It’s Called the White Gaze

By Shane Bernardo

January 3, 2016

This is a Facebook post that Shane has offered to us to share. It is appearing here as it did in Facebook.

Happy new year. Now that we got that out of the way, let me share something I’ve been meaning to write in forever. If you hadn’t noticed, this is my first real post in several, several months. I can’t say it was bound to happen bc I seriously have been avoiding social media for so long, I had forgotten why I even have this account in the first place.

Be forewarned, this post and this coming year will be abound and plenty in the F bomb only bc it’s necessary. Extreme times call for extreme language. Sometimes, dropping a properly placed F-bomb is all you need to get someone’s attention.
Now that I’ve primed you sufficiently for an ensuing F-bomb, fuck off, fuck you and fuck me…literally. god forbid that I derive some sort of pleasure for being on this forsaken planet bc it seems that no one really cares about anything but their own damn selves.

Now that I got that out of my system, I can get to the heart of the matter. Damn…that felt good.

There’s something that’s been bothering the fuck out of me for quite some time that I haven’t been able to capture with the forthright clarity it deserves until this moment. Maybe it’s the champagne aura still floating around my cranial membrane or I’m so pissed off that I can finally see straight. Maybe both…

I want to bring your attention to a grotesque manifestation of white supremacy in our fair city. It’s so overt that many of us don’t even notice it. Many of us well-meaning humans have participated in this behavior without even thinking about it bc it’s become so fucking normalized virtually everyone does it without interrogating its practice. It’s called the white gaze.

What do you ask is the white gaze? Well, before I go into whiteness 101 for the critical racial theory underlings amongst us, please allow me to provide you with an example to chew on first bc I can already see the trolls mounting a full on attack of derision and disbelief.

If you ever go to downtown Detroit, you’ll see a prominently placed statue. You know the one. The one that gets adopted during the playoffs and is adorned with sports jerseys to indicate the fandom of the city’s inhabitants wishing that the prospective sports team make a notable vie for the right of saying you are the best. The best at what? I’ll come back to this point too. Trust…

In case you don’t know which statue I’m talking about, it’s the one in the photo, the so-called spirit of Detroit. Keep reading on…

Before you start formulating a response, consider a few things for a moment. Where is this statue located? How big is it? What is it called? If you could say, which race would you say that the statue if fashioned after? What do folks assume about it and how do people tend interact with it? Are you starting to see what I’m getting at? No? well, let me be a little bit more explicit here.

The statue was constructed by a white dude to make it look like a white dude holding a white family in its palm to represent the ideals of humanity. How quaint. What’s the problem you say? So what? Let me draw you attention to another statue just for one moment. I promise my point is just around the corner…literally.

In the second photo, what do you see? What body part is it? Whose body part is it? Why this particular part of the body? You got the answers to these questions?

Now, consider the following…

This is a statue of an arm of a person who made a living as a boxer, Joe Louis. It’s size, detail and placement requires the viewer to consider the implications of being a Black-bodied person and in particular a Black male-bodied person during legal segregation era of Jim Crow in a sport controlled by whites. That last part about white control is important. Make note of it.

This same white control is the primary mechanism at play within the white gaze. It dictates how different bodies and phenotypes are perceived and what values and/or virtues are ascribed to them. In the case of the white-bodied statue, it imparts the highest ideals of humanity. In a city that is still comprised of majority Black residents, that’s problematic. I hope you get that.

For ole Joe, well…he only gets part of his body on display…his fist. White control dictates that the rest of Joe doesn’t matter to the viewer and therefore only part of his body need be there. Forget that the artist is/was a person of color. The white gaze can be embodied by anyone that adopts the values of whiteness as being superior to that of and over others and namely people of color. In this case, Black folk.

Without getting into the performative aspects of boxing that are akin to minstrel work, we can already see the writing on the proverbial wall. The white gaze upon the city commodifies the Black body and more thoroughly the Black experience for mass consumption largely for the benefit of whites without having a first hand experience of the struggle of being Black in a white controlled society.

While Joe Louis may have attained a certain historical degree, his accomplishments are still serving whiteness only in the way that it deems notable or valuable in regards to white comfort, enjoyment and power to maintain the two.

Don’t get me wrong, Joe Louis is a fucking hero. No one can take that away from him. what requires laser focused understanding here is how the white gaze more effectively renders Black bodies useful in a narrowly performative sense but not in consideration as an ideal as a whole (body) to be understood as a non-contested natural law assumed by anyone seeing these two statues side by side.

Once a Black bodied person is no longer useful or productive to society, they are no longer needed and therefore expendable, cast aside and even killed. Which brings me to the point above in regards to “being the best”.

In today’s society, success is understood as measurable or tangible things like material goods, who you marry, your level of education or income. As it relates to the white gaze, it is understood that Black bodies are only able to attain these allusive traits if they overcome great odds and are therefore worthy of obtaining them rather than the traits being understood as things that anyone should be afforded if they indeed even want it regardless of their race and not bc by default, you are white. When being the best is dictated and quantified by white society, it assumes a clear racial hierarchy in which different races are therefore to be understood within. For Black bodies, it is clear that this status is at the very bottom of society. One, that is informed by the legacy and ideology of manifest destiny.

In a city like Detroit, the white gaze creates an allure for the Black experience that superficially panders towards Black culture without allowing for Black opportunity or accomplishment on the same scale of that of whites. Like so aptly in superbowl commercials, the white gaze makes claims that Detroit is gritty and bc it is tough, it’ll come back…like a phoenix rising from the ashes. The white gaze automatically assumes a subordinate position in which a Black majority city should rise from despite its awful circumstances bc that’s what sells cars.

When viewed in this light, it’s profitable to romanticize the Black experience. for the masses of people conditioned from birth to adopt these racist ideals, Black bodies are situated within a predetermined set of values that are dictated and maintained by white society to which it derives comfort, enjoyment, power and physical and material benefit.

So before you call that statue the spirit of detroit, consider how the role of whiteness/white control skews the lens in which you understand the embodiment of this image.

And before you coin your own phrase like “opportunity Detroit” or say something like Detroit is “on the comeback,” please consider asking yourself for whom the city is coming back for and under what circumstances this comeback will and is happening. with the mass removal of Black bodies, Black families and Black households and businesses through gentrification, mass incarceration, mass foreclosure, water shutoffs, theft of public resources like land, transportation, schools and political representation, we can then understand how the white gaze upon Detroit makes distinct assurances that the majority Black population here may enjoy insubstantial notoriety as long as it allows racist narratives to persist and doesn’t infringe upon any unearned privileges afforded to those benefiting from white supremacy. Now go fuck yourself.

1 Comment

  1. The author is obviously part of the problem. They seem to like the fact that Detroit is down and wish it to stay that way.

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