Black bodies and the white gaze.
A personal insight into the destructive societal and political dichotomy of Blackness and Whiteness.
Understanding the social structures of Blackness and whiteness in the 21st century is a mission in a time of crisis. It is important because the human body is a metaphor of social relationships; the body has symbolic significance, and the stereotypes that currently exist must be challenged because specific cultural representations dictate how bodies that exist in either Blackness or whiteness are treated, that is either by social inclusion or social exclusion and marginalisation.
WEB Du Bois questioned, ‘What on earth is whiteness that one should so desire it?’ But it’s not whiteness that Black people desire, it’s the treatment of humanity and equality in society that is constantly sought. This inequality in social and political contexts is part of the legacy from the times of slavery and genocide, world wars and the European imperial incursions into foreign lands.
Whiteness, which is a global minority, invented its own supremacy as a means of positioning white nations as a dominant force in the world. Du Bois posited that the imperial consciousness came to equate whiteness with ‘the ownership of the world for ever and ever.’
The cult of Whiteness is arrogance used by white supremacists to offer its members security in a turmoil filled environment, and to replace global human rights and democracy; it is a foundation stone in the origins of totalitarianism. This social Darwinism continues to seek to expel the Black body from public spaces by organised violence and / or controls that pacify the disaffected.
In the 21st century, this destructive logic of lawless violence has corrupted both public and private morality in the heavily racialised war on the Black body. This assault on the Black body presumes a sub-human ‘other’ who must be systematically destroyed and eliminated at every opportunity – and it has licensed the use of torture and extrajudicial execution, even against a country’s own citizens if they are ‘living while Black’.
This racism must be eradicated by the reversal of the European imperial imagining of people into master and slave dichotomies that first arose during the invasions of Asia, Africa, America and Australia; this will mean a new division of land, food and raw materials amongst all peoples for global and national progress and prosperity.
The cult of Whiteness resists equality because it is fragile and afraid of the decay of individual identity and collective history of European countries that existed before Imperialism and invasion. Whiteness has been incorrectly inscribed as a historical signifier of humanity.
Humanity is not a narrow spectrum of society, humanity is common and cosmopolitan. Blackness was historically pathologised by imperialism, slavery, colonisation and repeated negative media representations. When Blackness is seen as ‘other’ or deviant it creates reinforced disparity along racial lines.
This error has to be faced and corrected. Black people live this dichotomy every day.
James Baldwin, in 1962, said “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” It is therefore necessary to look at the social and political structures and constructions of Blackness and Whiteness.
In an attempt to understand the framework of the violence perpetuated on the Black body I am using my Black privilege to view this subject. I have double- sometimes triple-consciousness as a Black woman in a predominantly white society – this is my privilege, and my skill set to understand the interactions between Blackness and Whiteness. As Lili Loofbourow says,“The further you move away from white cis masculinity the more points of view you have to juggle.”
The objectivisation of the Black body means the simultaneous subjectification of the white body. The surveyor of the Black body by default becomes the white cis man. By objectification the person who takes on the role as subjectifier does not engage in any exchange or communication with the object class of people – in this case the Black person, the Black body.
Without communication the objectified person is designated mute, they have no voice, and thereafter no subject position in society. This is because social relations are relations between subjects – between agents of action, speech and communication; the roles are reciprocal. Without communication there is only domination and absence from one another.
With limited or single direction communication Black lives are framed by the white imagination. And because the white imagination cannot be contained, Black people in the 21st century are dying in numbers that match the number of Black deaths in the times of lynching – the only difference today is that instead of a rope, Black people are being killed by guns, prisons, structural and institutional discrimination that are mainly controlled by white sections of society. As Claudia Rankine, writes in ‘Citizen: An American Lyric’: “Because white men can’t police their imagination, black men are dying.”
The white imagination uses negative thoughts about Blackness to disrupt attention from everyday racial inequalities by symbolising Black people as undesirably culturally different.
Whiteness has become a dangerous cult, a religious cult even. This religious association with whiteness started over a century ago during the economic and social uncertainty that preceded the violence of the Great War of 1914. Now in the 21st century, the incumbent President of the United States is using this combination of the cult of whiteness and religious fervour to exercise perceived racial supremacy over all the citizens of America and the world.
In America and Europe, particularly in the UK, the whiteness cult, the Anglo-centric world view, is evidenced in the historical legacies that started in imperialism, colonialism, slavery, and segregation, and today continues in the forms of ghettoisation, mass incarceration, unfettered extrajudicial executions by the police force, and militarised border controls. Historically, Black people have not been paid appropriate human attention by the white gaze, or are subject to the snap judgement of the white glance. The white glance is a quick diagnosis – at speed – which does not analyse individually, but goes on learnt intuition that is based on historical inaccuracies. It’s a ‘point and shoot’ response rather than an ‘investigate and discover’ response.
This ‘point and classify’ response to Black people is the result of white people remaining focused on perpetuating continual racial violence on Black people by incorrectly centring Blackness as undesirable, low status, criminal, dangerous, and inhuman while white bodies are generally classified – by white people – as worthy, interesting, valuable and human.
It is my Black privilege to debunk these false Imperialist theories and properly identify my Blackness as something to be admired, and outlined so other people will see it as well. As Lili Loofbourow states, “Once you point it out, we’ll never miss it again.” The recent Black Panther film has added to the global celebration of Blackness.
We still have to inhabit hope that this separatist situation of Blackness and whiteness will change. That does not mean naively denying reality, Rebecca Solnit, in her book ‘Hope in the Dark’, posits that, “Authentic hope requires clarity and imagination.” And she continues to say, “Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists.”
We have to do something, to take some action because hope is a belief that actions have meaning and that what we do matters. As Angie Thomas says, from The Hate U Give (THUG), empathy is more powerful than sympathy.
This blog post education is so that people understand the social and political structures of racism, not so that they feel ‘sorry’ for a past event, but that they will understand the ingrained inequality, then effect change.
As Reni Eddo-Lodge says in her book, ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race’, “Every voice raised against racism chips away at its power. We can’t afford to stay silent.”
Will you be a part of the change? This is your time, this is your opportunity to speak, to act, to change the system. Image the situation conjured up by the following rhetorical question used by Barack Obama, among others, ‘Can I face myself when in 20 years time my child will say to me, wait a minute, you knew this was a problem and you didn’t do anything about it?’
I am using my Blackness, my resilience, and my revolutionary spirit to continue the resistance. I am facing this error of social inequalities head on, and I will continue to write and speak about this situation to effect change and the erasure of the existing societal and political dichotomies of Blackness and Whiteness.
What will you do? I ask this because, sadly, racism is a contemporary issue.
(Article also available at ROOT-ed Zine.)
© Marjorie H Morgan 2018