“Rationalized Out of Existence”
A Consideration of Systematic Racism
Reading Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man was a particularly unusual experience for me. One of my dearest friends, Kelcie, lent me her copy of the text and as a result, I felt as though I was reading this esteemed work twice. Indeed, as I read the prose I kept stopping to read her marginalia, which was often very different from what I would’ve marked had it been my own book, allowing me into a window of her mind. I would then pause to add my own thoughts to the piece of paper that has now become a rather chaotic looking bookmark. She said I could write in the book but it felt impious to do so as my pen would seem so much more permanent and violent compared to her soft pencil etchings throughout. At times Kelcie’s notes were slightly jarring, if not distracting, causing me to be slow to actually sink my teeth in to the text and its plot. But now that I’ve finished, I keep returning to different passages — passages that both Kelcie and I highlighted. In short, the novel has made me reflect. It has made me think especially about the state of the world today and our evident lack of social progress.
In the simplest of words Ellison examines race in America. The novel is primarily set in 1930s Harlem, where the Black Nationalist movement is alive and growing. What is disturbing, however, is that throughout the novel (published in its entirety in 1952) certain phrases, interactions, and struggles could easily be dealing with America over 50 years later. That is, America today. The notion that an unarmed black man would be shot dead by a police officer, while an unarmed white man would not, is something that today’s public is all too familiar with. Themes of invisibility and hyper-visibility permeate the novel (the title being no small hint to this “astute” remark), which in turn comments on racial hierarchies. Ellison’s narrator remains unnamed throughout the work, making him the “every black man” rather than a particular individual. This narrative device is utilized as a means to both critique broader political themes as well as create the space for familiarity to foster.
And while I could go on about the merits of Ellison’s novel, I want to focus on the words that form the title of this post instead. These words are taken from a moment when the narrator reflects on “historical logic” and claims that he “should have disappeared around the first part of the nineteenth century, rationalized out of existence” (442). Here, he is of course reflecting upon the horrific legacy of slavery and indenture: for over 300 years people were dehumanized, stripped of legal status, and subjugated to harsh and often violent “working” conditions (I use inverted commas as these conditions were anything but working).
Flash-forward past the abolition movement, and through to the civil rights movement, and things are better, but by no means solved. Divides between “coloured” and “whites” permeate, and violence was still common. Today, we realize and acknowledge the wrongdoings of slavery. We realize the disgusting barbarity that lived and persisted — not only for far too long, but more importantly, at all. We acknowledge the inhumanity of treating people as lesser, as animals, based on the sole criteria of skin colour. We acknowledge the immorality of systematic prejudice and racism. And yet, these prejudices are still the norm. Not in the organized or legalized sense, but rather, in everyday interactions. Think of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Mike Brown, and Akai Gurley for just a few examples.
In much the same way, if we consider the Holocaust — an, if not ‘The,’ episode in history that produced a litany of “never again” — we see repercussions of these same tropes that surfaced in the 15th century (and beyond) in America. The Holocaust reduced people to lesser than “us.” The Third Reich decimated “literature” and created political parties to support these hierarchies. Harsh and utterly reprehensible labour camps/ conditions surfaced. Systematic discrimination was legalized. Countless acts of barbarity materialized. Mass murder occurred. All in all, the creation of Hitler’s Nazi state was an attempt to rationalize Jews, homosexuals, gypsies, communists, and the like out of existence.
Now contemplate the current Occupation of Palestine. Acts of violence occur. A huge separation wall has been constructed between “two peoples.” Curfews are enforced. Permits that sanction movement are selectively given out. Sections of land are declared “Israeli” and others “Arab.” Bombings of hospitals and schools — places that are meant to be safe — result in hundreds wounded and/or dead. Death. Destruction. Despair. Could this be the start of a campaign to rationalize Arabs out of existence?
By no means do I equate slavery, the Holocaust, or the Occupation of Palestine. But what I want to consider are the ways in which we keep seeing such dehumanization resurface and reformulate throughout history. Murder is despicable. Racism is unfounded. It’s baffling that humans are by nature so distrusting of one another, so inherently violent, and therefore capable of such horror. I think that a large part of what we see has to do with unchecked power, but why does it take us so long to recognize our mistakes? And why do we keep seeing similar abuses occur?
But again, I am looking at issues that affect “elsewhere.” It seems, then, that I too am guilty of ignoring important issues here at home in Canada. The most crucial issue affecting Canadians today is arguably the ongoing discrimination of First Nations people. It has been less than twenty years since the last residential school closed in Canada, but the social and psychological ramifications are definitely far from over.
Maclean’s Magazine published an incredibly important piece last month, “Welcome to Winnipeg: Where Canada’s Racism Problem is at its Worst,” that highlighted the immense amounts of racism found in this country, but as the title suggests, Winnipeg in particular. As crucial as this information is what Nancy Macdonald failed to address (but what Max Fineday examined in “What’s Missing in the Maclean’s Article on Racism?”) is that prejudice against First Nations people extends far beyond this Manitoban city: racism exists all over the country. The infamous Highway of Tears attests to that. Reservations attest to that. And so, the issue in trying to name the “most racist city” is that it deflects attention away from other cities’ guilt and responsibility.
What is certainly clear is that discrimination against First Nations people is yet another example of the violent vestiges of colonialism. Canada is built on a history of cruelty but a silence exists around it. We too tried to rationalize people out of existence. The motto of residential schools was, after all, to “beat the Indian out of the child” — a disgusting sentiment and harrowing practice.
So what I’m left thinking about is the relationship between distance and trauma. How long does it take for us to realize that certain actions are disturbing, troubling, and inhumane? How much do we need to know in order for us to say “enough”? How many years need to pass in order for us to artistically, intellectually, and emotionally explore these topics?
Racism, prejudice, and violence are caught together in a seemingly impermeable web all over the world. This much we know. We can only hope, then, that voices continue to surface around these issues, slowing unwinding the fabrics that perpetuate these negative forces. Maybe even one day humanity will once and for all rationalize discrimination out of existence.
Read the Maclean’s piece and Fineday’s rebuttal here:
[Fortunately, brave people have shared their stories and are beginning to develop discussions around Canada’s history. For instance, one of my favourite authors, Joseph Boyden, recently collaborated with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to educate our country on the painful history of residential schools.]
*The background image was taken in Morocco and is the Berber sign for freedom.
Originally published at returning2humanity.wordpress.com on February 17, 2015.