Two themes emerge strongly in Native Son by Richard Wright: first, the theme of individuality as a force for good; second, the theme of oppression as stunting not only black psychology but white psychology, too.
Both themes interplay with racism, as Bigger (the protagonist) is forced into a role he detests. He must act subserviently when around whites. He is fearful of the consequences of interacting with white people, and his oppression is felt everywhere. There is no escape from living in a white world, and his character constantly witnesses examples of oppression.
Because of the constant fear, Bigger himself internalizes a racist outlook. He is unable to see whites as anything other than a force, both economically and culturally. Because blacks are portrayed in the media as thugs and criminals, Bigger feels he cannot trust the image of his own race, nor the images of his own American culture.
Throughout the story, Bigger struggles to transcend racism and see himself as an individual without the pall of whiteness interfering in his life. He is constantly reacting—reacting to whites, reacting to distorted images of blacks, reacting to his own reactivity. This makes him passive. He is also mired in fear and anger.
When he meets a white character who he can as an individuality, Bigger's own sense of himself changes. The character of Max, who befriends Bigger, is trustworthy enough for a relationship to develop that is multi-faceted. In Max, Bigger sees a person and not only an oppressive force.
Both Max and Bigger grow through the relationship, representing how understanding can turn the tables on racism. Oppression, as Wright chronicles and observes, not only undermines the victims (African-Americans) but betrays the oppressors (whites) by turning them into unfeeling and weak through a false sense of superiority.
The characters of the Daltons, white philanthropists, expertly represent how whites are cut off from their own ambition of kindness and equality. While the Daltons give, their real attitude towards blacks is condescending and insincere. They can't see Bigger as an individual and are motivated by guilt. They make a lot of assumptions about Bigger out of their sense of making themselves feel better for his poverty.
Bigger's struggle to free himself from his own resentments, justifiable rage, and limited worldview illustrates his burgeoning individuality and his acknowledgement that racism is real. His relationship with Max also shows how the individual can overcome prejudice and that individuals on both sides suffer for the stereotypes. This doesn't mean that racism and oppression don't continue, but they are mitigated when black and white Americans both see beyond the veil of appearance and generalities.