I initially had to read Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye for a survey course on contemporary American literature my sophomore year of college. And now I will let you in on a little secret: I didn’t finish it. Believe what you want of my story. I was a good student who ran out of time and, frankly, did not latch onto the novel. And I had one of those awesomely lenient professors who let us pick whatever readings impacted us most to write our papers on, so it was an easy out. I know. Bad Soo.
So, here I am four years later and I finally read the entire novel. In fact I was unable to put it down. Isn’t it funny how much our tastes and perspectives can change over time? Like many people I know, I have historically been hesitant to have an open conversation about race. The topic makes people uncomfortable, hence ideas like colorblindness and ‘post-race’ societies. Because sometimes it is easier to throw a cover over that which you are ashamed of than to face the reality of the damage caused. Reading The Bluest Eye felt uncomfortable to me at first because it confronts race without apology. At the heart of the novel is the pain of internalized racism. The book follows numerous characters, but the connecting thread that always moves the narrative along is Pecola Breedlove, an adolescent black girl growing up in Ohio circa 1940. The title reflects Pecola’s greatest wish: to have blue eyes. She lives in a world where everyone, including her own mother, cater to the blonde haired, blue eyed child. Why? Because that is the face of beauty. That is the face that makes society smile. Pecola has never been smiled at like that because she is black. And not only Pecola is affected. Her peers and family members all have painful experiences which remind them that their appearance makes them secondary citizens or, worse, not even human at all. Through experience, these characters learn to look at themselves with disgust and it is nothing short of tragedy.
What I call internalized racism today Morrison referred to as racial self-loathing in her afterword to the novel written in 1993. The novel itself was published in 1970. It has been forty years since then, but internalized racism still exists. Please make no mistake of that. Yes, society has moved forward in many ways and continues to diversify. Lately I have seen a lot of interracial couples around my community, for instance. And that is wonderful. The positives should be recognized. But there is also still room for improvement. Just go into a toy store. How many dolls are blonde haired and blue eyed in proportion to dolls that aren’t? It probably depends on where you live, but coming from a girl who had to have ALL her Asian dolls ordered ‘special’ because they weren’t in stores, these observations are important to make. Look at the cosmetic selections at the drugstore. Which skin tones have more options? Which types of hair? What kind of beauty does your world sell? (And how inclusive is it really?)
I could keep writing forever, but I will end this by offering my full support to The Bluest Eye. If you are looking for a light read to bring to the beach, I would not pick this one. It is depressing. It is also disturbing. But what an important read. If you want to learn something more about internalized racism, pick this up and don’t say I didn’t warn you.