Tuesday, May 08, 2007

on white liberals

In a lovely little book I came across while preparing for my general exams, Kerry Michaels, a writer and television producer tells this story:

It was 1985, and I was going to travel around Kenya by myself before visiting my brother, who was working for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in Malawi. I had only a vague idea of what I was going to do in Kenya. Having traveled all night, I arrived, exhausted and a little nervous, at the Nairobi airport at about five in the morning.

The terminal was a big, square hall--very austere, very official-looking. I glanced up. There was a balcony that ran all around the room. Standing on this balcony at perfect intervals were the blackest men I had ever seen in my life. They wore olive-drab uniforms and crimson berets. They all held rifles across their chests. They made an incredibly powerful, aesthetically stunning image: regal posture, beautiful, chiseled black faces, caps all cocked at the same angle.

I know this might sound stupid, but as I, a white American woman in my late twenties, looked around the airport, I realized that the power structure was black. The customs officials were black. The security officials examining my passport were black. Everyone who controlled my fate was black. It occurred to me what it was truly like to be a minority (albeit, when you are white in Africa, an empowered minority). In New York, if you're the only white person on the subway, you're still not a minority, because the power structure around you is white. In the Nairobi airport, I realized how different it was to have the power reside in a different race. It was the black men who were holding the guns. The government they served was black. The idea that the whole country was being run by black people was absolutely alien to me. To be white and find myself situated at the bottom of this massive hall, with these black men standing with guns over my head, really gave me a sense of what this inversion of power feels like. Why had I never realized this before? You think that as a white liberal you get it. But you don't.


Blogger Shabaka said...


1:30 PM  
Anonymous mr. wigglesworth said...

and she still doesn't get it. her experience, still defined by her fear and fetishization of black bodies, doesn't begin to address how power is experienced in Kenya (or New York, for that matter) for black folks.

black people holding government office, working in the aiport, or holding guns as protectors of the state does not mean that she has absolved her power as a white woman (we know this all too well in the states) or that black folks all of a sudden hold the reins to their destiny. kenya is still dealing with the ravages of a post-colonial economy and a class structure that strongly favors whites (a trait that most "developed" countries in Africa share).

so, while ms. michaels can get a biscuit for her minor epiphanies, she also knows that she is fairly secure in africa. should anything happen to her, an embassy would spend the entire GDP of nairobi to assist her. president bush might even drop a bomb or two. now that's power.

2:12 PM  
Blogger WiseYoungMan said...

Sexy and Smart you're my new crush....

4:15 PM  
Blogger Larry D. Lyons II said...

go the hell off.

needless to say, i appreciate and (in many ways) support your 'reading' of ms. michaels. what i'm most interested in is the harmony between your reading and the argument of the photograph above.

yes, you and i were similarly repulsed by the image when it was released as an irresponsibly racist means of highlighting the triumph of the new white PSPs over the old black ones, but how lovely is it to see the image redeployed here?

unlike its the more popular cousin (the image in which the white woman towers over the black woman, gripping the negress' frightened face), this image is a little more ambivalent in its visual hierarchy and, consequently, the racial implications its power struggle.

notice how, although the black woman towers over he white opponent, the white woman appears anything but vanquished. oddly, her body seems to be at rest rather than in the throes of battle. instead, her eyes and hands are enlisted in a different activity altogether: not that of battle but that of looking... gazing... observing.

her gaze is locked upon the black woman not in fear or trepidation. no, honey. that is the gaze of wonder (and perhaps bemusement). to secure her gaze, she grips the face of the black woman -- locking it squarely within her field of vision. were it a battle, perhaps she would have 'gone for the jugular' and wrapped that white hand around homegirl's neck, but no, no, no. this white woman isn't wrestling with an enemy; she's filling her optical appetite for the black Other.

but notice the right hand. the white woman's fingers curl back into a position that we've seen on advertisements for every cheap horror flick and comic book: white woman recoiling in repulsion and disgust. what the right hand embraces repels the left. for every bit of hunger this white woman has for that black subject, she demonstrates an equal amount of abhorrence.

also interesting is the amount of body we get from each subject. with the exception of her lower right leg, we see the white woman in her entirety. she is not excerpted or abbreviated. her abounding whiteness allows her to resist fading to black like her negroid counterpart. this lighting also foregrounds her femininity: her whiteness literally makes it possible for us to glimpse her breasts, her high heeled shoe(s), her fingernails and her truly majestic bouffant (for which i LIVE).

beyond securing her visbility in very literal ways, her whiteness also allows her access to gender. said simply, her whiteness allows her to be more of a [traditionally feminine, white] woman.

in contrast, we see only half of the black woman's body. the black background eats half of her away and blurs the parts of her body that might otherwise hint at her gender. were it not fot her skinniness, i might not know at all. further, her fingertips are hidden within her grip of the white woman's blouse. nope, no clues there.

overall, she's only half a figure: her gaze is pointed downward at nothing in particular. her lips, interestingly, seem pursed... perhaps to entone some utterance that will no doubt be rendered unitelligible by the hand locked on her jaw. perhaps campaigning for a kiss -- a way to finally fulfill the voyeuristic lust of the white observer.

needless to say, white woman isn't having it. i like things just as they are: you fighting tooth and nail for visibility and audibility, me resigned to staring at your beautiful savagery from a position that cements my primacy and my femaleness.

finally, i want to look at the composition of this image. i'm a novice photographer, but i'm fairly confident that this was shot against an uniformly black background and that the white that we see creeping in from the upper left-hand corner was later photoshopped in. what we get, then, is a set that holds black as its origin. in the material world, this is created as a black space. whiteness is later introduced artificially and topically.

what does all of this have to do with ms. kerry michaels?

well, i think it's a fitting image to accompany her epiphany. this image demonstrates an inversion of the hierarchy of the the original image, but like ms. michael's experience... the inversion doesn't wholly overturn or dismantle a power structure that privileges whiteness. this is the reality that michaels tucked within whispering parentheses, saying "when you are white in Africa, [you are] an empowered minority".

and as you mention, mr. wigglesworth, her language betrays her; even 20 years after her supposed epiphany, her language still evinces a clear fetishization of black bodies that couples with her fear of what their power might mean for her white woman-ness. again, what the right hand embraces, repels the left.

the black faces were "aesthetically stunning" for her, a sheer delight to behold. the pleasure of her experience dissipated, however, when she realized that "everyone who controlled [her] fate was black". oh, their black faces are a fine thing to regard, so long as you can regard them from a position of power (like the white woman in the image). but rue the day when that black beauty wrests its jaw from your grip and offers a threat to the hegemony that helps you sleep safe and ontologically secure.

5:56 PM  
Anonymous mr. wigglesworth said...

not her "truly majestic bouffant." lol... bravo.

7:55 PM  
Anonymous Keguro said...

I'm not sure I completely buy your (both) readings of white power, at least not within the context of Kenya and many other African countries.

Wealthy white people *may* receive preferential treatment, as they do most everywhere, but average to poor white people don't. Also, security and privilege are entirely context specific. In rural or insecure areas (often, but not always the same) whiteness carries little to no value. We have, in Kenya, quite a few cases of "missing white women," testimony to the terrifying way one can "be disappeared" in "Africa."

I maintain, still, against much feminist and postcolonial thinking, that desire infects all visual acts, creating an ambivalence we might register as objectification. We need, I think, to trouble and unsettle the notion of objectification, for if all we can do is point to it everywhere, then we miss other, perhaps more productive ways of understanding how we inhabit and apprehend the world.

Having said that, I am in awe of Larry's fine reading of visual images, a skill I lack absolutely.

10:47 PM  
Blogger Larry D. Lyons II said...

i think i was speaking speficially about white liberals who have the time and resources to o leisurely travel around Africa before visiting their brothers in Kenya.

if there's any claim that i resisted making, it was to be able to generalize about the history of power structures in african countries. i'm quite ignorant when it comes to african history, politics and culture.

what i do feel at liberty to discuss is how frequently white liberals think they have stepped outside or operated independent of the regime of white supremacy. some [middle- and upper-class] white women can step into a majority-black block association meeting and feel like they've wandered into a parallel universe. i've heard enough of these stories to cultivate a deep and growing suspicion of and ambivalence toward the "Ah-ha!" and "eureka" of white liberals.

4:09 PM  
Anonymous Keguro said...

Got it.

A pathetic, perhaps needy, part of me prefers the misbegotten eureka moment to the indifference I associate with the midwest.

I have place-envy.

10:14 AM  
Blogger Lene said...


i didn't realize that so much could be gleamed from a photo, and broken down like that.

i can feel all three povs in regards to ms. michaels.

i know when i go back to jamaica to visit the family, it's something that i can feel. it's tangable. when i leave toronto, i'm no longer a visible minority.

actually, i am a visible minority in a sense, because people know that i'm a foreigner. before i open my mouth, they know i'm not of them.

however, i still feel like a invisible majority, in terms of being black and jamaican(canadian), and that being okay.

the government and everything else is an african descent majority, but the rich and powerful are of indian, chinese, and irish descent.

in fact, since jamaica is part of the british commonwealth, we still have the queen of england as our head of state.

4:21 PM  

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