In Ellison's book, racism presents a major challenge in the narrator's search for identity. Because of racism, the narrator finds himself facing two mutually exclusive choices: should he work within the status quo to achieve personal relevance as a black man or should he embrace Ras the Exhorter's more radical, black separatist approach?
In the story, Ras the Exhorter believes in the revolutionary approach, and he sees violence as the only legitimate response to pervasive racism. On the other hand, the Brotherhood espouses the principles of non-violence and cooperation. The narrator does join the Brotherhood, but he finds himself stymied by its unnatural focus on sterile conformity and its lack of emphasis on the individual. Meanwhile, Ras himself is frustrated with the narrator. He demands to know why the narrator refuses to disengage himself from the likes of the Brotherhood:
"Why you with these white folks? Why? I been watching you a long time. I say to myself, 'Soon he get smart and get tired. He get out of that t'ing.' Why a good boy like you still with them?...Brothers are the same color; how the hell you call these white men brother?...We sons of Mama Africa, you done forgot?...Why you with them?...They sell you out...They enslave us- you forget that? How can they mean a black mahn any good? How they going to be your brother?"
Ras also raises another important consideration: opposing factions of black men, divided by ideology, are anathema to the cause of equality.
"Me crazy, mahn? You call me crazy? Look at you two and look at me -- is this sanity? Standing here in three shades of blackness! Three black men fighting in the street because of the white enslaver? Is that sanity? Is that consciousness, scientific understahnding? Is that the modern black mahn of the twentieth century? Hell, mahn! Is it self-respect -- black against black?"
Racism is the reason two such mutually exclusive choices are foisted upon the narrator. His search for personal identity must encompass his ability to transcend the weaknesses inherent in both choices. He must reject blind conformity as well as gratuitous violence.
The narrator's response to racism colors his final decision to emerge from "hibernation." By the end of the novel, he experiences a crucial epiphany. He will be circumscribed by neither Brotherhood nor black separatist ideology. The narrator makes the choice to face the world on his own unique terms. In the end, it is his own unique response to racism that fuels his personal growth and emerging self-actualization.
Whence all this passion toward conformity anyway? -- diversity is the word. Let man keep his many parts and you'll have no tyrant states. Why, if they follow this conformity business they'll end up by forcing me, an invisible man, to become white, which is not a color but the lack of one. Must I strive toward colorlessness? But seriously, and without snobbery, think of what the world would lose if that should happen. America is woven of many strands; I would recognize them and let it so remain...Life is to be lived, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in face of certain defeat. Our fate is to become one, and yet many -- This is not prophecy, but description.