Book reviews, Comments, Culture, In Focus

The white gaze

For Bolívar Echeverría, whiteness is a biopolitical term for the state of   submission to capitalist values. He does not use it as a marker for racial or chromatic aspects of a person’s self-identity.


Buck Ellison, The Prince Children, Holland, Michigan, 2019. Courtesy the artist and the Sunday Painter.

Sean Sheean


On the other hand, for people who cleave to chauvinism/xenophobia/white supremacism, whiteness is taken literally. It is both signifier and signified for a ‘natural’ order of being that privileges people with white skin at the expense of other pigmentations.

It would be bad enough even if this stopped with ultra-nationalists and racists but whiteness is a more insidious cultural phenomenon. It affects everyone, consciously or otherwise. Whiteness is ideological, a form of subjectivity, and “The image of whiteness: contemporary photography and racialization” explores the prismatics of how it works and how it can be resisted.

The book confronts the whiteness that goes far deeper than the epidermal. Liberal gestures to show that one is woke will not suffice. What is needed is ‘symbolic suicide’: a metaphorical shedding of white skin; an awareness of a deep grammar inside our heads; what Walter Benjamin called our ‘optical unconscious’.

“he image of whiteness’s contribution to a deconstruction of the white gaze works by drawing attention to ways visual perception both feeds and feeds off a socially constructed reality.

Sophie Gabrielle, Untitled, from the series BL_NK SP_CE, 2015. Courtesy the artist.

Whoopi Goldberg realized this as a child when she saw star fleet officer Uhuru in Star Trek and exclaimed to her parents about seeing a black woman on television – and she ain’t no maid!

The front cover of the book shows part of one of Buck Ellison’s staged photographs depicting an imaginary set of American siblings.

They are  destined for elite universities with illicit help from wealthy parents.

Their blond hair and insouciant poses collude perfectly with the home décor to declare paid-up membership to WASP (White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant) culture. Their parents, fully cognisant of Trump’s vulgarity and unfitness for office, will vote Republican at the next election.

Another image is from David Birkin’s “Midnight blue” series, a cyan-blue print from negatives taken by a documentary film-maker at Mississippi State Penitentiary for Fourteen Days in May. Inside the prison, 18-year-old, African-American Edward Earl Johnson, convicted after being framed by white police officers, is days away from his execution,

David Birkin, Detail (Death Row Gate), from the series Midnight Blue, 2018. Courtesy the artist.

The notes in the book for the images explains for this one that the distinctive blue colour originates from hydrogen cyanide, a compound found on the walls of Nazi gas chambers. It is the same kind of poison used at the prison’s Death Row facility.

The white gaze takes imaginary form in Sophie Gabrielle’s monochrome photograph of a woman’s eye cataracted by her cognitive distortion that mediates what she sees around her.

“The image of whiteness: contemporary photography and racialization”, edited by Daniel C. Blight, is published by  SPBH Editions

(Photos supplied by the publisher)

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