The Black Gaze

By courageously looking, we defiantly declared: “Not only will I stare. I want my look to change reality’ (hooks, 1992, p116).

What is this notion of the black gaze that I refer to? The term ‘gaze’ is taken from psychoanalysis. It was made popular by Jacques Lacan as an important aspect in the mirror stage where the subject appears to achieve a sense of self-awareness through the gaze of the Other (Lacan, 1949). In his later work Lacan develops this notion by distinguishing between the eyes look and the gaze where the object of our gaze is somehow looking back of its own free will (Lacan, 1978).


Aaron Douglas ‘Congo’ c.1928. , (North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh)

Foucault also considers the gaze as integral to systems of power and knowledge (Sturken & Cartwright, 2009), tying the gaze to self regulation within systems of surveillance and how through this people modify their behaviour (Foucault, 1979). According to Foucault, these modifications in behaviour are made because people (subjects) believe that they are constantly being watched, even if they cannot directly see who or what is watching them (Foucault, 1979).

Mulvey (1975) took up the psychoanalytical approach of Lacan with the aim of deconstructing the domination of the male gaze in cinema. This opened up the possibility of counter-narrative in the study of film narrative. The notion of the gaze as counter-narrative, an oppositional gaze with regard to black people can be seen in the work of bell hooks (1992).

In a similar fashion to Mulvey, hooks directs attention to the way black people are represented and reflected in the media generally and how these representations situate and position them. She also demonstrates how the black gaze, so often controlled within white supremacist discourse, equally interrogates whiteness (hooks, 1992, pp115–131). The black gaze is never taken into account within white supremacist discourse, yet it offers rich and rewarding insights in to how white supremacy functions.

Views from across the tracks.

‘Guiltiness rests on their conscious
Oh yeah
Oh yeah
And they live a life of false pretence everyday
Each and everyday
These are the big fish who always try to eat down the small fish…’
(Bob Marley, ‘Guiltiness’ taken from the album Exodus 1977)

The above quote from Bob Marley is perhaps a universal call to arms, the call of the world’s first third world music superstar, yet the more I listened to Marley and other reggae musicians, the more they seemed particular; the voice of a black Diaspora speaking to us from the post colonial experiences of an oppressed peoples. Once engaged with, it can seem as if a mirror is being held up to white people (Maclom X, 1965), as the songs talk about slavery, a captured rather than conquered people, a forgotten history and culture and the oppression of black people by white people that has continued since ‘slavery days’ (Burning Spear, Marcus Gravey, 1976). Though perhaps somewhat romanticised, what this musical message can do is point toward the views of black people about their experiences of whiteness, how they view white people and the white world and how that world positions and situates them. From listening to reggae, jazz, blues, hip-hop, soul music etc., and also in reading the works of black scholars and writers such as Frantz Fanon, James Baldwin and Toni Morrison, black people seem to be able to recognise and articulate how white power dominates and situates individuals into subject positions based around a system of differential priviliging (Mills, 1997). It is arguably a project of locating a stolen cultural, historical and political heritage that has been buried in the complex world of white supremacy. In many respects, this thesis is a direct consequence of the project of black reconstruction that has sought to explain and dissect the constructions of blackness that have been deployed by and within a framework of white supremacy. This same project of reconstruction has arguably further provided a body of work cataloguing the way white supremacy functions.

Accepting the premise that a sense of self is produced within language systems based upon difference (Hall, 1996), I argue that one effective way to inquire into notions of whiteness is to examine the way that black people see white people and the white world that has been constructed by them. Black African people (perhaps more than other people that white Europeans have encountered and then re-constructed) have a unique relationship, through slavery, that is at one and the same time, intimate and yet ultimately Other (Lacan, 1949). Equally, how black people have experienced and lived within an arguably white world may offer the opportunity for white people to see ourselves anew, to expose our ‘unmarked narrative’ (Solomon, et al, 2005) for as bell hooks suggests,

‘Although there has never been any official body of black people in the United States who have gathered as anthropologists and/or ethnographers to study whiteness, black folks have, from slavery on, shared in conversation with one another a ‘special’ knowledge of whiteness gleaned from close scrutiny of white people’ (hooks, 1992, p165).

‘The Facts of blackness’

‘When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his ‘proper place’ and will stay in it’ (Woodson, 1933) .

Since the earliest of encounters between white Europeans and Black Africans, observations by black Africans and their diaspora, about white people and their relations with them are replete with examples of how whiteness operates and functions. From the slave narratives of Olaudah Equiano (1787) and Mary Prince (1831) to the letters of Ignatius Sancho (1782) or the writings of Francis Williams (Gilmore, 1986), whiteness from a black perspective, has arguably always been visible. To demonstrate this point about the black gaze, two scholars’ work that has had a particular influence upon this research, Frantz Fanon and bell hooks, will now be discussed.

FANON and hooks

Of all of the works that could have been chosen as examples of the argument being put forward about the canon of work on whiteness produced within the black community, the work of Frantz Fanon and bell hooks offers the most apt examples for the purposes of this thesis. Firstly, Fanon gives us psychological insights into the effects of colonial oppression and global white supremacy (Mills, 1997), while hooks confronts white supremacy head on. Both these projects therefore seem to fit in with the underlying drives of this research: an exploration of notions of a white self as seen through the prism of the black gaze and white supremacy.

Frantz Fanon.

‘I move slowly in the world, accustomed now to seek no longer for upheaval. I progress by crawling. And already I am being dissected under white eyes, the only real eyes. I am fixed. Having adjusted their microtomes, they objectively cut away slices of my reality. I am laid bare. I feel. I see in those white faces that it is not a new man who has come in, but a new kind of man, a new genius. Why, its a negro!’ (Fanon, 1960, p.116.).

In his work Black Skins, White Mask, Fanon (1960) examined colonialism not only from the political point of view but included the sociological and psychological. He saw the notion, or as he so aptly coined the fact of blackness, as a key controller in the exercise of colonial power. He equally pointed to the constructed and distorted essence of the fact of blackness. This is what makes Fanon a particularly useful witness to the notion of whiteness. He was interested in the readiness with which colonized people invested and were seduced into wearing a white mask. It would appear that subjectivity for Fanon was fragmented and based upon the workings of discourses as posited within stereotypes. However, his reaction to those white subjects that he encountered is most relevant here.

Fanon insists that there is no absolute fact of blackness for oppositional categories such as blackness and whiteness always take place within specific social and historical contexts, having the appearance of being fixed and certain but being nothing of the sort. Fanon shows how discourses overlap as he interweaves a number of voices into his text; voices sometimes condescending sometimes threatening; positioning him within his negritude. The one voice that resonates throughout chapter five is that of a young white boy who in his exclamation upon seeing Fanon positions and fixes him within white discourses of blackness,

‘Look, a Negro!’ it was an external stimulus that flicked over me as I passed by. I made a tight smile.
‘Look, a Negro!’ It was true. It amused me.
‘Look, a Negro!’ The circle was drawing a bit tighter. I made no secret of my amusement.
Mamma, see the Negro! I am frightened! Frightened! Frightened. Now they were beginning to be afraid of me. I made up my mind to laugh myself to tears, but laughter had become impossible!’
(Fanon, F, 1960, p 112)

Fanon exposes the whiteness behind the fact of blackness and in so doing exposes the anxiety upon which it is based; an anxiety of whiteness, which is denied through transference to a black Other. In so doing Fanon provides the space for an alternative, positive black identity. At the same time he also opens up the possibility to challenge the notion of white identity formation. For if the fact of blackness is contested then its Other, whiteness, is equally contestable. Accepting Fanon, whiteness is exposed and what it means to identify as white is forever ruptured, undermined, spurious, and uncertain. Having attempted to analyse the poetic and complex writing of Fanon, it is the call of bell hooks for white people to step up to the plate and examine our own sense of self and our relations with our black Other, that will now be discussed.

bell hooks.

‘In white supremacist society, white people can ‘safely’ imagine that they are invisible to black people since the power they have historically asserted, and even now collectively assert over black people, accorded them the right to control the black gaze’ (hooks, b, p.168. 1992).

As the above quote demonstrates, hooks (1992) examines the observations and study of white people made by black people. She eloquently puts the case of how whiteness has made itself invisible to the point at which it does not, perhaps can not, countenance the black gaze. In some respects this is the very purpose of the facts of whiteness. There is no need to be seen because whiteness is the norm, the conductor, and orchestrator of identity formation and as such needs no explanation. Nobody needs to know what it means to be white, especially not white people.

Bell Hooks 1999 CREDIT: Margaret Thomas TWP.  (Photo by Margaret Thomas/The Washington Post/Getty Images)

Bell Hooks 1999 CREDIT: Margaret Thomas TWP. (Photo by Margaret Thomas/The Washington Post/Getty Images)

It is the point at which hooks recalls her attendance at a Cultural Studies conference that is perhaps most salient here. This is because she highlights, when talking about the way the conference was organised how,

‘If these progressive people, most of whom were white, could so blindly reproduce a version of the status quo and not “see” it, the thought of how racial politics would be played out “outside” this arena was horrifying’ (hooks. p 176, 1992).

The horrifying fact of whiteness, especially for those who consider ourselves liberal and progressive is the point exemplified here. These progressive white people, like the ardent members of white supremacist organisations such as the English Defence League have no need to consider their sense of self and the consequences of this non-recognition. They have no need to be self aware or indeed aware of how black subjects may view them. The contention of this thesis is that white teachers should consider themselves and their sense of whiteness in relation to/with the black learners that they teach in order to better understand how their own perceptions infect and infuse, position and determine the relationships that we have with the black learners in our classrooms (Picower, 2009, Boutte and Jackson 2013). The post-colonial critic Gayati Spivak aptly sums up what is being attempted here in this thesis,

‘What we are asking for is that hegemonic discourses and the holders of hegemonic discourses should dehegemonize their position and themselves learn how to occupy the subject position of the other’ (Spviak, G and Harasym, S, 1990, p121).

Observations such as those of Fanon and hooks help make visible the invisible facts of whiteness and have provided the foundations upon which this research project has been built. Accepting the usefulness of what black people have to say and have been saying about their experience of living with whiteness has enabled me to explore my own sense of being white with renewed vigour. The black gaze forced to me to consider the regime of white truth that has been developed and deployed in positioning black people in convenient opposition to white people. Through the black gaze a re-appropriation of not only what it means to be black but also of what it means to be white can be achieved. Rather than examining the differing political positions taken up within the academy about what whiteness may or may not mean; adopting either a class based analysis or decentred approach, the black gaze can help re-direct focus back on to whiteness as a ‘race’ based system of oppression that differentially affects black and white people (Bell, 1973, Mills, 1997).

The influence of a plethora of black academics, artist, musicians etc, to this research is considerable. These deconstructions and re-articulations of blackness can help provide a useful toolkit and interesting insights into how notions of whiteness may be similarly explored. Indeed, it was through reading the likes of hooks and Fanon that I was first introduced to the post modern and post structural thought that is deployed within this text. To an extent this research is a response, recognition of not only their work but that of black people generally. A response, which recognizes how such observations, can ultimately focus attention upon the nature of whiteness.