Flexner Book Club Blog

2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler

Reading Images, See White

This week, I have been in several conversations dealing with visual images, perception and race. The conversations have been respectful and filled with the desire to learn and to do the right thing. Unlike the interactions between the defense attorneys and the jury in Simi Valley nearly 20 years ago, our campus conversations have not featured manipulated evidence or a “cultivating” of “paranoia”—white or otherwise. But I am struck as I reflect on these conversations by the power of what Butler calls “whiteness as an episteme” (209).

Even on a campus that is as diverse as ours, a white episteme prevails. Our student body is comprised of more international students and domestic students of color than ever before; still, a majority of the images that surround us are of white people, from the stately past presidents’ portraits in Thomas Great Hall to the hushed lunching groups in Wyndham. What we see is not just white, but orderly white, poised (and posed) white, powerful white. How could all this not have an impact on us as members of the Bryn Mawr community? As Butler suggests, “[t]he visual field is not neutral to the question of race; it is itself a racial formation, an episteme, hegemonic and forceful” (207). Our campus visual field is white, and that influences our interactions and decisions in forceful ways.

As Bryn Mawr goes, so goes the nation. If not a bellwether, Bryn Mawr is at least representative of other communities.  Residents of communities everywhere are impacted by the images that surround us. And bringing a just and unbiased reading of the visual is tricky even without someone (say, a defense attorney) trying to influence our viewing of a particular image. We read images with the bias of our education and lived experience. Add to this a system of understanding that is white—a white lens, placed before all of us just because we are part of this society—and it becomes evident that no image is neutral.

To imagine Rodney King being “in control” as he is repeatedly beaten requires viewing eyewitness George Holliday’s video through a pretty thick racist lens, and, Butler argues, a homophobic one as well. In this article, Butler continues her argument from earlier writings that the body is projected upon. Because of the white episteme, she states, ‘the black male body. . . is the site and source of danger” (208). The defense attorneys preyed on the jury’s racist fear and homophobia when showing, in slow motion, frame by frame, portions of Holliday’s video footage. Under such conditions, the kicks and beatings with batons were read as justified and necessary to protect the members of the jury—and society. The jury, its vision completely occluded by the “Schematic Racism and White Paranoia” of Butler’s title, acquitted all five officers. And in the following days, Los Angeles burned.

Does it have to be this way? Is our country forever doomed to such racist, homophobic reading of the visual field? Will the result of such reading always be violence, rather than shared learning and, maybe even, restorative justice?

Even well meaning, well-educated people misread the visible. I feel fortunate to work in a place where learning and inclusion are among our primary goals. I am glad my daily efforts are not to coerce people into a particular (yet alone racial/biased) reading of an image, but to listen to what is seen and to encourage a well-informed reading. This work can be tricky—and emotional. But I am encouraged by efforts on our campus to combat Butler’s “Schematic Racism and White Paranoia.” And I am hopeful that Bryn Mawr graduates will contribute to a more just and informed reading of the visual—to a more just and informed world. I believe in the possibility that, as Bryn Mawr goes, so, perhaps, in at least small ways, the nation might go.

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