Dr. Gresham, a white physician, never succeeds in making his views on race consistent. As the son of a northern abolitionist, he publicly and avidly supports blacks and their quest for equal rights. However, he romanticizes blacks by pitying them and seeking to rescue them from their suffering, and though he loves Iola, he can’t allow himself to marry a woman who acknowledges her black heritage. He wholeheartedly supports Dr. Latimer’s right to assert his mulatto identity and to support black rights. However, while Dr. Gresham does encourage Iola to advocate on behalf of the black race, he explicitly expresses his desire for her to pass as white, especially in his family’s presence. Such hypocrisy represents the conflict that lies at the center of the novel and which Harper addresses on multiple levels of religious and moral issues—incongruence between beliefs and actions.
Dr. Gresham reveals the prevalence of discrimination not only against blacks but also against women. For example, he wants Iola to completely erase her black heritage and essentially repudiate her mother’s existence. He fully recognizes and backs Dr. Latimer’s career and his advocacy for blacks, but he discounts Iola’s career goals, telling her she is destined to fail in her objective to uplift the black race in the South through community action. Through Dr. Gresham, Harper also addresses class issues associated with race and gender. Dr. Gresham warns Iola that marrying outside of the white race will lower her social class, revealing his preoccupation with upward mobility, surface appearances, and how society judges him.