What is the impact of searching your true identity when society labels you based on stereotypes?

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http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/06/28/american-nightmare-ralph-ellison-s-invisible-man-at-60.html

Finding one’s true identity can be difficult when exposed to stereotypes that define their ethnicity and being a mixed child. This has to do with society focusing on the criticism on an individual’s appearance. He or she is forced to act differently based on stereotypes and someone’s perception of that person.

In the Invisible Man, the narrator describes the meaning behind his invisibility. “The invisibility to which I refer occurs because of a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come in contact. A matter of the construction of their inner eyes with which they look through their physical eyes upon reality.” (Invisible Man, 3) In other words he is saying that people are classifying him as someone who is not important because he’s black and looking at him as if he was in a dream where he didn’t exist. In connection to invisibility, the narrator discusses a time where he bumped into a tall blond man who insulted him. This resulted in the narrator wanting to slit his throat with a knife only to find out he’s blind.  “Poor fool, poor blind fool, I thought with sincere compassion, mugged by an invisible man!” (Invisible Man, 4)

In the article, American Nightmare: Ralph Ellison’s ‘Invisible Man’ at 60, Ellison provides some background on the imagery of invisibility. “I am invisible; understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass…you often doubt if you really exist. You wonder whether you aren’t simply a phantom in other people’s minds. Say, a figure in a nightmare …”

In an attempt to find his true identity, in the Invisible Man the narrator ultimately struggles with stereotypes such as social prejudice. “It was the cabin of Jim Trueblood, a sharecropper who had brought disgrace upon the black community” (Invisible Man, 46) Black people who were in a higher social standing decided to disown Jim Trueblood in order to conform to the example of a model black citizen that was expected by the white board of trustees. The narrator was forced to see that even among black people there was tension between those in the upper class and those in the lower class. This symbolizes an instance where the Invisible Man had difficulty finding his identity because he knows that he’s black, but where does he belong in terms of social standing? Most importantly, he wonders why there’s so much tension between black social classes when they are fighting oppression.

Stereotypes go beyond social prejudice and The Invisible Man also experiences racism when he arrives at Liberty Paints to work. “Our white is so white you can paint a chunka coal and you’d have to crack it open with a sledge hammer to prove that it wasn’t white clear enough” (Invisible Man, 217) This quote exemplifies Ellison’s use of the Liberty Paints plant as a metaphor.. The main property of Optic White, Brockway notes, is its ability to cover up blackness. This dynamic evokes the larger notion that the white power structure in America, like the white paint, tries to subvert and smother black identity. Prejudice forces black men like the Invisible Man and women to assimilate to white culture, to mask their true thoughts and feelings in an effort to gain acceptance and tolerance. It forces the narrator to remain invisible and adapt an identity that society creates.

According to American Nightmare: Ralph Ellison’s ‘Invisible Man’ at 60 the synopsis that summarized the main idea of Invisible Man came from Ellison in a letter sent to his literary agent in 1946 as he was beginning to write the novel. “The invisible man will move upward through Negro life, coming into contact with its various forms and personality types; will operate in the Negro middle class, in the leftwing movement and descend again into the disorganized atmosphere of the Harlem underworld. He will move upward in society through opportunism and submissiveness. Psychologically he is a traitor, to himself, to his people, and to democracy … He is also to be a depiction of a certain type of Negro humanity that operates in the vacuum created by white America in its failure to see Negroes as human.

In order to combat the labels of racism that society placed on the narrator, his identity was completely transformed into a clean slate. “But what of his psychology”? “Absolutely no importance!” the voice said. “The patient will live as he has to live, and with absolute integrity. Who could ask for more? He’ll experience no major conflict of motives, and what is even better, society will suffer no traumata on his account.” (Invisible Man, 236)  Ellison uses imagery that compares the narrator with a newborn child. He wakes with no memory, an inability to understand speech, and a wholly unformed identity.  This rebirth, doesn’t include any recollection of his parents. The lack of mother or father recalls the veteran’s advice that the narrator should be his own father that is, create his own identity rather than accept an identity imposed on him from the outside.

In the following YouTube video The Invisible Man and its Impact on the American Lexicon it explains how Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man provided the foundation for the beginning of black identity. This was expressed through the progress of World War II and how African American’s were returning to a society infested in Jim Crow laws. Something Ralph Ellison capitalized on was the fact that in Europe many famous African American artists such as Louis Armstrong and Josephine Baker saw for the first time equal treatment among them. This was Ellison’s inspiration for writing the novel as he was on leave from the Coast Guard in 1946. Most importantly, Ellison saw that writers during the Harlem Renaissance such as Langston Hughes and Zora Neal Hurston laid the mental seeds for change in the minds of the Negro.

Ellison’s novel influence gave rise to many political and social organizations in Harlem for the attention and vibe of the black community. Among these groups were the Nation of Islam, Communist Party affiliate groups, the NAACP, and militant Civil Rights organizations which brought a change in the Lexicon of America and provided a voice for all African Americans who felt that they had no identity. In addition, the nomenclature of black changed thanks to the influence of the novel. Ellison addressed how he transitioned from Nigga to Negro to Black Man as a representation of the changing times. During the 1930’s it was not accepted for an African American to be called black it was considered a “slap in the mouth.” civil rights groups such as the NAACP used the word Negro while more radical civil rights groups like the Black Panthers used the term Black to promote “Black Power”

A search for someone’s true identity can be seen in a person who was born a mixed child. For example someone who is of mixed decent often times struggle with knowing where they would be accepted in society. In other words, its understanding whether or not to embrace both races equally or have a stronger connection with one race over the other. For many individuals who are mixed it all depends upon how they are raised by their parents and the any customs or the culture that was influenced on them the most. Beyond the scope of learning whether or not to embrace both races or have a stronger connection there’s a difficulty with people questioning mixed race people about how they should identify themselves. Overall, it’s those challenges that mixed race people face that makes it a lot more complicated to search for their true identity.

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In the novel, Caucasia Birdie has no name, her identity is shaped and formed by how others see her. The confusion Birdie feels with her identity is not only due to the shame she feels between her body image and her physical body which most adolescent girls deal with, but she also feels confusion regarding the mixed messages she receives from the “white” and “black” communities because of her white skin. The characters of Birdie and Cole are both bi-racial, however others including their own parents see Birdie as “white” and Cole as “black”. It was because of her childhood being raised in the strong black identity that she felt out of place and not fitting the black image because of the color of her skin. To make me feel that the differences were deeper than skin” (Senna,91). Birdie begins her identity quest by attempting to disappear, to become invisible.

In order for her to try to find an identity, Birdie goes through a series of events that involved many stereotypes that forced her to become someone she’s not.  The hostility of the other children toward Birdie in particular, at the all “black” school forces Birdie to “wear the mask” and put on a racial performance for her schoolmates in Nkrumah and she even begins to learn to speak in slang to better fit in. The character of Birdie resembles that of a chameleon, constantly taking on the color of those around her in an attempt to become invisible. This racial performance shifts through Birdie’s journey as she attempts to fit in with the “white” teenagers in New Hampshire. Birdie begins to act, talk, and dress like the New Hampshire teens and as a consequence begins to disappear into “Caucasia” the white nation and her falsified identity of Jesse Goldman.

In conjunction with the book Caucasia, the YouTube video above  called Racial Documentary “Other” Mixed Identity goes into detail on a few individuals who were born mixed and the challenges that they have to go through on a daily basis with identity. In many cases these individuals understand the misconceptions that many people including their friends have made as a result of being mixed. For example when it comes to the question of what race do these individuals most identify with they automatically assume that based on the color of the individual’s skin that defines what race they associate with the most. While parts of this argument may be true, most of the individuals in the video do acknowledge that it made them feel very uncomfortable and felt as if they were forced to be defined based on appearance. Phrases such as, “you’re not black enough” are a great example.

Furthermore, the individuals in the video do appreciate many aspects of their mixed cultures. For example, there was one individual whose mother is a full German and his father is half Brazilian and half Italian. He mentions that he has a strong appreciation for his father’s Brazilian heritage, but not as much as his mother’s heritage only because he spends more time with his mother rather than his father. In terms of referencing themselves, some identify themselves as just black or just white. The individuals in the video stressed the fact that at one point, they wanted to fit into a specific race when they were younger, but as they got older they learned to embrace bi-raciality and the great things that each heritage has to offer. Although the individuals in the video did say that they felt forced when checking off being a minority for scholarships and other opportunities.

Not only did the individuals discuss the challenges of being mixed, but they also shed some light on the positive aspects. All of the individuals said that they didn’t allow their friends to make their identity for them, instead they expressed their optimism for being mixed. Expressing that there is nothing wrong with being mixed and that does not make anyone different from the rest. The individuals in the video attributed their parents as the main sources of inspiration and guidance when it came to identity. From their parents’ guidance, they learned very quickly that being mixed should not define them as souls wandering their lives for acceptance or their identity. It is based upon being proud of where you come from, as well as the appreciation for diversity.

In conclusion, finding one’s true identity can be difficult when exposed to stereotypes that define their ethnicity and being a mixed child. It forces individuals to hide behind a mask and assimilate to a formulated culture. Through proper guidance, culture, and appreciation of heritage is the formula for identity.

Works Cited

Invisible Man. (n.d.). Retrieved May 13, 2013, from Spark Notes: http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/invisibleman/section7.rhtml

kash, T. (2012, February 3). Hub Pages. Retrieved May 13, 2013, from “Lost in Caucasia”: an essay on the novel Caucasia by Danzy Senna: http://thriftykash.hubpages.com/hub/Lost-in-Caucasia-an-essay-on-the-novel-Caucasia-by-Danzy-Senna-1998

Rich, N. (2012, June 28). The Daily Beast . Retrieved May 13, 2013, from American Nightmare: Ralph Ellison’s ‘Invisible Man’ at 60: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/06/28/american-nightmare-ralph-ellison-s-invisible-man-at-60.html

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-_nZnPor4dg The Invisible Man and its Impact on the American Lexicon

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5j4LkOz9C8U Racial Documentary “Other” Mixed Identity

 

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