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’s importance, pointing out injustices for decades.
In honor of the author’s legacy, here are some of Morrison’s most profound quotes on racism through the years.
The author gave a speech at Portland State University, touching on the “distracting” nature of racism.
“The very serious function of racism … 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’t 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.”
Read the full speech here.
In an interview with Charlie Rose, Morrison called out white peoples’ role in racism and the psyche behind the bigotry.
“If 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, ‘yes, the victim. How terrible it’s been for black people.’ I’m 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.”
During her Nobel Lecture, Morrison addressed how language can be weaponized in racism.
“Oppressive 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 – 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 ― all are typical of the policing languages of mastery, and cannot, do not permit new knowledge or encourage the mutual exchange of ideas.”
Read her full lecture here.
For the program “Toni Morrison: Uncensored,” the author sat down with journalist Jana Wendt, calling the interviewer out for her white-centric question.
“You can’t understand how powerfully racist that question is, can you?” she asked. “You could never ask a white author, ‘When are you going to write about Black people?’ Whether he did or not, or she did or not. Even the inquiry comes from a position of being in the center.’”
The author spoke to NPR’s Michel Martin about her objection to the term “post-racial.”
“It seems to indicate something that I don’t think is quite true, which is that we have erased racism from the country, or the world. Racism will disappear when it’s, (A), no longer profitable and no longer psychologically useful. When that happens, it’ll be gone. But at the moment, people make a lot of money off of it ― pro and con. And also it protects people from a certain kind of pain. If you take racism away from certain people ― I mean vitriolic racists as well as the sort of social racist ― if you take that away, they might have to face something really terrible: misery, self-misery, and deep pain about who they are. It’s just easier to say, ‘That one over there is the cause of all my problems.’”
Morrison joined “The Colbert Report” and dropped truths about the concept of race.
“There is no such thing as race. None. There is just a human race — scientifically, anthropologically. Racism is a construct, a social construct and it has benefits. Money can be made off of it, people who don’t 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.”
In an essay for The New Yorker titled “Mourning for Whiteness,” Morrison addressed the nation’s attachment to whiteness in Trump’s America.
“Personal debasement is not easy for white people (especially for white men), but to retain the conviction of their superiority to others — especially to black people — they are willing to risk contempt and to be reviled by the mature, the sophisticated, and the strong. If it weren’t so ignorant and pitiful, one could mourn this collapse of dignity in service to an evil cause.
The comfort of being “naturally better than,” 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 — 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.”
Read the full essay here.