Black sousveillance against ‘prototypical whiteness’: Thinking with Simone Browne

This is the seventh blog in the Race Critical & Decolonial Sociology series. This week we are reading Darkmatters: On the Surveillance of Blackness by Simone Browne, recommended and gifted to me by Jessie Daniels (thank you!). This book is a detailed study of how our understandings of contemporary practices of surveillance are deeply enhanced by the historicization of these practices in the history of racial slavery in the United States; it is thus focused on the United States and the particularity of the racialisation of blackness that defines that country. However, in its drawing out of several key themes – the surveillance of blackness, the retaliatory methods of sousveillance whose history can be traced from the slaveships to the present, the questions of epidermilisation, branding and visibility in a digital age against the backdrop of what Browne calls ‘prototypical whiteness’ – the book furthers the work of relationality I have been tracing since the outset of this series. For example, Browne adds to and deepens the critiques of Foucault laid out by Alexander Weheliye, focusing on the deraced reading of panopticism in Discipline and Punish.  Most significantly, she draws a thread between the inscription of race through epidermalisation as a form of control and commodification under slavery to contemporary biometrics as they are used in the implementation of the racialised carceral state today.

Darkmatters: On the Surveillance of Blackness is a book that places race, and specifically the process by which blackness is rendered significant and subject to possession, rule and punishment, at the heart of its analysis of surveillance. Simone Browne uses the archive, but also discussions of art in its many forms alongside more expected social science and race critical texts to develop a complex historicization of surveillance in the history of slavery, tracing its practices through slavery’s afterlives. The book also draws out the significance of race as technology, placing centrally an account of the myriad technologies – from the branding of enslaved people and ‘lantern laws’ to contemporary airport ‘security theatre’ – that underpin the doing of race. She thus sheds light on the myriad ways in which biometric technologies old and new are precisely not race neutral despite attempts to present them as such and their reception as objective by a majority among the public. This opens up important lines of questioning, specifically around the undetected ways in which race is inscribed in digital technologies; not only those with the specific remit of ‘enhancing security’ through ‘smarter’ policing practices, but also those that are considered to facilitate life, such as mobile app technologies with a variety of functions, technologies which are increasingly responsible for governing everyday interactions for a growing number of people in the Global North at least. Browne traces this presumption of objectivity back to the ‘prototypical whiteness’ that was established through the casting of Black populations as unruly, as always potentially threatening and in need of constant surveillance , thus legitimizing preemptive containment through a variety of methods.

There are three elements of her book which I found particularly interesting, two of which I will explore here. First, Simone Browne’s engagement with Frantz Fanon’s idea of epidermalisation as a means of enabling surveillance that is now further enabled by digitization with insidious effects for future generations of as yet unborn Black and racialised people. Second, her discussion of visibility in relation to prototypical whiteness and how making Black bodies visible, through lighting, invisibilises them politically through a process of flattening out and reification that shines a spotlight on white individuality and counterposes it to Black massification. This aspect helps me to think through ideas I have been developing as a result of my research (with Justine Humphry) into antiracism apps. In particular, through a focus on apps, such as the ‘Everyday Racism’ app, developed as a pedagogical tool to explain the effects of racism as ‘micro aggressions’, I argue that whiteness is centred affectively in the white consumption of racist experience, while the racialised is denied her subjectivity by being reduced to a prototype of that experience. In this discussion, I will draw on Browne’s use of Fanon to think further about how epidermalisation contributes to the denial of the self-ontology of racialised/colonised people that Fanon discusses in Black Skin, White Masks.

I will be unable to fully discuss Browne’s reference to what she calls ‘dark souveillance’ as a methodology for retaliating against surveillance in the name of the maintenance of white supremacy. However, I note it here as an important further area for exploration. Much like Weheliye‘s emphasis in Habeas Viscus on the existence of the potential for self-emancipation even in situations of acute deprivation, or what Neil Roberts in his talk at The New School, Theorizing Freedom, Radicalizing the Black Radical Tradition, referred to as the potential for a new beginning out of Fanon’s ‘zone of non-being‘, Browne too wishes to point to ‘possibilities for fugitive acts of escape’ (Browne 2015: 164). She proposes that it is ‘when blackness enters the frame’ that these acts of fugitivity, ‘resistance and the productive disruptions’ happen (ibid.). I take this to mean, not only that racialised people, and Black people in Browne’s account in particular, have always, contra portrayals of them as immutably submissive or improperly ‘uppity’, plotted exits and/or proposed alternatives in the face of the attempt to efface and dominate them. But also, I learn from this that by omitting blackness from the frame in the sense of refusing to see the centrality of the process of making blackness significant – in other words the conjuring of race – to our understanding of the social world in general, we are left with but a singular and limited dimension to our thinking on a variety of processes, such as, in this case, surveillance.

  1. Epidermalising practices of surveillance

One of the most difficult aspects of work on race is the paradoxical insistence in a postracial vein, on the one hand, that race is an unimportant (or less significant) lens of analysis and, on the other hand, that the racialised can be singularily defined. Thus, postracial arguments often insist, as Robin D.G. Kelley notes, that racism could be overcome if it weren’t for ‘dishonest Black leaders whose raison d’être was blaming “Whitey” for Black misery” (Kelley 2016). Thus, racism is relativized while Blackness is rendered unified in its objection to (white) common sense! In contradistinction, Browne reminds us, following Stuart Hall and Rinaldo Walcott, that Blackness is both ‘identity and culture, history and present, signifier and signified, but never fixed’ (Browne 2015: 8). Blackness, she states, is both ‘metaphor’ and ‘lived materiality’ (ibid. 7). In both these senses, then, blackness, and racialisation more generally, are fundamental for understanding the development of surveillance as a primary form of governmentality under modernity. Understanding ‘the ontological conditions of blackness’ in particular, as developed through Fanon’s conceptualization of ‘epidermalisation’, is crucial for Browne, for the development of a fuller theorization of surveillance. Thus, in line with the writers discussed in this series to date, Browne too argues that placing race and blackness centrally fills lacunae left by the lack of attention to them in most theorisations.

“Racism and anti-blackness undergird and sustain the intersecting surveillances of our present order” (Browne 2015: 8).

What Fanon was attempting to do in his discussion of epidermalisation was to describe how, as Paul Gilroy put it, bodies are made ‘meaningful by endowing them in qualities of “colour”‘ (Gilroy 2000: 46). Epidermalisation according to Gilroy stems from an ‘historically specific system’ – what we could call here the racial-colonial, including particularly the transatlantic slave trade – in which, for the first time, particular bodies were categorized and demarcated as submittable to particular treatment and under which a direct relation was drawn between bodily features and destined existence. The fiction of race (Fields and Fields 2012) is the yoking of what W.E.B. Du Bois (1903) summed up as ‘colour, hair and bone’ to the attributes of what Stuart Hall (1997) refers to as the ‘genetic code’ – the unseen quality that lends the racialised their supposed fixedness of character, of level of progress, and of ability.

The success of this fiction is precisely what shields from view the performative aspects of race that, from a race critical perspective, it is incumbent upon us to keep elaborating on. What are the processes through which blackness in this instance is lent meaning beyond the mere fact of variable human skin colour? As Fanon notes,

“Below the corporeal schema I had sketched a historico-racial schema. The elements that I used had been provided for me not by ‘residual sensations and perceptions primarily of a tactile, vestibular, kinesthetic, and visual character,’ but by the other, the white man, who had woven me out of a thousand details, anecdotes, stories” (Fanon, 2008[1967]: 84).

Fanon makes this remark in reaction to the news that ‘for several years certain laboratories have been trying to produce a serum for “denegrification”’ (ibid. 83). The aim was ‘for the miserable Negro to whiten himself and thus to throw off  the burden of that corporeal malediction’ (ibid. 84). But skin colour has to be given significance and is not the whole story in the case of the colonized and of Black people, first under racial slavery and later Jim Crow.

The institutionalization of the ‘one-drop’ rule over the course of the nineteenth century in the United States sought to rectify in law anxieties over miscegenation. Therefore, before becoming codified as the ‘one-drop’ rule, a host of regulations and codes governing slavery established the conditions under which blackness was a quality that went far beyond skin colour itself. Frank Wilderson has argued that, ‘Africans went into the ships and came out as Blacks’ (Wilderson 2010: 38). As Matthieu Chapman argues, there is a ‘critical slippage’ in this statement, because it does not explain why ‘Black Africans as opposed to other non-English Others were suitable for dislocation from their homelands and being placed in the hold of transatlantic slave ships’ (Chapman 2016). Chapman’s argument is that colour difference was more important in early modern England than is often thought. Nevertheless, the fact remains that in terms of how race has been fashioned, over time following the conquest of the Americas, and through the establishment of the transatlantic slave trade and the institutionalization of colonial rule, blackness becomes increasingly welded to inferiority as a function of the utility it has as a category.

Browne examines ‘surveillance technologies instituted through slavery to track blackness as property’ (Browne 2015: 64). These practices have the function of further dehumanizing blackness, in the sense meant by Fanon when he writes, ‘the black is not a man’ (Fanon 2008[1967]: 1). To be considered and legislated for beyond the realm of Man/humanity, as habeas viscus to take up Weheliye again, is to conjure the Black person as in need of such disciplinary control. In other words, the ‘fact of blackness’ is insufficient; blackness must constantly be remade so as to associate a disparate group of people with particular life conditions – be that slavery or, today, mass incarceration in the US, Australia, or Brazil.

In her discussion of Bentham’s panopticon and the use of Foucault of his design as the linchpin of modern disciplinary societies, Browne notes that the making of slaves required both spectacular and disciplinary violence: ‘the violent regulation of blackness as spectacle and as disciplinary combined in the racialising surveillance of the slave system’ (Browne 2015: 42). Branding was one of the methods used, not only to account for individuals, but as a ‘”massifying” practice that constituted a new category of subject, blackness as a salable commodity in the Western Hemisphere’ (ibid.). Practices such as branding, plantation rules, black codes, identity papers, lantern laws, dress codes, runaway notices, etc. were all mechanisms that served to institutionalise race in black bodies.

Branding irons on display at the Wilberforce House Museum

Branding is one of the principal ways, dwelled upon by Browne, through which certain meaning was ascribed to ‘certain bodies: as a unit of traceable goods, runaways, survivors’ (ibid. 91). Browne elucidates branding both as the practice of literally searing ‘hot irons on skin’, but also as a ‘racialising act, where the one-drop rule was a technology of branding blackness that maintained the enslaved body as black’ (ibid. 92). Browne cites David Goldberg who, in The Racial State, notes that ‘in the ‘naturalized extreme, racially identified groups are treated much like the natural resources found in the environment’ (Goldberg 2002: 110-11). So branding before embarcation onto the slave ships was akin to marking ‘resources to be extracted’ (Browne 2015: 94). Branding also has the function of categorising people into ‘fit’ and ‘unfit’ workers. In so doing, Browne argues, one is endowed with a racial identity ‘tied to a system of exploitation’ (ibid.). This identity, as Fanon of course also impresses upon us,  is carved out in relation to what Joe Feagin calls the ‘white racial frame‘ (Feagin 2009). In the slave barracoon, Browne claims, ‘an ontological link between labour preparedness, race, ethnicity, and resistance’ was established (Browne 2015: 95). Blackness within the ‘white racial frame’ was constituted as unruly, with individuals deemed less or more so and racialised on that basis. Hence slaves were described by merchants and owners as ‘black and fine’ or ‘lusty and strong’ (ibid.). The ‘white racial frame’, therefore, works in conjunction with an,

“anti-black subframe that rationalises slavery and its attendant violence by framing, or I would say by branding, blackness as ‘bestial’ ‘alien’, ‘rebellious’, among other markers of difference in the white mind”(Browne 2015: 94).

Browne notes the gendered nature of this construction of anti-blackness, showing how Black women are portrayed as either or both servile and sexual, and in any case as wholly opposite to white women. Both Black women’s fertility as well as their supposed sex drive were feared and desired by the European as Robert Young and Sander Gilman among others have observed. This association of Black women, forged in slavery, with uncontrollability in the realms of sex and reproduction continues to the present day. For example, in Killing the Black Body, a book which has just been reprinted with a new preface owing to its continued applicability, Dorothy Roberts analyses the ‘long experience of dehumanizing attempts to control Black women’s reproductive lives’ (Roberts 1997: 4). Roberts traces this history,

“from slave masters’ economic stake in bonded women’s fertility to the racist strains of early birth control policy to sterilization abuse of Black women during the and 1970s to the current campaign to inject Norplant and Depo-Provera in the arms of Black teenagers and welfare mothers” (ibid.)

As Roberts comments in the introduction to Killing the Black Body, the curbing of Black women’s reproductive freedom is a major means through which whites in US society are made to believe that ‘racial inequality is perpetuated by Black people themselves’ (Roberts 1997: 5). Black people within white supremacy are seen as causing their own discrimination through procreation under the belief that the very act of birthing Black babies perpetuates racism by repeating the cycle of racial disadvantage. Rather than tackling the structures of white supremacy according to which Black life is considered a problem, even before birth, the continued perpetuation of sterilization practices, the separation of black mothers from babies through the growing epidemic of Black female incarceration, or the victimization and social control of Black mothers through the racialised welfare system and its attendant stereotypes of the Black ‘welfare queen’ continue to prop it up long after the apparent dawn of civil rights.

Banania, still sold today in squeegee packets!

Browne extends her discussion of branding into what she calls, following Anne McClintock, ‘commodity racism’. Fanon’s example is Banania, the chocolate drink advertised by the figure of the tirailleur sénégalais and advertised by the expression, ‘Ya’Bon Banania’:

“I discovered my own blackness, my ethnic characteristics; and I was battered down by tom-toms, cannibalism, intellectual deficiency, fetichism, racial defects, slave-ships, and above else, above all: ‘Sho’ good eatin’ (Ya’bon Banania)'” (Fanon 2008[1967]: 84-5).

This commodification travels not only through the use of racialised imagery to sell what are, perversely, the natural resources extracted by the labour of enslaved people – chocolate, sugar, and coffee primarily – but also in the useful creation of figures such as the ‘welfare queen’ or the ‘thug’ for metaphorical consumption by whites. Much like the branding as categorisation, referred to by Browne, in Robin D.G. Kelley‘s chapter in Policing the Planet: Why the Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter, he shows how the labelling of some Blacks as ‘thugs’ serves in the perpetuation of white supremacist structural conditions. Kelley examines how colorblindness, an ostensibly liberal idea, contributed to the expansion of a ‘criminal justice architecture that fueled mass incarceration’ (Kelley 2016). A major reason for this is a belief among liberals that African-Americans themselves need protection from ‘mob violence’ (ibid.). In other words, that ‘thugs’ and ‘hoodlums’ were the criminal element that could be distinguished from ‘the good Negroes thus closing off the possibility of empathy with those who may have broken the law’ (ibid.). Thus, in what Kelley calls the court of public opinion, it is incumbent upon individuals to prove ‘that one is not a thug’ (ibid.). The aim of this is,

“to both criminalize and dehumanize the dispossessed while masking the violent operations of the state and capital: criminal neglect by landlords and city officials; rampant fraud (from mortgage brokers and loan companies to insurance firms and bail bondsmen); unwarranted price hikes for commodities, rent, and services – in short the actual source of thuggery” (ibid.)

This in turn justifies the systems of mass surveillance which, Browne shows, are developed in extension of the same logic that brought about branding and the other technologies developed originally under slavery into the present day. The biometric branding of blackness is a form of ‘digital epidermalisation’ that renders ‘certain bodies [as] digitized code’ (Browne 2015: 108).

“By digitized code I am referring to the possibilities of identification that are said to come with certain biometric information technologies, where algorithms are the computational means through which the body, or more specifically parts, pieces, and, increasingly, performances of the body are mathematically coded as data, making for unique templates for computers to then sort by relying on a searchable database” (ibid. 109).

Lewis Gordon

Browne sees the various techniques of biometrics (e.g. facial recognition, iris scans, fingerprinting, DNA, etc.) as a toolbox constructed as necessary to prove one’s legitimacy to be in a certain place. Racialised bodies, and certain racialised people in particular as per Kelley’s example of the ‘thug’, are always considered to be ‘out of place’. They are ‘ontologically insecure’ (ibid.) and hence, increasingly, these biometric tools are used to verify individuals’ right to be/exist according to a database. As Browne writes, citing Fanon, biometrics both produce and necessitate ‘ontological insecurity where “all around the body reigns an atmosphere of certain uncertainty”‘ (ibid.; Fanon 2008(1967): 90). Browne quotes Lewis Gordon who calls this atmosphere of certain uncertainty ‘the problematic of a denied subjectivity’ (Gordon 2010: 239). The denial of subectivity in anti-Black racism, for example, allows for anything to be done to the Other who is considered to have no subjectivity. But because the non-existence of Black people’s subjectivity is of course a fiction made up within the ‘white racial frame’, what this leaves us with is the fact that Black people subjected to racism experience the world as ‘a world in which all is permitted against him or her’ (ibid.).

Digital epidermalisation is a further compounding of the ‘paradoxical’ growth in state sanctioned racialised violence and repression (policing, incarceration, asylum detention, border control, etc.) within a ‘racial liberal’ frame, pointed to by Robin Kelley. Surveillance technologies, as Browne remarks, are construed as a ‘disembodied gaze’ which ‘do the work of alienating the subject by producing a truth about the racial body and one’s identity (or identities) despite the subject claims’ (Browne 2015: 110). However, because the very digitization of these technologies lend them a veneer of objectivity and neutrality that, by taking away – or so it seems – the power of human arbitration are ‘colourblind’ and thus not biased by racialised ideas.

Of course, this view of racism as attitudinal is precisely the problem, alluded to at the outset of this section, which contributes to obscuring the persistence of ‘racialising assemblages’, to borrow from Alexander Weheliye. However, far from being race neutral, Browne shows how biometrics R&D publications precisely map onto ‘earlier pseudo-scientific racist and sexist discourse’ in a variety of ways (ibid.: 112). For example, face detection technology studied in one publication examined by Browne could be used to ‘classify facial features by race and gender’ (ibid.). However, the gender classification system it uses “is inclined to classify Africans as males and Mongoloids as females” (Gao and Ai, cited in Browne 2015: 112). Not only does this area of research continue to use unproblematised racial categorizations, it reinscribes racist ideas according to which Black women are deemed more masculine and Asian men more feminine.

White by Richard Dyer

These systems thus operate on the basis of what Browne calls, ‘prototypical whiteness’ whereby, following Richard Dyer, white people ‘come to seem to have a special relationship to light’ (Dyer 1997: 103). This literal ‘hogging of the limelight’ by whites is only made possible by the relationship to ‘dark matter’ which, in iris-scanning technology, establishes a black-white binary where dark matter is clustered at one end of the spectrum. The implication of this is two-fold: Not only do those who do not fall into the category of ‘prototypical whiteness’ go unrecognized where technology is ostensibly meant to benefit the user (e.g. web cams, passport scanning machines, etc.) thus effectively creating the situation where, in an increasingly digital environment the majority of the world’s population cannot avail of these technologies. But, more insidiously, when facial recognition and similar devices, in addition to failing to see darkmatter, also rely on other markers such as ‘spacing between eyes’, ‘thickness of mouth’ etc, what happens if ‘these systems “can search for faces with a certain feature, if the degree of the feature quantity is designated”‘ (ibid. 114)? As Browne remarks, because these technologies are designed – racially – to work with ‘categories of gender identity and race that are clear cut’, then they can be put to use in determining ‘who has access to movement and stability, and to other rights?’ (ibid.).

These concerns lead to the pressing question, ‘how do we understand the body once it is made into data?’ (ibid.). As Browne remarks, crucially, one thing we do know about these processes is that they are not race neutral. We do not decrease racialisation by ‘outsourcing’ the work of recognition and identification (e.g. at the airport, the border, and in the US at entries to all manner of buildings), to biometric scanners:

“these machines are designed and operated by real people to sort real people” (ibid. 115)

Rather what the study of modern biometrics reveals is that they are a further iteration in the cultural production of race one which, as Browne shows, deepens rather than weakens the bifurcation between ‘prototypical whiteness’ and racialised otherness.

2. Constructing the prototypically white antiracist


In the prologue to Browne’s second chapter in which she elaborates on the evolution of ‘lantern laws’ and what she calls the ‘technologies of seeing which are racialising in their application’ (Browne 2o15: 24), she relates the uncanny events of the third season of the Canadian reality TV show, Mantracker.

In the episode, Al and Garfield, ‘viewers are invited to “watch as these urban warriors draw on the history of the Underground Railroad for inspiration to escape the unflappable Mantracker”‘ (ibid. 63). Browne uses the incongruity of two Black men from Toronto playing at survival being described as ‘fugitives’ ‘to question the surveillance technologies instituted through slavery to track blackness as property’ (ibid. 64). Al and Garfield play the role of ex-slaves on the run and evoke the experiences of their ancestors fleeing over the border into Canada. Browne uses this episode to point to the ways in which the TV show, while potentially contributing to revealing the invisibilised history of Black presence in Canada (Walcott 1997), also synoptically dishes up ‘Black escape as entertainment’ (ibid. 65).

What Fanon knew when he said ‘For not only must the black man be black – he mjust be black in relation to the white man’ (Fanon 2008[1967]: 82-3) is that race is brought to life through processes of objectification that require each to play her role. The role played by the racialised in this schema is always for white society, to exemplify the difference between them in favour of whites. Thus, Black people, in Fanon’s reckoning, cannot just be; they must be Black, which is in and of itself a function that whites require of them. Simone Browne examines the institutionalization of lantern laws in colonial New York city, a surveillance practice which she says produces ‘black luminosity’ (Browne 2015: 67), to show how it is insufficient just to racialise Africans as Black; It is also necessary to constantly maintain the boundary between blackness and whiteness by subjecting the black body to ‘a high visibility’ which, she claims, ‘sought to render the subject outside of the category of the human, unvisible’ (ibid. 67).

Following armed insurrection by Black slaves in New York City in April 1712, the codes that governed Black life were consolidated. One of the laws ‘spoke explicitly to the notion of visual surplus and the regulation of mobility by way of candle lanterns’ (ibid. 77). No Black or Indian slaves were to be permitted to be outside after sunset without a lantern or lighted candle and at least one had to be carried  between every three people. Blacks and Indians were constituted as ‘security risks in need of supervision after dark’ (ibid. 78). This had the effect of making the Black body ‘knowable, locatable and containable within the city’ (ibid. 79). It is interesting to note that the recent introduction of LED street lights in certain areas of Harlem and Brooklyn by New York City Mayor, Bill De Blasio, are part of a strategy of ‘omnipresence’ which includes the hyper-visible stationing of police officers at 15 housing developments. The lights themselves, as well as the noise that accompanies their generation,  are disturbing residents’ sleep. Here visibility works in two ways: not only are residents – mainly low-to-middle income Black and other racialised people – made visible, but also the presence of the lights themselves, creating discomfort, are a visible reminder the state’s surveillance over them.

Browne uses this discussion to then show how they triggered resistances among Black people, for example through the persistence of what she calls ‘social networking’ that went on despite white surveillance. I want to use this discussion of the enforced heightened visibility that produces un-visibility to discuss the various ways in which race is made visible through the application of mobile media technology to antiracism.

If Browne is showing us that making visible is one of the key ways through which racialisation is enacted, this raises crucial questions about the ways in which visibility has been proposed as a necessary response to the active invisibilisation of marginalized people in general, and the racialised in particular. There are many good arguments made about the need to increase the visibility of Black people and other racialised minorities, for example in the media, in retaliation against their relegation behind the scenes. In Australia, certainly, the almost complete failure of mainstream media and popular culture to reflect the racial diversity of the country (42% of Sydnesiders for example were born abroad) represents an ongoing concern. Nevertheless, what Browne’s discussion of Mantracker I think suggests is that visibility in itself is insufficient, the question of autonomy and accuracy in representation is important. The constant surveillance that Black people in the US have experienced, for example, has led to an internalization of ‘an expectation of the potential of being watched’ (ibid. 76). There are important ways, as we shall see, in which this does not nevertheless thwart public performances of cultural, political and individual autonomy that go on despite the racialising surveilling gaze. As was remarked on in class, Black people have always been subject to surveillance and thus do not feel the same shock at the incursion into privacy of the surveillance state as many whites, particularly in the age of Trump, are now expressing. Nonetheless, there is a long way between these knowing performances in a variety of genres and the utilization of these representations for the purposes of making visible in ways which, albeit often unknowing or unintentionally damaging, nevertheless have the effect of being so.

This is how I connect Browne’s discussion of visibility to my own ongoing research, with Justine Humphry, into the various usages of mobile media apps for antiracist intervention and education. We surveyed a number of apps of various kinds that have been developed in France, the UK and Australia. The first results of our study have been published here. These apps have different remits, including the reporting of racist and Islamophobic acts. They join a burgeoning group of mobile media apps being developed in different locations, such as the NYCLU Stop and Frisk app, the CopWatch app and one mentioned in class, Cop Block, all of which we hope to carry out further research into among others. It is remarkable that the North American apps are focused on policing, clearly in response to the #BlackLivesMatter movement and its initial focus on police brutality and the killings of Black women and men. In contrast, the Australian and European apps had the remit of either education or reporting or in some instances both.

Clearly, these mobile apps are situated in a broader media environment in which ‘the phone in your pocket’ increasingly becomes a tool for what Simone Browne calls ‘sousveillance’. However, it should be noted that the reporting function of some of the apps, which requires collusion with the criminal justice system (i.e. through the use of data generated by the apps to report hate crimes for example to the police) can also potentially constitute a form of surveillance. I do not have the capacity to enter into this discussion here, but it is an important one which I shall elaborate on elsewhere. Browne borrows the term sousveillance from Steve Mann who defines it as,

“observing and recording by an entity not in a position of power or authority over the subject of the veillance.”

Browne names George Holliday’s video of the brutal beating by LAPD of Rodney King as an example of sousveillance using cameras and/or recording devices. Holliday’s actions are an example of what she calls, ‘citizen undersight’. The need to ‘watch the watchers‘ has been recognized in light of the expansion of the police state in insidious ways. My undergraduate class, Race and Resistance, had a guest lecture from Hamid Khan who works for the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition. A great part of what the organization does is to engage in sousveillance of the police and other agents of authority, such as welfare agencies, that increasingly surveil the lives of poor Black women in particular through the production of endless data about the minutiae of their lives which is then used to deny them service, remove their children, incarcerate them, etc.

Mobile phone cameras with their ability today to shoot high quality digital video and for it to be uploaded in seconds or track events in real-time have undoubtedly contributed immeasurably to global awareness of police brutality in the United States in particular. Events such as the NYPD’s choking to death of Eric Garner, whose last gasped words ‘I can’t breathe’ were broadcast repeatedly, or the killing of Philando Castile in his car, transmitted on Facebook Live by his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds are but two of the thousands of killings that have occurred, some of which have been brought to light since the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012 that unleashed #BlackLivesMatter and the Movement for Black Lives.

Say her Name campaign

Far fewer killings of Black women have been captured on tape, with the arrest of Sandra Bland which led to her later death being one exception. The push to recall that Black women too, and Black and Latina trans women in particular, are also regular targets both of police brutality and violent misogyny is at the centre of campaigns such as #SayHerName. Visibility here goes beyond capturing events on camera, but also is intertwined with the question of what can be seen and what it is felt it is important to show. Significant as the fact is that the ready availability of digital technology and social media has forced us to see what is going on, the circulation of seemingly endless images of Black death has also been criticized as failing to deliver justice.

While recent events in Australia, such as the revelation of the brutal treatment of Aboriginal children in juvenile detention brought to light by the ABC 4 Corners report into the Don Dale Youth detention facility in Alice Springs in 2016 triggered action that precipitated a Royal Commission (inquest) into youth detention in the Northern Territory, child abuse had been ongoing for years and continues across Australia. The release of the CCTV footage of the final hours of Ms Dhu, an Aboriginal woman from western Australia who died in a police cell following arrest for unpaid fines did not result in the police who caused her death due to neglect borne of racism being released from their duties.

Beyond the fact that greater visibility does not equate with greater justice, as can be seen also in the multiple acquittals of police perpetrators and others such as Trayvon martin’s murderer, George Zimmerman, the offering up of evidence of Black death may also have a banalizing effect. I think it was during the episode of the excellent Always Already Podcast during which Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks was discussed that one of the contributors likened the footage of murders of Black people to lynching postcards. There is the potential for a loss of control over the image which occurs when it is out online. As the comments sections under any such videos would attest, there is a difference between what happens to viral imagery once it is ‘out there’ and the publication of the photos of murdered teenager Emmett Till, for example because, as Christina Sharpe pointed out in a recent article, his mother, Mamie chose to publish the photographs of her son’s mutilated face and body in a Black publication, Jet magazine.

“those images had nothing to do with white consciousness. They were for Black people, because Jet was a Black publication. They weren’t meant to create empathy or shame or awareness from white viewers. They were meant to speak to and to move a Black audience” (Sharpe 2017)

Christina Sharpe was responding to the painting by Dana Schutz, entitled ‘Open Casket’, in this year’s Whitney Biennial which is based on a  photograph of Till’s body but which has been criticised ‘because it is not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun, though the practice has been normalized for a long time’, as artist Hannah Black wrote in an open letter to the exhibition’s organizers. Nevertheless, Sharpe argues, with reference to the video of the Rodney King beatings, there is a difference, because, as in the case of Emmett Till/Jet Magazine, these raw images make Black people aware ‘across gender and across time, from 1955 to the present. Once you’ve seen those photos you’re quite aware, if you weren’t already, of how your body is in and out of place, in and out of space, in ways that can be violated’ (Sharpe 2017). She argues that the painting, ‘Open Casket’, does not do the same work because it serves to re-anonymise Emmett Till through abstraction; although the photographs of Emmett Till’s body were traumatizing for Black people, they were real.

I introduced this discussion, which may appear to take us beyond that of the antiracism apps, to think about the importance of having control over the images that are placed on websites, social media feeds, and indeed apps for those who are directly concerned by them. Sharpe notes that there is always the danger of ‘the recirculation of Black suffering for white enjoyment’. Making tools to draw attention to or combat racism often relies on a portrayal of racism; how else, it is perhaps thought, is it possible to make clear what one is asked to be against? In today’s visually saturated age, empathy is considered to be enhanced through the transmission of images; the case of Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler watched up on the Turkish shore being a case in point. As this Independent newspaper report notes, the images of the boy were seen by 20 million people in twelve hours. However, images are not race neutral and the message they are established to convey either enhance our understanding of what race does, or compounds that doing by re-inscribing the attendant stereotypes and/or, as Christina Sharpe, shows, actively retraumatising those to whom race is done.

The Everyday Racism app

One of the apps we examined in the course of our research was the Everyday Racism app, developed by the Australian antiracism NGO, Altogether Now. The app has a pedagogical aim and invites those who download it to submit themselves to a seven day experience during which they receive messages, alerts and tweets about experience of everyday racism affecting one of three racialised characters, Vihaan, an Indian man, Aisha, a veiled Muslim woman, or Patrick, an Aboriginal man. The stated aim is, by illustrating the daily effects of racism, that users be empowered to intervene in situations of racism as, what the organizers calls, ‘bystander antiracists’.

Users can choose to play any one of the characters, or can choose to play ‘yourself’, a faceless, raceless, and genderless avatar. Both Justine Humphry and I as well as Fordyce et al (2016) have critiqued this choice:

“[T]he spectre of the central and privileged figure rears its head: there is also the option to play as “yourself”. Presented as a genderless silhouette, this figure lacks any racial identity. This figure, in being unmarked, is the implicit white norm a case which is reinforced as the player experiences other positions…[U]nlike the other avatars, the character of “You” is never visible, and, in either case, never directly experiences racism in the course of the game. The unmarked “You” is always a third party to racialised abuse” (Fordyce, Neale and Apperley 2016)

What does the possibility to play ‘yourself’ and to consume, not only images, including video, of racialised characters (albeit fictional), but also their experiences of racism contribute to Browne’s discussion of epidermalisation: the making of the Black body an object among other objects? Can the Everyday Racism app be understood as a form of racial commodification, albeit for a purportedly antiracist end? Are all antiracisms equal?

Of course, ‘you/yourself’ can be played by anyone. However, the presentation of the character as raceless, coupled with the promotional material in which a white hand browses the app, presupposes a white norm. By never embodying ‘yourself’, the possibility of neutrality in relation to race is presented as self evident. We are presented with three categories of people : those who are raced (racialised minorities in need of protection), those who are racist and have agency (the problem to be countered), and those who are non-racist/race neutral who also have agency and are encouraged to make use of it by becoming ‘bystander antiracists’.

I have found an article by the psychoanalyst, Derek Hook, useful to analyze the role of embodiment and the link to epidermalisation in play in the construction of this app. Hook (2008) draws on the work of South African psychologist, Chabani Manganyi. What do the raced and non-raced characters presented to the user by the Everyday racism app designers imply for an understanding of the relationship between race and embodiment? For Hook, drawing on both Manganyi and Fanon, the body is ‘the living vessel of experience’ onto which ideological meanings and racist fantasy are projected. According to Manganyi, the most persistent equation in western culture is that of whiteness with the mind  and blackness with the body, the first being seen as superior to the latter. The choice in the Everyday racism app to represent the bystander or ‘yourself’ as raceless appears to reproduce this distinction. The, it is assumed, white player who has the agency to confront racism experienced by others, does not have to be embodied for him/her to understand  themselves as an agent capable of transformative action. Racelessness is equated with whiteness, thus cerebral, and in the context of the app’s intent – to provoke bystander antiracism action – is capable of stepping back from and conceptualising racism in order to be able to take action. Yourself seems to be a disembodied representation of what Browne names as ‘prototypical whiteness’. In contrast, the raced characters are embodied, and as Manganyi says, in the racial schema, are ‘devalued’ and hence ‘deserving of denial and repression’. But also, in this context, perhaps of pity.

Secondly, the Everyday racism app presents the raced body as a problem. According to Hook,

“[R]acist colonial embodiment: the balance of the body’s relation to the world, to other bodies, to its own positive identity, to an array of cultural and historical values, is almost completely obliterated… We have an intersection here of two traumatic conditions… “embodied absence” and “disembodied presence”.’

The double trauma of embodied absence and disembodied presence recalls W.E.B. Du Bois’s question in The Souls of Black Folk: ‘How does it feel to be a problem?’ The app not only establishes racism as a problem, to be acted upon by raceless and, it is suggested, non-racist bystanders; the three raced characters are presented to us as the bodily representation of the problem to be solved for our consumption, or, as Christina Sharpe puts it, because this is after all a game, for the enjoyment of white people.

Example of text sent to players of the Everyday racism app

Hook reminds us that embodied absence refers to souls ‘evacuated of psychological presence’. In the case of this app, these are the three raced characters, Aisha, Vihaan and Patrick, whose experiences are messaged to the player as consumable ‘bites’ of information, but whose psychic state we have no insight into. Disembodied presence refers to the fact that the three characters’ views are not presented and neither is their opinion about how to counter the racism they are facing sought. They therefore have no possibility to act upon the racist structure. They are there but not there.

For Fanon, this double trauma means the colonised ‘experiences his physical being in a series of mutilated disjunctions. Thus, ‘no real dialectical interchange can be maintained’ (Hook 2008). In the case of the app, therefore, only ‘yourself’ can be the true knower of racism. Indeed, in The Erotic Life of RacismSharon Patricia Holland reminds us of Toni Morrison’s words: ‘definitions belong to the definers not the defined.’ The Everyday racism app, by embodying the raced characters and disembodying ‘yourself’, and thus whiteness more generally, attributes the power of definition to those unaffected by racism.

Drawing on Fanon’s descriptions of epidermalisation, Hook argues that understanding racism requires ‘getting under the skin’, reaching the answer to the question of ‘what it feels like to be a problem’. This cannot be done in a schema that reduces Blackness and the racialised more broadly to physicality, while disembodying whiteness. In short, the structural context for racism – white supremacy – is not given a face/a body. It can therefore maintain neutrality or what Gloria Wekker calls, ‘white innocence’.

Drawing this discussion back to Browne’s exploration of ‘black luminosity’, it is clear that for a certain liberal understanding of antiracism, racist experience needs to be highlighted. It is not taken to be something that can be understood without reduction to nugget-sized vignettes. Remaining with the the darkness/lightness analogy, this strikes me because white people are ‘in the dark’ about the very thing – racism – they are responsible for. We need, it is presumed, to shine light on racism, and in the course of it, on racialised people, for racism to be literally ‘brought to light’. The use of this language is interesting to me; there is a perversity here – racism persists precisely because it is kept ‘in the dark’ despite occurring in ‘broad daylight’. How many metaphors exist for talking about phenomena as either revealed or obscured? But the fact remains that the very thing that white people do remains obscure to them – in the dark – and the only way, to reveal their own actions and structures to themselves is through the shining of light – the un-visibilisation, to use Browne’s terminology, of the people they render invisible through the doing of race.

What Simone Browne shows very clearly in Darkmatters, is that surveillance – being watched – has been a constant since race was branded onto black bodies. The dark sousveillance she reveals Black people to be engaged in, both through daily practices, such as glances back, or through the myriad art forms she analyses, too detailed to examine here, has accompanied that surveillance since the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade, beginning on the ships themselves. What my discussion of the Everyday racism app has shown, I hope, is that these forms of dark sousveillance cannot be incorporated into a ‘racial liberal’ viewpoint (Kelley 2016). The moment racialised experiences are transformed into data for white consumption within a structure that sees complicity with white supremacy as unimportant – observable here by the unproblematic presentation of the unraced avatar ‘yourself – then they become tools of sur- and not sous-veillance.

Nevertheless, it bears noting that the very act of writing about racist crimes, such as some of those referred to above, from the perspective of someone who cannot be interpellated by similar experiences, cannot be completely retractable from these forms of surveillance and/or commodification. However, I hope there are ways of doing this work that tempers that effect. Browne reminds us of Katherine McKittrick’s innovation that, ‘there is a danger of reproducing “racial hierarchies that are anchored by our ‘watching over’ and corroborating practices of violent enumeration”‘ (McKittrick 2015). And so, being mindful of this, I note that no one on this terrain is beyond criticism, myself least of all.

 

 

 

 

 


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