- Black Bodies, White Gazes: The Continuing Significance of Race
In Black Bodies, White Gazes, George Yancy investigates how the experiences of blacks both come into view and are simultaneously distorted by the racialized gaze of whites. In the process of distortion by whites, often unbeknownst to themselves, they are continually implicated in the oppression of blacks that reflexively reinvests "whiteness as the transcendental norm" (xxiii). Precisely because whiteness is tied to socially embedded historical power and privilege that functions on multiple levels of social life, undoing its ill effects, to borrow from James Baldwin, is an ongoing process of entering "into battle with the historical creation, Oneself, and attempt[ing] to re[-]create oneself according to a principle more humane and more liberating." This is a thoughtful book, worthy of close and careful consideration, whose aim is to free us at the deepest levels of social life.
The book is composed of seven chapters. In a careful reflection and explication of an elevator experience between the author and a white woman, chapter 1 shows the ways in which the black body is invested with descriptions that produce disgust and fear on the part of the white woman. But the story is not meant to convey an isolated experience. Rather, Yancy and the woman serve as proxies for a more common set of experiences that dot the landscape of America. And as Yancy states: "My judgment is fundamentally [End Page 192] a social epistemological one" precisely because it partakes of "a shared history of Black people noting, critically discussing, suffering, and sharing with each other the traumatic experiential content and repeated acts of white racism" (7). But just as the black body is invested with descriptions that trap it in a negative gaze—that is, the woman draws on a set of background descriptions to negatively understand Yancy—so, too, is the woman "a prisoner of her own historically inherited imaginary and the habitual racist performances that have become invisible to her" (19). That the woman is unaware of what is transpiring is an indication that Yancy does not have in view the "typical" racist who is clear about his or her intentions. It is this contention that frames the thrust of the book and, perhaps, secures the possibility of transformation. I shall come back to this point at the end.
In chapter 2, Yancy explores both the normative orientation that informs the woman on the elevator and its invisible character. Like blackness, whiteness emerges as a cultural construction into which whites are initiated but which nonetheless has real effects for the life chances of blacks. Because Yancy works at the level of cultural initiation—largely a sociological process—we come to see the relational character of whiteness and why it defies clear awareness by those who enact it. Additionally, whiteness works by denying its relational character to the black "Other." In this denial, whites come to see themselves as the standard against which all else is measured, while blacks appear as deviations from that standard. The cultural initiation is thus informed by and reproduces an ontological claim regarding the norm of whiteness against which various racial types are assessed.
In chapters 3 and 4, Yancy first explores, via Fanon, several ways in which the black body is rendered as a deviation from and inferior to the norm of whiteness. This becomes the source of black humiliation and suffering. Second, he engages black resistance as a form of "decoding" that "is simultaneously a process of recoding Black embodied existence through processes of opposition and affirmation" (110–12). Decoding entails not taking up an antiblack stance by measuring oneself through the prism of the white gaze. In the process of decoding, blacks simultaneously challenge both the cultural narrative that entails their subordination and the ontological foundation upon which that narrative is based (112).
But Yancy is not naive about the prospect of self-realization and recoding. In the next two chapters, chapters 5 and 6, Yancy's indebtedness to Foucault is on display as he...