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Seeing Race in Modern America

Matthew Pratt Guterl

Publication Year: 2013

In this fiercely urgent book, Matthew Pratt Guterl focuses on how and why we come to see race in very particular ways. What does it mean to see someone as a color? As racially mixed or ethnically ambiguous? What history makes such things possible? Drawing creatively from advertisements, YouTube videos, and everything in between, Guterl redirects our understanding of racial sight away from the dominant categories of color--away from brown and yellow and black and white--and instead insists that we confront the visual practices that make those same categories seem so irrefutably important.
Zooming out for the bigger picture, Guterl illuminates the long history of the practice of seeing--and believing in--race, and reveals that our troublesome faith in the details discerned by the discriminating glance is widespread and very popular. In so doing, he upends the possibility of a postracial society by revealing how deeply race is embedded in our culture, with implications that are often matters of life and death.

Published by: The University of North Carolina Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-xiv

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pp. 1-14

In the early 1920s, young Langston Hughes was an avant-garde New Negro poet, a conduit for both white and black audiences to a racially authentic aesthetic emerging from Harlem’s cobblestone streets (plate 1). As young crewman on the S.S. Malone, Hughes had left New York for Europe’s postwar possibilities, but the route took...

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I. Close-Ups The Devil in the Details

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pp. 15-18

When an anonymous young woman posted her question on Yahoo—“What makes a Mexican look like a Mexican?”—she asked for “serious and kind answers only.” “You know,” she explained, “when you look at a person, and automatically know that they are most likely Mexican, not by the way they dress or language...

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1. Profiles

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pp. 19-45

"There are 16 million eyes in the city,” the poster reads, “[and] we’re counting on all of them.” An array of twelve sets of eyes, each marked with racial and ethnic distinctions, stares outward at the reader. A part of the “See Something, Say Something” sloganeering effort of the Metropolitan Transportation Agency in New York...

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2. Silhouettes

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pp. 46-59

On the eve of the Great Depression, a trio of European eugenicists, eager to more accurately identify race and to provide the common public with easy-to-use tools, suggested that the practice of silhouetting offered some startling new data points. Working in the Anthropometric Department of the Galton Laboratory...

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3. Bought and Sold

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pp. 60-80

On his tour of the slave states, James Silk Buckingham went to New Orleans and stopped in the Rotunda of the St. Louis Hotel to watch a slave auction. For the sojourning British abolitionist and temperance advocate, the dramatic bidding for human flesh at the rotunda was a version of something he’d seen across the...

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II. Group Portraits Looking for Contrast

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pp. 81-84

The famous Italian clothier Benetton is renowned for a clothing line that is famously bright and cheerful, full of the lollipop colors of a cartoon rainbow. In its accompanying advertisements, the full spectrum of colors gets applied to the full spectrum of racial possibilities, once again with an emphasis on unexpected juxtaposition...

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4. The Domestic Ensemble

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pp. 85-103

One striking expression of racial contrast comes through the representation of transnational and multiracial adoptive families. American visual culture is rich with images of stable, contented families, their comity and sameness a metaphor for national harmony. This imagined family has a long history. It is...

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5. Platoon Harmonics

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pp. 104-124

Like the multiracial adoptive family, the mixed platoon draws the eye into the study of difference. A heterotopic ensemble, the platoon is a narrative device, always on the move, its movements always revealing the centrality of mixture to the nation’s survival or failure. It creates a common structure—the army unit—even as...

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III. Multiple Exposures The Evidence of Things Not Easily Seen

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pp. 125-128

Sometimes, race can be very difficult to see. In “The Wizard,” an episode of Seinfeld, and a subtle send-up of white discomfort around racial ambiguity, Elaine Benes and her new boyfriend, Darryl, both suspect that the other person is nonwhite, and they script their relationship around this presumption, but they refuse...

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6. Hybridity

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pp. 129-147

The hybrid body, as Jean Toomer imagined it, is a racial ensemble, or platoon, in miniature, not easily categorized as a “mulatto” or “mestizo.” With its component features easily viewable, discrete, and engaged productively, this body is an anachronism, out of sync with national time and space, but a useful one, serving as a vehicle...

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7. Masquerade

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pp. 148-165

The squint of David Carradine, playing Kwai Chang Caine, is sort of akin to yellowface. The same is true, of course, of Stallone’s patterned headband, his bow and arrows, and his long knife. Both parallel—very obliquely, given that their subjects are hybrid— the long-standing tradition of blackface minstrelsy. The oblique part...

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8. Passing

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pp. 166-181

Unlike the boldfaced racial masquerade, racial passing—historically, the dark body blending, without any remark or notice, into whiteness—offers nothing on the surface to see. Where the masquerade exposes its layers—spotlighting the gap between the false surface and the deeper real—racial passing refuses such...

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9. Ambiguity

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pp. 182-199

In the late 1990s, a new category of actor, performer, and model, described by fashion writer Ruth La Ferla as “ethnically ambiguous,” appeared, seemingly overnight. “Ambiguity is chic,” La Ferla noted, “especially among the under-25 members of Generation Y, the most racially diverse population in the nation’s history.” Describing a fascination...

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pp. 200-210

The discriminating look, I have suggested, is historically minded, drawing from centuries of representations to make sense of small details, but also fairly consistent and durable. Its consistency and durability encourage a set of familiar outcomes, allowing us to “see” bodies marked as racially different in common patterns, bodies that range from those boldly illuminated as simply “black” or...


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pp. 211-220


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pp. 221-224

Image Plates

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pp. 240-247

E-ISBN-13: 9781469612522
E-ISBN-10: 1469612526
Print-ISBN-13: 9781469610689
Print-ISBN-10: 146961068X

Page Count: 248
Illustrations: 2 line drawings, 1 map
Publication Year: 2013

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Race discrimination -- United States.
  • Race discrimination -- United States -- Psychological aspects.
  • Race awareness -- United States.
  • Ethnicity -- United States -- Public opinion.
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