Some years back, a white female student in my course stated that she would feel apprehensive in an elevator regardless of the race of the male. All that was necessary was a male present on the elevator, one that she presumably did not know. Within such a context, for her, gender was the primary lens through which she comprehended the potential danger of the situation. Given the power of male dominance, this view certainly gives credence to the argument that a fundamental part of women’s existence is asking the question, “Are you going to rape me‘?” This also points to the reality that the gaze is not simply raced, but gendered and that many white women do not always feel comfortable in rooms or small spaces with men whom they do not know. While I certainly do not wish to marginalize the experiences of that student, there was something unsettling in the speed with which she responded. As the majority of other white female students nodded in agreement with her, her response effectively turned the discussion away from race to that of gender; somehow, we were now talking about males qua males.
I began to think of how her response may have functioned as a way of obfuscating her own racism, as a way of eliding her whiteness. After all, the context of our discussion had to do with white racism, specifically how whites feel in the presence of Black males. Her response demonstrated how feminism and antiracism do not always go hand in hand, though one would think that they should/would. Within this context, violence against women, a very real, enduring, and disturbing reality, functioned as the banner under which she was able to ignore or bracket her own whiteness/racism. Created from the mire of the white imaginary, representations and fantasies of Black males as excessive, as “lusting murderously after innocent white women,” as buffoons, or inferior animals are echoing in the white women’s voice triggered by her gazed perception of blackness. What she “sees” or hears” is governed by a racist epistomolgy of certitude that places Otherness under erasure. Only through not seeing the person behind the veil it becomes visible; only through not hearing the Otherness it becomes audible.
The White woman’s is reiterated within the context of power relations that not only help to sustain the larger social racist imaginary but also to sanction her performance of the gaze in the first place, guaranteeing its performance with imputiny and ensuring material effects on the gazed-upon body. She performs her white body, ergo the black male becomes a predator.
Excerpts taken From George Yancy’s Black Bodies / White Gazes