Representin’: Exploring the Racialization of Blackness
University of Iowa
December 16, 2004
Dr. Gail Boldt
Starting from where Frantz Fanon (1952) recognizes that blackness is inextricably linked to notions of whiteness; this paper will examine the historical and social underpinnings of the initiation of a black/white racial binary and use this to turn to present-day positions in order to come to an understanding of the development of blackness in the United States.
Representin’: Exploring the Racialization of Blackness
The white man is sealed in his whiteness.
The black man in his blackness.
Black Skin, White Masks
In America, “white man” meant specific attitudes and actions toward the black man, and toward all other non-white men.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X
The manner in which Americans have learned to represent themselves in terms of race is as American and as a part of the American culture as the Constitution itself. Although programs such as Affirmative Action have lost their popular support and have come to be seen as reverse discrimination, such efforts to address the inequity regarding the distribution of resources and opportunities continues to impact the social, political, and material realities of many people today. If race, if ethnicity, if cultural affiliation play such important roles in the way we see ourselves and each other, why is it that these factors remain such highly shrouded activities?
As an unknowingly colonized Black man who attempted to move into the mainstream colonial society, Fanon (1952) was shocked to discover that his own ability to hail himself into being was thwarted by the “overdetermination” of his “appearance” (pp. 116). Painfully, he is confronted with the realization that “what is often called the black soul is a white man’s artifact” (pp. 14) and that the construction of the racial concept of “whiteness” is necessarily dependent upon the negatively constructed racial concept of “blackness” (pp. 133). As such, he comes to personally bear the weight and burden of the history of blackness:
And so it is not I who make a meaning for myself, but it is the meaning that was already there, pre-existing, waiting for me. It is not out of my bad nigger’s misery, my bad nigger’s teeth, my bad nigger’s hunger that I will shape a torch with which to burn down the world, but it is the torch that was already there, waiting for that turn of history.” (pp. 134)
By the time Fanon writes The Wretched of the Earth (1963) he has begun to call for a revolutionary purification through violence as the only way to destroy the categories of “white” and “black.” In order to understand how Fanon, and subsequently how other racialized beings, come to represent and embody their racial representations, it’s necessary to examine the historical and social underpinnings of the black/white racial binary and apply the understanding to present-day representations in order to explore the way in which racialized blackness has developed in the United States.
Although history is not often regarded as his-story; that is, as the story the white-male conqueror writes about his non-white conquests, such recognition can lead to a fuller exploration of American history in order to reveal how modern notions of race were constructed as naturalized fact. Lerone Bennett Jr.’s Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America (1961) historisizes the movement of free and indentured people of African descent into the bounds of slavery. According to Bennett, the first Black Americans came to the Americas as indentured servants. As such, many of them were able to work their way into freedom and established their own homes and business, some of whom even employed their own indentured servants. At this point in American history, the citizens of the fledgling colonies didn’t identify themselves in terms of race. Instead, Bennett found legal documentation which identified individual colonist as Englishmen, Irishmen, and/or Christian; the term “white” hadn’t yet come into play. (pp 40)
For at least forty years—until the 1660s—this system [of the establishment of European and African fragments] contained the seeds of at least four alternatives:
indentured servitude could have been continued for black and white servants or
or both groups could have been reduced to slavery. Other options were Indian slavery and a free labor system for blacks and whites, Indians and immigrants. (pp. 44)
As late as the 1660s, in terms of the direction of how we came to know and identify ourselves was still undetermined. With the growing pressure to meet the global needs for sugar and tobacco as well as the institutionalization of “gang labor,” the need for a free labor system began to become clear. Since Europeans still resided under the protection of “recognized governments” (pp. 45) combined with the failure to enslave the indigenous peoples (who either sickened or were able to escape and “melt” into the wilderness); strength, visibility, and the relative cheap and seemingly inexhaustible supply of Africans became the essential components for a new system of slavery (Bennet 1961). In the 1660s, Virginia and Maryland enacted laws forbidding the intermarriage and made blacks slaves for life—other colonies soon followed suit. Under these laws, any child born to a slave mother automatically inherited the mother’s status (pp. 45). Thus, backed by the familiar tropes of religion and European civility, blackness became inscribed and naturalized as a marker for inferiority and inhumanity. To have dark brown skin was to be black and enslaved, and as such, to be born of a born mother determined the biology of race as a matter of birth. For the first time in history “[t]he word ‘white,’ with its burden of arrogance and biological pride, developed…as a direct result of slavery and the organized debasement of blacks” (pp. 40). (Of course it’s important to pause here and acknowledge that in the converse to “whiteness” as a category of identification, “blackness” came to be formed as the relationship between the condition of slavery and its color of skin—since only blacks are enslaved.) However, beyond the mere economics and legalization, race also infiltrated all notions of policy, politics and morality.
The social, political and moral foundation of the United States, based on the formation of a representative democratic body of the elite land- and slave-owning gentry, inaugurated a racial contract which remains at the heart of our society today. In the tradition of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Kant (pp. 5) according to Charles Mills’ The Racial Contract (1997):
The racial contract established a racial polity, a racial state, and a racial juridical system, where the status of whites and nonwhites is clearly demarcated, whether by law or custom. And the purpose of this state,…[was] specifically to maintain and reproduce this racial order, securing the privileges and advantages of the full white citizens and maintaining the subordination of nonwhites. (pp. 13-14)
Of course, Mills clearly states that this “racial contract” was by no means formally written, signed, or sealed by the people or the government. Instead, through the inscription of black bodies into a system of chattel, slaves came to embody a “race” as a marker for inferiority. Where once similar distinctions were made through the unstable binaries of Christian/heathen and/or civilized/uncivilized, the black/white binary was based on the fixed positionality which conversion or development of thought and/or material conditions could not overcome. In addition, due to the fact that these notions went uncontested and were normalized and biologically determined, they came to represent, implicit acceptance internalization of this construction of race and personhood as one in the same. “The terms of the racial contract mean[t] that nonwhite subpersonhood [was] enshrined simultaneously with white personhood” (pp. 56). Therefore, the formation of the idea of defining what it means to be an American is predicated on the notion of race. This not only teaches whites to how view themselves, but it also teaches nonwhites to see themselves from that white point of view thus even when conditions change, the contract remains resilient in its ability to become increasing invisible—as though race and whiteness are part of the natural ordering of reality (pp. 87-88). The degree to which this binary of white and black remains fixed demonstrates the degree to which the signatories continue to participate in the process of maintaining a secondary “defacto” racial contract requiring the continued normalization of the process of racialization (pp. 118). Essentially, in order for the racial contract to shape how people represent and are represented in terms of race, a collective ignorance of race as a perception rather than as a naturalized, normative biological structure is required. Since race is so unquestionably interwoven into the economic, political, moral and social fabric of American society it’s important to understand of how these concepts come to be lived.
To understand the imagined and lived lives in which whiteness and blackness necessitates the presence of the other requires complicating and extending the normalized nature of race on the individual. Nearly every field in the humanities has come to document or hold true the belief that since whiteness is the dominant “normative” center of American culture; therefore its visibility necessitates and is bound to the invisibility of blackness. bell hooks’ (1992) discussion of her own as well as “black people’s” imagination of whiteness stakes her claim on the notion that
[i]n [a] 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. (168)
But to simply “imagine” whiteness as visible because blackness seems invisible works to only to further entrench the racial contract. Instead, perhaps we should consider whiteness as actually invisible yet recognizable. In this notion, being white is being recognized as the superior holder of knowledge, maker of culture (Said 1979) and as a person; however when it comes to imaging the self as a composition of whiteness by whiteness, it becomes invisible.
In considering Malcolm X’s revelation upon his internalization of the white/black binary we must consider his point that, “‘white man’ meant specific attitudes and actions toward the black man, and toward all other non-white men.” (pp. 333) White complexion has no relative corresponding linguistic hue. Looking at white skin means understanding an abstract concept of culture and race rather than seeing color. Through the monolithic, fixed historicity of knowledge and superiority, whiteness becomes just as fixed, incomprehensible, and alienated from itself as blackness. Therefore, all ways of knowing the self are stripped because it can only employ the knowledge of what the self is not; any attempts to know and come to understand whiteness from its own internal gaze is to extend the misuse of other of its normative dominance to other concepts such as class, gender, and sexuality. In this way, whiteness seduces itself into believing that the power it yields only pertains to how that power is exerted over others, rather than acknowledging how it also controls and maintains a fixed notion of whiteness.
That’s not to say that hooks’ exploration into the black imagination of whiteness isn’t important, but if we proceed from the point above, because blackness stands as an opposite function of whiteness, it is visible and unrecognized. According to hooks,
Since most white people do not have to “see” black people… they can live as though black people are invisible, and they can imagine that they are also invisible to blacks. Some white people may even imagine there is no representation of whiteness in the black imagination, especially one that is based on concrete observation or mythic conjecture. They think they are seen by black folks only as they want to appear. Ideologically, the rhetoric of white supremacy supplies a fantasy of whiteness…[which] makes whiteness synonymous with goodness. (pp. 168-169)
What if, for a moment, it’s agreed that white people can’t see “others” because they can’t see themselves, then their seemingly lack of “vision” is not the other’s de facto invisibility, but the internalized invisibility of the self that whiteness requires? Based on the notions of the racial contract, blackness is conceptualized because it is visible. Then it stands to reason that is the inability of white people to “see” black people constitutes the inability to recognize blackness outside of its fixed boundaries of “race.” After all, the contract demands the dehumanization of blackness; therefore the white imagination isn’t able to conceive of a black imagination because the concepts of race supercede both. In this way white people can only recognize black people by their own concept of black skin equating black race, thus black people remain outside the recognition of humanity because that too, within the hegemonic discourse, remains the linked to the concept of whiteness. But, of course, hooks asserts that
Collectively black people remain rather silent about representations of whiteness in the black imagination. As in the old days of racial segregation where black folks learned to “wear the mask,” many of us pretend to be comfortable in the face of whiteness only to turn our backs and give expression to intense levels of discomfort. Especially talked about is the representation of whiteness as terrorizing. (pp. 169)
This seems to demonstrate the same kind of disconnection that whiteness has to itself. To wear masks and to remain silent can be taken to mean that knowledge and perception have no transactional value. The subject position of blackness views whiteness as both outside and within whiteness. Black people’s efforts to “imagine” whiteness results in the resurrection of the terror which was imposed by whiteness through the subjugation into a racialized binary system. From this view, whiteness remains aloof in its shroud of innocence, which directly contradicts the lived experiences of black people. Using Julien and Mercer use of critique of English black films in the 1980s, the point here, is:
In this sense, ‘we are all [racially] located,’ but the cultural specificity of white[ness] has been rendered ‘invisible’ by the epistemic violence that has, historically, disavowed difference in western discourses. (pp. 456)
Neither whiteness nor blackness represents points of authentic knowledge of the self because each "other" remains forever bound
to the institutionalization of the racial contract. Then, the psychological composition of black imagination becomes the stage for the constant reenactment of traumas which led to the subsequent displacement and erasure of all notions and memories of place and history outside the landscape of white superiority (pp. 172). hooks, opposition to notions of a pervasive color-blind or the denial of racism, calls us to “theoriz[e the] black experience, [in order to] seek to uncover, restore, as well as deconstruct [it], so that new paths, [and] different journeys, are possible” to do so positioned within the racialized binary seems to extend the invisibility of the racial contract further, yet can theory hold out a possibility of deconstructing race?
As a way to address these constructions, Cornel West (1999) points to the development of a “new cultural politics of difference.” Essentially, the social and political movements—including the student antiwar, feminist, black power, gay and lesbian movements--during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, allowed the voices of
the previously marginalize—African Americans, Latino/a Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and American women—people to join into the “culture of critical discourse” (pp. 727). That admission resulted in a “recovery/revisioning of American history” allowing for the struggles which had been previously muted or omitted to directly impacted and pervasively influence “highbrow literate culture” (West 127), resulting in the broadening of choices for different representation of blackness. According to Herman Grey’s (1995) examination of American television in the 1970s and 1980s, three dominant representations of blackness appeared: assimilist, pluralist, and separatist. From which:
Assimilationist programs construct the United States where the historic and contemporary consequences of structured social inequality and a culture deeply inflected and defined by racism are invisible and inconsequential to the lives of its citizens. (451)
By relying almost solely on the normative notions of recognition of whiteness, assimilationist look upon racism as characteristic of an individual, attributing to personal character flaws such as insecurities, misunderstandings, etc., rather than an institutionalized system, and based their values and worldview on the middle-class white image (Gray 1995). Whiteness is visible as the primary way of knowing and experiencing, but since it is so privileged and held out of the gaze, it remains invisible to interrogation. On the other hand, the pluralist representation almost takes the opposite stance. In an effort to situate blackness not directly through whiteness, pluralists represent blackness as “separate-but-equal” (pp. 452). In doing so, normative “whiteness” remains as entrenched as before thus representations of blackness depend on an “essential and universal black subject for their distinction from and similarity to the normative [white] center (Gray 453). Both of these representations of blackness work to “homogenize and totalize blackness”(453-54) rendering them incapable of addressing the diversity and multiplicity of experience of call attention to broader social and political hegemonic structures that of the black/white. However, at the middle and perhaps the most pervasive representation is the multicultural/pluralist representation. While continuing to appeal to the monolithic normative the heart of this representation is the presentation of elements within both the assimilist and pluralist framework (Gray 1995). In this case, viewers are allowed to see the often contradicting representation of the other frameworks, side-by-side with one another allowing for moments of transgression, but ultimately, as hooks points out, this often leads to the notion of color-blindness. Blackness remains visible, but the interrogation of its recognition remain absent; similarly, since this points of view continues to be based on issues of whiteness, it too remains invisible, yet quite recognizable.
To repose all that has transpired here, the creation of the racial categories of “white” and “black” originate from the social, economic, political, moral, and religious foundations of this country where whiteness and blackness transcended mere abstract concepts to become naturalized, normalized and biological features of everyday life. Rather than imagine whiteness as visibility, since whiteness is dependent upon blackness for its own definition, whiteness then is invisible it is recognized as the “natural” state, the place of all knowledge, and the creation of all society and culture. Conversely, notions of blackness are bound to the conflation of the concept of race as it is related to brown skin. Blackness is visible, yet, as the negation of the normative, knowledge and cultural bearing of whiteness; it is unrecognizable as belonging to humanity. Instead, blackness is debased, dehumanized, and in a manner of speaking de-evolutionalized. However, this is not the end of the story. There remains yet one more chapter.
Returning to Fanon’s realization that blackness was determined by its binding with whiteness, Hall’s (1996) discussion of “new ethnicities” and the “politics of representation” brings into play the recognition of the immense diversity and differentiation of the historical and cultural experience of black subjects. This inevitable entails a weakening or fading of the notion that ‘race’ or some composite notion of race around the term black will either guarantee the affectivity of any cultural practice or determine in any final sense its aesthetic value. (pp 443)
He calls this moment when essentialism is set aside, the end of innocence (pp. 443). In order to move past the fixedness that binaries always create first, and recognize the inadequacy of “race,” he suggests that it may be more fruitful to speak in terms of ethnicity than race.
If the black subject and black experience are not stabilized by Nature or by some other essential guarantee, then it must be the case that they are constructed historically, culturally, politically [and economically]—and the concept which refers to this is ethnicity. The term ethnicity acknowledges the place of history, language, and culture in the construction of subjectivity and identity, as well as the fact that all discourse is placed, positioned, situated, and all knowledge is contextual….The displacement of the ‘centred’ discourses of the West entails putting in question its universalist character and its transcendental claims to speak for everyone, while being itself everywhere and nowhere. (pp.446)
In other words, if we turn from notions of race to those of ethnicity, such a movement can allow for more fluidity between the collective factors that lend to our own notions of who we are in a particular space and time. Hall does go on to caution that the notions of “difference” still susceptible to being placed at the forefront (like race) rather than simply remaining buried in an endless system of boundedness. “The new politics of representation therefore also sets in motion an ideological contestation around the term ‘ethnicity” (pp. 446). That’s not to say that it is unusable or even undesirable, but in the view of pluralist or as Hall says multi-culturalism, “[w]e still have a great deal of work to do to decouple ethnicity, as it functions in the dominant discourse…” (pp. 447). Therefore, we need to begin locating representations of blackness within difference, yet go further to completely deny the binary of race as being a choice between being either Black or American; instead we should represent ourselves as British and Black or vice versa (Hall 1996).
Returning to the beginning, to Fanon’s struggle for self determination, a question which has been implicit in this exploration is, to what degree has the inability of black people to determine their own identity has changed? Since we are a culture which relies heavily on the continued trafficking of race, it’s easy to say, well, not much has actually changed, and materially/economically, there are mountains of evidence to support that position. However, in line with Hall, and West, it’s important to see that calls for the discontinuance of race have begun as a low murmur. A good illustration of this is Lorraine Hansberry who labeled herself as a “writer who happened to be black” and her insistence when a reporter stated that anybody could see her play A Raisin in the Sun because it was about people was to say that “Negroes are people!” (pp. 128). At this point in the history of the United States, race remains at the center of representation, but perhaps with the proliferation of more critical discourses and the increase in the numbers of people who defy the reality fitting into any single racial category, perhaps there’s hope that the psychic madness that Fanon studied and tried to extrapolate in order for others to understand, will fade out of our collective memories and fall into our histories.
I must confess that as an identified “Black” person—I have rejected the notion of being represented by African American because I don’t feel any affinity for a place I have no history of—trying to make my way through the various theories and notions of blackness and representation was difficult without placing my own subjectivity in the middle of it. I’m reminded that in an 1891 interview with Irvine Garland Penn, Frederick Douglass, who was nearing the end of his life, he called for “a colored Press…to say less about race and claims to race recognition, and more about the principles of justice, liberty, and patriotism.” (Moses 1990) By positioning myself within the context of my exploration, necessarily would have put me in a compromised racialized position.
What I have tried to do here is explore race in terms of what I see as its original construction in the notions of black and white. What I’ve found is that not only is race deeply tied to our notions of Americanness, but because we live, breathe, and are hailed into this system of race, these notions are often conflated with our own subjective experiences. As the mother of (what I term) “multiethnic” children (a singular category can not contain all that they are), my fascination with these notions and ideas are heightened. I can’t help wondering how they will grow to represent themselves. How will their childhoods which are so fused with the normalized “dominant” culture lead to their own estrangement from a singular racial identity or to the formation of a centralized ethnicity that refuses to omit all the racial, cultural, experiential, etc. factors that might play a role in its formation? And as an educator (although I haven’t taught in two years, this is very much part of how I identify myself), I wonder how best we can navigate the treacherous waters of politics and economics in order to provide a critically responsive pedagogy for all students. I wonder, then, if placing difference in the center, if that will indeed prompt change, or will we have to consider the implications of the death of the dream—does it explode?
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Fanon, Frantz (1952). Black Skin, White Masks.
Gray, Herman (2001). “The Politics of Representation in Network Television.” Media and Cultural Studies. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing. Pp. 439-461.
Hansberry, Lorraine. (1969). To Be Young, Gifted, and Black. New York: Signet.
Haley, Alex (1964). The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York: Ballantine Books.
hooks, bell (1992). “Representations of Whiteness in the Black Imagination”Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston: South End Press. Pp. 165-178.
Mills, Charles W. (1997). The Racial Contract. Ithica: Cornel University Press.
Moses, Wilson J. (1990). “Writing Freely?” Frederick Douglass and the Constraints of Racialized Writing New York, Cambridge University Press. Pp. 66
Morley, David and Chen, Kuan-Hsing (eds) (1996). “Chapter 21: New Ethnicities” Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies. New York: Routledge. Pp. 439-449.
Morley, David and Chen, Kuan-Hsing (eds) (1996). “Chapter 22: De Margin and De Centre” Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies. New York: Routledge. Pp. 450-464.
Morley, David and Chen, Kuan-Hsing (eds) (1996). “Chapter 23: What is this ‘black in black popular culture?” Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies. New York: Routledge. Pp. 465-475
Said, Edward (1979). “Introduction” Orientalism. Pp. 1-49.
West, Cornel (1999). “The New Cultural Politics of Difference” The Cornel West Reader. New
York: Basic Civitas Books. Pp. 118- 139.