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Good Letters

Image from the National Archives

Without the bodies hanging from the trees, it’s the onlookers that come into focus.

A recent exhibit at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, “UnSeen: Our Past in a New Light,” examines the lack and misrepresentation of people of color in American portraiture and historical artwork. But for a portion of the exhibit the omission is purposeful, in one room devoted to a series by the artist Ken Gonzalez-Day called “Erased Lynchings.” He gathered archival photographs and postcards that displayed lynchings of African Americans and Latinos across the South and the West. Gonzalez-Day then digitally manipulated the images to remove the bodies of those who had been killed and the ropes that had strangled them, to keep the victims from further exploitation. He has said he also wanted this removal to “put an emphasis on what remains, which is the social conditions that made these racialized killings possible.”

So now the viewer sees gatherings of white people, sometimes a crowd, sometimes only a handful, who gaze and stare and laugh and jostle for a better view. Perpetrators and witnesses blend together, indistinguishable, in black and white and sepia tones.

After my visit to the exhibit, I thought about how we white people have made great leaps in our viewing habits with regards to black and brown people. Historically, we overlooked or ignored. Now, we notice, and we judge. We determine who belongs in the picture and who does not.

And, all too often, we call 911 and bring in the authorities to have our views validated.

“I have every right to call the police,” a white student said to an African American graduate student she found napping in a common room at their shared dorm at Yale back in May. A similar incident happened in late July at Smith College. Oumou Kanoute, a student and summer teaching assistant, was reading and eating lunch in a common room when police showed up based on a report from a college employee that the young black woman “seemed out of place.”

Also in May, at another college hundreds of miles away, a mother on a Colorado campus tour decided young men wearing black clothing with “weird symbolism” meant these quiet boys were “definitely not a part of the tour.” So, she called the police as well. The mother seemed to have a moment’s hesitation on her phone call: “If it’s nothing, I’m sorry. But it actually made me, like, feel sick and I’ve never felt like that.” The boys definitely were part of the tour. But the white woman’s feelings drove her actions, without considering the perspective of the shy Native American teenagers who had driven up from New Mexico to visit their dream university.

In 2018, people of color were confronted and forced to defend their right to golf, swim, barbecue, move into a new apartment, return home to their apartment, check out of an Air BnB, and sell bottled water on a summer day. The budding entrepreneur who gave offense there was an 8-year-old girl. I have lingered in many a Starbucks for various amounts of time without making a purchase and I have never been asked to leave, much less been arrested. And I had no reason to consider that my offense had been excused, repeatedly, until two black men in Philadelphia waiting to meet a business contact were not afforded the same privilege.

To paraphrase Gonzalez-Day, what are the social conditions that make these racialized confrontations permissible? Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison has talked about the white gaze, the assumption that this perspective is the only lens that matters. “Our lives have no meaning, no depth without the white gaze. And I have spent my entire writing life trying to make sure that the white gaze was not the dominant one in any of my books,” she said.

Implicit in this gaze is the need for a sense of ease and well-being—on one side. The comfort of white people, whether participants or observers, must be paramount to anyone else’s.

The white gaze is not dominant in the profusion of videos shot by people of color when they’re being threatened. Instead, the lens is flipped and we have a chance to see ourselves as others see us. Often, it’s an ugly picture. Sometimes it turns into a meme; Pool Patrol Paula, BBQ Becky, and Cornerstore Caroline come to mind. But the underlying message of the white gaze remains consistent in these encounters: We see you, we don’t like what we see, and we don’t want you here.  

If 2018 was the year of documented #LivingWhileBlack “offenses,” I think, for 2019, white people need a counterpart hashtag: #SeeingWhileWhite.

When we observe people of color, before rendering any judgments in our minds—let alone calling the police—we should turn that gaze inward and interrogate ourselves: “What do I think I see? Why am I noticing this scene, that person? What if my perceptions are incorrect? How is this even my business? Why do I get to decide who belongs anywhere? Who appears threatening? Where does my power to make these judgments come from? And what am I so afraid of?”

And those authorities we call upon to back up what we see? It’s even more vital that they reexamine their views. Proverbs tells us, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” But people also perish from a distorted vision. In the last two months, it’s killed Jemel Roberson, a security guard and church organist in Chicago, and Emantic Fitzgerald Bradford, Jr., at an Alabama shopping mall

If white people can confront ourselves and challenge our biases—implicit and explicit—we might find that our gaze falters under the level of scrutiny that we direct toward those we see as Other. But that introspection is the crucial first step to dismantling white privilege. If we can see other people as we see ourselves, then maybe we can even make the leap to treating them as we would wish to be treated.

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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Kimberly Burge

Kimberly Burge is author of The Born Frees: Writing with the Girls of Gugulethu, a narrative nonfiction account of girls growing up as the first post-apartheid generation in South Africa, and a Sojourners contributing writer. Follow her on Twitter @Kimberly_Burge.

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