“All images of difference are stereotypical.” –Sander L. Gilman
While reading the critical debates on how black people ‘should’ be portrayed in art, this statement jumped out of the page at me. Sometimes the simplest statements compact staggering truth. When it comes to interpreting our differences, stereotypical views unconsciously—or consciously, depending on the judging party—shape the assessment of the ‘other’ we make.
But the word ‘stereotype’ is a loaded, stigmatized word, connoting closed-mindedness and bigotry. Not many would jump to plead guilty of stereotyping; literary critics may be especially reluctant, feeling that such a charge would compromise the integrity of their analysis. In her discussion of the black female critic’s role among her peers, Trudier Harris writes, “the larger community advocates silence to objection, and it espouses unity before informed, constructive criticism.” Harris descries this critical trend as “the most serious tragedy of the history of the popularity of The Color Purple.” Her assessment is consistent with her story of a white editor encouraging her to water down her “slam” (read: strong) criticism of Walker’s novel. Ann DuCille maintains that black writers have the responsibility to challenge themselves by writing against the grain of the ‘I’m-okay-we’re-okay’, masculine construct of African American history, and that ‘masculinist, feminist, and womanist’ critics must all actively gauge the extent that their assumptions and biases color their criticisms. Her challenge struck me as like being given carefully measured ingredients without a recipe. HOW are we supposed to do this? If we are innately biased, how productive will it be to try to gauge our own critical gauge?
A good counterexample to a productively ‘unbiased’ critical reading may be found in Eugenia Collier’s response in “The Black Person in Art.” By calling the collective group of the white race “uninteresting” and “our oppressor,” and the rare exception to the ‘inherently racist’ white person “unusual,” she seems like the pot calling the kettle black. It seems like she would argue that my defensive reading of her argument serves to validate her point. But to me, it is only through these kinds of debates that a ‘fair’ reading of texts like The Color Purple may be achieved. For blacks and whites alike, personal attempts to gauge the latent bias in our own critical gauge will fall flat. If all images of difference are stereotypical, an outside perspective from a race other than our own is not just useful but necessary for great literary criticism.