A Study of Toni Morrison’s Effort to Deconstruct the Sociological Concepts of Ethnocentrism and the Assimilation Model in Her The Bluest Eye (1970)

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高應科大人文社會科學學報 2009 年 12 月

ISSN 1815-0373 第六卷第二期 P231-258

A Study of Toni Morrison’s Effort to Deconstruct

the Sociological Concepts of Ethnocentrism and the

Assimilation Model in Her The Bluest Eye (1970)

Lewis T. C. Lu

Professor, Applied Foreign Languages Department National Kaohsiung University of Applied Sciences


Ethnocentrism is a very important sociological concept that is formulated as a universal characteristic of autonomous societies or ethnic groups. According to this concept, in-group members always regard their values, goals, and interests as the center of everything, and the out-group members are rated and scaled with reference to them. As a result, in-group members are eager to look for grounds for the negative evaluation of the out-group. However, Toni Morrison, a female African-American writer who won the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature, reveals in her first novel The Bluest Eyes (1970) that large numbers of black characters seem to feel ashamed of their skin color and constantly experience a denial of their racial identity and themes of blackness in the emulation of white standards in the larger society. Their readiness to acculturate, however, fails to facilitate their socio-economic assimilation; instead, it puts them on an increasingly unequal and servile footing with the majority whites. Morrison is also critical of the assimilation model in American sociology, dismissing its assumption as so unrealistic as to ignore the constant reinvention of ethnicity and its seething resistance to what Milton Gordon (1961) called “Anglo-conformity.” Obviously, Morrison’s purpose is to tantalize the structuralist notion underlying the dual or binary oppositions between black and white, bad and good, the marginalized and the “mainstream,”1 sordid reality and fairy tale of the white myth, as well as inferiority and superiority. However, in doing so she unwittingly “deconstructs” the


高應科大人文社會科學學報 ISSN 1815-0373

root notions of ethnocentrism and the assimilation model 2 that has been widely favored by sociologists since Robert Park. 3

Key word: Toni Morrison, ethnocentrism, assimilation, mass culture, group identity


In his From Savage to Negro, Lee Baker contends that, if culture is historically specific, African-American folklore and cultural practices must maintain continuity from their West African traditions (168). In the eyes of the assimilationist sociology, the racialized minority, despite its skin-color difference, can also be culturally assimilated into “the host” society. As a predominant paradigm in the twentieth and thirties, Robert Park’s Chicago School of Sociology believed in a more flexible model of social transformation in the sense that biological hierarchy can be transformed into biological equality through the stages of competition, conflict, accommodation, and eventually, assimilation (Bulmer 59). Park indicated that the progressing non-cosmopolitan Negro cultures are pathological because they have deviated from the American cultural and behavioral criteria. Such pathology is fostered in response to racial discrimination, slavery heritages, and unwholesome environments (Baker 178). Nevertheless, it simply constitutes a barrier to assimilation that can be easily overcome through time. Such a vision of assimilation emphasizes the absence of long-standing and slow-to-change African traditions for black Americans among whom Geraldine and Pecola as characters in The Bluest Eye are praised for their new citizenship models (177). In fact, minority citizenship has been enshrined by the new official model of Brown v. Board of Education that toppled the segregationist logic to become the new paradigm of social science based on ethnicity and assimilation. Even the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), in its efforts to challenge segregation, accepted the concept of racial equality. Historically, fictional characters such as Geraldine and Pauline constitute the white norm of cultural citizenship in the 1940’s that was critiqued by Morrison’s novel. Many other brown girls in the novel also believe that they can assimilate themselves into white society by adopting the middle-class trappings, values, habits and possessions of the WASPs, even if their race undercuts, or fails to signal, such a cultural membership.

On the contrary, Black Arts movement and Black Nationalism in the seventies when the novel was written never believed that such a cultural membership is a perfect solution to the Negro problem. As implicit in the name “nationalism,” Black nationalists suggest that American blacks should find a nation by separating America into two: one for whites and


Lewis T.C.Lu A Study of Toni Morrison’s Effort to Deconstruct the Sociological Concepts of Ethnocentrism and the Assimilation Model in Her The Bluest Eye (1970)

the other for blacks with nationhood of the latter defined and substantiated by the African-Americanism (Neal 30-38). Likewise, as the spiritual sister of Black Nationalism, Black Aesthetic argues for the de-Americanization of black communities in the belief that an alternative, separatist, and race-essentialist model should be employed to solve the problem of “double consciousness” on the part of American blacks and their different sense of national belonging (Gayle xxii).4 To rise against the unification model set by Brown v. Board of Education, black nationalists, separatists, and aestheticists argue for the reclamation of racial pride and the notion of “black is beautiful.” 5

On the other hand, Park’s discourse and portrayal of black pathology is reinforced by Myrdal who also sees Negroes as assimilable racialized minorities. 6 Since segregation is unconstitutional as suggested by the NAACP, social scientists on the premise of Brown tend to see cultural assimilation as the panacea for racial minorities. Under the pressures, integration seems to be the first answer for all social science behind Brown. However, Morrison questions such a premise in her Black Aesthetics novel, probing deep into the theme of beauty and ugliness in connection with race as well as cultural oppression (Dubey 33-34). Deeply engaged with African American psychology, Morrison’s The Bluest Eye is acknowledged by the Black Aesthetic concepts because its intertexual ground dramatizes the pathology in the heroine Pecola who is unable to see the beauty within herself. The formation of such pathology is complicated but comprehensible in that black readers can easily experience in their daily lives terrible yearnings, secret thoughts, and incomprehensible frustrations. According to Ruby Dee, Morrison simply helps black readers ferret up such gnawing feelings from their unadmitted sub-consciousness so that, after they have been disillusioned by the hope of assimilation, they can really breathe deeply and say out loud that “black is beautiful” (319). The rest of this paper will discuss further how Morrison rises against assimilation as a conceptual model.

The Assimilation Model of American Sociology

If minority groups must go through the stages of competition, conflict, and accommodation before they assimilate themselves into the dominant way of life in the larger society, then assimilation must be the last stage in the dynamic of racial interactions. Sociologists tend to measure the immigrant group along with each of these dimensions, treating them as the gateways to immigrant assimilation. It is widely believed by assimilation sociologists that American blacks will eventually accommodate and conform to the mores of the majority group by following the same path as that of the European immigrants (Jackson and Weidman 147). Robert Park and other Chicago School


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sociologists in the 1920’s and 1930’s were concerned about the ethnic relations and the role they play in the approaches to the issues of urban sociology such as ethnic community, social reform, crime, poverty, juvenile delinquency, and the problems rising out of immigrant adaptation to the American mainstream. Since defined as the relinquishment of minority culture in favor of the dominant society, the ideas of assimilation and the melting pot are characterized, not by the meshing of values, lifestyles, and behavioral patterns, by the loss of ethnic identity and the adoption of language, practice, and forms of behavior and the culture of the dominant group. For the racial minorities, merging into the dominant culture is a uni-dimensional and one way process which is not only necessary and inevitable but also irreversible. Such an almost natural sequence of interactions eventually leads to absorption, modernization, and Americanization.7

In other words, the retention of ethnicity is regarded by many Chicago school sociologists as either “otherness” or “marginality” and only the dominant culture deserves its security and superiority (Buenker 86). According to Milton M. Gordon (1961), the importance of successful assimilation cannot be overemphasized in that racial minorities should eventually shift from their identification with their primary institutions (such as families) to identification with secondary institutions or social organizations based on “rational” cooperation (Solomonson 62-64).8 Assimilation as a conceptual model won its credibility in the early twentieth century, arguing that the dynamic process of racial interactions could be explained by the way in which immigrants or racial minorities took this route to assimilate (or even disappear) into mainstream American society and culture.

In assessing immigrant assimilation, Mary C. Waters and Tomas R. Jimenez (2005) formulated the primary benchmarks of assimilation as intermarriage, language assimilation, spatial mobility, and occupational advancement with acculturation being a chief component setting the stage for social mobility or socioeconomic assimilation. Richard Alba (29) also suggested “as members of minority groups acculturate and establish themselves in American labor markets, they attempt… to convert socioeconomic and assimilation progress into residential gain.” In response, Robert Park believed that if the “host” society discriminates against racial minorities, they would encounter severe pathologies in their adaptation to the larger society.

However, Morrison, since skeptical of and pessimistic about some minorities’ assimilability, questions the misconception of assimilation experience, especially that of African Americans, as well as the so-called rosy prospect, desirability, and inevitability of assimilation favored by the Chicago School of Sociology. In her eyes, these social scientists, while oblivious to the existing reality of pluralism and multi-culturalism, emphasized too much the continuing importance of the melting pot to the extent of failing


Lewis T.C.Lu A Study of Toni Morrison’s Effort to Deconstruct the Sociological Concepts of Ethnocentrism and the Assimilation Model in Her The Bluest Eye (1970)

to characterize the situation of many individuals and groups. Morrison goes further to satirize Park’s social pathology model and Thomas’ disorganization theory in his Polish immigration studies (1927) with her novel The Bluest Eye in which many characters embrace negative ethnocentrism with their “double-consciousness leading not to health and stability but to a mental state of morbidity and apathy which is fatal to self-confidence” (Page 81).

Ethnocentrism of Blacks as a Racial Minority

Racial antagonism and prejudice in the early stage of racial contact are necessary parts of immigrant assimilation into the “host” society in the last stage. What sustains the in-group solidarity and antagonism against the out-group in the early stage of competition and conflict is ethnocentrism. In his “A Theory of the Origin of Ethnic Stratification,” Donald L. Noel formulates ethnic stratification as originating from the presence of ethnocentrism, competition, and differential power (157-172). As William G. Sumner explains in Folkways, in the dimension of social relations, “one’s own group is the center of everything,” and everything belonging to the in-group is equated with the universal and abstract criteria of morality with the result that their cultural practices are exalted as better and more natural than those of the out-group (18). Charles Wagley and Marvin Harris further describe that, even if sexual relations between members of different groups, or even intermarriages, are permissible, the practice of endogamy is commonly used as a means to strengthen ethnocentrism (256-263). There are many ways to express ethnocentrism among which can be found the double standards of morality. Instead of condescension and mythology, in-group members prefer to use a “dual” ethic by which the cultural strengths of the out-group are negatively defined, downgraded, and rejected altogether (Becker Ch. 15). Robin Williams testifies that the intensity of such downgrading and rejection is dependent on the extent to which the in-group differs from the out-group. The greater the difference, the lower the relative rank the out-group is relegated (22). As to the inter-group economic relations, the in-group rules or standards apply only to insiders with outsiders being unavoidably regarded as fair game for economic exploitation. Even so, ethnocentrism does not necessarily lead to interethnic conflict because it can be neutralized by the lack of competition or the necessity of economic complementarity (Lindgren 605-621). Be that as it may, racially and culturally dissimilar groups have inborn ethnocentric preference for the in-group. When faced with the threat from the neighboring out-group, each develops mutual ethnocentrism to assert its right to life and territory. Under normal circumstances, ethnocentrism can be considered as a natural orientation which is basically manifested from


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the glorification of the in-group, even if it does not mean hostility toward a specific out-group.

Not at ease with such a theoretical framework in ethnicity, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eyes expands her postmodern vision to reconcile the unresolved dichotomy between ethnocentrism and negative ethnocentrism within a larger context of the assimilation model. This paper seeks to find out some evidences indicating her ideological endeavor to deconstruct the myth of ethnocentrism in sociology.

Mass Culture as a Countervailing Force

In her novel, Morrison attempts to indicate the fact that African-American cultures and histories and the positive images and stories inherent in them have been effaced by all-pervasive commodity capitalism whose “representation” is based on the visible models of the white images (Smith 38-57). Unfortunately, such a mass culture industry is insidious in that it is premised on consumption and the normative values conducive to it. As a result, prosperity is encouraged at the expense of class as well as ethnic and racial differences. When “social contradictions” and antagonisms are purportedly erased or concealed, African-Americans suffer double layers of reversal or “negation” because their racial forms and cultural distinctiveness are deprived of any chance of representation (Willis 183-184; Walace 52-67). Such disallowance produces damaging effects, especially for black women because commodity culture intersects with sex, causing female bodies to become the domain where the colonization of African-American experiences by the hegemony of white cultures is marked. Morrison uses her narrative tactic to represent black female subjectivity in the context of the subdominant ghetto as the complex reality which is shifting and layered in nature. Along the axes of economic prosperity as promised by commodity capitalism, ethnic differences have been seemingly smoothed away to the extent that social conflicts have been resolved and, above all, replaced by equal desire to consume on the part of blacks and whites alike. However, Fredric Jameson argues in his “Reification and Utopia in Mass culture” that false images in connection with sex conjured up by mass culture intentionally ignore the race-specific attributes of African-American consumers (135-148).

The false images that have been consigned with some category in the scale of absolute beauty can be mirrored by Morrison’s description of Pauline in The Bluest Eye:

… Along with the idea of romantic love, she was introduced to another --- physical beauty. Probably the most destructive ideas in the history of


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eccentricity and freedom – less conformity in individual habits – but close conformity in terms of the survival of the village, of the tribe. Before sociological microscopes were placed on us, people did anything and nobody was run out of town.” Please see Danille Taylor-Guthrie’s Conversations with Toni Morrison. Jackson, University Press of Mississippi. 1994. p. 125.


In 1951, Kenneth Clark and Mamie Clark conducted a dolls test in which sixteen black children were asked to compare a black doll with another identical white-colored one. The majority answered that they preferred the white doll to the black one because the white doll seemed to be “nice” and the black one seemed to be “bad.” Please see Juan Williams. Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary. New York: Random House, 1998:199-200. Or see Midge and Kathy Russell. Divided Sisters: Bridging the Gap between Black Women

and White Women. New York: Anchor, 1996.


In fact, many mid-twentieth-century Asian minority authors also shifted their attention from biological race to ethnic culture in favor of the social-science paradigm. Please see Christopher Douglas “Reading Ethnography: The Cold War Social Science of Jade Snow Wong’s Fifth Chinese Daughter and Brown v. Board of Education,” in Asian American

Literature: Form, Confrontation, and Transformation. Ed. Samina Namji and Zhou

Xiaojing Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press, 2005, 101-124.


In an article entitled “On the Backs of Blacks” printed on Time magazine (Thursday, Dec. 02, 1993), Toni Morrison endorses Mary Waters’ findings that immigrants and their children do better economically by maintaining a strong ethnic identity and culture (i.e. ethnocentrism). In contrast, many native-born American blacks become downwardly mobile after they lose their immigrant ethnic distinctiveness. She rails against the myth of the assimilation model, retorting that “the most enduring and efficient rite of passage into American culture… is negative appraisals of the native-born black population. Only when the lesson of racial estrangement is learned is assimilation complete… The move into mainstream America always means buying into the notion of American blacks as the real aliens.” Aviva Chomsky also confirms assimilation as “a double-edged sword” for racial minorities in the U. S. Please see his They Take Our Jobs! And 20 Other Myths About

Immigration, (Beacon Press, 2007).

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Lewis T.C.Lu A Study of Toni Morrison’s Effort to Deconstruct the Sociological Concepts of Ethnocentrism and the Assimilation Model in Her The Bluest Eye (1970)





摘 要

傳統社會學一致認定,每個族群都有一種以自我為中心的心態,進而排斥其他的 族群。黑人在美國是少數族裔,長期受到白人的統治與歧視,為了生存或自保理應發 展出比白人更堅強的民族凝聚力。然而諾貝爾文學獎得主莫里森女士卻在她的第一本 小說中暗示,大多數美國黑人都欣然接受被同化的命運,而爭相模仿白人的生活模式 與文化價值,並無時不以自己族群的膚色為恥辱。莫氏在七十年代黑人國家主義與分 離主義甚囂塵上的年代發表這樣的作品,無異於在自己同胞的自尊心上重擊了一棒, 完全擊潰了黑人美學運動中所提倡「黑就是美」的自欺口號。可是族群自我中心論 (ethnocentrism)的瓦解難道就代表黑人們即將同化進主流的白人社會裡了嗎?但文 化的同化(acculturation)絕不是最終的同化指標,只有社經地位得到提昇,才能使少 數族裔與主流白人達到實質的平等。可是放棄自我族群的文化傳承為何反使黑人們的 社經地位在眾移民人口中敬陪末座?13 莫氏的結論認為美國社會學的同化模型出現了 根本的錯誤,而美國黑人盲目追求同化的結果只會導致族群意識的流失,而使他們淪 為沒有根、沒有靈魂的社會邊緣人。莫氏的作品當然反諷用意極強,且不斷對同化社 會社會學一廂情願的單向思考提出無情的批判,也解構了同化典範中的初步概念:民 族自我中心理論。總之,莫氏的多元文化觀為後現代的文學社會學注入了新的活力與 生命。 關鍵字:湯尼莫里森、族群自我中心論、同化、大眾文化、群體認同




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