Imani Perry


On her book More Beautiful and More Terrible: The Embrace and Transcendence of Racial Inequality in the United States

Cover Interview of October 06, 2011

A close-up

If a person were randomly opening the book I think I’d want them to flip to page 177, the beginning of Chapter Six, “Exceptionally Yours: Racial Escape Hatches in the Contemporary United States.”

People are inclined to use the example of “exceptions to the rule” as evidence that racial inequality doesn’t exist. President Obama is a prime example of this. But what I show is that exceptionalism is in fact a part of the mechanism of racial inequality. “Exceptionals” can be individuals or groups (i.e. role models or model minorities).  In the way our culture uses the symbolism of the exceptionals, the access of few actually serves to legitimize the exclusion of many, And of course, the few who have “made it” often have gained that access as a function of some form of advantage: class, color, preferences for particular ethnicities within groups of people of color, elite education. Moreover, those who are exceptionalized don’t necessarily stand as willing or good representatives of the interests of the larger group.

In light of this I describe a practice of “critical exceptionalism” of which I consider myself to be a participant in, whereby individuals who have the benefit of being seen as positive “exceptions” to the rule of their group, use the platform of access and acceptability to illuminate the barriers that exist for many member of the group to which they belong.