Overt and Covert Racism and Black Identity

Covert Racism displayed in a popular TV show.

Covert Racism displayed in a popular TV show.

Over the past century, the United States has slowly reduced the amount of racism focused on African Americans.  However we have moved from a time period of overt racism, to a time where covert racism still exists in our modern society.  The former as well as the latter affect both the perceived and experienced black identity.

Before understanding what exactly covert racism is, it is easier to look at overt racism.  This is when an act is carried out intended to harm someone in some way because of their race. Overt racism is a much easier concept to understand than covert racism because we can see it and pinpoint why it is damaging to another human being.

Overt Racism: A group of people mock civil rights marchers.

Overt Racism: A group of people mock civil rights marchers.

This can be seen in this image where white protesters are holding up signs and yelling at civil rights marchers, who were marching for equal rights in Chicago in 1966.  Their message and feelings are clear.  Combating this overt racism was the Black Power Movement. This was not the movement’s only goal, but was certainly of extreme importance.  This movement started in the late 60’s, emphasizing racial pride which combats the treatment given to those like the protagonist in Invisible Man.

Overt racism is abundant in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.  The protagonist is subjected to various persecution and ultimately realizes that his identity has been defined by the way that others view him. An example of this overt racism comes right at the beginning of the novel, when a random man calls the protagonist “an insulting name” (Ellison 4) for no reason at all except that the protagonist is African American. Dr. Bledsloe as well partakes in overt racist behavior towards the protagonist writing in his “recommendation” to “To Whom It May Concern….Keep This Nigger –Boy Running” (Ellison 33).   Ellson encapsulates how this racism and stereotypes have affected the protagonist’s identity:

“And my problem was that I always tried to go in everyone’s way but my own. I have also been called one thing and then another while no one really wished to hear what I called myself. So after years of trying to adopt the opinions of others I finally rebelled. I am an invisible man” (579).

Sadly, the narrator has realized that because of the racist views that others have of him, he has not been able to create his own identity and instead has been trying to act in the way that others view him.  Covert racism as well as overt racism can affect a person’s identity.

An article titled: Covert Racism in the USA and globally, describes covert racism:

“Whereas overt racism assumed blatant and insidious forms, covert racism hides behind the façade of ‘politeness’, political correctness and expediency. Racially coded words and calls for racial blindness obfuscate the reality of this subtle, subversive, and often hidden form of racism. Covert racism, just like its twin overt racism, is neither innocent nor harmless. The scars of covert racism, often seen in terms of increased levels of disease, negative sanctions, inadequate information, and lost opportunities – serve to continually victimize racial nonelites” (Coates 2008).

Covert racism comes from internal stereotypes and prejudices that people may not even realize that they have. They can be expressed through jokes, comments, actions.  The article goes on to describe how covert racism effects identity by point out,  “From infancy to the fourth year, children typically are unaware of their racial identity. After this period, they seem preoccupied with it as evidenced by their ability to label themselves and significant others by virtue of physically identifiable learned racial classifications” (Coates 2008).  This sums up how being exposed to certain racial stereotypes and prejudices can affect how a person views themselves and also how they act.

"Successful Black Guy" is a popular meme in internet culture

“Successful Black Guy” is a popular meme in internet culture

This image is an example of a popular meme called “Successful Black Guy”. This is an example of covert racism, as the joke is meant to be funny because the audience expects the statement to be the top negative statement and should apparently be surprised by the positive spin the bottom half of the statement provides.  This perpetuates negative stereotypes about African Americans in away that disguises itself as a funny pop culture joke.

Covert racism can be connected to the Post-Soul aesthetic. They are both much more fluid and difficult to understand than their counterparts. While covert racism can not necessarily be nailed down, the post-black aesthetic looks at what exactly is blackness and how does that speak to Africa Americans?  This desire for individuality without having a specific identity forced upon an entire group of people is what defines the post-soul aesthetic.

Both protagonists in Danzy Senna’s Caucasia and Paul Beatty’s The White Boy Shuffle experience various forms of covert racism throughout the novel.

When Birdee is watching African American teenagers dance after she wanders from where her mother told her to stay put, Jim remarks, “Jesus, it’s like some ancient African instinct that gets these kids dancing” (Senna 261).  This affects Birdee’s identity by causing her to feel extremely confused as to who she really is because she must change her actions and personality in order to “pass”.  This presents an aspect of the Post-Soul movement, of realizing that society can force an identity upon you because of racial stereotypes.

“It was sad to watch us troll through the halls, a conga line of burlesque self-parody, all of us affecting our white-society persona of the day” (Beatty 155). Gunnar is aware of the fact that the white kids at his school have a specific expectation of him as an African American.  He alters his personality and actions when he is around them in order to live up to those expectations.

In looking at these three novels, as well as the attitudes behind the Black Power movement and the Post Soul aesthetic, we can see how covert racism affects the black identity.


Beatty, Paul. The White Boy Shuffle. Houghton Mifflin, 1996.

Coates, R.D. (2008). Covert racism in the usa and globally. Sociology Compass, 2(1): 208-231.

Ellison, Ralph Waldo. Invisible Man. New York: Random House, 1952.

Gilmer, Marcus. (2012). Chicago’s deep history of racism gets a brief national spotlight [article], Retrieved May 12th, 2013, from:


Racial Meme’s. [blog post]. Retrieved May 12th, 2013, fromhttp://meanmemes.wordpress.com/categories/racial-memes/

Senna, Danzy. Caucasia. New York: Riverhead, 1999.

32 successful black guy memes [article], Retrieved May 12th, 2013, from:


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