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.