Othering and Internalisation of Stereotypes in Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye"

Essay, 2013

16 Pages


“Othering” and Internalisation of Stereotypes in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye

Racism and sexism are endemic to the stereotypical “othering” enterprise1 that brackets black female subjectivity in a forced homogeneity. Doubly stereotyped as the racial and sexual “other,” black women risk being forced to signify the negative counterpart in a binary system of cultural and political representation. Usually white and male, the defining subject associates negatively inflected traits with the defined “other”—in this context a black female—while reserving positive attributes for its own definition and identification. In his critique of the representation of race and gender in relation to “otherness,” Stuart Hall explains that the capacity of stereotyping is made possible, first and last, only by an unequal division and distribution of power exerted by the ruling group,2 whose view of the world and a cultural value system are held and categorised as givens, rather than as constructions to be questioned. According to that logic, the “other” is not a sort of non-self; it is only that which is bluntly expelled, ignored, and even pathologized by the group with power in hand. “Othering,” then, is a process that distortedly objectifies a group of subjects by excluding them from the community of “selves.”

The process of “othering” which is closely related to the regimes of stereotypical representation and the consequent internalisation of stereotypes can be better understood in connection to cultural psychoanalyst Frantz Fanon’s appropriation of Lacan’s psycho-sexual notion of the mirror stage. Reading Lacan in the context of race, Fanon observes how racial subjectivity, as the notion’s original significance of sexual subjectivity, is constituted through the dialectic of self/other:

When one has grasped the mechanism described by Lacan, one can have no further doubt that the real Other for the white man is and will continue to be the black man. And conversely. Only for the white man The Other is perceived on the level of the body image, absolutely as the not-self—that is, the unidentifiable, the unassimilable.3

Fanon’s psychoanalytic theory of the colonial subject, which posits that the black individual’s sense of racial consciousness coincides with the white individual’s colonising politics, that defines and enforces blackness as “other,” is helpful to understand and analyse the experience of the racial subject in the U.S. Ever since the first passage of enslaved blacks from Africa to America, black subjectivity has been the product of the white male power. There is no black subjectivity that pre-exists the colonial encounter. It is the white enslaver who brings black into existence.4 More than that, it is within the confines of racial dominance that black subjectivity starts to “exist” with blacks regarded as bearing a completely different cultural and moral status.

As the racial grammar in the stereotypical representation of blacks coincides, more often than not, with the sexual grammar in the stereotypical representation of women,5 black women are constrained by a series of racial and sexual stereotypes that corner them as doubly “other.” The racialised regime of representation holds that if black women are subordinate, it is because they are infantile, illiterate, and docile by nature while the sexualised representation holds that if black women are feared, it is because they are impulsive, lascivious, and oversexed.6 This systematic negation of the black woman as “other” forced black women to question their given reality, the inquiry which signals black women’s resistance and assertion.

In recasting black women’s subjectivity in fiction, Morrison admits the existence of racial and sexual stereotypes. From her first published novel, The Bluest Eye,7 Morrison challenges and deconstructs the double plight of black women in the U.S. by exposing, first, the processes involved in racial and gendered “othering” and, second, the consequent internalised effects that transmute into “self-othering.” Despite the fact that the reality of blackness and femaleness in the McTeers’ domestic environment is not vilified since both parents instil in their daughters notions of positive racial identity and gender-relations equity, little Claudia and Frieda are, however, exposed to a hegemonically white and patriarchal culture through “adults, older girls, shops, magazines, newspapers, window signs” (TBE 20) which inculcate in them a love for dolls that are specifically blue-eyed, blonde-haired, and pink-skinned, physical markers commonly representing whiteness, or rather white femininity.

Morrison’s concern with the reception of baby dolls is made to echo the historical fact of the cultural work that psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark undertook, beginning in 1939 and continuing through the 1940s, when they conducted their famous “doll experiment.” In a 1947 paper, the Clarks presented the results of a doll test to assess the development of racial perception and attitudes in African American children. 253 subjects between the ages of 3 and 7 from northern integrated and southern segregated schools were presented with two black dolls and two white dolls. Except for skin and hair colour, the four dolls were identical in every respect. The experiment, composed of eight requests to evoke the subjects’ racial preferences, racial differences and racial self-identification, showed that two thirds preferred playing with the white doll rather than the coloured doll, because the former was and looked nice. Concomitant to the white-doll preference was the rejection of the black doll as bad-looking and unclean. Whether of light, medium, or dark skin colour, the children, when asked to make the self-identification, tried to justify their rejection of blackness: one explained that everything about the white doll was perfect, another said that he had burned his face and made it spoil, and a third rationalised that he was actually white but the sun tanned his skin during the summer vacation. The Clarks assumed, then, that African American children, living in a highly racialised society, developed a poor self-image.8 The NAACP, which had launched the legal campaign that led, in 1954, to the landmark Brown v Board of Education decision which ruled that racially segregated schools were inherently unequal,9 commissioned Clark to conduct his experiment again in Clarendon County, South Carolina where one of the case studies for Brown was based and some 63% of the children tested there were convinced that the white doll was superior.10

Ever since the 1950s, the Clark doll experiments have received, however, trenchant revisionism. William Cross in Shades of Black: Diversity in African American Identity seriously critiques the social scientific literature on “Negro identity” conducted between the 1930s to the 1960s. Interested in proving the harmful effects of racism on Black Americans, Cross explains, social psychologists focused on self-hatred and group rejection as distinctive of Black psychological functioning, but neglected to consider positive mental health and resistance strength that most Black working-class, middle-class, and even poor parents “were able to achieve and pass on to the next generation via family socialisation, the church, and the community,” long before the Black Social Movement of the 1960s, actually.11 The McTeers in The Blues Eyes are a clear case in point.

Robin Bernstein also calls into question the Clarks’ experiment by reinterpreting the choices the children made: these did not reflect black self-hatred, but instead translated racially-inflected responses to two kinds of dolls—one that was to be admired and one that was to be despised. Dolls as cultural racialised toys, Bernstein argues, script the children’s behaviour through implied action.12 Play, literature, and material culture prompted children “toward tender play with white dolls” while at the same time tolerated, if not encouraged, “the violent scripts co-produced by black dolls.”13 Nineteenth century women’s autobiographies frequently relate examples of mistreating their coloured dolls, notably Frances Hodgson Burnett aged six ruthlessly whipped her rubber black doll, whose grin suggested to her that she enjoyed being brutally flogged. Thus, in rejecting the black doll, children were actually rejecting the violent play with black dolls, which was common practice when the Clarks conducted their experiments.14

That said, however, the culture of whiteness was to be strengthened as Barbie, launched in 1959, became the loving toy little girls, of whatever race or ethnicity, could have and, therefore, wished to receive and play with. As late as 1967, a black Barbie-like doll was released; it was called Colored Francie. But unlike her Caucasian prototype, she was not a wide commercial success. Morrison was no doubt aware of this context and it feeds into any reading of The Bluest Eye. In Skin Trade, Ann duCille sardonically observes the difference between fair-skinned and dark-skinned dolls: “How was this fair child to share her name and personae with guess-who’s-coming-to-dinner colored kin?”15 Much in the same context, anthropologist of childhood Elisabeth Chin points out that playing with so-called ethnically correct dolls in a racialised social system in education and society at large is most unlikely to boost children’s positive self-image. Commercial rhetoric of ethnically correct dolls simply ducks pressing economic and social issues that infringe on minority children and their perceptions of themselves.16 Continued research in social psychology and doll marketing highlights the fact that although the toy industry offers a range of coloured dolls (brown-skinned Shani, honey-coloured Asha, deep mahogany Nichelle, and male friend Jamal),17 the risk is that little girls’ preference for white dolls continues to be a sign of their identification with white models.

African American and Marxist literary critic Susan Willis has shown that gendering and commodity consumption are subtly connected in twentieth-century commercial culture. Barbie with her blue eyes, blonde hair, fair skin, her shapely frame is conceived as a fixed icon of universal feminine beauty to the extent that “the ideal girl,” as Mimi Nitcher and Nancy Vuckovic’s study on adolescent weight control behaviour has demonstrated, “is a living manifestation of the Barbie doll.”18 In addition to the aesthetic binarism of beauty versus ugliness, black girls are further classified in terms of racial Manichean culture. Ann duCille reveals that

The black other, much like the enemy other in our war games, could only be imagined as faceless, far away, and utterly unfamiliar. The “me” with whom I communed nightly—the alter ego through whom I imagined myself professional, powerful, heroic, beautiful, and beloved of my country—was white19

In this way, beauty’s coercive effects on gender are more destructive in the context of nonwhite female subjects, as Morrison’s novel explores. As Anne Anlin Cheng explicates, beauty is “a perceptual psychical activity”20 that is predicated on the racially-inculcated concept of ideal feminine beauty as basically, if not purely, white. Along the same lines, Morrison explores in her fiction how little black girls, Pecola Breedlove epitomising Morrison’s own experiment, are interpreted and interpret themselves as “other” on the grounds that they lack the three principal assets that racial and sexual, if not racist and sexist, models of beauty define as icons of ideal feminine physical perfection: blondeness, whiteness, and blue eyes.

From the earliest years of her psychic socialisation, Pecola internalises through white dolls, and other signs of white privileging, the pathological perception of her blackness. Somewhat like Mayotte Capécia’s yearning for white man’s love in the novel Je suis Martiniquaise (1948), Morrison’s Pecola, unable to live in her black painful world without blue eyes, tries “in her own body and in her own mind to bleach it.”21 Each night before retiring to bed she prays for blue eyes, and each morning she sits looking in the mirror daydreaming about blue eyes so that she could be loved by her parents, her community and the society which has made her feel that she is ugly. Jungian psychoanalyst Michael Adams explains in The Multicultural Imagination: “Race”, Color, and the Unconscious that the person living in a race-conscious society and having a weak psychic structure necessarily falls into the psychopathological state of unconscious self-inferiorisation.22 Similarly, cultural anthropologist Hortense Powdermaker when studying black communities in the South in the period when Morrison sets her novel revealed that

Perhaps the most severe result of denying respect to an individual is the insidious effect on his self-esteem. Few can long resist self-doubt in the face of constant belittling and humiliation at the hands of others.23

The cumulative effect of inculcating white race exclusive superiority through children’s toys and white condescension thwarts in little Pecola any force for resistance. She senses that there is something wrong with her social condition that she relates to being poor, black, and much worse, physically ugly. But, instead of adjusting her behaviour to her conditions, whether in positive or, indeed, negative ways, as her brother Sammy does by using his blackness, poverty, and ugliness to cause others fear and pain, securing thus his survival, Pecola withdraws. She keeps herself to herself, “concealed, veiled, eclipsed—peeping out from behind the shroud very seldom, and then only to yearn for the return of her mask” (TBE 39). Her shame at not asserting herself is nothing but the outcome of the unconscious internalisation of white cultural myths that shape and influence her longing for whiteness that, in the first place, causes in her feelings of inferiority, racially and aesthetically.

Pecola’s psychopathology reveals the neurotic effect of the Manichean division of race and aesthetic implication that associates whiteness with goodness and beauty and blackness with evil and ugliness. Beset by a growing sense of racial inferiority, Pecola is driven to evangelically wish for blue eyes, the wish which is synecdochic for her desire to be white. Again as with the neurotic subject of Capécia, Pecola disavows her blackness and adopts white values of physical appearance and beauty in her imagination. Her desire for whiteness throughout the narrative underlines her implacable wish to look beautiful but also to be treated without discrimination. Her dream of whiteness is, in psychiatric terms, compensation for her inferiority complex.24 Identification with the white cultural and aesthetic standards of beauty makes of her a schizophrenic person—in physical reality she is black but in psychical reality she is white. It is this split that leads her to eventual madness. Through the novel’s free indirect discourse, Pecola’s psychic alienation is exposed as the corollary of her feelings of being ugly:

It had occurred to Pecola some time ago that if her eyes, those eyes that held the pictures, and knew the sights—if those eyes were different, that is to say, beautiful, she would herself be different. Her teeth were good, and at least her nose was not big and flat like those who were thought so cute. If she looked different, beautiful, maybe Cholly would be different, and Mrs. Breedlove too. Maybe they’d say, “Why, look at pretty-eyed Pecola. We mustn’t do bad things in front of those pretty eyes. (TBE 46)

Being both verbally denigrated and physically abused by parents, peers, light-skinned neighbours and white folk, Pecola denudes herself of all forms of agency. Her psychotic thoughts about ugliness and inferiority make her see herself, accusingly, as responsible for the low attitude of people around her. The narrative voice comments that the “support” for her sense of inferiority leers at her “from every billboard, every movie, every glance” (TBE 39).

Though Pecola goes to school like Claudia, Frieda, and other children, she believes that she is not like them. She internalises the view that she is “other”—different in an inferior way, racially, emotionally and economically. With the exception of the McTeers’ care she receives, Pecola’s drunken father Cholly rapes her, her alienated mother Pauline disregards her, her school peers annoy her or separate themselves from her and the neighbourhood white grocer Yacobowski appears offhand with her. Each time she tries to show concern for the others, she feels rejected. Pecola’s feelings of abandonment are racially-inflected. Her father’s violence is a strange mixture of racial shame and hatred; her mother’s mistreatment of her is due to her lack of pride and low self-esteem; her school peers’ unfriendliness is raised in them by their families’ racial and class contempt for the black poor; and Yacobowski’s aloofness is basically racial and economic.

Beside Pecola’s racial and sexual internalisation which The Bluest Eye seeks to dismantle, Morrison exposes instances of racial and sexual externalisation as a rearguard action that belies the traumatic situation of characters suffering from racial and gendered/sexual internalisation. Light-skinned Geraldine, herself cornered in an inferiority status by the Jim Crow system, paradoxically projects and externalises her chromatic fears and colour inferiority onto dark-skinned Pecola. As Michael Adams explains, projection or transference is one of the primary defences that a person uses when she is faced with strange, irrational remarks.25 Being indoctrinated by racial-cum-gendered persuasions since her early age about her skin colour, though it is light-coloured, Geraldine ascribes the origin of discriminative attitudes to the non-whiteness of her parentage. The omniscient narrator comments how light-skinned females, repeatedly referred to as “sugar-brown girls” (TBE 81-2), are made to uncritically yield to the white man’s interpretations, rules and expectations:

They go to land-grant colleges, normal schools, and learn how to do the white man’s work with refinement: home economics to prepare his food; teacher education to instruct black children in obedience; music to soothe the weary master and entertain his blunted soul. Here they learn the rest of the lesson begun in those soft houses with porch swings pots of bleeding hearts: how to behave. The careful development of thrift, patience, high morals, and good manners. In short, how to get rid of the funkiness. […]

Whenever it erupts, this Funk, they wipe it away; where it crusts, they dissolve it; whenever it drips, flowers, or clings, they find it and fight it until it dies. They fight this battle all the way to the grave. (Italics mine, TBE 83)

Geraldine is afraid of being mixed up with the dark-skinned and she urges herself to stay away from them, despite the colour line between the light-skinned and the dark-skinned is not always being clear: “subtle and telltale signs threatened to erode it, and the watch had to be constant” (TBE 87). When she explains to her son Junior the difference between what she believes is the coloured people’s neatness and quietness and the “niggers’” dirtiness and noisiness, she is projecting images of nonwhites that she has internalised. Furious with Pecola who is wrongly accused by her son Junior of killing her cat, Geraldine sweepingly judges the little girl with ready-made stereotypes:


1 The word other is defined in contradistinction with the word self. But what is the meaning of the word other? The word other in English language functioning as determiner or pronoun means the different, the opposite, the additional, or the second of two things or persons without any indication of rank. As a critical term in postcolonial theory, the “other” refers to the colonised subject who, through discourses such as primitivism, cannibalism, or Orientalism, is deemed the second, lower position in the binary separation of the coloniser/self and the colonised/other. In psychoanalytic theory, the term involves a distinction between the “other” and the “Other.” The “other” refers to the other who resembles the self—as in Lacan’s mirror stage wherein the child mis-recognises its reflection as a separate being; and the “Other” designates the Symbolic Other which is defined as a “transcendent or absolute pole of address, summoned each time that subject speaks to another subject.” Marie-Claire Boons-Grafé, “Other/other” in Feminism and Psychoanalysis: A Critical Dictionary, ed. Elizabeth Wright (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), 298. It is also interesting to underline that the etymology of the word other is derived from Latin alter which meant one of the two. Therefore, the word other involves no superlative or diminutive toning. It is only after the end of the fifteenth century—the rise of Eurocentrism—that the term started to mean different in kind, quality, value, and identity. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles, 3rd., s.v. “other.”

2 Stuart Hall, ed., Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices (London: Sage Publications, 1997), 254.

3 Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Charles Lam Markmann (London: Pluto Press, 2008), 124.

4 Ibid., 82-3.

5 Hall, Representation, 254.

6 Ibid., 244.

7 Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye (1970; repr., New York; Plume, 1994). Future references are to these editions and will be cited parenthetically.

8 Kenneth B Clark and Mamie P. Clark, “Racial Identification and Preference in Negro Children,” in Readings in Social Psychology, ed. T.M. Newcomb and E.L. Hartley (New York: Holt, 1947), 169-178.

9 Jack M. Balkin, ed. “Appendix A: Brown v. Board of Education (Brown I),” in What “Brown v. Board of Education” Should Have Said: The Nation’s Top Legal Experts Rewrite America’s Landmark Civil Rights Decision, ed. Jack M. Balkin (York: New York University Press, 2002), 221.

10 “‘With an Even Hand’: Brown v. Board at Fifty”; <http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/brown/brown-brown.html>; n.d.; (1 October 2013).

11 William E. Cross, Jr., Shades of Black: Diversity in African-American Identity (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991), ix-xiv.

12 Robin Bernstein, Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights (New York: New York University Press, 2011), 77.

13 Robin Bernstein, “Children’s Books, Dolls, and the Performance of Race; or, the Possibility of Children’s Literature,” PMLA 126, no. 1 (2011): 165.

14 Bernstein, Racial Innocence, 69 and 197-8.

15 Ann duCille, Skin Trade (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), 32-33.

16 Elizabeth M. Chin, Purchasing Power: Black Kids and American Consumer Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), 170.

17 duCille, Skin Trade, 45-56.

18 Mimi Nitcher and Nancy Vuckovic, “Fat Talk: Body Image among adolescent Girls” in Many Mirrors: Body Image and Social Relations, ed. Nicole Landry Sault (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1994), 116.

19 duCille, Skin Trade, 12.

20 Anne Anlin Cheng, “Wounded Beauty: An Explanatory Essay on Race, Feminism, and the Aesthetic Question,” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 19 (2000): 196.

21 Mayotte Capécia is a Caribbean writer whose autobiographical personae in her novel expresses her preference to be wed to a man with blue eyes, blond hair, and white skin, irrespective of his being handsome or ugly; all that is of importance to her is to fulfil her desire to be mixed up with the white man’s whiteness. Fanon, White Skin, Black Masks, 29-44.

22 Michael Vannoy Adams, The Multicultural Imagination: “Race”, Color, and the Unconscious (London: Routledge, 1996), 80.

23 Daryl Michael Scott, Contempt and Pity: Social Policy and the Image of the Damaged Black Psyche, 1880-1996 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Caroline Press, 1997), 21.

24 Adams, The Multicultural Imagination, 123.

25 Ibid., 166-7.

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Othering and Internalisation of Stereotypes in Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye"
University of Nottingham  (School of Canadian and American Studies)
American studies
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Othering, Stereotyping, African American women, Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye
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Mohamed Sghir Syad (Author), 2013, Othering and Internalisation of Stereotypes in Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/322566


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