The General Crisis of Whiteness

Natasha Lennard and Nicholas Mirzoeff

Los Angeles Review of Books


Mirzoeff’s new book, White Sight: Visual Politics and Practices of Whiteness, published in February by the MIT Press, explores how systems of white supremacy see, and thus order, the world in the unbroken history of colonialism, up to the present day

“Mirzoeff spoke with me about the meaning of “white sight,” its long history, and the concurrent legacy of resistance against it”

“This is a collective enterprise, a systemic making visible” Note: A political work, the distribution of the sensible, a making visible that simultaneously makes else invisible. See Ranciere.

“white sight is always relational—a way of organizing the world so that the invented collective “white people” can create a reality that accords to their sense of the world”

“if it doesn’t, they use violence to close the gap between their version of reality and what exists”

“we already know what white sight is because every time a cop comes up to someone, they make an immediate judgment based on their perception of whether that person is or is not white. And they act accordingly”

“At another level, white sight is an operating system of what it is to make whiteness and white supremacy, which functions by connecting assumptions, contexts, learned experience, stereotypes, and techniques into a whole”

“White sight regulates bodies, land, and the relations between them by means of its capacity to survey colonized space, to claim it, and to place all forms of life under surveillance”

“I think of white sight not as flat, like a painting, but as deeply layered and sedimented, as in geology where you have stratigraphic layers of rock”

“One of the mistakes in the first generation of so-called whiteness studies was, in retrospect, that it was often said that “whiteness is unmarked.” And that’s clearly not true”

“The whole point about whiteness is that it’s absolutely marked, while creating a structure of unknowing among white people. But no one who’s not white is unclear about how very marked whiteness is—it’s visibly and blatantly marked, especially in colonial situations”

“Frantz Fanon called the colonial regime a “world of statues,” and he didn’t mean it metaphorically. He meant that the colonizer will put up a statue in the town square of a colonized city as a foundational act of colonization”

“why and when the statue of the Apollo Belvedere began to be used as the figure for whiteness. It happened at the beginning of the 19th century, when Haiti had just carried out its revolution against slavery (1791–1804). No sooner had this “unthinkable” revolution happened than the figure of the Apollo Belvedere became the racializing type of whiteness—perfect whiteness, in a way no person could actually be”

“when I saw someone get killed—[the antifascist counterprotester] Heather Heyer—deliberately murdered in the street over a statue, then I realized that this wasn’t just about representation; whiteness actually is a statue”

“This violence is connected to the state linguistically—via the word “statute”—but also substantively. In the American South, there are laws that protect statues, meaning that you can’t move them and you can’t take them down”

“A material example of how white supremacy and the statue are directly connected is that Confederate statues were frequently placed right outside the courthouse. The law of white supremacy and the statue were right next to each other, creating an infrastructure”

“When Algeria gained independence in 1962, one of the first things they did was take down the statues that the French had put up around Algiers and other cities. This was known locally as the “war on statues.””

“started Rhodes Must Fall in 2015 to bring down the statue of Rhodes at the University of Cape Town. This statue occupied a stunning location, with a backdrop of mountains and a view down to the sea—that position was all about colonizing white sight”

“something happens when you take down a statue. It creates a new energy”

“it’s not just that the statue has come down, it’s what’s not there that is now palpable, and there’s an energy around that space that allows you to think, what else might we do here?”

“I don’t want people just to feel bad about whiteness. No. I want you to go on strike. By striking, I don’t mean the withdrawal of labor, because it’s not that kind of strike. It’s a refusal—a refusal to go along with the practices and the violences that make white sight “normal.””

“don’t break one window as an activist organization, break them all to show that this is not vandalism but a making visible of the operations of power”

“I think, for example, of protests during the 2015 #FeesMustFall movement in South Africa, where white students arranged themselves on the edges of the demonstrations so that if police were going to make arrests, they had to take visibly white bodies first”

“That’s a deployment of white privilege, but it’s also making it highly visible. And it was a decision with which the Black South African students were in agreement”

“rather than saying, “We as white-identified people are going to choose to do this,” it’s vital to be in relation to social movements led by feminists, LGBTQ+, Black, Brown, Indigenous, and other people of color and ask, “What would you like us to do?””

“Murmurations are patterns created by flocks of birds, particularly starlings, that swirl and circle in remarkable, fractal ways. I sat there for a long, long time watching the film, remembering a number of conversations I’d had with Fred Moten, my colleague, and some things I’d read by Saidiya Hartman, both of whom have used the idea of murmuration within the Black radical tradition. It is a different way to be together. It is a flying in formation, a way to put your body in formation, and it creates information, but not as the be all and end all. It creates informal beauty in transient patterns”

“there’s a kind of writing here, a kind of data inscription that generates a way of being together. It’s a way to “consent not to be a single being,” as Édouard Glissant put it, and to imagine a way of being beyond the heroic individual, which humans have found so hard to imagine”

“The murmuration shows how one could decenter “the” Human, moving away from what philosopher Sylvia Wynter calls “monohumanism,” the idea that whiteness is the one way to be human”

“There’s always anxiety from elites that those who are under surveillance are murmuring among themselves, which indeed they are. And that might lead to some other formation” Note: Yes! This is the end of Billy Bud, a murmur amongst the crew. A serendipitous connection, given Mirzoeff’s earlier invocation of Melville’s Bartleby.

“An old word for starling is “stare.” The murmuration of stares is a way of seeing beyond white sight—a collective way of seeing as something other than a single being”

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