“Look, a Negro!”
In his classic text, Black Skin, White Masks, Martiniquan anti-colonial activist and intellectual Frantz Fanon famously narrates an incident in which a young white boy points at him, proclaiming, “Look, a Negro!” Growing ever more frightened, the young white boy repeats this phrase four times. As Fanon recounts,
“‘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.
‘Mama, see the Negro! I’m 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” (112).
Detailing the impact this incident had upon him, Fanon recalls,
“My body was given back to me sprawled out, distorted, recolored, clad in mourning…The Negro is an animal, the Negro is bad, the Negro is mean, the Negro is ugly; look, a nigger” (113).
Reflecting upon this incident in his recent book, Look, a White! Philosophical Essays on Whiteness, philosopher George Yancey chronicles the inescapability of the white gaze:
“To be the black…then, is to be immediately recognized and recognizable…There is no escape; there are no exceptions.” “It is the social world of white normativity and white meaning making that creates the conditions under which black people are always already marked as different/deviant/dangerous” (4).
(If you doubt the veracity of Fanon and Yancey’s depiction of whiteness, think about how many times you have heard white people tell stories in which only the race of the non-white “characters” gets mentioned: “John and I were walking down the street the other day and we saw this really tall black guy…” Or consider novels written by white authors: rarely if ever is a white character in a novel written by a white person explicitly described as being “white,” but the characters of color are almost always explicitly racially identified.) Continue reading