The Gradient Scale.

This is an image of a black and white gradient scale/map.

This is an image of a black and white gradient scale/map.

In black and white photography, the gradient scale happens to be one of the most important parts of the developing process.  The goal of the photographer is not just to take a picture, but to balance the brightness and darkness of the photograph to make a variety of shades of gray.  In society, white people work hard to find the grays, or the “acceptable blacks,” (not “too” black, but instead gray enough to be recognized, not necessarily seen) to make their world more diverse.

In Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the narrator takes the readers on a journey of his experiences as a black man in the early 1900s.  The places he visits and people he meets influence his realization of his invisibility.  A photo gradient scale becomes a representation of how white and Black people play a key role in the process of assimilation in society.  Whites at the beginning of the scale and blacks at the end.

At the top of the gradient scale is white.  Bright.  Pure.  A standard.  In society, white people are seen; they stand out in ways others fail to do so.  During slavery, white people brought the Africans to America, got rid of the Native Americans and made America a Christian country.  White males were then deemed the “Founding Fathers” of this country. Therefore, everything done by others, positively uplifts the reputation of white Americans in society. Everything they do, have done, and will do is considered to be the “right” way. What those of other races contribute to the country is ignored, making all, especially those who are Black, invisible.

The series of clips above give the viewer a history lesson behind the prominent African-Americans who were erased from history. Famous pictures, video clips, and art featuring mainly whites are examined by television host Glenn Beck, who challenges one to take a deeper look into how society erases Blacks from history and replaces them with only the supreme whites. Beck interacts with the audience to see if they can understand the problem with trying to erase critical parts of history. He also interviews experts to understand why people tend to do such, and why others, especially African-Americans, allow it to happen.

In Invisible Man, the narrator’s interaction with Mr. Norton was a clear representation of such.  He tells the narrator, ‘”Your great founder…had tens of thousands of lives dependent upon his ideas and upon his actions.  What he did affected your whole race. In a way, he had the power of a king, or in a sense, of a god” (Ellison, 45). Superiority is key in the white community. Everything that one, from any race, does impacts their lives and their destiny. White Americans remain at the beginning of the gradient scale and as a result, blacks are considered inferior.

The color black is placed at the end of the gradient scale because of the reputation of the color:  less than, dirty, invisible.  Their failure to realize they are invisible and adjust their identity keeps them at the end of the scale, creating a name for themselves that most look down upon.  In the book, the narrator states that all of the students at the college “hated the black-belt people, the “peasants,” during those days!…They did everything it seemed to pull us down” (Ellison, 47). Black people are considered to be under-performing and poor and in return are looked over and ignored. They fail to realize that their many contributions to this country and value are not seen by others.  Without awareness of their invisibility to others, the mass of black people have continued to keep their race from progressing and have lead to others learning to assimilate to the white world.

The concept of the gradient scale can further be related to Paul Beatty’s novel The White Boy Shuffle. Similarly to the protagonist in Invisible Man, the main character, Gunnar Kaufman, struggles to find his Black identity during his experiences in both Black and white communities. What is most interesting about the novel’s relation to the gradient scale is that the two colors (black and white) are directly elaborated upon in the novel.

The way white was described was similar to the way it was portrayed in Invisible Man, but more subtle. It was directly stated that “White was the expulsion of colors encumbered by self-awareness and pigment,” highlighting that when white is involved, there are no other colors that are a part of it (Beatty, 35). That directly relates to how the “Founding Fathers” are the only people who receive credit for the development of this nation, and nobody else.

If one were to read through the rest of the white color description, they  would notice that “White Gunnar” and his “white ways” are described.

White Gunnar ran teasingly tight circles around the recovering hollowed-out Narc Anon addicts till they spun like dreidels and dropped dizzily to the ground. White Gunnar was a broken-stringed kite leaning into the sea breeze, expertly maneuvering in the gusty gales. White Gunnar stabbed beached jellyfish with driftwood spears and let sand crabs send him into a disco frenzy by doing the hustle on his forehead (Beatty,35).

The protagonist in Invisible Man struggled with being judged because of “acting white” or doing “white things,” and constantly questioned his ways. However, Gunnar disregarded what others thought about him, he continued to praise the white color and the culture.

The color black continues to take on a negative connotation in The White Boy Shuffle. In relation to Gunnar, black and the Black culture is described to be

an unwanted dog abandoned in the forest who finds its way home by fording flooded rivers and hitchhiking int he beds of pickup trucks and arrives at its destination only to be taken for a car ride to the desert…Black was being a nigger who didn’t know any other niggers (Beatty, 35).

Because Gunnar was disconnected from the Black culture, primarily because he grew up in a white neighborhood, and because of his experiences with other Black people in his life, mainly his father, he looked down upon the color and the overall essence of being a Black person.

The color gray is considered to take on a more neutral shade. This part of the gradient scale was saved for last because it is the part where the process of assimilation takes place. Black people who have recognized that in order for them to succeed, they must rid of some blackness and add whiteness, making them gray.  These people have paraded white Americans with the yeses and grins the Invsible Man’s grandfather spoke about.  They play the part, separating themselves from the Black community to move up in the white society. The clip bellow highlights the negative and somewhat positive effects cultural assimilation has had on African-Americans.

In Invisible Man, the protagonist’s grandfather gives him advice on how to move up in society as a Black man saying, “Live with your head in the lion’s mouth.  I want you to overcome ‘em with yeses, undermine ‘em with grins, agree ‘em to death and destruction, let ‘em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open” (Ellison, 16).  Assimilation immediately becomes the narrator’s way of survival in the world, and has become the answer to freedom from the reputation of the Black community for many Blacks today.

The concept of assimilation is directly mentioned when Gunnar explains a story about his drunken father saying,

He came naked, his entire body spray-painted white, his face drool-glued against the trunk of the swing-low tree. He ran home under the sinking Mississippi moon, his white skin tingling with assimilation.

His father pretending to be white by spray painting his body is just a small illusion to what Gunnar really struggles with while living in the white neighborhood.

The symbol of a black and white gradient scale shows how in society, white is considered to be superiority while black, inferior.  While some manage to eliminate parts of their blackness and add whiteness, to become gray, it may not always work to their advantage.  Some have been exposed to the white culture and diluted by their failure to see them. Others have realized their invisibility and have abided to the white standard. However, the problem remains that people will never understand that assimilation is not the way to go. Until those who assimilation to the white culture understand that they need to focus more on their Black identity and uplifting the Black community, the gradient scale will continue to be relevant and accurate. Whites at the top and Blacks at the bottom.


Beatty, Paul. The White Boy Shuffle. New York: Picador, 1996. Print.

cure2arthritis. “Uplift, Accommodation, And Assimilation African American History.” Online video clip.
YouTube. YouTube, 26 Jun. 2012. Web. 12 May 2013.

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

TedVoron. “Pt 1 Glenn Beck AMERICA’S BLACK FOUNDING FATHERS Founders’ Day .” Online video clip. Youtube. Youtube, 28 May. 2010. Web. 12 May 2013.

TedVoron. “Pt 2 Glenn Beck AMERICA’S BLACK FOUNDING FATHERS Founders’ Day .” Online video clip. Youtube. Youtube, 28 May. 2010. Web. 12 May 2013.

TedVoron. “Pt 3 Glenn Beck AMERICA’S BLACK FOUNDING FATHERS Founders’ Day .” Online video clip. Youtube. Youtube, 28 May. 2010. Web. 12 May 2013.

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