Notes on selected chapters of : Yancy, G. (2008). Black Bodies, White Gazes. The Continuing Significance of Race.

Dave Harris

[For notes on Chapter one click here]

Chapter 2 Whiteness: "Unseen" Things Seen

Because race has no reference or factual support, some have argued that it should be abandoned. However it persists as a lived intelligibility and reality — 'socially ontologically lived', maintained in social performance, embodied, generating real effects. Using it does not necessarily involve essentialism [see also chapter 5].

Race is 'a contingent social category, but the persistently real bodily–cum–material–institutional–symbolic effects of race are profoundly devastating… It's reality [is] historically specific' it is maintained by social forces, institutions, individuals, laws, values and traditions. It is not metaphysical but 'relationally lived' which is why narrative is important, more than just reflection. It helps see the unseen of Whiteness.

We actually see ourselves and behave in transactions with each other as if there were race differences. Whiteness is enacted. An example shows this for him. A White philosopher commented on a book he had recently edited and contributed to where he had 'consciously decided to use African–American vernacular' he did this to 'capture the reality of my lived linguistic mode of being–in–the–world' and to vernacular speech as a perfectly viable form of communication, and aesthetic commitment, deliberately to contradict Kant. His White colleague asked why he had used that language when he could speak very well '[meaning in Standard American English]'. He reacted to 'layers of White racialised meaning' in that remark, especially the lack of understanding of the reasons for his choice of African-American vernacular speech. He misunderstood the reason for employing an effective means to capture reality, the complexity of his identity, and how he was playing a language game — he saw instead just a close link between language and identity. He thought Yancy had turned his back on the gifts offered him by White people and insulted their language. If he considered the possibility that Yancy was playing language games, he rejected it and preferred his own assumptions.

He also upset Yancy by criticising another Black philosopher who had spoken 'poorly'. Yancy feels he should have checked with him first to see if he knew him personally [!]. This might involve class values, but these were 'not sufficient to account for his remarks. The message was clearly one of race' [but how does he know]. He was inviting Yancy to put social distance between himself another Black people. But he was also saying that normal Blacks would speak English poorly, essentialising them [and for Yancy implying that that was because they had thick lips and sloppy tongues, and incoherent ideas]. He was implying that Black people should speak like White people so as not to make them uncomfortable, to wear a White mask. Subsequent commentary [by Jones] suggested that he was expected to give up even more, to leave his own community.

[I've done this with working class idiom, nearly always receiving an adverse reaction! Yancy seems to think that the White philosopher is also rejecting him as an African-American really, so to speak, perhaps one who can fake Standard American now and then, which I have had]

Yancy says this is like Sue experiencing micro-aggressions by being congratulated on speaking excellent English.

The episode shows that Whiteness has got aspects of silence, assumptions about proper English, basic grammar. The remark really meant that Yancy spoke English well 'for a Black', but this is really still parroting. Choosing African-American language was a kind of lack of gratitude. All this was silent and unmarked. The relations were unnoticed, how White identity was dependent upon a Black person's inability to achieve a privileged state. The dialogue concealed the racial undertones. The White philosopher occupied the discursive centre, but he evaded Whiteness and indeed did not see issues of race.

Yancy generalises to philosophy itself as a rejection of 'critical Black subjectivity', that to belong means to erase the self and adopt the master self, the philosophy is 'a significant White institutional force' rather than what it claims to be, 'a site of play for multiple voices'. 'All I seem to hear was "Turn White or disappear"', although if he turned White he would also disappear! [classic acdemic stuff really]

He found meetings of the American Philosophical Association stressful, and noticed the other Black people did as well, although many appeared 'so incredibly at ease' as if they had finally been accepted, into racially neutral spaces. There was certainly no reason to fear Black philosophers because they could quote European philosophy or speak European languages [snide --buggers can't win]. He felt estranged by contrast, far less at home, conscious of race while all the White folk weren't.

He has also been praised as a fine philosopher by a White person, and compared favourably to another better-known Black male philosopher. No doubt this comparison made the White man feel good, but it is a suspicious qualification — Yancy is only as good or better than another Black philosopher rather than simply a philosopher: there are still different criteria.

He might be rebuked for being a professional victim or paranoid [!]. There are self-deprecating White philosophers, for example those who deny that race exists or who evaded Whiteness in another way, but it is easy to find examples where race intrudes [one example is a study of pedagogy in an all-White class does not feature race, but a study of American Indian students typically does]. He gives an example from the class he was involved in discussing Frederick Douglass when he asked the White students whether they felt angered by the behaviour of Whites in those texts, like he did — 'there was absolute silence in the room', even though the teacher tried to rephrase the question and generate discussion. 'The norm of Whiteness continued to resist exposure'. The teacher then admitted she was angered and this finally got a limited response. Yancy thinks the other White students were there as voyeurs, to experience exotic Black literature without being challenged, able to back away when Blackness became dangerous. However, students classically protect their own beliefs and refuse self engagement in many academic courses.

The White students focused on the texts rather than themselves, and talked about racism as performed in the texts rather than their own White privilege. This privilege in this case 'signified the very real power to "remove" themselves from the complicity involved', to maintain a protective racial barrier. As a result, the classroom dynamics were racist, and counter discussion was regulated [he doesn't say this did occur, but suggest that he might have been condemned as a hate monger]. Blackness became the real object of discussion. Whiteness was normative, and could remain absent.

He took the risk and named Whiteness as an issue. He marked his own body as resistant and challenge their attempt to become absent. He wanted to say they had been seen. They felt 'uncomfortably exposed', but bell hooks says that this surprise '"is itself an expression of racism"' [everything is]. His own behaviour was transgressive, perhaps even an act of violence, typically '"uppity"'. This is a common reaction with White students, but it only reinforces the status of Whiteness as natural and enables strategies such as colourblindness, ignoring the material, forgetting the body, acting in bad faith.

The normalisation of Whiteness requires dutiful maintenance. Of course the 'always already larger White racist systemic power structure' positions individuals but we do have existential freedom. That is what Whiteness invades. The assumption is that Whiteness 'is lived as pure mind, while Blackness is lived as pure body': only Whiteness can do transcendence, as a form of flight and attempting to hide something. Whites try to persuade Blacks of this truth and indeed invent a Negro who will correspond.

These constructions help Whites disavowal responsibility and maintain their illusions of individuality, achievement through merit alone, through abstract mind. Whiteness would also become just another difference in the whole system, something specific rather than universal and normative, with definite political interests, not some fixed essence without a history or without inhuman politics.

There may be a psychodynamic element gained from a woman psychotherapist investigating the formation of White racial identities in Euro – American kids. They remembered critical incidents where they were told about knickers as unclean or undesirable. It adds to Yancy's position that being White skinned turns into racism after the play of social forces, and becomes lived process, complicit in social distancing, a source of discourses and rituals to maintain distance, being a White person. The emphasis on infants denies that greater agential power might have been exercised [another contradiction]

Because White identity depends on negating or disliking the dark other, it needs to persist and to preserve the dark other in various forms, if necessary as a 'phantasmatic object' in a White imaginary. This contributes to its apparently universal and eternal nature, and permits it to be unsaid. Adults have absorbed this and pass it on to the children as an induction process. There is a cost, for example in the form of constant denial and constant re-evaluations — children have to become White, '"hate learned in the context of love"'.

This can be a problem for students who have to analyse their own Whiteness in comparison with clearly White racist views, say in the texts of Douglass in the example above (and below). They can be productive transformations. There can also be a division of racism into say ultra racism, bad Whites. This division ignores a common centre of power, which permits such distinctions. It is the same power that is used to deny 'the epistemic and effective certainty in terms of which are Black person, for example, knows that he/she has just been subjected to White racism' [original emphasis] [stretch here in my view].

A participatory action research has been used by McIntyre to examine how teachers managed to avoid facing Whiteness through dualist approaches, degrees of racism, constructing a continuum of racism, with extremists at one end — McIntyre insists that extremists often converge with the centre, however. Daniels has argued the same tendencies exist in academia, separating White supremacist movements and the context in which they exist, including '"the privileged position of White academics [and] the way ways White supremacy (with all the connections to class, gender and sexuality in place) are inscribed in academic institutions"' [definitely a stretch too far in my view!]. The same tendency is displayed in nationally syndicated TV shows such as Oprah, where White supremacist extremists are framed as distant and often referred to as hate groups preventing the interrogation of [normal] racism.

There are normal investments in 'Whiteley ways of behaving' however, like the ones he has given with the White philosopher, involving an investment in Whiteness, rituals 'from a position of White normative power'. There is no physical aggression but there was still a 'crushing' performance. He was an individual, Yancey was a stereotype. This display of Whiteness was covered over, made invisible. No doubt the White people would identified as race free, somehow living in a 'power free space within which all voices were equally audible', the business as usual of American institutions, requiring no critique. For Yancey, this sort of passivity is no different from active collusion with laughing at racist jokes, not challenging the exclusionary hiring practices, avoiding discussing race -related issues. [Okay he might have a point here]

The ways in which Whiteness is 'translated into advantage and group solidarity'  thus remains invisible, especially if we only have 'the discourse of liberal individualism' which sees racism as individual manifestations of prejudice, not the collective exercise of power, especially those which declare an intention not to discriminate. There may also be people who achieve despite their race, due to their own merit. Even those may have 'invested, even if unconsciously in Whiteness' [he means White people] — it is easy to deny responsibility

[We come onto the vexed issue of White privilege]. '"All White people, intentionally or unintentionally do benefit from racism"' [quoting Tatum] The social structure provides these privileges. Of course some Whites may be 'invested differentially', some may engage in antiracist forms of practice but 'even in this case, they will continue to benefit from being White independently of their good intentions'. Some White people will be 'targeted by sexism, classes ageism or homophobia'. Some 'reap the benefits of being White in different ways. However Whiteness functions as a site of power even for poor Whites and there is a racial hierarchy 'in which it is still beneficial, all else being equal, to be White than to be a POC'. Poor Whites can go into department stores and not be followed by security, even though they do not possess the same power as Donald Trump. Overall, White people still maintain advantages relative to POC despite not being particularly wealthy.

Class analysts might disagree, but even one of those has experienced discrimination that trumps their class status, on being refused permission to do late shopping as a suspected undesirable because she had a Black face: she was reduced to a raced body. In other clothing stores 'it is not uncommon for Blacks to be followed closely' as a relative of his has confirmed, or surveyed by a camera, constructed as a problem, an example of '"the dance that cripples the human spirit, step by step-by-step"' [substantial talk-up here of course -- this is a wounded bourgeois!]. Security guards never consider that they might be incorrect — they are confirmed by contemporary images and representations which are embodied.

This kind of criminalisation 'through White surveillance involves being 'attacked at the level of one's person; it involves the invasion of the ontological integrity of one's sense of self, is one's self conceptualisation' [here too]. White security guards might abhor White racist extremists but can still perform 'Whiteley'. You may be working class and yet have very real power to effect 'ontological violence'. If it comes to court, the guard's testimony 'has a greater chance about weighing the voracity of my intentions not to steal' even if Yancey earns three times as much, so the courts themselves 'foreclose any possibility of my being other than that dictated by the White imaginary'.

It is false to think of all people as White supremacists, but Whites continue to benefit from being White. The project of making White privilege seen goes beyond extreme racism.

McIntosh develops the famous metaphor of the invisible knapsack. She was not taught about how  Whiteness functioned as an advantage until she unpacked her knapsack of 'special provisions, assurances, tools, maps, guides, code books, passports, visas, clothes, compass, emergency gear, and blank cheques'. There are 46 examples, Yancey selects 10 including: being able to go shopping alone without being followed; seeing people of her colour on TV or in curriculum materials; not being asked to speak for her race; finding materials that refer to people of her race and so on.

He is not saying that 'all Whites are listed in all dimensions above all Blacks. That claim would be empirically false. I believe all Whites can do benefit from their Whiteness with in various contexts. However, like Tatum, I believe that "they do not all benefit equally"'. It is certainly not true that America has moved beyond any influence of race or racism towards anything like a post-segregation or colourblind society, although this is still popular. He quotes data about segregated neighbourhoods, 'Black ghettos' compared to White spaces which are safe. He talks of the 'Horatio Alger myth' ['rags to riches']. There is no distinction between freedom from and freedom for, the formal freedom from racial discrimination and the positive freedom to overcome the conditions to achieve social mobility.

There are White philosophers who now claim that White men are the true victims of discrimination in the USA, that Whites are now more oppressed. For Yancy, this is not listening properly to Black people, a form of bad faith, a reproduction of the view that Black people are naturally happy, but are prone to excessive complaining. More national statistics are cited to show that Black people are still more likely to be imprisoned, less likely to achieve elite positions or to live in poverty. Overall, 'there is no need to quibble: North America is racist '.

These economic and social realities still persist, so does the culture which sees Black bodies as dangerous. He has had White salespeople drop change on the counter rather than touch his hand, an example of 'mundane White racist communicative performances — resulting in consequences that I somatically bear — that reveal the continued efficacy of the historical force of White embodied ideology'

Note 33 says that some contemporary Black people also feel uneasy about playing the victimology card

Chapter 4 The Agential Black Body: Resisting the Black Imago in the White Imaginary

There has been Black resistance, despite the dominant White view that Black people do not make meaning as other men do, but just exist, within the one-dimensional of White ideology. The imago has been maintained by violence as well [as in chapter 5], to close with the reality. There has still been struggle, via 'syncretism, bricolage, the blending of cultural, epistemological, and ontological retentions'. It is not about recapturing an authentic identity, more a struggle to make sense in a way which acknowledges 'fissures' and does not romanticise.

The Black body is 'ontologically excessive', especially when embodied and socially situated and this is a resource to see through impersonal discursive practices and neutral values. It is possible to oppose and affirm in the very act of resistance, asserting that one exists, even if this means adopting some White values, as long as they do not fully re-inscribe them. A counter narrative or even a 'counter memory'can be developed. There is a danger of just seeing this as a 'fleeting private moment of joyous transgression while the social and material conditions of oppression go unchallenged' but it can be an important initial moment resisting racist interpolations and marking 'epistemic intervention'. It might only lead to 'an ironic and exaggerated locutionary act' [an exaggerated 'Yas suh, Boss?']

Black people can experience themselves as a living contradiction or an anomaly, something more than their imago and this can cause disquiet among Whites. They can fight back, even violently. It is not a matter of claiming an essentialist notion of the self or some objective identity, some 'pre-discursive self, or 'empty and abstract humanism' which are often implicated in configurations of power. Nor is 'strategic essentialism' the only option,which can also sometimes reject identity theory as dangerously groundless. Instead of saying that  White representations of Black people 'are false', we are employing an 'unworkable set of categories or narratives' which is 'not faithful to Black's hermeneutic self understanding' [empirical tests here?]. Instead we want one that 'illuminates Blacks being in the world, their historicity', something workable.

We can employ multiple vocabularies and think of Black identity as 'a dynamic core of narrative gravity that is sustained through historical and imaginative Black agency' [further defined by Alcoff as a relationship to a community, an objective social location, a participation in negotiation of one's identity as opposed to having interpellations foisted upon you — looks a bit tautological]. One is already constituted and yet capable of constituting. White identity develops through negating Black existence dialectically, but Black identity does not aim to negate White people as such, but it does negate the 'ideological structure of Whiteness'. It involves re-narrating rearticulating its own being in the world, making sense. It is not a matter of universal abstraction or '"ontological Blackness"' which would deny complexity.

However there is a common identity of Blacks, because they have all had to struggle in order to survive [in White dominated societies that is, until recently anyway]. Thus Blackness is a 'lived existential project', related to that complex history, but not reduced to it. This project is 'protean' and involves continual reassessment of Black identity and its implications. Heterogeneity is important but so is 'a profound sense of inclusive solidarity' and not just for political expediency [lots of twists and turns here].

We should avoid the 'postmodern playground' and remember what we have in common — the pain of antiBlack racism shown in a labyrinth of strategies, desires, fears 'and a healthy dose of fallibilism'. Different aspects can be centred, but narrative plots are not entirely random because centuries of oppression provided major experiences. Narrating the history means solidarity and also expansion. We must also be aware of 'class, sex, and gender differences' and avoid abstract identities including proletarian ones. We should not see Blackness as a mere abstract value 'which is to be achieved in the realisation of raceless society… The rejection of the category of race does not entail the rejection of an identity'. Black people should not be suspected of only having a single aspect to their identity, but having a broader expensive existential project. Many African-Americans fear that if they abandon essentialism they will lose their specific focus, but this can be overcome, according to bell hooks, by emphasising '"the authority of experience"', the way in which a constant experience shaped their identity.

[Another reservation] Black identity is not just a reaction to White power and hegemony, but a matter of active resistance. It is affirmative, and not just in the sense of an inversion of White values, as in the slogan Black is beautiful — it should mean affirming a space 'where Whiteness has ceased to matter', where Blackness ceases to signify any other flawed identity. There is also need to avoid an equivalent seriousness, by talking up Black identity as 'abiding fullness, richness and joy' which can descend into 'smug hubris… Collective pride… What defines "real kinds of persons"'.

We must be sensitive to what Jenkins describes as the teleological aspects of Black subjectivity [what they actually intended by what they did] — their meekness actually was intended to demonstrate a superior understanding of Christian dignity, or 'ironic signification' according to a 'hidden transcript that was beyond the cognitive range of White oppressors. Thievery, for example was sometimes seen by White people as the result of natural criminality, but was also a way of maintaining dignity, self-assertion. Clumsy handling of tools could be a form of resistance. These forms imply dialectical thinking and potential transgression, common conformity to White expectations while undermining them — for example tools were not broken when Black people worked for themselves. Black people pretended to be crazy or stupid to get out of work. Other slaves carelessly poisoned White people. Some feigned illness, especially women. Some found spaces as skilled workers. Yancey wants to understand these as guerrilla tactics.

There were also work slowdowns 'a form of working class consciousness', fake disciplinary whippings. Black seamen in particular were able to develop some autonomy in their skill, and kept Black communities informed, including transmitting abolitionist and revolutionary news, and contact with family members. They were able to engage in some organised crime via the informal work economy [which included '"swindling other working class people"'], and took pride in their ability to trick the world. It made them feel like real men. They called themselves 'rascals'. They often were severely punished

Singing and dancing in leisure 'is also a form of resistance', empowering, embodying freedom, creative, especially for women. [There's a hint of the music as well] songs and dances also contained hidden transcripts — 'infrapolitics' Flamboyant behaviour might be seen as resistance, including wearing flamboyant dress. Uniforms were rejected or modified Working in the Black underworld similarly [with hints of Merton here], including bootlegging..

There was machinery breaking industrial sabotage, shared with other workers, exchange of information about bad employers, cooperation among the workers, stealing from utilities. There was self-employment
[there's no discussion of the alternative interpretation of leisure and crime — that it masquerades as politics as a kind of consolatory identity or rationalisation]

Note 8 says that passing for White is a form of resistance — one Black person joined in with lynch mobs in order to make a case against lynching. Note 11 says that coping while resisting can also produce serious strains.

Note 25 revisits the idea of a workable narrative and says that obviously various characteristics determine whether it works or not including levels of comprehension. It also implies dispensing with a fixed goal and an unchangeable telos. He still insists there can be 'the narrative gravitational core' however.

Note 93 says that middle-class Black people also wanted to control and define the resistant Black body, for example in dancing or various 'plebeian cultural expressions'. Note 94 admits that singing blues playing jazz has its own aesthetic dimensions which may not be politicised

Chapter 5 click here