Toni Morrison's Most Powerful Quotes On Racism

The legendary author, who died Monday, has long been addressing racism and distilling sometimes uncomfortable truths.

Legendary author Toni Morrison, who died Monday at 88 years old, rose to prominence for her work dedicated to centering the lives and histories of Black Americans.

A trailblazer in the Black community and beyond, Morrison had long been celebrated for her fearlessness and grace in calling out racism and distilling salient points from sometimes uncomfortable conversations. While public discourse around race has been magnified under the Trump administration, Morrison had never shied away from the subject鈥檚 importance, pointing out injustices for decades.

John Blanding/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

In honor of the author鈥檚 legacy, here are some of Morrison鈥檚 most profound quotes on racism through the years.


The author gave a speech at Portland State University, touching on the 鈥渄istracting鈥 nature of racism.

鈥淭he very serious function of racism 鈥 is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and so you spend 20 years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn鈥檛 shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says that you have no art so you dredge that up. Somebody says that you have no kingdoms and so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary.鈥

Read the full speech here.


In an interview with Charlie Rose, Morrison called out white peoples鈥 role in racism and the psyche behind the bigotry.

鈥淚f I take your race away, and there you are, all strung out. And all you got is your little self, and what is that? What are you without racism? Are you any good? Are you still strong? Are you still smart? Do you still like yourself? I mean, these are the questions. Part of it is, 鈥榶es, the victim. How terrible it鈥檚 been for black people.鈥 I鈥檓 not a victim. I refuse to be one... if you can only be tall because somebody is on their knees, then you have a serious problem. And my feeling is that white people have a very, very serious problem, and they should start thinking about what they can do about it. Take me out of it.鈥

During her Nobel Lecture, Morrison addressed how language can be weaponized in racism.

鈥淥ppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge. Whether it is obscuring state language or the faux-language of mindless media; whether it is the proud but calcified language of the academy or the commodity-driven language of science; whether it is the malign language of law-without-ethics, or language designed for the estrangement of minorities, hiding its racist plunder in its literary cheek 鈥 it must be rejected, altered and exposed. It is the language that drinks blood, laps vulnerabilities, tucks its fascist boots under crinolines of respectability and patriotism as it moves relentlessly toward the bottom line and the bottomed-out mind. Sexist language, racist language, theistic language 鈥 all are typical of the policing languages of mastery, and cannot, do not permit new knowledge or encourage the mutual exchange of ideas.鈥

Read her full lecture here.


For the program 鈥淭oni Morrison: Uncensored,鈥 the author sat down with journalist Jana Wendt, calling the interviewer out for her white-centric question.

鈥淵ou can鈥檛 understand how powerfully racist that question is, can you?鈥 she asked. 鈥淵ou could never ask a white author, 鈥榃hen are you going to write about Black people?鈥 Whether he did or not, or she did or not. Even the inquiry comes from a position of being in the center.鈥欌


The author spoke to NPR鈥檚 Michel Martin about her objection to the term 鈥減ost-racial.鈥

鈥淚t seems to indicate something that I don鈥檛 think is quite true, which is that we have erased racism from the country, or the world. Racism will disappear when it鈥檚, (A), no longer profitable and no longer psychologically useful. When that happens, it鈥檒l be gone. But at the moment, people make a lot of money off of it 鈥 pro and con. And also it protects people from a certain kind of pain. If you take racism away from certain people 鈥 I mean vitriolic racists as well as the sort of social racist 鈥 if you take that away, they might have to face something really terrible: misery, self-misery, and deep pain about who they are. It鈥檚 just easier to say, 鈥楾hat one over there is the cause of all my problems.鈥欌


Morrison joined 鈥淭he Colbert Report鈥 and dropped truths about the concept of race.

鈥淭here is no such thing as race. None. There is just a human race 鈥 scientifically, anthropologically. Racism is a construct, a social construct and it has benefits. Money can be made off of it, people who don鈥檛 like themselves can feel better because of it, it can describe certain kinds of behavior that can are wrong or misleading, so it has a social function, racism.鈥


In an essay for The New Yorker titled 鈥淢ourning for Whiteness,鈥 Morrison addressed the nation鈥檚 attachment to whiteness in Trump鈥檚 America.

鈥淧ersonal debasement is not easy for white people (especially for white men), but to retain the conviction of their superiority to others 鈥 especially to black people 鈥 they are willing to risk contempt and to be reviled by the mature, the sophisticated, and the strong. If it weren鈥檛 so ignorant and pitiful, one could mourn this collapse of dignity in service to an evil cause.

The comfort of being 鈥渘aturally better than,鈥 of not having to struggle or demand civil treatment, is hard to give up. The confidence that you will not be watched in a department store, that you are the preferred customer in high-end restaurants 鈥 these social inflections, belonging to whiteness, are greedily relished.

So scary are the consequences of a collapse of white privilege that many Americans have flocked to a political platform that supports and translates violence against the defenseless as strength. These people are not so much angry as terrified, with the kind of terror that makes knees tremble.鈥

Read the full essay here.


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