Race is a Social Construct (Recitatif by Toni Morrison Analysis)
In the past along with the present race has always been something that’s considered a controversial topic, where many are afraid to voice their opinions on it. In Recitatif by Toni Morrison, she does just the opposite with her story and challenges the mind of her readers. Recitatif is a piece that follows two women Twyla and Roberta from their time in an orphanage as children to them as grown adults and the conflict the two of them go through together. The special thing about Recitatif is that the readers are left guessing as to which character is black and which is white, leaving many people that have read this story with conflicting opinions of the race of these characters. The piece is truly thought-provoking in the sense of challenging some of the thoughts/biases that we’ve grown up with within our lives, whether those biases were put there by our society or maybe even our upbringing. Recitatif allows the reader to be able to think deeply about the reasons that they feel each character is either black or white and just why they are these things. Is it because of stereotypes or maybe it’s because of their own experiences? Either way, it’s something that needs to be talked about. In Recitatif by Toni Morrison, she successfully argues that race is a social construct by exploring how the biases we all carry with us affect what we perceive each character’s race to be.
Toni Morrison’s writing places underlying emphasis on just how race can be a social construct. To begin we have to understand what exactly a social construct is. A social construct would be defined as something or an idea that has been made and widely approved by society. So, by these means, a social construct is not something that is not scientifically or biologically proven. In the case of Recitatif race would be considered to be a social construct. By the definition of a social construct, this could mean that when it comes to individuals defining race there is a set idea that society has agreed upon when it comes to determining someone’s race. The idea that has been, subconsciously agreed upon by society would be defining an individual’s race by their phenotypical features. So, by these means, if someone physically looks to be a certain race then they would be considered this race and because of this they either have the privileges that come with that race or they may not have any at all. Toni Morrison uses her writing within Recitatif to justify how race is just a social construct. Since Morrison has taken away the one thing that we as a society use to determine race it makes it very difficult to determine whether the characters are black or white. So, the only thing that we are really left with to be able to determine the race would be basing stereotypes, biases, and our own experiences. This alone shows how race is not something that is concise and clear. If race wasn’t a social construct there would be a way that we would all able to come to the same conclusion about the race of each of the characters, but since it’s not the readers all have different opinions on the race of Roberta and Twyla.
Toni Morrison uses certain codes within her writing to bring out the underlying biases that we all subconsciously hold. Throughout the short story, Recitaitif Morrison sprinkles in many different codes/stereotypes about each race. The purpose of these codes is to trigger those inners biases that we hold. Morrison does a really fantastic job at this because after reading through these many codes it makes the reader take a step back and question these biases. One of the many examples of this would be “They never washed their hair and they smelled funny. Roberta sure did. Smell funny, I mean.”(Morrison) If informed about black culture then one would know this would make one think that Roberta is coded to be a black woman since in the black community many individuals are known to not wash their hair as much as their white counterparts because their hair does not produce as much oil. When Twyla reunited with Roberta for the first time they have a quick conversation and the topic of Jimi Hendrix comes up. “Hendrix. Jimi Hendrix, asshole. He’s only the biggest-- Oh, wow. Forget it.” (Morrison) One would assume here that Roberta was black since she was speaking about a popular black artist at the time. This instance would be a great example of a reader basing the race of Roberta off of something as shallow as a stereotype. By assuming that since the musical artist she listens to is black then it must mean that she is black as well. When in actuality that is not always true.
When reading text our biases tend to come out and affect how we perceive things, in this case, that being race. It’s known that we as human beings all have biases that we aren’t always conscious of. This shouldn’t necessarily be deemed as something bad, but instead as something that we need to hold our selfs accountable for. Unfortunately, these biases that we carry with us seep into how we take in the world around us. In this case that would be the short story Recitatif. Because of this these biases are shown in the way that a white person and black view the races of Twyla and Roberta. When reading we place our own experiences and feelings onto the characters, therefore believing the characters to be a certain race. Within the article “Black Writing, White Reading: Race and the Politics of Feminist Interpretation” explore the topic of two readers one black and the other white, and how they interpreted the text, along with what they thought of the races of each character. Each of the readers: Elizabeth Abel and Lula both came to differing conclusions, Abel who is a white woman found Roberta to be black and Twyla to be white. Lula, a black woman came to the opposite results of Elizabeth Abel.
Through the events shown the short story reveals how race is truly just a social construct and that we all as humans have certain biases that make us believe the race of each character. In the end, we all need to recognize we have biases and be willing to reconfigure the way we perceive others.
Abel, Elizabeth. “Black Writing, White Reading: Race and the Politics of Feminist Interpretation.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 19, no. 3, Spring 1993, p. 470. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1086/448683.
Andreasen, Robin O. “Race: Biological Reality or Social Construct?” Philosophy of Science, vol. 67, no. 3, Sept. 2000, p. S653. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1086/392853.
Pierce, Jennifer L. “Why Teaching About Race as a Social Construct Still Matters.” Sociological Forum, vol. 29, no. 1, Mar. 2014, pp. 259–264. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1111/socf.12079