- Black Bodies, White Gazes: The Continuing Significance of Race
Philosophical texts frequently provide a theoretical framework for discussing racial dichotomy without considering the importance of discursive practices and lived experiences. George Yancy describes his book Black Bodies, White Gazes as an effort “to explore the Black body within the context of whiteness” (xv). Yancy adapts Frantz Fanon’s critical perspective of the lived experiences of blacks while examining how those experiences are erased by prototypical conceptualizations of the black body in the white imaginary. Deconstructing the white gaze and demonstrating how it functions in the context of daily lives of blacks in the United States, Yancy reveals how the power of the white gaze is implicated in the continued oppression of blacks.
Chapter One, “The Elevator Effect: Black Bodies/White Bodies,” analyzes, within the social space of the elevator, the performance of whiteness in relation to the black body as a product of historical discourses resulting in hatred and fear on the part of whites. Yancy notes that the corporeal integrity of the black body goes through a process of self-alienation, because the white gaze has always already “confiscated [it] within social spaces of meaning construction” (4), refusing to provide the black body with dynamic subjectivity. Racism, revealed by nervousness on the part of the white body, not only traps the black body in blackness, but also confines the white as “a prisoner of her own historically inherited imaginary and the habitual racist performances that have become invisible to her” (19). The white body, feeling secure in the social location of whiteness, marks the black body as dangerous.
The second chapter exposes how whiteness owes its power to normativity and its ability to operate invisibly. The social construct of whiteness, which can only define itself in relation to the black body, produces “real effects” (33) in social spaces. Yancy argues that whiteness is not physical, but cultural—white children learn about it through socialization. Exposed to binary logic early in life, they learn by experience that the color line is saturated with value-laden meanings of exclusion and inclusion. Stereotyping produces negative signifiers of the black body in contrast to the white body. Internalizing their behavior as the norm, whites see themselves as individuals, while they see blacks as types. Yancy notes that making white privilege visible in everyday contexts clarifies how white normativity is maintained.
The third chapter explores the phenomenological return of the black [End Page 221] body in terms of the structure of the white gaze, which overdetermines and humiliates the black body, causing it to be “returned as distorted [which] is a powerfully violating experience” (66). The experience of return is explicated in terms of Fanon’s description of how the black body is made into “an ontological problem in relation to the white gaze” (71).
Chapter Four explores the black body as a site of resistance against racism, releasing it from the captivity in which it is held by white myths. Yancy sees the black body’s resistance as linked to the concept of identity: when resisting racism, it affirms its identity and complexity, subverting the power of the white hegemonic gaze. Organized resistance and infra-politics are two forms of agency blacks have performed in order to understand themselves as agents able to free themselves from the hegemony of the white gaze. The next two chapters explore Frederick Douglass’s and Toni Morrison’s representations of the impact of whiteness on the black body, pointing out the panopticon-like function of the white gaze performed by Douglass’s white slaveholders and overseers and noting that one learns to become black by becoming aware of the social connotations of blackness. The process of internalizing the white gaze causes irreparable harm to Morrison’s Pecola Breedlove in The Bluest Eye. Utterly lacking in agency, she believes in the power of whiteness and is unable to resist its negative impact on her identity.
The final chapter, “Whiteness as Ambush and the Transformative Power of...