Tuesday, April 20, 2010


Everyone struggles with their identity at some point. Sometimes we struggle to find ourselves as distinct members of a family, community, society. Other times we must face the challenge of recognizing ourselves outside of those boundaries or in a new context, outside of a stereotype or an expectation and in a new place, time, age. We may live with a slight discomfort our whole lives, an uneasiness, a sense of isolation but we may never discover the root causes of these feelings until forced, or simply asked, to examine the situations from which they arose. When we do so, I think many of us will find the same thing, as many of the authors of these essays have. In essence, our insecurities within society seem to stem from insecurities within the family, regardless of our particular struggles. Insecurities about race stem from cultural expectations upheld by parents that may not apply to a new, expanded culture. Or they can come from a shared racial insecurity, as depicted in The Bluest Eye. Or they simply arise because in everyone’s life, especially in America, we are at one point severed from a family of shared experiences, cultures, genes, and cast into the melting pot. Our shared struggle – regardless of race, gender, or sexual preference – is maintaining our shape over the flame of a greater culture, a pressure larger and more intrusive than even our families. Despite their obvious differences, I see this struggle in each of the stories we’ve read.

We all struggle not to get lost in the melting pot of American culture.

As a society, I feel that we are obsessed both with maintaining unique ancestral cultures and rejecting them. We at once want to be unique and fit in. So where does diversity, the ideological byproduct of our country’s foundation, sit in this innate contradiction? We obviously don’t know how to deal with it, despite its pervasiveness. I feel that the essays we read for this discussion focus less on racial tension and more on the culture war that we all face in America, especially those who must struggle to solidify their place in this country, this culture. I was struck by the observation in the first essay: “Race and culture are synonymous when people with a similar history or genetic make-up share common life experiences unique to their heritage (p.866).” Outside of those conditions, the two are not synonymous, and in America especially, may have very little to do with another. So in America, one isn’t necessarily born into a culture, typecast by appearance alone; and in many ways one has the freedom to escape any standards of culture pressed upon them by parents or communities. In the second essay, the author wasn’t embarrassed or outcast because of his race – there were many other Asians at his school – but rather because of his culture, something foreign, noticeable, unique – the smell of his food at lunch.

I can imagine that it would be easy to vilify one’s native culture during youth since it not only presents a challenge to “fitting in” but is also representative of parental dominance. It would be natural for any young person to rebel against the culture their parents forced onto them. I think that this ease of rebellion is unfortunate, because it sets up an identity crisis lying dormant, a cultural rift within a family, and a general loss of culture. I saw the trend in the essays that as the authors aged, they began to revisit the cultures they thought they had lost, or been cast out from, as adolescents. It’s a question of finding the right balance that people growing up in America, especially those raised by immigrant parents, must answer in order to function both within a family and within a larger society. In the third essay the author realizes that “Part of coming to terms with who I was involved reconciling the distant personal relationship I had with my father, but I also realized that I needed to reconcile myself with what it really meant to be Chinese, since that was the source of much of our conflict (p.887).” It is a discomfort with one’s culture, a struggle to reconcile it with the pervasive culture (or anti-culture) of America, which leads to problems within families. But it can also work the other way – a cultural identity associated with a dysfunctional family may not be held onto as a means of coping, or repressing, the pain of a fractured family life. I agree with the statement from the second essay that “we all exist with scars that seem too deep and too painful (p.879).” These scars may be experiences that sever us from our heritage, our history, our families. Or they could be those glimpses of an identity unexpected and unwelcomed by the safety net of sociocultural standards, those revelations that you don’t necessarily fit the niche you’ve been given.

"Who are you?" may be an unanswerable question.
source: http://www.alexross.com/whoareyoubenson.jpg

It’s hard to know who you are. I can only imagine the added struggle of growing up with multiple parties constantly telling you who you should be, with the threat of disownment at the betrayal of their expectations. I can only be in shock to read about the reaction of the parents in the second essay, their complete denial and disgrace at their son’s homosexuality. Though it isn’t their reaction that is most striking, in fact I might say its typical, shallow even. Rather, it is the predicament of the son who wants to love his parents and belong to his family but can’t live within their expectations that haunts me. To have to pit one’s own identity – a tentative and elusive definition – against the establishment of family, of ancestry, of an entire culture would be a debilitating struggle. But I suppose it’s a necessary one. We can’t forget where we come from, even if its vestiges appear only as guilt or resentment. The author of the third essay seemed to reconcile the dichotomy of familial culture and personal identity thusly: “While I see my roots as an important connection to my past, I do not see them as defining my future (p.887).” In the end, it takes confidence to move away from one’s roots. I don’t see this as a rejection or dismissal of culture, but rather as a necessary attempt to separate one’s identity from a cultural identity that may be susceptible to generalization and subsequent discrimination or persecution. I think it is just as dangerous for a person to devote themselves wholly to a cultural identity – to say “I am Korean” or “I am a Latino” or “I am a homosexual” – as it is to reject one’s cultural, or sexual, identity completely. In both cases, we become hollow shells of people, type-cast, narrowly defined. It is easy to get into the habit of “constructing layers of social identities that do not communicate a consistent core self across space and time (p.888),” because those layers, those social identities, are easy for others to process and judge and react to accordingly. If we only represent ourselves as this race or that culture, we not only alienate others, but we isolate ourselves, we become detached from our true identities as complex, multidimensional personalities. Racism, sexism, and homophobia will never go away if we keep representing ourselves in singular, static ways, because the generalities, the assumptions, are created in our own narrow definitions, in our own inability to reconcile diverse cultures/identities/roles within ourselves - much less among others.

Monday, April 12, 2010


Writing is therapy. Whether you are conquering a self-doubt or merely conquering your to-do list, writing about what is troubling you is immensely rewarding and stress relieving. I have always been a writer in this regard – even before I took up visual art, writing was my primary form of expression. When I was a child this expression was fairly simple – poetry and fiction describing the world around me or creating worlds I wanted to see. As I got older however, writing became a way for me to deal with the troubles that come with adolescence, not unlike what some of the characters in The Bluest Eye face. I never sought counsel from my peers, siblings, or parents when I was upset – instead, I wrote. I have a written account of my most troubling thoughts and feelings, my most inspired ideas and goals, and my most humiliating failures. The refuge I found in writing developed my sense of independence an

d self-confidence as well as my personal voice. If something can be so powerful as to help sculpt a person like writing sculpted me, what can it accomplish for society?

I spent a lot of time writing as a child.

source: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_sh_ujz809_o/SYIsntKA5CI/AAAAAAAAAXY/mubTA1XKt2g/S692/girl_writing2.jpg

Toni Morrison understands this. She understands the power of communicating our inner dialogue, our inner conflicts, in a way that not only removes stress from the writer, but effectively illustrates a mindset, a voice, a time place and character for the reader. Morrison goes beyond this even, writing for a culture, a race, a gender, through the voice of “the most delicate member of a society: a child; the most vulnerable member: a female (p. 210).” There is something about that voice, the observing yet unknowing voice of a child, which tends to illuminate greater truths so powerfully. In the case of The Bluest Eye, the child narrators can only comprehend trauma within their limited frame of reference. They understand the severity of a conflict, but not the stigma or social response to it. In this way their voices could be considered pure, their responses truly reactionary at the most fundamental level. The simply drawn conclusions of a child make the adult reader wonder, “Why do we invent so many layers to express and identify a conflict?” In the case of Pecola, adults rely on social stigmas and pre-judgments attached to the Breedlove family to detach themselves from her pain, to avoid empathy. But a child, without an understanding of those constructs, cannot avoid the emotional response, cannot help but try to help. Adults are equipped with a huge tool set for dealing with conflicts that children lack, and thus are able to remain detached, unmoved by situations that call for a strong voice, a helping hand, or at the very least a bit of empathy. Morrison recognizes this and tries to strip the adult reader of their tools, their guard, and make them see the true issue at hand. She describes the role of the child narrators, “If they have any success, it will be in transferring the problem of fathoming to the presumably adult reader (p. 214).”

Morrison depicts self-loathing.

source: http://michaelalonzo.com/images/photography/people/selfloathing.jpg

What is Morrison trying to express by stripping the reader of their emotional blockade? To some extent, this is the expression itself – the frailty of the constructs we employ to defend ourselves against caring, a frailty built on our own self-doubt, and in the case of the characters in The Bluest Eye, their own “racial self-loathing (p. 210).” This is the attitude that Morrison tries to tear down by exposing its weakness as well as its potential to cause irreversible harm. Morrison is attempting to reveal feelings that she believes to be “lodged in all young girls (p. 210),” and I think she succeeds. Beyond that, she has used writing as a tool, an outlet, for sharing a secret with the society that’s been working to keep it as such. Morrison says that, “the writing was the disclosure of secrets, secrets “we” shared and those withheld from us by ourselves and by the world outside our community (p. 212).” Thus, her book was a form of therapy, not only for herself but for her community, for her readers, and for the girl who only wanted blue eyes.

Monday, April 5, 2010


I wonder if it’s safe to say that every culture struggles with its own establishment of physical ideals. In The Bluest Eye, the ideal is associated with white culture, thus keeping all minorities outside of what is considered desirable. But I feel that at some point we all feel that alienation, regardless of our race. I think this point comes along most frequently during adolescence and that this, possibly even above racism, is a central conflict of Morrison’s novel. The specific example illustrated so strikingly by Morrison is just an extreme case of the implications of culturally manufactured physical ideals. These implications go deeper than a simple feeling of inadequacy or envy- they reach all the way into self-hatred and even the projection of that hatred onto others. These feelings generally stem from the experiences of adolescence, as that is a vulnerable time for anyone, when extreme pressure is applied both from within a family structure and within a society.

We can all relate at some level to the “fear of being rejected because of our appearance, abandoned by the group, left homeless (Bump, p.334).” These feelings arise in our younger years because our relationships, our ties to the larger world, are tentative and only beginning to emerge. Without the security of an encouraging family or teacher, it is easy to be consumed by self-doubt. Especially when the role models around you are also plagued by insecurities – financial, marital, societal – it is difficult to be hopeful about your future development. Rather, these perceived shortcomings come to define people, as is the case of the Breedloves. Each member of the family has their own story of self-doubt and displacement, culminating in a group identity of inadequacy. Pauline is especially affected by the societal ideal of beauty, engrossing herself in films to escape her own physical reality and feelings of constant longing. She equates her unsatisfied romantic dreams with her unsatisfying appearance thusly: “Both originated in envy, thrived in insecurity, and ended in disillusion. In equating physical beauty with virtue, she stripped her mind, bound it, and collected self-contempt by the heap (Morrison, p.122).” The pervasive culture that affects all of us is almost guaranteed – designed – to create feelings of envy and longing. Perhaps this is a phenomenon unique to our society and others similar to it, as the aim of a capitalist system is to encourage consumers to buy into the culture. Without the commodification of beauty, of social status, perhaps these feelings of inadequacy would not be so universal.

Ads like this create a standard of beauty that consumers want to buy into.
source: http://www.shoppingblog.com/pics/dolce_makeup_ad1.gif

Morrison really captures the full spectrum of emotions and behaviors associated with these insecurities. In the extreme case of the deep-seated racism in the novel, there is nowhere to hide from society’s disapproval. The negative connotation associated with dark skin was so engrained in society that even African Americans, and sometimes them worst of all, associated their skin color and physical appearance with an inescapable inadequacy. Some, like Maureen and Geraldine, try to mask it through dress and obsessive cleanliness. Others, such as the taunting boys who “seemed to have taken all of their smoothly cultivated ignorance, their exquisitely learned self-hatred, their elaborately designed hopelessness and sucked it all up into a fiery cone of scorn (Morrison, p.65),” lash out against those with similar traits. For Claudia and Pecola, however, it is just a constant question – why them? Why not me? It is frustration – perhaps the first signs of a break in the cycle. Claudia does not accept or understand the sovereignty of Shirley Temple. Pecola believes her problems would be solved if she only had blue eyes. Two very different attitudes, but both speaking for the shallow and arbitrary nature of the cultural ideal.

Shirley Temple, the source of Claudia's insecurity
source: http://www.breakingthetape.com/keeping-pace/Shirley%20Temple.bmp

As obviously shallow and distorted as these constructs are – in the case of The Bluest Eye being dictated by decades of racism and discrimination against blacks – we are still so affected by them. We have all felt the drop in the pits of our stomachs when faced with the “seeming helplessness in the grip of fears generated by judging ourselves and others by appearance (Bump, p.333).” It is a vicious cycle of unattainable standards and arbitrary preferences. Pecola cannot make herself have blue eyes. Pauline cannot put her foot back to normal. I cannot make myself grow five inches. In a sense this powerlessness to ascribe to a standard that has been imposed upon you is the most destructive feeling of all. A task that seems so effortless in the movies, that seems so natural among the affluent, the task of being desirable, of being attractive, is incredibly hard to attain based on society’s standards. And with this powerlessness comes fear – the fear of rejection, the fear, reaching back to the beginning of the novel, of being “put outside”. And when those people who should form a community of likeness and support – families, cultural groups, neighbors – reject their own, then that fear becomes very real and very damaging.

The blue eyes that Pecola can never have.
source: http://www.chrisdellavedova.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/02/blueeyes.jpg

Thursday, April 1, 2010


Family is something everyone can relate to. Whether your family was a large part of your life or if they were essentially nonexistent, from the very act of your creation they define who you are and in many ways, who you have the ability to become. I think struggles related to the family transcend race, class, and location. Abuse can exist in the most affluent homes, and harmony can exist in squalor. Family dynamics constantly shift as children grow, new relationships form and disintegrate, loved ones pass away, and members are forced to question – who are these people that define me?

Anyone can be the victim of abuse.


We cannot control the family we are born into, and thus we must sacrifice much of our autonomy right from the start. Some people, depending on their family situation, carry this sacrifice with them their whole lives, never able to transcend the barriers put on them by the simple fact of their birth. In Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the Breedloves represent this predicament. The narrator describes their relationship thusly, “from the tiny impressions gleaned from one another, they created a sense of belonging and tried to make do with the way they found each other (p.34).” Their whole existence has been defined by the chance interaction of two people on two nights, of four people in one place, and two sets of genes pitted against one another like a dueling couple. There can be no joy in this life of bitter resignation. They belonged to a group they resented, they made do with abuse and hatred.

But they, like anyone seemingly trapped in a negative family situation, had options. As we see in the novel, “a family of choice can be and often is healthier than a family of blood (Bump, 350).” When the Breedlove’s shallow excuse for a family implodes, Pecola has the opportunity to join a new family and thus separate herself from the negative self-image her biological family forced upon her.

Claudia’s family, while not perfect, is far from the tempest of Pecola’s. Still, Claudia struggles with her own identity much as Pecola does, confused as to where she fits not only within a family of individuals, but in a world full of diversity. This confusion often leads to self-doubt and deprecation. Whereas Pecola internalizes her struggles and seeks to disappear, Claudia lashes out against the world and tries to assert her identity. As Professor Bump states, “Claudia is able to keep her sanity partly because… she has a tendency to get angry at the other and defend herself rather than to turn inward and sink into depression (Bump, 354).” But even this anger challenges Claudia, as she realizes it is misdirected and shallow. In the case of her treatment of dolls, and by extension white girls, Claudia analyzes her behavior with a sense of regret: “when I learned how repulsive this disinterested violence was… my shame floundered about for refuge. The best hiding place was love. Thus the conversion from pristine sadism to fabricated hatred, to fraudulent love (p.23).” This fraudulent love can be just as damaging to someone as external violence, especially in a family environment. Our families are the easiest group in our lives to resent, as we had no responsibility in assigning them. When we put on a mask of false love to cover up a bitter sense of anonymity, we create a shallow framework for a family that will never grow, only shudder under the weight of building resentment. Claudia’s realization about her relationship with the doll foreshadows her feelings about the role she plays in her family: “the change was adjustment without improvement (p.23).”

Being in a family can cause an identity crisis.

source: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_UZCczEayolg/Sw1v15PGT3I/AAAAAAAADhQ/AreTyfhTj5k/s400/IdentityCrisis.jpg

From as much of this book as I’ve read so far, it seems that a major theme is the inability to ever truly escape from the family you’re born into. I am curious to see how Pecola gets sucked back into the severe dysfunction of the Breedloves, and also how Claudia reconciles herself to her place in a large and assertive family. It is interesting to once again think of family from the perspective of a child who is still so trapped in that world, now being so separate from my own family. Being the youngest of four very independent siblings, I can relate to the identity crisis caused by being part of any family, no matter the level of functionality.