The Intuitionist: Where Black Men Tell White Lies and Silence Turns Loud
By Sophia Turunesh Mufuruki
The human experience, as subjective and relative as it may be, is rooted deeply in two worlds: that which can be seen and physically touched, and that which cannot. As Colson Whitehead tells the story of Lila Mae’s life in the dystopian elevator world of The Intuitionist, he explores the complexities of racism and religion by illuminating the invisible grounds in which they are rooted. In doing so, Whitehead forces the reader to consider the reality of the unseen and the extent to which the two polarizing worlds of the tangible and intangible necessitate and sustain one another. Whitehead makes real those things that the reader may think are not.
Whitehead explores the visibility and invisibility of racism by dismantling it into two constituent parts, the explicit and the implicit. As the characters move and interact with one another in the world of elevators, racism follows their every step. In many instances, the constant and persistent lingering presence of racism is blatant, however in many other instances it is the elephant in the room: everyone can feel it, it is suffocating, but its existence is easily dismissed. Implicit racism is introduced early in the novel when Lila Mae arrives at 125 Walker to inspect one of the building’s elevators. Lila Mae’s interaction with the super of the building consisted of exchanges of implications rather than the words that make for actual and meaningful human conversation. When Lila Mae introduces herself and her occupation, the super’s lips immediately “arch up towards his nose” (Whitehead, 4). The super cannot believe, and neither is he pleased by, the sight of a colored inspector, so much so that parts of his body begin to move in ways he did not consciously will them to. Whitehead makes it clear that the super’s reaction was not deliberate by having it follow immediately after Lila Mae’s introduction, as though it were a reflex of sorts. In this instance, the super does not have to call Lila Mae a “niguh” (Whitehead, 154) in order to let her know that that is all that he saw the moment he opened the door. By suggesting that implicit racism is a phenomenon that need not be intentional to play its role as an agent of oppression, Whitehead attributes an immense amount of power to silent implications. Immediately after the super’s lips come into contact with his nose, Whitehead writes that “Lila Mae understands that he’s never seen an elevator inspector like her before” (Whitehead, 4). It is the moment that Lila Mae “understands” the thoughts behind the super’s facial expression that the invisible is made to be visible and the implicit action begins to exist as one that is explicit. This interaction that Lila Mae shares with the super can be read as a way in which Whitehead attempts to introduce racism to the the reader. This is to inform them that racism need not exist solely within the confines of verbal and physical abuse. These are merely the ways in which racism is projected, not where racism exists. Here Whitehead emphasizes the complexity of racism. It exists as much in the word “niguh” (Whitehead, 154) as it does in the raised lip.
Between Lila Mae and the super there lies a most pervasive form of prejudice, silent racism. In Barbara Trepagnier’s analysis of this phenomenon, The Exposure of Silent Racism ( 2001), she attempts to not only redefine the concept of racism but to expose the consequences of the unsaid. Trepagnier writes that silent racism “refers to negative thoughts and attitudes regarding African Americans and other people of color on the part of white people, including those who see themselves and are generally seen by others as not racist” (Trepagnier, 141). From this definition alone, Trepagnier makes more complex the preconceived notions of racism in the same way that Whitehead does in The Intuitionist. Similar to how racism can exist in the raised lip, racists can exist in the category of “not racist”. Both the works of Whitehead and Trepagnier remove racism from the absolute world of black and white and place it in a relative dimension of greyness. Trepagnier poses this idea rather bluntly when she writes that “racism operates on a continuum, not in discrete categories and, more importantly, not in binary, oppositional categories” ( Trepagnier, 141). The idea of “racism operating on a continuum” further dramatizes the interaction between Lila Mae and the super. This is because it depicts their encounter with one another as one that is not planted in a fixed reality but on an ideological spectrum. Their entire encounter rests not on what is said but on what is implied and what is felt. It is almost as though Lila Mae and the super, in this moment, are balancing on a thin world that lies in between their two separate and irreconcilable worlds. Whitehead writes that when the super asked to see Lila Mae’s badge, her “hand [was] already fishing in her pocket” (Whitehead, 4). In this moment, Lila Mae recognizes that her blackness puts her in a position of having to validate herself even before she is verbally instructed to do so. This is because, though the two characters are using language to communicate, their interaction is not verbal. From the moment that the super’s “lips [arched] up toward his nose” (Whitehead, 4) in silence, Lila Mae heard him and knew to fish through her pocket. This moment can be interpreted as one in which Whitehead attempts to convey the ways in which silent racism has the power to elicit an actual physical response. This puts forth the notion that silence is not at all harmless but is rather harmfully consequential.
Trepagnier also explores the consequences of silent racism when she writes of the foundational role it plays in the formation of institutional racism. She writes that “the role of silent racism in the structuration process is that it undergirds the “social practices” that constitute the “medium” of social structure” (Trepagnier, 143). By suggesting that silent racism operates on a “structural level” (Trepagnier, 143), Trepagnier is directly aligning it with institutional racism as this too is a societal system that is structural in nature. Trepagnier does however differentiate between the different forms of institutional racism; direct and indirect. It is indirect institutional racism that she aligns with silent prejudice when she writes that indirect institutional racism is “carried out with no attempt to harm” (Trepagnier, 144). The super may have not intend to harm Lila Mae when he raised his lips but never the less, this reminded her of her oppression, of her subordinate position in his world. The super reminded Lila Mae to fish through her pocket and justify her existence to him. Though it may seem too extrapolative to align the super’s raised lip with institutional racism, one must consider the extent to which institutional racism “rests on the symbolic interactionist concepts “definition of the situation” and “perspective” ” (Trepagnier, 145). Here Trepagnier is suggesting that when prejudice informs the definitions ascribed to people of color, it results in distorted perceptions that perpetuate institutional racism. This is because racist actions, and all other forms of action, are not mindless. They way that people are treated by others in society and by societal systems and structures depends wholly on the silent beliefs and understandings, or rather lack thereof, that legitimize and enforce realizable forms of systematic privilege and oppression. The super’s reaction to Lila Mae when he opened the door to her can therefore be seen as the invisible silent racism that ultimately results in kind of racism that is visibly enacted. The consequences of being a “niguh” (Whitehead, 154) are real, wether or not it be a word verbosely pronounced or a thought silently believed. The implicit does indeed elicit.
Fulton’s character and experiences as both a white and black male in The Intuitionist are crucial to understanding the ways in which Whitehead explores the invisibility and visibility of race. When Whitehead is describing the way that Fulton and his mother would move around the neighborhood he writes:
When they walk into town she makes him walk closely behind her, she clutches him behind her back, as if to shield him from white people. As if she thought they would see him and take him away from her. She does it less now that he is older and taller, but it seems to him it was always unnecessary. The white people do not see colored people, even in broad daylight. (Whitehead, 134)
In this moment of Fulton’s life, to his mother, his blackness is the most perceivable and defining aspect of his entire visible existence as a human being . In fact, in this moment of him and his mother partaking in an activity as mundane as walking around the neighborhood, his blackness is so overpowering that he ceases to be a human being. He exists solely as blackness. He is no longer a colored boy, but a color. This reality renders his mother so afraid that she feels she must “shield him” from the dangers of the world, or rather, the world of the white man. Not only is Fulton’s race visible to the eye in this instance, but it is also something that can be physically felt. As his mother “clutches him” and places him “behind her back” he is explicitly experiencing a physical human touch. However, he experiences his mother’s touch as an affirmation of his blackness and place in society and the dangers and uncertainties that that entails. Most importantly, he experiences fear. It should not, however, be ignored that in this same moment that Whitehead presents race as a concept that is so visible that it can be felt, he also takes that visibility away. Whitehead does this when he writes that Fulton found his mother’s actions “ unnecessary” because “white people do not see colored people, even in broad daylight”. Within the span of four lines the color of Fulton’s skin goes from being the one thing that makes white people acknowledge his existence, to being the one thing that makes his very existence go unrecognized by white people, even when the sun is shining on him. Whitehead contrasts the visibility and invisibility of race close together on the page and in a single experience in order to emphasize the extent to which being seen and not being seen are the two ways in which colored people exist and move around the word.
Indeed, overt blackness and invisibility is the way in which people of color in The Intuitionist navigate their way around the white empiricist world, however, one must consider the effect that this has on the mind of the colored man and woman, both in Whitehead’s fictional world of elevators and in the African diaspora. Dellita Martin-Ogunsola attempts to do this when she examines and explores the double consciousness of a black Costa Rican character of mixed heritage, Charles McForbes, in Quince Duncan’s novel Los cuatro espejos ( The Four Mirrors) (1973). It is through Ogunsola’s analysis of Charles McForbes that one can understand the psychological trauma that Fulton faces, as a young child and for his whole life, by being forced to exist either solely as blackness or to not exist at all. In her essay, Ogunsola recalls the various times in the novel that Charles would look into a mirror and be confronted by an overwhelming blackness that blinds him. She interprets Charles’s blindness as being “psychoemotional, a direct function of his status as a black person, or a derivative thereof, in a “white” world, where blackness has been associated with evil, negativity, and non existence since the era of colonialism and slavery” (Ogunsola, 9). Charles’s mind is torn between the man that he knows he is and the black man that he is perceived to be. As a result of this, he looks into the mirror and sees no one.
One can use Ogunsola’s interpretation of Charles McForbes’s inner struggles to further understand those of Fulton. It is these associations of black with “evil” and “negativity” that makes Fulton’s mother feel that she must “shield him from white people” (Whitehead, 134). His blackness and its perceived danger to the white community ultimately endangers none but him. While he walks through the streets with his mother, as a dangerous and endangered child of color, he still cannot help but feel that “white people do not see colored people”(Whitehead, 134). As young as he may be, Fulton is confronted by two conflicting realities: one in which he must be aware of the criminality of his blackness and one in which he must be aware of his inability to be seen. Like Charles, Fulton’s mind is split between a double consciousness and duality of perception of the world and of the self. In the case of Charles, this causes him to perceive nothing more than a “clouded vision” (Ogunsola, 10) of himself.
Fulton’s childhood sense of self is further blurred by his double consciousness when he decides to walk alone through the town and into a shop. On his way to the shop Fulton is perceived by others and himself as black. Whitehead conveys this to the reader when he writes that “The colored people know who he is and do not mistake him for something else” (Whitehead, 136). When Fulton enters the shop he encounters an old black man that he has never met before. While Fulton is standing in line with his candy in hand, the old black man who is standing in front of him allows Fulton to take his place in the line (Whitehead, 136). Fulton, being too young and innocent to understand the implications, takes long to understand what has happened. However, when he does finally understand, something tragic happens. The candy that was “sweet” while he was eating it turns “sour” in his memory ( Whitehead, 136). At this point in the novel it is crucial that it be remembered that Fulton is described by his mother as, though being colored, having “white folk’s hair” and being quite “light” (Whitehead, 135). It is because of Fulton’s ability to pass as a white boy that the old black man feels he must take his rightful position in line and in life. Tragically, this position is at the back. Within a mere two pages of the text, Fulton’s mind as a young child experiences an oppressive visibility and invisibility of blackness while simultaneously experiencing white privilege at the expense of the oppression of an elderly black man, a member of his own community. The extent to which this double consciousness and duality of existence of blackness and whiteness, of oppression and privilege, traumatizes and darkens Fulton’s world at a subconscious level is conveyed eloquently in the moment that Fulton realizes the reality of what had happened in that shop. This is the moment that the candy in his mouth turns from sweet to sour. Similar to how the clash between Charles’s mental image of himself and the one projected in the mirror “impinge on his consciousness” (Ogunsola, 10), thus blinding him from himself, Fulton is also robbed of one of his senses: a positive perception of his blackness and fair complexion because it appears to bring him, his mother, and that old black man in the shop nothing but suffering. As a result of this, Fulton makes the conscious decision to escape the “prison of both worlds” (Ogunsola, 14) and the tormenting duality of his existence. Fulton decides that in order to survive the hostility of the white world, he cannot not be black and he cannot be invisible. He therefore chooses to live out his life as a white man. He chooses a brighter life that could offer him the visibility and sweetness that his once colored self was deprived of. Fulton chooses to be seen, even if that means living as a lie.
The seen and unseen world that Whitehead explores is not limited solely to the institution of racism. By using intuitionism as a metaphor for organized religion and spirituality, The Intuitionist attempts to explain how it is possible to be of the visible world and yet still have an unshakeable faith and belief in what cannot be seen or physically felt. When Lila Mae reminisces about a lecture she was once given by Professor McKean, Whitehead reveals that it is possible for something to exist in both the invisible and visible world or rather the spiritual and the ‘real’ world. Mr. McKean, who only has one arm, asks his student, Gorse, the following questions and receives the following responses:
“Is my arm here or not here?”
“It’s… not there,”
“What’s in the sleeve?”
“That’s the funny thing,” “My arm is gone, but sometimes it’s there” (Whitehead, 102).
To Mr. McKean, his arm both exists and does not. When Mr. McKean says to Gorse “That’s the funny thing”, Whitehead writes that he said so while “smiling” (Whitehead, 102). From this it can be understood that by believing that his arm is still there, Mr. McKean experiences feelings of joy and contentment. Mr. McKean believes that his arm is still with him as a means of coming to terms with the fact that, in reality, it is not. Here the belief in the unseen world is portrayed as something that is necessitated by the human inability to digest the brutalities, harshness, and absoluteness of life. People believe in those things that they cannot see because it protects them from those things that they can see. From Mr. McKean’s response Whitehead conveys the idea that the invisible world is far more beautiful and kind than the visible world. This is because the world of blind belief makes allowances for the avoidance and mitigation of suffering (Kwilecki, 477). After Mr. McKean tells Gorse that his arm is gone but is sometimes still there, he “looked down at an empty sleeve. He flicked at the sleeve with his remaining hand and they watched the fabric sway”. This direction that Whitehead gives to Mr. McKean is one of the most dramatic and meaningful actions in the novel. By flicking the fabric of his sleeve and having all the students in the classroom witness the way that it sways, Mr. McKean is demonstrating to them a most valuable lesson: The truth as it appears can be so visibly explicit and undeniably honest. The sleeve swings because there is no arm inside of it. With this fact one cannot argue. However, visible truth can be rendered meaningless when faced with the invisible feelings that humans experience. Though Mr. McKean’s sleeve swings, though he may have been the one to swing it, the presence of his arm persists. It may be “gone, but sometimes it’s there.” It is because of the feelings of senselessness acquired from life’s harsh realities that Mr. McKean finds reason and purpose in the pseudo reality of blind belief. When human suffering, such as that that Mr. McKean may have felt when he lost his arm, is unfathomable and surreal, the pain experienced can be beyond the articulation of words. It is because of this that it is possible for people and characters like Mr. McKean to believe, with conviction, in worlds and words that are not rooted in ‘science’ or in what can be seen. Indeed, “despair can disengage language and reason” (Kwilecki, 483).
Mr. McKean does, however, acknowledge and tell the class that the invisibility and visibility of his arm is a truly “funny thing” (Whitehead, 102). By using the word “funny” Whitehead is implying that there is a certain amount of absurdity in the way in which the unseen and the seen world can be of two conflicting implications and yet still bring a sense of peace to the soul. This may be because as much as the unseen world is intangible, it has the “power to heal” and “transcends suffering” (Kwilecki, 486) in a way that can actually be felt.Whitehead further conveys the idea that the belief in the unseen world manifests itself from the inherent human desire to alleviate the pain and suffering of the seen world when he writes that “Lila Mae has always considered herself an atheist, not realizing she has a religion. Anyone can start a religion. They just need the need of others” (Whitehead, 241). By saying that one need only the need of others, Whitehead is explicitly implying that the mandate of truth that religious institutions receive is not from themselves but from the people that believe in them. The truth that is attributed to religious institutions comes from the need that people have for them to be true, from the need to heal.
Whitehead uses intuitionism to further convey the idea that religion gains legitimacy not from its own truth but from people’s desire for it to be true, when he writes that intuitionism is a “supreme fiction that the world accepted as truth” (Whitehead 232). Whitehead continues to make comparisons between religion and intuitionism when he writes of Lila Mae’s thoughts saying that to her “Fulton left instructions, but she is permitted to alter them according to circumstances. There was no way Fulton could foresee how the world would change” (Whitehead, 255). Intuitionism allows Lila Mae to alter the world. In this instance it appears that the allure of the unseen world is derived from is malleability. Unlike ‘reality’, the world of spirituality, religion and intuitionism can be bent and molded to accommodate the way that people are, in a way that the ‘real’ world cannot, or will not. This can be read as a metaphor for the close relationship that African Americans had, and continue to have, with the black church in their struggle for equality when Whitehead writes that “White people’s reality is built on what things appear to be—that’s the business of Empiricism” (Whitehead 239) , whereas reality to people like Lila Mae and Fulton is rooted deeply in the unseen world of intuitionism. Throughout the novel Whitehead implies that empiricism belongs to the whites and intuitionism to the “coloreds”. The world as it visibly appears to be is no place for the colored person. They therefore need to create and exist in a world that is more accepting of their existence, the unseen world. In the world of empiricism, Lila Mae does not belong, however, in the world of intuitionism, not only is she allowed to be as she is, but she can shape her reality however she desires.
Whitehead in The Intuitionist makes the invisibility of race and spirituality visible in a way that both unsettles and comforts the reader. This is because Whitehead questions the legitimacy of the invisible world not in order to ridicule it and denounce its existence, but to suggest that it is constructed out of a need necessitated by the visible world. It does not matter wether or not the unseen world is real, what matters is that humanity wants so desperately for it to be so, that it is. Truth is whatever people need it to be. If reality is rooted in truth, in any way, The Intuitionist can be read as a depiction of how reality, like truth, is merely a construct of the human mind. Such a perception of the world is as beautiful as it is frightening.
Whitehead, Colson. The Intuitionist. NY, NY: Anchor , a Division of Random House Inc., 2000. Print.
Trepagnier, Barbara. “Deconstructing Categories: The Exposure of Silent Racism.” Symbolic Interaction, vol. 24, no. 2, 2001, pp. 141–163., jstor.org/stable/10.1525/si.2001.24.2.141.
Martin-Ogunsola, Dellita L. “Invisibility, Double Consciousness, and the Crisis of Identity in ‘Los Cuatro Espejos.’” Afro-Hispanic Review, vol. 6, no. 2, 1987, pp. 9–15., jstor.org/stable/23053897.
Kwilecki, Susan. “Religion and Coping: A Contribution from Religious Studies.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, vol. 43, no. 4, 2004, pp. 477–489., www.jstor.org/stable/3590572.