The Alibi of Post-Raciality: Re-Viewing Invisibility


Photograph by PictureNewYork LG

by Jenny Wills

I’m not going to list the ghastly statistics of deaths, incarcerations, deportations and other manifestations of what Judith Butler has recently called the “twisted logic” of race relations in the United States and around the World today. Those we know, or should know, already.

What I want to write about today is the alibi of post-raciality, its manifestation in so-called colour-blindness, and the profoundly self-serving co-optation of racial discourse by dominant groups either because of an idealistic liberal belief in equality or conservative indignation at resistance from the margins.

A couple of weeks ago I was teaching Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man in my Contemporary American Lit. course, and for those of you who have not read this life-changing novel one of its pressing elements is a working through of Black Existentialism.

In this novel, that follows an unnamed first person narrator, we see characters challenged by the paradox of being simultaneously hyper-visible (corporeally) and unseen (socially).

From the opening lines of the book:

I am an invisible man. No, I’m not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. (3)

We know, as the novel progresses, that the narrator’s invisibility is symbolic; he, or rather his blackness, or more to the point what his blackness signifies, is all but invisible when he is forced into a Battle Royale.

Literary critic Ann Cheng points to this paradox of being both seen and unseen as a trigger for racial melancholia — or “racial grief…[based on] a dynamic of rejection and internalization” (xi) — and this is what some people are saying is going on today in Ferguson, New York, and elsewhere in the U.S.I’ll note that this is, importantly, what others have seen as going on, though less visibly, since emancipation and even before.

This movement though, marked by the rallying cry: #BlackLivesMatter, isn’t a reminder of equality as some people have tried to insist by diluting it into #AllLivesMatter, it is a direct articulation of racial grief, the crisis of Black Existentialism, of the anger and fear that is brought on by the social terrorism that being seen but unseen incites.

#AllLivesMatter, what was born of the counter rally, #PoliceLivesMatter, conveniently makes invisible race from the conversation and endorses the alibi of apathy, post-raciality. It is a desire to see the body but not the life; it is a generator of racial melancholia.

#BlackLivesMatter points directly at a long history of the denial of black people having lives: being degraded as laboring chattel (and I mean laboring in terms of both physical work and reproduction), being counted as three-fifths of a person, being targeted by racist vigilantism, being publically segregated during Jim Crow and now as Michelle Alexander rightly points out, by the carceral system, being forced to the back of the bus but the front of the military lines.

Sure, #AllLivesMatter — but this is a call to remember basic human rights. No, #BlackLivesMatter is not the same thing, it is not a special interest within a larger existential frame. #BlackLivesMatter is not a reminder. It is a proclamation that enough is enough.

There is a passage from Invisible Man that is possibly the climax in the plot. Living in New York, the narrator encounters an idealistic young black man known as Tod Clifton. As events unfold, Tod’s idealism is chipped away, both by the white majority and by members of the Black Nationalist party. Eventually, Tod goes missing only to emerge as a street vendor selling Sambo dolls — something that the narrator is horrified to discover. One day, Tod is being confronted by police officers for selling the dolls without a permit; a scuffle ensues and an unarmed black man is killed.

While reading to this excerpt, written in 1952, consider 21st century claims to post-raciality, and substitute Sambo dolls with loose cigarettes, the gun with a choke hold, Tod Clifton with Eric Garner.

Our narrator says:

His name was Tod Clifton and he was full of illusions. He thought he was a man when he was only Tod Clifton. He was shot for a simple mistake of judgment and he bled and his blood dried and shortly the crowd trampled out the stains. It was a normal mistake of which many are guilty: He thought he was a man and that men were not meant to be pushed around. But it was hot downtown and he forgot his history, he forgot the time and the place. He lost his hold on reality. There was a cop and a waiting audience but he was Tod Clifton and cops are everywhere. The cop? What about him? He was a cop. A good citizen. But this cop had an itching finger and an eager ear for a word that rhymed with ‘trigger,’ and when Clifton fell he had found it. The Police Special spoke its line and the rhyme was completed. Just look around you. (457)

Cover image by PictureNewYork LG

About the Author:


Jenny Heijun Wills is assistant professor of English at the University of Winnipeg. Her research and teaching focus on Critical Race Studies in an American context and Asian adoption literature.