“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 Whitenessphilosopher 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.)

“Look, a white!”

In response, Yancey proposes we “flip the script” on white people (5).  In a world in which only people of color are thought to have a race, whiteness remains invisible and therefore both normative and evasive of accountability.  To counter this, Yancey encourages us to call out whiteness wherever and whenever we see it.

Calling out “‘Look, a white!’ returns to white people the problem of whiteness,” (6) exposing its reality, its particularity, and its centrality to white supremacy.  When white people are made aware of their own whiteness, they are forced to face the fact that “race” and white supremacy exist not just “out there” but also inside of themselves.

In addition to submitting themselves to the scrutiny of a black or brown “counter-gaze,” (8) Yancey also encourages whites themselves to “name whiteness wherever it appears: while watching TV (‘Look, a white!’); while gathering with white friends for holidays (‘Look, a white!’); while attending an all-white church (‘Look, a white!),” etc (13).

Ultimately,  this tactic confronts white people with a truth of which they are very terribly afraid:  race and racism have helped make them who they are.   White people don’t want to acknowledge and be accountable to the fact that they/we wouldn’t be who we are, we wouldn’t have what we have, we wouldn’t move through the world as we do if we were not white people living in a white supremacist society.  Perhaps even more terrifying for us white people to face is that our beloved ancestors–loving mothers and sweet, stoic grandfathers–were white in this way too.  White people are not reduced to their race and its white supremacist history, of course, they just do not exist without it.

Inspired by Yancey’s plan of action, what follows serves as my first public attempt to call out whiteness.

Last Night I Saw A White

Thursday night, my sister, (Look, a white!) called me with the news that, while watching television, she spotted a white.   Wanting to see this white with my own eyes, I found the program she had been watching online– NBC’s interview with Ann Romney, the  wife of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney– and began to watch.  Very quickly, I realized my sister was right: Ann Romney (and her husband too!) are very white indeed.

Victimization As a Racial Power Play

NBC’s profile of Ann Romney begins with a shot of the Dressage horse she owns competing in the 2012 Olympics.  But, the narrator quickly assures us, this story will not be about Ann Romney the millionaire and governor’s wife.  No, the Ann Romney represented by the image of this fabulously expensive horse is not the real Ann Romney at all: as the narrator insists,  “this coal miner’s granddaughter is much more than an owner of an Olympic Dressage horse.”

The profile proceeds to paint Ann Romney as a woman beset by, but ultimately triumphant over, a series of remarkable hardships.   The profile begins in a small town in Wales where Romney’s grandfather worked in a coal mine and from which her father emigrated to the U.S. before “making a fortune as an engineer and businessman.”  The narrator describes Mrs. Romney’s paternal hometown as “hardscrabble.”  Driving the point home, Mrs. Romney, moved almost to tears, remarks on “how tough their living really was.”

The profile moves on to chapter two, the story of Ann Romney’s “choice to be a stay at home mom while her peers in Massachusetts were pursuing careers.”  For this, Romney claims she was mistreated by the women she knew in Cambridge.

“Have You Seen How We’re Attacked!?”

After chronicling both her parents’ disapproval of her decisions to marry early and become a Mormon and her diagnosis with MS, the profile moves on to its final chapter, Mitt Romney’s decision not to release the last five years of his tax returns.

Here, Ann gets even angrier than she did when talking about how mean the Cambridge career women were to her (interestingly, she displays no anger when talking about how her parents tried to keep her from marrying the love of her life and father of her children.)

In response to reporter Natalie Morales’ inquiry as to why her husband does not release his tax returns, Mrs. Romney replies, angrily, “Have you seen how we’re attacked?! Have you seen what’s happened!?  The more we release, the more we get questioned.”

Morales continues this line of questioning and Romney makes her husband’s reasoning explicit: “the reason we don’t disclose more is because we’ll just become an even bigger target.”  According to Romney, responsibility and blame for her husband’s decision lies not with her husband (she does not even defend it as a strategic choice made by her husband’s campaign) but with the parasitically insatiable public.

In response to Morales’ follow-up question about “transparency,”  Mrs. Romney continues, “we have a blind trust–we don’t even know what’s in there!  So,” she says,  snarkily, “I’ll be curious to see what’s in there too.”

White Agency

The contrast between the opening scene, chronicling ancestral triumph over hardship, and the last scene, in which Romney portrays her family as powerless is dramatic.  It also reveals whiteness.  In the post-Civil Rights Era, white people often employ a narrative of white victimization in order to obfuscate the reality of their racial privilege as well as their responsibility for it.

In Mrs. Romney’s interview, this works in the following three ways: one, Mrs. Romney’s profile evokes sympathy in order to deflect calls for accountability.  Two, Romney, like so many other whites, denies agency when doing so makes it seem like she is not responsible for her privilege (“I don’t even know what’s in it”).  Three, Romney accentuates white agency when doing so makes white people seem like heroic superhumans who overcame huge obstacles to earn their spot at the top of the hill.  Implicitly, the argument goes, if white people can overcome having a coal miner father then black people can overcome those bad things that happened to their ancestors a long long time ago way back when.

This myth of a “hardscrapple” but indomitable white immigrant past plays a very important role in preserving the white ego.  White people exaggerate and hold very dear the sufferings of their immigrant ancestors.  Often, they do this not to indict their nation’s xenophobia or to ensure that such mistreatment does not happen to others, but to exaggerate the size and scope of their ancestors’ achievement in order to promote the belief that what matters more is not racial justice but willpower.   Of course, in addition to ignoring the fact that white ethnics were never treated as badly as African-Americans, this myth also forgets that these white ethnics in fact did get many “handouts” from the state.

(If you want to know more about this, I encourage you to check out Chuancey DeVega’s post over at We Are Respectable Negroes entitled, “The Hard Times Mythologies of White Ethnics: Exploring the Myth That Was ‘No Irish Need Apply.'”)

In narrating victimization, Ann Romney also exhibits another trait of whiteness: a complete (and seemingly willful) inability to tell the difference between relatively severe privation and victimization, like being killed by misguided police officers or wanna-be vigilantes avenging a crime that never happened, and relatively mild inconveniences like being subject to verbal criticism while failing to comply with a fairly reasonable request while running for President of the United States.   Notice how Romney phrases this: “Have you seen how we’re attacked!?”

She didn’t say “criticized.”  She said “attacked,” evoking of images of violence and a fight for survival.

Among other things, Romney’s word choice obscures a rather large sense of entitlement.  Many privileged people possess similar outrage at “offenses” committed against them while exhibiting relative indifference to or active support for the extreme amounts of violence, structural and interpersonal, perpetrated daily against the poor largely because they feel their supremacy entitles them to move through the world without restraint or accountability.   People with power are used to giving orders, not taking them; making demands, not complying with them.

Framing the Story

Of course NBC couldn’t tell every detail of Ann Romney’s life in a ten minute profile.  Nor should they.  Neither should Mrs. Romney tell every detail of her life story to the public.  As we all know, this is not just how stories work.  But Romney frames her own life story–which parts she includes, which she omits, and which questions she leaves unasked–in a way that keeps her whiteness and its relationship to white supremacy out of sight and out of mind.  Rather than assuming that the way that Romney tells her story is the only or best way it could have been told, I want us to think about how her story could have been told differently if Romney could look at herself in the mirror and say, “Look, a white!”

Things Mentioned

— Her grandfather’s employment as a coal miner in Wales.

— Her father’s immigrant identity and achievement of the “American Dream.”

— Growing up in “suburban Detroit.”

— Her choice to be stay at home mom.

(Some of the) Things Not Mentioned

The history of her mother’s family.  Why were they not profiled?

— The extreme structural and interpersonal racism present in her hometown of Detroit and the way in which this racism made it much more likely that white immigrants to Detroit, whether from white Appalachia or white Europe, such as her father, would encounter economic success than would a black immigrant to Detroit from the Jim Crow South.

— The fact that being able to choose not to obtain employment outside of the home and devote the vast majority of one’s time to tending one’s own children is a privilege that white women enjoy disproportionately relative to African-American and Hispanic-American women.

— The identity of the unidentified “peers” who, starting in the late 1960s, decided, for the first time, to enter the workforce en masse.

(One of the) Questions Not Asked

— (Why) does marrying/partnering with a man who amasses or has inherited relative wealth entitle a woman the right to choose whether and how much to work outside the home while a woman who marries/partners with a relatively poor man, or a man who dies early, or who abandons her, or is incarcerated is deprived of that choice and instead forced to work regardless of the quality of this work (not to mention the quality of the childcare she can purchase for her children)?

Double Standards

Romney feels quite free to display anger.  She expresses anger over critiques levied at her husband, over demands that her husband discloses his taxes, and at Cambridge feminists.  White people don’t have to think twice about expressing anger.  It never occurs to us that our anger will be interpreted as anything other than righteous.  We never imagine that our anger could get us killed.  We know that for people of color, especially African-Americans, this is not the case.  Black anger is much more likely to be interpreted as threatening, menacing, and irrational.

Could you imagine what would happen if Michelle Obama or President Obama expressed anger as copiously as Mrs. Romney did last night on national television?

Finally, for her decision to be a stay at home mom, Mrs. Romney is praised as “a rebel in reverse.”  Logically, of course, this is nonsense: a rebel in reverse is, at best, a defender of the status quo, and, at worst, a reactionary.

But I think that, rather than mere nonsense or rhetorical excess, this appellation actually reflects a deeper racial logic.  White rebellion has always been treated differently than black rebellion.   White rebels buck injustice: black rebels disobey reason and disrupt good order.  One of this country’s major public universities is nicknamed, “The Rebels,” in homage to the Confederate Army.  Could you imagine a University in this country naming itself the Nat Turners, the Maroons,  or the Runaways?  It is literally unthinkable.

As a white person, I’m sure that my ability to perceive Romney’s (not to mention my own) whiteness is rather limited.  The preceding therefore represents just a preliminary attempt to out whiteness.

What did I miss?

15 thoughts

  1. Katie, thanks for this really insightful post. While reading I was reminded of another recent story by Tiffany Stanley @Religion & Politics. She criticizes the war rhetoric employed by the Romney campaign in an effort to represent the victimization of ”religion” (read: Christianity) in the US today. In view of the overwhelming violence against Muslim and Sikh communities in the States, their characterization of the war on ”religion” is extremely misguided. And of course, the bias of this rhetoric is also highly racialized.

    Tiffany’s piece is here: http://religionandpolitics.org/2012/08/10/what-war-on-religion/

    (Also: WIT is on a roll! Thank you, thank you!)

  2. Thanks for this post, Katie; it is challenging and very helpful for my own reflection as a white. It may be worth pointing out that the University of Chicago indeed has nicknamed itself “The Maroons,” apparently in reference to the color and not to the Jamaican communities.

  3. Thanks for this article. Very interesting perspective. In God’s providence, I’m on vacation reading Toure’s “Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?” I just finished his chapter on the white gaze and Blacks in politics. It’s an interesting meditation on messaging and presentation in consideration of “Blackness.” Your article makes a very nice companion to that chapter. Thanks for writing and experimenting with seeing “whiteness.”

  4. The white standard is definitely an interesting one, even limited to just storytelling. More often than not I find myself only naming people of other ethnicities, with I myself being Asian. I suppose that’s just one side-effect from growing up in the West.

  5. Katie, this is so solid. Refreshing to read such a rooted analysis of what is playing out right now. Thanks, as always, for your thoughtful framing of current power dynamics that too-often mask, avoid, and erase the – utterly necessary – historical context. Keep ’em coming.

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