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Notes on Roger Maiss Blackout

In the story 'Blackout', Roger Mais addresses the power dynamics of race and problematises
racial bias with the paradigm of gender. The illustration of inequalities inherent in both race
and gender is pronounced by the author's decision elements of superiority and inferiority to
both the characters. The encounter between a white woman and a black man, in the backdrop
of racial tension, gives the reader an insight into the negotiations of power relations between
race and gender hierarchies.
Mais establishes a strong ground for the construction of the character's psychology by
describing their state of mind through their actions. The woman, feeling safe in the "wave of
panic", reflects her privileged position. Her air of condescending calmness is what the author
stresses at as it is the very thing that is brought crashing down. The “approach” of the “black”
man is narrated in a style that sets the tone for story in a way that leaves the reader as
expectant and worked up as the woman herself. The geographical setting of the story is a
deliberate choice on part of the author to further the complexities that he introduces into the
theme of race, class and gender. The manner in which a foreigner behaves in a country based
on a monologist discourse of racial superiority is pitted against the violence and political unrest
which cease to pose any danger to this foreigner just because she is American.
By making the encounter about cigarettes, Mais brings the issues of race and class superiority
at the convergence of the simple act of smoking. In expressing racial bias through something
commonplace and mundane, Mais exposes the atrocity of racism and the utter baselessness of
its underlying 'logic'. The movement of the cigarette, from the lady's hand to the man's face, to
the gutter with a flick and then back to the man's hand demonstrates the balance of power in
the story. The act of throwing the cigarette away that results in the black man's censuring stare
causes the racial issue of the story to coalesce with gender. Mais brings out not only
stereotypical assumptions related to race but also gender which intersect to achieve a
semblance of balance in power between the two characters. The man is able to go beyond his
racial “inferiority” by drawing strength from the masculine attitude that his gender allows him
to adopt. In the beginning of the story, the man’s conduct is quite frank and reflects
presumption of normalcy in a black man approaching a white woman at night on a bus stop. For
the woman, on the other hand, he goes expectations of normalcy which makes her nervous and
agitated at the same time. Mais, therefore, destabilises the belief of normalcy that racism
internalises in people.
The continual negation of the woman’s expectations, right from the man’s approach to his
reproach of her throwing the cigarette away, is intentional as it is the only way in which the
man (and the author) can rail against the discrimination and harassment that has taken such a
deep seated position in people’s psyche. The woman’s act of throwing the cigarette highlights
that she has “plenty” while the man is saving a half for later. Juxtaposition of “half” and
“plenty” illustrates the proximity of class difference to that of race. The woman feels the need
to explain or justify her action to a complete stranger shows the fact that she enters a process
of investigation her beliefs with new eyes. As her grounds of beliefs are made to shift under her
feet, the man asserts his stance with greater force by commenting rather harshly on her action,
yet again going against the expectations she formed the minute she saw that “he was black”
The man's comment in an "even voice" about having responded differently had a man been in
place of the woman shakes her assumed superiority. His division of the country's population on
basis of gender provides a complex outlook on equality in man's creation. It is the very rhetoric
that racism uses for the justification of its mandates that is brought up at the end of the
conversation. By juxtaposing the 'same ways' of a man's and a woman's existence with their
own unequal positions in the situation, he leaves the woman's "supreme confidence in some
important sense" shaken.
It is the woman's shaken state of mind that prevents her from turning back to see the man,
thereby saving him from losing the achievement of making her admit to herself the problematic
nature of her racial bias. It also serves as the leveller between the two and emerges as the
result of commendable self assertion on part of the man.