must admit I never considered that before.

She said the book was based on an actual incident in her own life. As a young girl she met another young black girl who was walking home from school. As these 2 black girls walked, they were arguing about whether or not God existed. Imagine that conversation. Her friend said no. Toni said yes, God existed. The other girl said she had proof that God did not exist. What was that, Toni asked. The girl said that she had been praying hard—very hard—for 2 years for God to give her blue eyes and she did not get them. So God did not exist. For Morrison though the real point of the conversation was something different. Toni said, this girl was very black and very beautiful, and yet she wanted blue eyes. Can you imagine the pain of that, Toni asked? “I wanted to write about that kind of racism and how it hurts. This is not lynchings or murder or drowning. This is interior pain. So deep that an 11 year old girl believed that if she only had some characteristic of the while world she would be OK.”

What could make such a young girl think that to be worthwhile she had to be more like white girls? The answer, she implied, without saying it, is a system of racism. That system is able to turn  a young girl into despising who she is because she cannot meet the standards of white beauty all around her. She begins to hate who she is. And she begins to hate those who made her black. Like her own family. What kind of a system can do that?

According to Morrison, “She surrendered entirely to the master narrative. The whole notion of what is ugliness, what is worthlessness. She got it from her family. She got it from school. She got it from the movies. She got it from everywhere!” That is precisely what a system of racism is all about. Morrison changed the scenario slightly in her novel, but that is what she wrote about in her own unique and powerful style. And frankly I had never before thought about racism like that before reading her book. She wrote about a system of racism so deep, so powerful, and so invisible that it can make a young beautiful girl hate herself. And her family. And her own race. It is a system with incredible power, and part of its power is that it hides itself from the whites that benefit from it. They don’t even see it. I had never seen it, even though it was and is all around me!

In the film she added this commentary:

The master narrative is whatever ideological script is being imposed by the people in authority on every body else. The master fiction. And history. It has a certain point of view. So when a little girl sees that the most prized gift she could get at Christmas time is a little white doll [with blue eyes] that is the master narrative speaking. This is beautiful. This is love. And you’re not it.

The master narrative is the system of racism. Toni Morrison understood what it’s all about like no one else I have ever read before or since. It was through reading her book that I came to learn something very important about racism. White supremacy is the master narrative. That is the system of racism. We have it too in Canada. It is pervasive. It can make people who are not white hate themselves so much they can harm their own children, their own family members, their own race. It helps explain for example, why indigenous people are so often abusive to themselves and their own families. That is what self-loathing can do and it is a horrible crime. It is hard to think of one worse, and yet it is completely invisible. We whites don’t even believe there is any such thing. What could be worse than that?

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