With the recent death of Rodney King, I wanted to reflect on the gaze or surveillance in our society and how it has manifested itself during this year so far. The gaze has implied that the bodies of others, like Black bodies, should always be under scrupulous examination because we are threats to dominant groups. Theological philosopher James W. Perkinson said that one of the main modi operandi of Western culture has been technologies of the eye. In their superficial use, much destruction has occurred in the world. I would also add that our own eyes as a kind of technology themselves have been just as harmful. The world we see is not actually what we see – images are flipped, there are perceptual errors and the brain creates illusions to fill in gaps. Yet entire cultures for centuries were and still are built off of what we see only, and it has had dangerous and paralyzing effects on people of color.
In Black Skin, White Masks, Franz Fanon describes himself like the wave that becomes a particle under observation: “The white gaze, the only valid one, is already dissecting me. I am fixed. Once their mircrotomes [used in microscopy] are sharpened, the Whites objectively cut sections of my reality. I have been betrayed” (95). As Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man also exposes the simultaneous hyper-visibility and hyper-invisibility that people of color face. For their eyes do not see the full spectrum of all, but only what they wants to see of others and it is stifling.
This year, the gaze still has shown itself in a variety of ways. We have seen Black men and women watched, stalked and killed for just being, as in the killings of Trayvon Martin, Kenneth Chamberlain, Ramarley Graham, Rekia Boyd, and Darius Simmons. We have families who are threatened because they look different in a community as with the Kalonji family who were held at gunpoint in their home by neighbors in Georgia. The debates and protests over “stop-and-frisk,” which happens to males of color more often, is reaching a peak in New York, London and other cities as well. Although statistics show Black and Latino people do not use drugs more than other groups, they are actually stopped and frisked way more than their actual percentage in the population. While we suffer at the hands of this practice, we have people who have the nerve, like NY mayor Bloomberg, to obnoxiously tell us that it is for our own good.
Not only is it governmental and penal policing, but also institutional and media policing. We do not have access to or it is viewed as insignificant for us to have control of the information and images given to us and that depict us. The most recent example is the Erykah Badu and Flaming Lips controversy over the video for “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” Whether this is a real feud or publicity stunt, Badu’s claim that her rights in collaborating on the creation of the video were taken away in favor of her and her sister, Nayrok’s sexual objectification highlights the manipulation of images of people of color in general. The killings, police beatings, stop-and-frisk, and media dehumanization are continuous parts of a system that denigrates, criminalizes and hyper-sexualizes us on sight. Our blackness implies our inhumanity to the greater society that refuses to question why when they look us, they do not really see us. Maybe its time for another Invisible Man.