Black Bodies, White Gazes: The Continuing Significance of Race

George Yancy, Black Bodies, White Gazes: The Continuing Significance of Race (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008).

One of the most hideous examples of arrogant eurocentric (white) pretense to knowledge is the Sarah Bartman incident. I call it an incident and not a “case” or “case study” to emphasize the catastrophic aspect of what happened to this African woman when the machinery of European society crashed into her. A Khoisan woman from southern Africa, she was captured early in the 19th century and put on display throughout Europe, to be examined like a deep-sea specimen. The incident exemplifies how eurocentric society, through something it calls science, confuses “objectivity” with dehumanization, and reduces the world that nurtures it to a commodified resource (aka wealth), revealing an obsession with stealing what would otherwise be given and shared.

George Yancy, in his book Black Bodies, White Gazes, considers her story (in a central chapter) in conjunction with a number of other incidents he discusses from the lives of various personages (Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Malcolm X and others, including himself), by which he elucidates the white gaze at the black body. He uses these accounts to reflect a look back upon the white mind that defined itself through that gaze. Each instance is a lens turned back on how the colonial culture of whiteness constructs itself. “The truth of the Black body is not outside the domain of white colonial power,” he says. And he continues, “One can only imagine how Bartman felt as she learned to re-inhabit her body, to re-relate to it, as her consciousness of her body was shaped through the lens of an historico-racial schema.” She is defiled by the eyes that examine her across the infinite distance between subject and object. We learn the truth of that white eye by what it does to others through that look.

Bartman’s story was a hard one for me to read. My rage again and again interfered with my own ability to see the words. I cannot pull any punches in speaking of it. How is one to imagine, as one who has the luxury of living the absence of such experiences, what it means to see people despise you on sight because of your skin? That skin is yours; it keeps you warm and flashes in the sunlight when you make coffee in the morning. It varies from the color of your brother’s, and itches when a mosquito bites. You wake up each morning with it, and there are people who hate you for it.

Yancy’s own anger is up front, and commands respect. This makes his book refreshing as well as being deeply philosophical. He begins by letting us hear his anger, rather than merely read of it. As he crosses a city street, he hears the multiple clicks of car-door locks as the people inside those cars react to seeing a black man pass, an interloper next to the small parked domain of their existence. He fills whole lines on the page with those clicks, in their syncopated cadence, so that we may not dismiss them. We are not to be permitted to ignore their purpose, which is to destroy his autonomy, to raucously make him someone other than who he is.

Yancy also describes how this happens in the polite collegial tone of a white fellow philosopher, who tells him who he should be by telling him how he should write. He enters an elevator (this is the paradigmatic scene of his phenomenology, which fills the book’s first chapter) in which there is a lone white woman. Upon seeing him, she gathers her things close about her, exhibiting trepidation, and through that trepidation, accusation and imposition, simply on the basis of the blackness of the person entering her space.

The door-locking clicks become the sound of his own apprehension of his body as given to him by a dehumanizing cultural machinery. Parked in their little machines, whether conscious of it or not, the car-denizens make those clicking sounds so that he, like Sarah Bartman, will learn “to re-inhabit [his] body, to re-relate to it, as [his] consciousness of [his] body is shaped through the lens” of their actions toward him upon seeing him. It is the autonomy of this black man that must be defiled, because that is the means though which white people define their whiteness, deploying him/her/them still as a (commodified) resource, the source of a social threat by which to weave and concretize a sense of superiority.

There is a brutality that threads its way throughout white society and the history of white coloniality. Yancy extracts this hidden brutality through his philosophical exegeses, so that we understand how it exists even in the honeyed tones of the “well-meaning” colleague. What lies just beyond the limit of his words is the realization that the racism which reacts and denigrates others upon seeing their dark skin is a form of torture, since one is using a person’s body against the person within it. A racist society, a white supremacist society, is a society that lives on torture. But it is a hidden torture because, insofar as it never stops, there is no state of non-torture against which to see it in its unending imposition. Should a person strike back to stop the torture, it is that person who will be arrested for assault. Perhaps that is why torture arises so easily and readily in the policing and imprisoning of people in this society, whether in Abu Ghraib or on a freeway in Los Angeles.

In discussing the blind calmness of white insouciance through the many texts that he invokes (Douglass’s Narrative, Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Ellison’s Invisible Man, and others), Yancy is not looking at quantifiable sociological incidents. It is the phenomenological aspects, the relationality, the revelations of a cultural consciousness, that concern him. The issue lies not in the fact of being black or brown, but rather in the perpetration of whiteness that issues from seeing the other as such – racializing the other as the means of constructing oneself as white. One is not white; whiteness becomes what a white person does. As Yancy puts it, white identity constructs itself through its “negating, disliking, and hating the dark other.” What is whiteness if it must define itself through a process of making others into something they are not? What is whiteness if it can exist only through rendering others threats, specimens, or interlopers?

As Yancy plays the searchlight of his self-resubjectification on these white faces that look at him through those categories, something of the relationality erodes. When people cower in elevators or cars, it is not he who makes them do so. They do it to themselves through him. What does it mean to take away a person’s subjectivity (something as integral to one’s body as wetness is to water)? And what does it further mean to refuse to recognize that this is what one is doing? This philosophical question threads itself through Yancy’s book as he delves into and describes a variety of states of consciousness, both of himself being made a “Black body” by the white gaze, and of the white mind he apprehends through its reaction to that same body. A black person apprehends white subjectivity through the white look and its effect on him/her; which is the concomitant of apprehending oneself as its object. But this implies that, though there is relationality, there is no reciprocity in the white look.

Sartre theorized this look, explaining that one knows the other as a subjectivity – a mind that sees objects in the world – by being made an object for the other through the other’s gaze at oneself. That is, one apprehends the form of the other’s consciousness by being its object, the content of that other’s subjectivity, in the other’s look. In becoming such an object, one loses touch with one’s project in the world, with the autonomy of one’s existence. For Sartre, this is not the end of the story. One can make the other an object for onself by looking back at the other. Fanon corrects him on this score, however, by explaining that racism is, in its essence, the prevention of such a returned gaze, because it strips the black person of his/her subjectivity in advance. For Fanon, the black body is always only a black body for the white mind, and thus has no equalization procedures available to it. To break this law, to look back, is to be the outlaw that the process of criminalization has imposed on communities of color and used as a profile by which to imprison enough of their people to bring about a post-civil rights re-segregation of society (with 5% of the world’s population, the US accounts for 25% of the world’s prisoners, 75% of whom are people of color). To return the look, as Yancy does in his text, in order to see and understand the white mind, is to resist that law. And in playing outside the Black body, making it an object for himself as well, Yancy conscripts the reader to be an accomplice in that resistance. It is the many structures of resistance that occupy the second half of the book.

Yancy’s continual reference to the “Black body” dramatizes the non-reciprocity of white consciousness. He uses “Black body” in both first- and third-person constructions. In the first person, it conveys his own objectification by whites. In the third person, he deploys it as the instrument that makes white subjectivity the object of his returned gaze. That too is part of his resistance. Resistance to racialization must always be against two things, the reality of racial oppression and the imago that whites have of who the black (or brown) person is. And Yancy affirms that “Blacks have struggled mightily to disrupt, redefine and transcend the white fictions” of who or what the black person is. In particular, resistance must decode the pretense to naturalness that racial oppression reserves for itself. What whites see as social disruption on the part of black people is in fact resistance, yet which cannot be seen as such by whites because it would mean granting subjectivity to that which for them must be only an object.

The flip-side of this, of course, is that a black person can resist racialization only as black. It is too late for him/her to be other than black, having been made black by the social space white people in their cars and elevators cower in. In other words, the struggle occurs against white identity itself. On the other hand, a white person cannot just change those fictions, because they are part of the cultural framework. The problem for white people is whether to live according to the fictions or not. A white person cannot see a black person as a person – and not just a Black body – and still be white. That would mean giving up the identity that serves as the ticket to well-being in white supremacist society. Nevertheless, it is not too late for white people to be other than white, to not flinch at seeing a black person, to not impose their meanings or their language on him/her. But they would first have to see that this is what they have been doing.

Concomitant to these implications of his discourse, Yancy insists on the multiplicity of black consciousnesses, its non-generalizability. This is inherent in his radical separation of that consciousness from the generalization imposed on the Black body by the white mind, in its white responses. If, for the latter, there is a reduction to body (the naturalization of the invented concept of race), for the former, autonomy becomes the essence of modes of resistance, constituting a variety of spectra from refusal to action, from stasis to movement, from political ideology to personal style. Resistance becomes resubjectification.

Ultimately, it is we white people who are seen by Yancy’s gaze, against which we can only recoil, and in recoiling, admit to having been there. At his hands, in his words and his thinking, we find ourselves there in the culture that does this to people every second of their lives, and every second of ours. We can only be in bad faith in thinking that everything is OK. We can refuse to recognize that bad faith. But such a refusal remains a self-deception, again a form of bad faith. We get put back in that culture, and are confronted with our complicity, by each black person who shows us how we look at him/her, until we can rise above the brutality of our objectifications.

We know there is an exit. We have but to unlock those car doors and step out to walk among the crowds in the streets, as a form of respect itself. But to do so, we have to first hear the clicks of those locks, and what those clicks engender as a cultural formation. Ultimately, this is what Yancy asks us to do.

Steve Martinot

This entry was posted in 51, Volume 23, No. 3. Bookmark the permalink.