Other-Reification and Racism

In his article, “Racist Variations of Bad Faith:  A Critical Study of Lewis Gordon’s Phenomenology of Racism,” Bart van Leeuwen argues that the racist not only reifies him/herself but also reifies the other.  The racist of course sees him/herself as belonging to the essentially “good” or positive group (the ingroup); whereas the outgroup is a member of the essentially “bad” or negative group, whose essence is inherently flawed.  As van Leewen explains, “other-reification” characterized the “antiblack racism that defined the historical context of slavery and racial segregation during the Jim Crow era in the United States” (58).  Not only was the black slave “invisible to the white person,” his or her very subjectivity was denied, refused, unacknowledged.  Sallie Bingham offers a vivid description of the way in which African Americans were treated as mere objects:   they were “invisible to most white people, except as a pair of hands offering a drink on the silver tray” (58).[1] This objectification and reduction of black individuals to mere tools in the service of whites exhibits the refusal on the part of whites to acknowledge blacks as genuine, human subjects.  To illustrate how whites endeavored to destroy black subjectivity, van Leeuwen turns to a phrase coined by bell hooks, “white control of the black gaze.”  In many if not most instances, a black person was not permitted to make eye contact with a white person while serving him or her.  In fact, “black slaves, and later manumitted servants, could be brutally punished for looking, for appearing to observe the whites they were serving.”[2] A second example, comes from Jean-Paul Sartre, who reflecting on the condition of African Americans after his visit to the United States in 1945, observed:  “they serve you at the table, they shine your shoes, they operate your elevators, they carry your suitcases … they attend their tasks like machines, and you pay no more attention to them than as if they were machines.”[3] As van Leeuwen points out, this reduction and dehumanization of blacks to a mere “pair of serving hands” or functional “machines,” was intimately connected to hooks’ notion of “white control of the black gaze.” Blacks were forced to develop a habitus of avoiding direct eye contact with whites.  This other-reification by the ingroup (in this case the antiblacks) has the potential to foster a third reification wherein the victims begin to view themselves as objects.  Here van Leeuwen turns to a passage from Frantz Fanon’s, Black Skin, White Masks,

I came into the world imbued with the will to find a meaning in things, my spirit filled with the desire to attain the source of the world, and then I found that I was an object in the midst of other objects […] The movements, the attitudes, the glances of the other fixed me there, in the sense in which a chemical solution is fixed by a dye.[4]

This sense of being fixed by the other was so overbearing that it produced in Fanon a desire to be invisible, to exist as the anonymous one (59).  “I slip into corners, I remain silent, I strive for anonymity, for invisibility.  Look, I will accept the lot, as long as no one notices me!”[5] All of this leads van Leeuwen to conclude that the racist does not view the other as an absence or empty place in being, but rather as a “surplus of being.  So the basic dynamic of racism must be understood as an escape from the human lack of being (le néant) to the order of things (l’être), a solidification of freedom into total ethnic security” (59-60).  If I understand van Leeuwen here (and I may not given my lack of knowledge of Lewis Gordon and Sartre, so I welcome correction), the “human lack of being” is not absence for Sartre, rather nothingness (néant) is a constitutive element of a human consciousness.  As van Leeuwen explains, “nothingness (néant) as a technical concept denotes a lack of properties, and is opposed to being (être)” (53).  Nothingness is thus closely tied to freedom or what Sartre calls “transcendence,” whereas being speaks of fixity, in Sartre’s vocabulary, “facticity.”  In our human existence and being-in-the-world, we struggle to embrace and live authentically within the constant interplay of freedom and facticity, and this freedom/facticity ambiguity is unbearable for the racist.  In viewing him/herself as well as the other as having fixed essences (where each essence possesses certain inherent capacities and limitations defined by the ingroup-e.g., the racist’s essence is perceived as good and the other’s essence bad, flawed or deficient), the racist in effect is engaged in a flight from freedom, from transcendence, from the néant that cannot be fixed, determined, and controlled.

As I mentioned, I haven’t read Gordon’s work yet (but I look forward to doing so), so I cannot evaluate van Leeuwen’s claims concerning Gordon’s use of Sartre; however, I did not sense that van Leeuwen failed to appreciate the many insights of Gordon’s work.  Rather, his focus was on Gordon’s use of Sartre’s categories in his explications of the phenomenology of racism.


[1] Cited in bell hooks, Black Looks:  Race and Representation (Boston:  South End Press, 1992), p. 168.

[2] hooks, Black Looks, p. 168.

[3] Cited in van Leeuwen, Jean-Paul Sartre, “Return from the United States,” in Gordon (ed.), Existence in Black, pp. 83-89, p. 84.

[4] Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, p. 109.

[5] Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, p. 116.

10 thoughts on “Other-Reification and Racism”

  1. This significant exploration can be extended to a broader horizon if instead of confining it within the black/white binary, the Indian conception of the fourfold “Varnas” (literally, colours: white, red, yellow, and black) is also considered. [TNM]

  2. Cynthia,

    You are really on to something here. What about expanding the issue to a phenomenology of prejudice or philosophy of tolerance? It seems to me that there is a larger issue at stake here that involves the inability to accept difference or (in Levinasian terms) the strangeness of the Other. The theological implications are important. If I cannot accept the strangeness of my neighbor, on what grounds should I expect the strangenss of the OTHER will be any more palatable.

    I found a bibliography of must read material by Robert Bernasconi on his Wikipedia article. He is one of the top Heidegger/Levinas scholars. I am sure you have tapped into the Stanford article on race and its extensive bibliography, but I mention it here in case you have not.

    If you want to collaborate on research or a project in this area please let me know. Perhaps we could divide up the literature and right summaries towards a project of some kind.

    Kind Regards,


  3. Hi John,

    I wasn’t aware of the Stanford article, so thanks for bringing that to my attention. I wish I could give much more attention to this topic, but until my course work is finished, I’ll have to read what I can as time allows. Perhaps we could do a reading group or something along those lines over the summer?

    Best wishes,

  4. First I apologize for my english being probably defective, and second I congratulate the author for the quality and the wide range of her posts. I’ve read several of them with growing interest and even gratitude.

    About the present topic, now. As many French students in philosophy, I’ve had a susbtantive training in phenomenology (we say “la phéno”, because it’s such a part of the normal curriculum). I must say, though, that when it comes to ethics and related matters, I’ve always found its abstraction and “jump to the metaphysical” quite rewardless. At first it seems brillant and illuminating, but on reflection you often find it deceptive.

    I think it may be the case with the proposed analysis of racism. Or I’d rather say: what I think is truly illuminating is the notion of “control of the gaze”; but its usefulness is disminished rather than reinforced by the sartrian jargon of “reification”, “essence” and “nothingness”. Tying the first with the second you loose the social and definitely human context of whites/blacks relationships. Indeed, “control of the gaze” is a good concept because it is not restricted to racism, but applies to traditional master/servant etiquette (servants were expected not to look at their masters, and to adress them in the third person). It is also part of the typical chaste behavior, this time not as a control exercised by another, but as a voluntary self-discipline. Reflecting on the specificity of the racist “control of gaze” would surely prove interesting.

    Another consequence of the translation of the “control of gaze” into a metaphysical language is that you loose the conative, almost physical dimension of “control”. “Control” requires training and a constant awareness and vigilance. It is a discipline. But Sartre writes as if the control was really effective, as if one could succeed in turning human beings into machines. The important difference, though, is that human beings are not machines. If you really are to “control” them, you can’t loosen your effort. You just can’t “do away” with them as you can with machines or objects. Their presence is human presence.

    Eye contact, in this context, is human contact. it is acquaintance with what you perfectly know is another human being: if not, why denying them any right to cross eyes with you? If this sounds not too paradoxical, I would say that the “control of gaze” is in itself an admission of the humanity of the other, and a technique to avoid the ethical consequences of this admission. It has to do with lying — and it strikes me now that when you lie you need to avoid eye contact too.

    I read a discourse from Lincoln, a long time ago, where he was saying precisely that — that Southerners were perfectly aware of the humanity of the black slaves. They knew they were human beings, “in the abondance of man’s heart”. Their whole behavior toward black persons amounted to this very admission.

    The problem I find, finally, with a “sartrian” view on racism, or even with the more fashionable “foucaldian” view (quite popular here in the growing race studies) is that they seem to share the nihilistic premisses of the system they denounce. They write as if the will were effectively all-powerfull; as if you could really change the nature of the facts at will, and as if there were nothing like a conscience — even an evil or perverted one.

  5. Dear Philarete,

    Thank you for your substantive comment. (By the way, your English is quite good and very understandable). I suppose I don’t share what I assume is your strong aversion to all things metaphysical. I find both the abstract and the concrete to be illuminating and to function dialectically and even in a sense, dialogically with one another—both offering insights that complement each other and provide a more “full picture” as opposed to simply stressing one over the other. I do think that you make an excellent point about the “control of the gaze” and the restriction of eye contact to in actuality assume that we are dealing with genuine human persons—as you put it “an admission of the humanity of the other.” A final remark, as I must return to my studies. You wrote regarding Sartre and Foucault: “They write as if the will were effectively all-powerfull; as if you could really change the nature of the facts at will, and as if there were nothing like a conscience — even an evil or perverted one.” Are you not implying genuine metaphysical realities here when you speak of “the nature of the facts”, and suggest that there is in fact a “thing” as a “conscience?”

    Best wishes,

  6. Dear Cynthia,
    Thank you for your kind reply. I fear that my poor english was not able to convey the due nuances… I have, indeed, not the slightest aversion to things metaphysical — though I find objectionable the kind of metaphyscal abstractions used by phenomenological ethics (e. g. I think that Levinas’ “the Other” says less, rather than more, than the plain “the other human being”).

    I do surely suggest that there is something like conscience. In fact, so does Sartre in his more popular writings, such as his preface to Fanon’s book Les damnés de la terre (I don’t know if this is the same book as the one your refer to under an english title). There Sartre feels no objection to adressing his white european readers saying: « You know perfectly well that we are exploiters… ». And, I may add, Sartre knew perfectly well that political efficiency required him to write in a plain ethical language.

    To which extent a conscience can be perverted, I don’t know. It sure can be quite deeply. Maybe I should read Faulkner again… But I still think that it can be misleading to use concepts such as “other-reification” to explain, or even describe, racism. It just does not seem to me to “fit the facts”. There are plenty of stories like Huck Finn’s helping a black slave to escape, not to mention sexual intercourses — or even love — between die-hard racists and black women. The average racist person is quite able to endorse, one the hand, a racist social arrangement, and to engage in interpersonal dealings with “inferior” people on the other. Maybe I’d say that the “phenomenlogy” of racism has more to do with “des-individualization” on the general level (you see the black people as an indistinct whole), while indulging in casual interpersonal encounters when necessary. So that there is a contradiction between your general standpoint and your personal behavior. You know they are not machines or animals, but you just don’t want to face it.

  7. Dear Philarete,

    Thank you for your clarifications. I believe I understand more clearly your original comment. Your objection is not to metaphysics as a whole but to the way in which metaphysical abstractions are employed in phenomenology. I suppose one might reply that different contexts/genres allow for different ways of expressing ideas, thoughts etc. Sartre’s decision to use less technical language when writing for popular audiences makes sense given the lack of exposure and familiarity with that type of discourse on the part of his audience. As I said in the previous comment, I find both types of discourse illuminating.

    Best wishes,

  8. Well, regarding the eye-contact issue: In Southern African black cultures, eye contact was forbidden between the inferior and superior – thus, in traditional Zulu culture, a child is expected not to make eye contact with the father. Thus the inverse would happen in situation where a white person worked with black labourers: The white person demanded eye contact, and the black person did not want to, as they understood it to be a sign of defiance. This gave rise to many cross-cultural misunderstandings.

    Now slaves were emancipated in Souther Africa the same time as in the rest of the British Empire, so the situation never developed along the same line as in the US.

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