Nothing has changed since George Floyd. This year opened with another high-profile murder of an unarmed Black man—Tyre Nichols—by police. While it’s true the officers have already been indicted for Nichols’ death, the commentary continues to privilege the idea that this violence is the result of isolated actions, of inadequate training, of something—anything—other than ongoing systemic racism. Some coverage emphasized the race of the police officers—they, too, are Black—and seemed to say, “How can this be racism?” If you think that too, maybe you need to read a book like White Sight: Visual Politics and Practices of Whiteness. My thanks to NetGalley and MIT Press for the eARC.
Nicholas Mirzoeff starts us off in the ancient world of Greece, but he brings us all the way to the modern era and the murder of George Floyd. Through an analysis of art, from statues to paintings to photographs and performance pieces, Mirzoeff traces how white supremacy has informed an aesthetic of whiteness throughout our society, and how that aesthetic has in turn reinforced and perpetuated white supremacist ideals of beauty, goodness, truth, etc.
If you’re unsure what aesthetics has to do with racism, consider perspective. As Mirzoeff discusses here, the reinvention of perspective drawing in the Renaissance was immediately put to use creating a positive portrayal of colonization. Perspective drawing was an important revolution in art for how it challenged the artist and the viewer to reconceptualize space, something that Margaret Wertheim explored deeply in The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace. The Italian states and early colonial dominions of Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, etc., needed to conceptualize space as something that could be claimed, purchased, sold, lended. Space was something they could move through and indeed have claim to, as white Europeans, while for the people they enslaved, space was something that was laboured over and worked in. As Renaissance styles became more entrenched, artistic styles from other cultures were held up as backwards and barbaric, a way of further Othering and reinforcing the hierarchy between Europeans and non-Europeans.
That is to say, art in the West has always been inextricably linked to the project of white supremacy. Likely one of the most important understandings I try to convey to my English students when I teach them about race is that the problem isn’t white people; it’s whiteness. As Nell Irvin Painter discusses in The History of White People, who counts as white has changed over the centuries. Whiteness is ephemeral, fluid, adaptable—and opportunistic. It admits some, denies others, then reverses course when the winds of fortune have changed direction and it would be more advantageous to say, “Hey, you know the Irish? Yeah, you can be white now?” But these changes in status work only if our visual politics undergo a corresponding shift, if the ways in which we represent and discuss different groups adapt over time to the tides of whiteness.
Whiteness also explains how Black cops can kill unarmed Black people, and how other racialized people can perpetuate racism and white supremacy. Race has never been solely about the colour of one’s skin, and by the same token, that skin colour cannot determine whether someone is racist. When we look past white fragility, get over the knee-jerk reaction that we’re being told having lighter skin makes us bad people, we can see instead that race and racism in our society isn’t just about how we are seen: it’s about how we see.
That’s what I got from White Sight. Mirzoeff chronicles artwork and trends that upheld white supremacy (wisely often refusing to reduce harm by not reproducing some images). However, he also chronicles the long history of resistance through art. How Black and other racialized artists make use of art forms, either from their own cultures or by co-opting European artistic traditions, to punctuate the equilibrium of Eurocentrism. This brings us to the twentieth century, to the meetings of minds of artists of colour from around the world, to the very political works of art that are protest and performance and an attempt to make us very uncomfortable with the world in which we live today.
This book is dense, and at times it is very academic—more so than I was expecting, to be honest. For that reason, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it for a general audience, but I also don’t think that’s its purpose. Instead, I think this should be required reading on undergraduate courses from art history to gender studies to political science: any time you are engaging with writing on representation and visual politics, this book has something valuable to say.
Though not the entire theme of the book, surveillance runs throughout the text and was something that really jumped out at me. It’s initially what attracted me to White Sight: the idea that the systems we build to monitor ourselves or others are inherently racist because of their links to capitalism. This manifests in very obvious ways, like the constant surveillance of incarcerated people, among whom Black and Indigenous folx are overrepresented. But it’s subtle as well, and sometime surveillance can even be connected to language. In the tech world, there’s a popular tool called Git, which is used for tracking versions of software. Git repositories can have different branches of the software’s code, and it’s common practice to designate one branch as the master. (Master–slave terminology pervades technology, alas.) There was a trend a couple years back to rename the master branch of one’s Git repos to main or something analogous but less loaded with history. While many protested this—believing it to be too symbolic, unnecessary, virtue-signalling—I followed the trend because I figured even though it might feel like an empty gesture, it was still a way of reducing harm. Of stopping a cycle.
Our society is constantly being recreated through our interactions. The ways in which we talk, the ways in which we create art, and the ways in which we consume that art all affect how we recreate our society over and over. Whiteness is a property of the system that exists because we constantly reproduce the politics of race and racism, because we uphold capitalism as a framework that values the extraction of labour from people often at the expense of seeing them as human beings. As a result, we cannot ever make the mistake of thinking that art is not political. White Sight is a detailed, thoughtful, well organized exploration of these ideas through specific examples in history and contemporary work. While it is not comprehensive—I don’t think any project like this could be; there’s just so much more that could be written about all the various topics that intersect beneath this umbrella—this book is a fantastic grounding in these topics.