Notes on: Yancy, G. (2008). Black Bodies, White Gazes. The Continuing Significance of Race. Plymouth: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc. (E-book)

Dave Harris

[An excellent discussion of social and cultural dynamics on racism and Whiteness, drawing on proper semiotics, Foucualt Fanon and others]

Chapter 1 [the most cited one]. The Elevator Effect: Black Bodies/White Bodies
[Long but worth it]

An 'existentialist credo, and essence. ("Blackness")… Precedes my existence'.It is something historical, 'iconographic and semiotic' as well as existential. It requires a [theoretical?] battle at these levels because Black bodies have already been historically marked, disciplined and scripted. White subjects by contrast are seen as 'self-contained substances' who do not apparently depend on the construction of Black people [although they do, as an inferior]

The Black body 'has been confiscated', most obviously in the form of enslavement or lynching or breeding or experimentation, but also at the everyday level, e.g. 'disproportionate incarceration' of young Black men or the construction of young Black women as promiscuous by nature [supported by quotes]. He experiences it at this level to in the form of [micro-aggressions], regarded with suspicion by security personnel, White women if he enters an elevator, seen as a token of danger, a threat. The cumulative impact can be 'a form of self alienation' which itself can become 'self-doubt… Self-hatred'. This is not like Marxist alienation, because it's more fundamental, not left at work [far too simple]. Lower class Whites have also been stereotyped as shiftless, lazy or worthless and indeed have been systematically sterilised, but there innate character traits 'were not conceptualised as resulting from a specifically "Black essence"' and, for Irish and Italian immigrants, they were allowed to have any essence eventually dissipated through assimilation [this was the policy in Australia or Brazil with Black people.]

The White imaginary is based on 'centuries of White hegemony' and makes him feel '"external"' to his own body, set within 'a structured and structuring space' through which he is seen and judged. The North American context offers discourses of race which have 'shared intelligibility, forcing people to negotiate their action within this space which configures their identity [no page numbers here — probably about the second page — and difficult to do any more than summarise closely].

Darkness signifies negative values in this matrix. It has become value laden through 'various contingent discursive practices' in their own context. It is now a 'stipulatory axiom' permitting conclusions to be drawn about trust, guilt, a whole narrative which becomes coherence and intelligible and makes Black bodies meaningful. This is a White gaze, a tacit form of knowledge with 'a family resemblance to Michel Foucault's use of the term positive unconscious'. There are 'tacit racist scripts, calcified modes of being'.

Fanon also noticed that Blackness was defined in relation to White men and there is an necessary configuration or relation 'within a semiotic field', one that sees Whiteness as the transcendental norm, that which 'remains the same across a field of difference', something that actually defines a system of difference, and renders anything nonWhite as 'other, marginal, ersatz, strange, native, inferior, uncivilised and ugly' [I think to make these negative judgements requires social relations as in colonialism — difference is not necessarily something inferior].

Poor Whites are also invested 'psychologically and morally' in this kind of Whiteness, and the category White is 'a magical category that names, fixes and substantiates their ontological superiority and special status within the Great Chain of Being'. They were addressed as boss by Black people, and treated with respect, even if it was promptly subverted by laughter. Poor Whites had a form of Whiteness that was 'precisely designed to offset the variable of poverty… [an]… invaluable asset'. Sharing Whiteness with wealthy Whites 'was enough to instil… A sense of "greatness"'. However it was based on 'a false equivalence', a confusion, where '"you're White like us"' was confused with '"you're one of us"' [exactly, and how long would that confusion last in the circumstances of the factory floor, or the breadline, or the dole queue?]. Nevertheless, Yancy thinks that 'being White created a sense of solidarity that kept poor Whites content even when it meant their own political and economic demise' [I can see that this might have worked when Black people were slaves, because that is an important distinction, but when they were wage slaves, I am not so sure. Of course labour markets were still separated in the US].

His body is confined within social spaces of meaning and interaction, 'buttressed by a racist value laden episteme' [so this is where it comes from in
Johnson and Joseph–Salisbury). It is a form of confiscation without actually being placed in chains. [The actual episode follows]. He is well-dressed. He enters an elevator where a White woman is waiting and gets a defensive reaction.

Although he is well-dressed, these markers do not ease her tension because she sees a Black male body and it is '"supersaturated with meaning as they [Black bodies] have been relentlessly subject to [negative] characterisation {by popular media}"'. Her body language indicates this: although it is 'short of a performative locution' it still 'functions as an insult'.

She 'might be said 'to see a Black expanse, something dark and dreadful rather than 'dynamic subjectivity' she does not see how her own reactions are 'purchased at the expense of my Black body' regardless of anything he's actually done. 'The question of deeds is irrelevant'. It is as if he's already committed a criminal act. What is actually become through his own actions 'is apparently dark body occludes the presumption of innocence… Blackness functions metaphorically as original sin'.

'...The woman on the elevator does not really "see" me and she makes no effort to challenge how she sees me'. To do so would be more than cognitive and will involve a continuous effort of her performing 'her body's racialised interactions with the world… At the somatic level'. Even if she judged her perception 'as epistemologically false… Her racism may still have a hold on her lived body'. She can feel nervous, her heartbeat can increase, she can feel anxiety, she can feel surrounded, she can feel overwhelmed and desperate, she can feel panic and other 'deep-seated racist emotive responses… Part of the White bodily repertoire which has become calcified'.

He is also affected, sees himself through her eyes, and thus experiences 'some form of double consciousness'. It does not affect his 'sense of moral decency' or identity. He knows he's harmless but he still finds it hard to resist the White gaze. He feels angry. He realises he seem to be depicted in various ways. He knows he's not a criminal or a rapist. He doesn't desire to be White or to seek White recognition. He is not dependent on this woman's recognition. He doesn't want to just dismiss her perception, or to get her to come out with it. He just wants her to understand.

He realises that she does 'possess the only real point of view' in the sense in which her perspective is the only important one, the one that makes a difference and that has been recognised in the context of White North America, grounded in material forces that have  accorded power to White people.

Objections might be that he has misread this woman's intention, and read racism into a situation where it does not exist, that maybe he has learned to read White gestures and cases falsely. He is not claiming that this reading is just a result of direct observation, some empirical judgement, available for anyone, some epistemic privilege which he is claiming. His claim for privileged understanding is different [and this is the basis of the Black episteme point]

'The fact of the matter is that from the perspective of an oppressed and marginalised social position, Blacks do in fact possess a level of heightened sensitivity to recognisable and repeated occurrences that might very well slip beneath the radar of others who do not have such a place and history in a White dominant and hegemonic society'. His claim is 'grounded within a social context' that informs and is supported. Other knowers might report differently, but knowers are not substitutable because 'there is no universal neutral knowing subject', and to claim so would render his experiences and those of other Black people 'irrelevant'. His experience when he sees the White woman's gesture as racist does not alone justify the claim, rather it is 'shared bits of knowledge… My judgement is fundamentally a social epistemological one, one that is rendered reasonable within the context of a shared history of Black people noting, critically discussing, suffering, and sharing with each other the traumatic experiential context and repeated acts of White racism. Within this context, one might say that Black people constitute a kind of "epistemological community" (a community of knowers)' [or, a church, a political party, an ideological collective]. It is 'the background histories of oppression that Blacks have experienced' that provides the coherent narrative for the event that took place, that justifies the 'powerful level of coherence in my knowledge base' and that allows him justification for the claim that what he saw was racist [it fitted with these beliefs].

Specifically, 'her gestures cohere both with my knowledge of White racism and with past experiences I have had with Whites performing racist gestures, and my experiences consistent with the shared experiences of other Blacks, who have a long history of having become adept at recognising these gestures for purposes of resistance and survival'. Other Blacks have had to organise the world on this basis. Claims about White people therefore have 'empirical content in relationship to the larger history… And they are underwritten by White racist brutality' . 'In a Quinean fashion… Each bit of racist information is supported by the other bits and pieces of racism', so his judgement is not simply subjective. He has an idea of cumulative cases to support his conclusions, '"legs of the chair, not the links of the chain"… A gestalt like assessment of the evidence'. It is compatible with other people's experience which are warranted through 'inter-subjectively shared experiences'. Other people have seen White women react in the same way and have learned that these actions are based on racist prejudice, and that they cohere with 'other facts' such as the 'effects of racist media', or the 'past and present circulating myth that the Black body is criminal'. All this makes an interpretation 'embedded in the coherent picture of the (social) world.

He cites other [microaggressions], like assuming that people get scholarships because they are good at sport

However, his judgement in this particular case can still be 'epistemically incorrigible'. 'After all, I could be incorrect'. He wishes to avoid the scepticism that comes with claims for infallibility. He still wants to stick to other claims he has made regarding the racist actions of Whites. However, he insists that it is the lived experiences and histories of Black bodies that have led to his judgement, and that 'rarely' does he face anonymous White women 'from an informed history of the mythical purity of White female bodies and the myth of the Black male rapist'[!]. Ideological histories informed him and shaped his subjectivity. Even if he got one racist gesture wrong, his judgement on future or past occasions can still be reliable, and the collective memory shared by Blacks could still be the right one. To say that the White woman did not engage in a White racist gesture is to assume that she was able to isolate herself from social history.

He argues that the elevator 'can certainly function as a replicative instance of the larger social macrocosm of [racial] problems' the collective experience of Black 'we-knowers"' was anterior to his judgement, 'a communal sense of subjectivity', despite the denial of many Whites. At the same time, this does not take away the personal subjective nature of the stigma directed to him personally.

The perceptions of Black communities are not inaccessible and can be communicated to anyone 'if they are open to instruction and willing to take the time to listen' so White people can come to learn to understand the world in order to identify racist behaviour. There is intersubjective dialogue possible. This also allows 'for the possibility that even Blacks could disagree about what constitutes a racist form of behaviour'.

The elevator encounter 'is permeated with racist semiotic and mythopoetic constructions' based on the past and grounded in the current context. American culture has made progress but has not eliminated stereotyping, physical harassment and excessive surveillance. 'The Black body is the dialectical staple of White bodily integrity'. It is also a body that, as Fanon says, has causal powers, compared to the passivity of Whites, especially White women, including the reactions they have, a kind of natural consciousness. The woman's gaze was not transparent, simple seeing, but rather '"the racial production of the visible, the workings of racial constraints on what it means to 'see'"'. She bears the White gaze [called here the '"White look"']. It is somatic [he even blames the amygdala]. He thinks of other tragedies, Black youths who were murdered for allegedly whistling at White women.

In a lecture, a White male student pointed out that the White woman might have been a victim of rape earlier and felt particular trepidation. He agreed that this was a possible reading and that he might have been incorrect in reading this particular situation. However 'this does not make racism less of a problem', nor are situations less complex. Indeed, another commentator suggested that the student might be using complexity to make the problem of racism disappear. Critics might be able to suggest all sorts of reasons instead of racism. Black students might '"know that they may over interpret race, but can't afford not to because most the time the interpretation is correct"'. He adds that it would be fatal if they just responded each time as if it were specific, without assuming racism. Another student said that she would feel anxious about males whatever their race, and that for her 'gender was the primary lens'. He agrees that the gaze is 'not simply racist but gendered' but again worried at the speed with which she diagnosed the situation which 'effectively turned the discussion away from race to that of gender… [Which]… May have functioned as a way of obfuscating her own racism'.

 Other comments did note intersectional dynamics and that in the White imaginary, Black males are always lustful and unable to change, because they are animal like or savage. There might have been some sexual tension in the elevator. The White gaze is 'a camera obscura', [he appeared threatening precisely because he was not specifically seen or heard, she saw the construction instead, her gaze inverted him. He uses visual metaphors like 'the racist socio-– epistemic aperture']. Another example might turn on a person who looks White but in fact turns out to be Black — physical appearance can be overridden by the gaze, and White people can see 'Black in White face' hence the fear about passing, and all the stuff about classifying races, the single drop of Black blood and all that.

He became hypervigilant himself especially about movements of his body within space. The elevator ceased to be familiar and neutral and became 'filled with White normativity'. He became calculative, making sure that he was not too threatening or too close, avoiding postures, uncomfortably aware of his body, aware of how he was being perceived. No words were spoken. Fanon again points to the ambiguity of the Black body, something to be avoided and yet desired, out-of-control, yet offering entry to an exotic universe. He felt he was 'forced within an epistemic solipsistic position', forcing to interpret himself according to this racist metanarrative, aware that everything he would normally do, like smile, could be reinterpreted. This misinterpretation 'is actually a cultural achievement… An act of  epistemic violence'

He could explain,, say by saying he was a professor, but he doubts that even this would shake her framework, and it would look too apologetic and place the burden on him. He could ask her to name her fears and regain the initiative morally, and in effect shame her, but this would only start up a new narrative, and might even render him as an uppity Black person, further adding to the projection of fear. [Butler's analysis of the beating of Rodney King makes this point -- the police were scared of King's Black body].

Both people in the elevator were frozen into an identity, into a fantasy. [This phantasm is crucial in understanding police trials like Rodney King, where the only way in which people are  invited to see what happened and consider the facts is entirely positivistic]

Other people have been others like this including those with yellow or red bodies.

There is even a comment on Deleuze, saying that the trouble with racism is that it never detects the particles of the other but propagates waves of sameness. Yancey agrees, but argues that within the European imaginary, Blacks have been conceptualised as definitely different, not just diverted from the standard, but of a different type [I still think this misses the point that their difference in a positive challenging philosophical sense has never been detected]. Blacks are certainly different and at the same time lesser, locked into a 'dialectical representational logic' where the two terms are opposed in a hierarchy.

Back to the elevator, the Black body within the White gaze appears exterior, visible and concrete all at once 'a single Black thing, un-individuated'. The White woman has no conscious part in this construction and fails to see how her own identity has been constructed. White identity and therefore White privilege is invisible. White identity is 'a pure self presence, unrelated, dialectically' to anything. In practice, the positivity of Whiteness is always defined in relation to the negativity of Blackness, always parasitic upon Black identity

In terms of the law, White women were always seen as protected, innocent, able to speak the truth, Blackness was '"unlawful"' in itself, a sufficient register to make White perceptions true. They are really of course forms of reading based on ignorance, 'a epistemology of ignorance' pattern '"of localised and global cognitive dysfunctions"' which actually renders Whites unable to understand the world, a 'structured blindness' [just as in ideology]. Apart from anything else this means that to be racist means more than just uprooting false beliefs or filling in epistemic blanks, because racist actions 'are also habits of the body'. There is also a cultural not just an individual dimension, a matter of 'subtle, habitual performances'.

White women are 'the vehicle through which such practices get performed and sustained'. He is not saying that she is an 'epiphenomenon of social conditioning', and yet Whiteness is not just reducible to an individual act, nor is she the originator of the gaze. The actual gaze 'is always already fuelled by a larger social imaginary, which is historically grounded in White institutional and brute power' [I think he needs something like Bourdieu on the habitus]. There is a potential for opposition, for an antiracist discourse, but this will involve 'a complex continuous effort'.

There may be no 'epistemological foundation all grounds' for appeal to 'incontrovertibly convince her that it is immoral to be a racist' [it's not a moral matter though is it?]. But rhetorical strategies, persuasive techniques and criticism are still available, assuming that the other is open to them. The hint here might be that although her performance of the gaze is performed with impunity, she still sees the need for evasion.

He also feels the need to detach from the situation and examine 'the image of the monster that she has constructed'. This can get close to self-hatred, but it makes it aware of how he has become Black in each encounter, as a result of her performance, 'reduced to a racialised essence', a form of '"misplaced concretion"'. This process can only 'perpetuate the construction of racial boundaries'.

So there is no single explanation that links racist behaviour to consciously held prejudices or beliefs, and no hope that they can be amended through challenging propositions. Many White people reject being racist and consciously assent to antiracist propositions, yet still 'perform "Whiteley"', looking suspiciously, feeling threatened. This is 'a form of orientation… A set of sensibilities that unconsciously or pre-reflectively position or configure the White self vis a vis the the nonWhite self' [an added dimension these days is the fear of being seen as a racist?].

There is also the issue of not acknowledging systemic power relationships beyond the elevator, seeing beliefs as agent centred. Disavowing personal racist beliefs can still have negative implications for nonWhites, and it is not necessary to express racist beliefs in order to benefit from Whiteness. White people are still more highly valued within the larger 'sociopolitical cultural context'. Racist supremacy is not a natural property but contingent upon having White skin, which can be masked by referring to Whiteness as the problem — however even Whites who attempt to reject racist beliefs still 'benefit unjustly… Because of the larger social positioning and valuing of White bodies over other bodies. Hence, they play a role in constituting the Black body as other and in sustaining White racism' [I am still not sure]

The elevator example should be taken as a slice of lived reality, a pale reminder of what has happened to Black bodies, how have they been positioned, have threatening reality is for them, how subject they are violence because they have been determined as a stereotyped object with no nuance. Niggers have always done something, it is predictable, never anomalous or to be explained, just like all those who have been beaten and killed because they'd been suspected, tokens of danger who 'arrive on the scene already over determined'. White bodies are also over determined but are privileged, deemed honourable  and safe. These discursive practices 'can and must must be challenged and troubled'.

Note 3 claims that he is not speaking for all Black bodies, but that his experience 'resonates' in ways in which many Blacks have felt racism. Note 4 as he realises that his is a gendered Black body and that there will be differences. The Foucault he is interested in is The Order of Things. An elevator has also been the site of an earlier incident where a Black man tripped over and in falling grabbed a White woman which led to charges of sexual assault and calling for him to be lynched and subsequent riots. Note 21 records that White students have often created scenarios designed to cast doubt upon his reading, but he suspects that it might be a way to explain away 'what is far more implicative and far more likely'. Note 35 agrees that the White gaze in this example is a gendered one and that gendered White males would probably also feel fear and anxiety about sexual assault since they have now been included as potential victims as well given the '"pervasive fear of Black sexuality which is fundamental to White supremacy"'.