In the early 20th century United States, racial privilege was well established, and Zora Neale Hurston examined perceptions and misperceptions of privilege in her book, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Hurston’s novel was so controversial, largely due to her examination of privilege and its intersectionality. Janie, the protagonist, is a woman of color, and an independent one at that. Her oppressions, both from being a person of color and a woman, are highlighted throughout the novel, causing reactions to the book to be mixed at best. She examines some of the nuances of privilege, that many do not think about, including the complexities of intersectionality and community. This book opened my eyes to aspects of privilege I had not previously considered, and each page was filled with lessons about the intersections of oppression.
Misperceptions of Janie’s privilege
In multiple instances throughout the novel, those around Janie misperceive her privilege. As a lighter skinned person of color, she is seen to be in a different social location than many of her darker skinned peers. White people still, obviously, consider Janie an “other,” but there is obvious preference shown when compared to her black peers. When Janie is on trial for the murder of Tea Cake, her light skin helped her odds with an all-white jury.
While the white community perceived her as having more privilege, this lightness sometimes hurt her appearance in the black community. Throughout the novel, her light skin is often contrasted with Tea Cake’s exceptionally dark skin, and many characters wonder out loud how the pair ended up together. During her marriage to Jody, her community sees him as his trophy for being so light. He is rich, and she is beautiful. His money was able to afford her beautiful (i.e. straight) hair. The contrasting perceptions of privilege in Their Eyes Were Watching God can teach us many things about modern perceptions of privilege.
Privilege is communal, not individual
Janie’s lighter skin alienated her from the black community of her time. Obviously as a woman of color, Janie was unaccepted in white communities. Even though she was looked favorably upon, she was still very much an outsider. However, Janie was also pushed out of her own community. Men saw her as an exotic object of their desire, and nothing more, and because of this many women would not befriend her. They gossiped about her for her independence, and she was generally disliked by many.
Her lightness caused her to be isolated from her community, which is really a loss of privilege. Even in oppressed groups, people can share their experiences and help each other with their struggles, and this unification helps them to support one another through their hardships. A loss of that community is a loss of the privilege that comes with it. While some privileges are inherent to the situation a person was born into, many can be expounded by a sense of community or belonging. Dealing with oppression is much more difficult when you are isolated from your own community, in addition to those oppressing you.
Privilege is not “black and white”
Privilege, like most complex social institutions, lies on a spectrum. People in positions of privilege don’t have to confront the complexity of it in the way that people without it do. The novel examined the complex realities of culture. The conflict was not merely “black vs. white.” While there were struggles between races, such as Janie’s encounter with the KKK, the majority of the novel dealt with conflicts between members of the same race.
Many times, privilege is painted as a binary institution with the privileged at one end and the subaltern at the other. In reality, most people will deal with obstacles concerning their lack of privilege, and those all fall at varying levels. A person of color in the South obviously deals with much different struggles than a person of color in the North. Similarly, a woman of color will have her own obstacles, and someone of the lower class will have compounded oppressions.
Privilege is intersectional
Along the same lines, the novel continuously highlights the intersectionality of privilege. As a woman, Janie must not only deal with oppression from the white community, but also abuse from men, including her husbands. All three of her husbands performed varying levels of domestic violence on Janie. The compounded conflict is far more than a plot device, but a way to show the intersectionality of privilege. As a woman, her experience with oppression was different than her husbands’. Although her husbands experienced oppression, they still had someone to oppress; Janie had no one.
In addition to race and gender, Hurston also addressed class extensively in novel. While Janie was never in a terrible financial state, there were other characters who dealt with issues of class. Both black and white characters saw white as upper class and black as lower class. Nanny is constantly lusting after the life of the white middle class, and aims to give Janie a life with that kind of privilege by marrying her off to a rich man. Both class and color are equated to beauty. Janie’s beauty (light skin) is a reflection of her husband’s wealth or power, no matter which husband she is with at the time. Even Tea Cake, the arguably least well off of the three, is able to flaunt her beauty and light skin as a sign of power.
Acknowledging your (my) own privilege
On a personal level, this novel made me consider my own privilege and the ways I relate to others in ways I previously hadn’t. In many minority communities, whether that is communities of color or the LGBTQ+ community, people view “passing,” to be perceived as straight or white by people who are straight or white, as an advantage in society. People with privilege often equate the idea of passing with the idea of having privilege, and Janie’s experience reminds us why that simply isn’t true. While she was not entirely white-passing, her circumstances would not have been much better if she had been.
No one can know the experiences of someone else by looking at them. As a white person, I will never fully know the experiences of a person of color, so I cannot assume anything about their community as a whole. The only way to begin to understand is through dialogue and research. People with privilege can best learn how to stop social injustice by listening to those it affects the most. Their Eyes Were Watching God teaches us that circumstances are not always what they seem, and social institutions like privilege are complex and intersectional. As a society, we must continue to learn from our past by listening to these stories so we can improve the stories to come.