This article explores the imagining of the destabilization of heteronormative power relations in the performance I Love Black Men (Halász 2011). The performance points to the potential of developing anti-racist white femininities through the white female body and its affective dimensions. This article explores how the racial category White Woman is made in a particular racializing stereotype that posits an elemental sexual attraction between white women and black men, and how this stereotype is subverted in the performance. It argues that I Love Black Men envisions a new public body for white woman, and for the potential of forming new, anti-racist relations.
This article considers the imagining of anti-racist white femininities in the performance I Love Black Men, which I developed in London in 2011 as part of a visual sociology research project. The research investigates the production of anti-racist white femininities through affect. The performance studio was staged to resemble a classroom; only the performer and I were present. I took the role of the instructor, remaining invisible throughout the video that records the performance. I developed the performance to address the invisibility of whiteness, the social construction of race through discourse, and the processes of racialization in representation, stereotyping, and cultural inscription. In my research, I employ the performance to challenge these models by insisting on the relevance of materiality and affective relationality in any theorization of the making of White Woman. In this article, I investigate the potential of developing anti-racist white femininities by directing attention to the affective dimensions of the white female body. I examine the imagining of the destabilization of heteronormative power relations in the performance, and its attempts to unsettle the grounds on which the racial category White Woman is made in a particular racializing stereotype that posits an elemental sexual attraction between white women and black men.
Before discussing the performance, I first briefly overview existing scholarship on the invisibility of whiteness. I then consider the stereotype as a representational practice and the trope of ideal white femininity. Finally, I suggest that through close attention to the affective dimensions of the white female body it is possible to recognize how “social discourses are enmeshed in lived experience” (Gunaratnam 2003, 7). Working through the performance, I show how affects surge to the surface of the body, reorientating its relations.
Invisibility of Whiteness
Current attention to whiteness is characterized by a critique of whiteness asserted as invisible, universal, and “the presumed norm” (Back and Solomos 2009, 607), as well as by an effort to fundamentally “unmask and name” whiteness (Knowles 2003, 175; original emphasis).
A central concern of “anxious whiteness,” as Sara Ahmed termed it (2004a, 2), is how to de-centre,challenge, dismantle, and escape white race privilege while avoiding inadvertently re-centeringand reifying the term and the underlying logics of white supremacy, thereby constructingwhiteness as an essential and homogenous white identity and culture (Frankenberg 1997;Nakayama and Martin 1999; Knowles 2003; Haggis 2004; Alexander and Knowles 2005; Backand Solomos 2009).Whiteness is considered a pervasive and universal condition that is effectively unseenand unmarked. White privilege and racial dominance by whites are socially and culturallyembedded to the extent that whiteness has been naturalized. Consequently, there is widespreadstress in the literature on the need of seeing and marking hitherto invisible whiteness todeconstruct it. Black scholars have however long argued that whiteness has only been invisiblefor whites (Fanon, 1967; hooks 1992; Gilroy 1993, Ahmed 2004a). In contrast to racializedminorities, whites have a choice of attending to or ignoring their whiteness (McIntosh 1992;Gallagher 1994). Richard Dyer explains:As long as race is something only applied to non-white people, as long as white people arenot racially seen and named, they/we function as a human norm. Other people are raced,we are just people. (1997, 1)The unmarked, invisible position of whiteness is made through the marking—racializing—ofothers, on which its transparency depends. The transparency of whiteness must be continuouslyasserted for it to function as the norm, which in turn contributes to its invisibility. The contoursof whiteness as a racialized position works like the colour white, an absence of colour and allcolours in itself—it is invisible and escapes characterisation because it is everything anduniversal (Dyer 1997). Hence the pledge of studies of whiteness is that to learn to see whitenessas a colour rather than an absence of colour is crucial to the marking of whiteness (Ahmed2004a).Working against the invisibility of whiteness, I Love Black Men firmly secures a placefor whiteness in the racial palette. Whiteness cannot escape racialization as a colourlessuniversal norm; it is palpable.
The specificities of identity constitution and normalizingtendencies at work are made tangible in this piece through the appropriation of the use of thecolour white that gains its meaning in relation to and against the black. The performancewhitens the white woman; her whiteness is simultaneously asserted and undone; she isinescapably coloured in the racial hierarchy. Paraphrasing the term “post-black” art1 referringto art about the black experience that attempts to dispel the notion that race matters, I termedmy performance post-white to point to the fact that white artists have never been charged withthe burden of representation and the label of “white art,” with reconfiguring the construction ofwhiteness and the normality of it, or with the politics of looking at it. As an anti-racist project,the performance is working from inside the normative parameters of whiteness. Engaging withthe question “but what are white people to do?” (Ahmed 2004a, 18), the performance imaginesanti-racist white femininities “out of whiteness” (Ware and Back 2002): it envisions a refusal ofthe designated racial place of white womanhood and the privileges inherent in that relation. Toavoid the pitfalls of returning to the white subject and re-centring white agency in any criticalinvestigation of whiteness, and hence amounting to the “narcissism of a perpetual return” in thesearch for answers to the question she posed, Ahmed proposes a “double turn” (2004a, 19).
This means a turn away from white subjects but in a way that retains a turn towards their roleand responsibility in present and past histories of racism and thus an implication in what they critique, but also (and here lies the double work of Ahmed's turn) towards others, and away from themselves. Following Ahmed and Les Back, for whom any critical examination of whiteness needs to start with “racism rather than whiteness” (Back 2010, 445, original emphasis), the performance works with a stereotype that continues to be the cause of much racial violence and suffering.2 I Love Black Men is placed in histories of racism and anti-Black violence, and critically examines the construction of the trope of ideal white femininity through testing assumptions of racialized hyper-sexuality and sexual desire grounded in the fetishization of the black male body. It seeks to provide a direct way to speak out against objectification and categorization.
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* As part of her research she has staged a num-ber of performances (I Love Black Men , UK, 2011;FreeingUp Shame , Brazil, 2012;The Blush Machine , Bolivia,2013;The Chamber of White , Denmark, 2014) and curatedthe exhibitionsVisualising Aect (UK, 2013) andThe Fu-ture of Art is Urban (UK, 2014).