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Whiteness and the Return of the Black Body
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The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 19.4 (2005) 215-241

George Yancy

Duquesne University
It is sometimes advantageous to be unseen, although it is most often rather wearing on the nerves.
—Ralph Ellison
Blackness embodies the ostracized. Under the duress of racial domination, I undergo the now familiar two-pronged process of externally imposed inferiorization and subsequent internalization of that inferiority. It is thus probable that in my routine state, I carry White hatred of me within me as my own property.
—Thomas F. Slaughter
When you've made a man [woman] hate himself [herself], you've really got it and gone.
—Malcolm X

I write out of a personal existential context. This context is a profound source of knowledge connected to my "raced" body. Hence, I write from a place of lived embodied experience, a site of exposure. In philosophy, the only thing that we are taught to "expose" is a weak argument, a fallacy, or someone's "inferior" reasoning power. The embodied self is bracketed and deemed irrelevant to theory, superfluous and cumbersome in one's search for truth. It is best, or so we are told, to reason from nowhere. Hence, the white philosopher/author presumes to speak for all of "us" without the slightest mention of his or her "raced" identity. Self-consciously writing as a white male philosopher, Crispin Sartwell observes:

Left to my own devices, I disappear as an author. That is the "whiteness" of my authorship. This whiteness of authorship is, for us, a form of authority; to speak (apparently) from nowhere, for everyone, is empowering, though one wields power here only by becoming lost to oneself. But such an authorship and authority is also pleasurable: it yields the pleasure of self-forgetting or apparent transcendence of the mundane and the particular, and the pleasure of power expressed in the "comprehension" of a range of materials.
(1998, 6)

To theorize the Black body one must "turn to the [Black] body as the radix for interpreting racial experience" (Johnson [1993, 600]). It is important to note that this particular strategy also functions as a lens through which to theorize and critique whiteness; for the Black body's "racial" experience is fundamentally linked to the oppressive modalities of the "raced" white body. However, there is no denying that my own "racial" experiences or the social performances of whiteness can become objects of critical reflection. In this paper, my objective is to describe and theorize situations where the Black body's subjectivity, its lived reality, is reduced to instantiations of the white imaginary, resulting in what I refer to as "the phenomenological return of the Black body." These instantiations are embedded within and evolve out of the complex social and historical interstices of whites' efforts at self-construction through complex acts of erasure vis-à-vis Black people. These acts of self-construction, however, are myths/ideological constructions predicated upon maintaining white power. As James Snead has noted, "Mythification is the replacement of history with a surrogate ideology of [white] elevation or [Black] demotion along a scale of human value" (Snead 1994, 4).

How I understand and theorize the body relates to the fact that the body—in this case, the Black body—is capable of undergoing a sociohistorical process of "phenomenological return" vis-à-vis white embodiment. The body's meaning—whether phenotypically white or black—its ontology, its modalities of aesthetic performance, its comportment, its "raciated" reproduction, is in constant contestation. The hermeneutics of the body, how it is understood, how it is "seen," its "truth," is partly the result of a profound historical, ideological construction. "The body" is positioned by historical practices and discourses. The body is codified as this or that in terms of meanings that are sanctioned, scripted, and constituted through processes of negotiation that are embedded within and serve various ideological interests that are grounded within further power-laden social processes. The historical plasticity of the body, the fact that it is a site of contested meanings, speaks to the historicity of its "being" as lived and meant within the interstices of social semiotics. Hence: a) the body is less of a thing/being than a shifting...



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