On White Supremacist Voyeurism: Reflections on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me

“Son, Last Sunday the host of a popular news show asked me what it meant to lose my body…”
–Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me is a letter to his son about the ever-present danger of violence that might, at any second, beset the black body. Choosing a personal letter as the literary form for Between the World and Me is significant as it transforms would-be innocent readers into invasive voyeurs. And this transformation is inseparable from another transformation: the transformation of what ought be a deeply intimate and private conversation between a parent and child regarding the latter’s body into a product for public consumption. Together these transformations—from innocent reader to invasive voyeur—are simultaneously revelatory and assertive. That is to say, Coates’ letter simultaneously asserts and reveals that any conversation between a black parent and their black child about the child’s body is always and already a matter of public and political discourse.

There are certainly similarities between the moments of transformation brought about by Coates’ book and the rallying slogan popularized by second-wave feminism—“the personal/private is political”—yet there are also important differences. Among the important differences is this: the public/political nature of discourse on and around the black body is not rooted in “personal/private problems” but in the black body’s entrance into the modern Western world. Black people entered the modern West as chattel to be consumed, controlled, and disciplined by white supremacists in the name of “God,” democracy, and freedom. Because the religious, socioeconomic, and political stakes were so high for white supremacists, the work of controlling black bodies was reinforced through constant, obsessive, obscene surveillance. From this perspective, the literary form of Between the World and Me can be read as making an important claim regarding Black Lives Matter: the problem is not that Black Lives do not matter in the United States but that Black Lives only matter as bodies reduced to objects of what I will call white supremacist voyeurism.

Like Cornel West’s classic conception of the “normative gaze,” white supremacist voyeurism is concerned with the various ways in which Black bodies are subjected to aesthetic norms rooted in romanticized notions of classic Hellenism. However, white supremacist voyeurism is not solely or even primarily concerned with aesthetic norms but with white culture’s obscene obsession with monitoring and controlling black bodies. This obscene obsession is rooted in the political, economic, and environmental greed that was the root of modern colonialism and continues to nourish contemporary Western globalization. A Eurocentric, patriarchal, xenophobic Christianity has been the religious tradition used to justify white supremacist voyeurism. Slavery, lynching, Jim Crow, mis- and under-education, and mass incarceration characterize the social practices and institutions used to maintain white supremacist voyeurism into U.S. In an attempt to be succinct: white supremacist voyeurism names the function of various apparatuses which help ensure that black life will only ever matter as bodies to be controlled and consumed in the name of ideals deemed more valuable than black life (e.g., law and order, “God’s Word,” “normal, healthy” families, free markets, etc.).

Coates underscores the pervasive nature of white supremacist voyeurism early in his book, writing, “But by now I am accustomed to intelligent people asking about the condition of my body without realizing the nature of their request.” Here I read Coates as helping us understand that to ask an unapologetically Black person about racism, to query such a person about the grounds on which Black Lives Matter is to ask not primarily about “systems of oppression” but about what it is like to live in a body that is only ever treated and viewed as the object of obscene, obsessive monitoring. As Coates painstakingly reminds his son, the violence of white supremacist voyeurism is not rare or novel: “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.”

While critical of America’s obscene obsession with black bodies, white supremacist voyeurism is not merely an indictment (or acquittal) based on the color of one’s skin. Coates clarifies this point when writing about Prince George’s County (“PG County”). PG County represents the ever-present possibility that even black people—whose very bodies are the primary subjects of white supremacist voyeurism—in seeking to fulfill “the Dream” of safe, suburban American life, might forget that the beauty of blackness is “not a matter for gloating” but is instead the grounds for resistance. Coates uses “the Dream” throughout his book to identify the myth that keeps those “who believe they are white” from facing the tragic realities of what I am calling white supremacist voyeurism. Coates writes, “The Dream is treehouses and the Cub Scouts. The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies.” The Dream, though, is enticing; the comfort and perceived safety of the suburbs constantly beckons our faith and hope. To know that “the Dream” is so enticing that even victims of white supremacist voyeurism can be transformed into faithful practitioners is to know that an ethics of resistance will not be easily or neatly conceived.

One of the revolutionary hopes of the Black Lives Matter movement is for the creation of a country and world in which the value of black life is great enough to purchase an alternative to America’s accepted Dream; a Dream beyond white supremacist voyeurism’s obscene and violent obsession with black bodies. When viewed in light of the United States’ refusal to admit and repent for its inherently and explicitly racist foundations, the appeal of Christian eschatology seems sensible: who or what other than God can bring an end to white supremacy’s destructive obsession with black bodies? For Coates, the concept of God as deliverer of black bodies is problematic, but I see moral wisdom and courage in the raw, honest advice he leaves for his son. Coates writes, “The struggle is really all I have for you because it is the only portion of this world under your control.”

In the never-ending struggle to reimagine the grounds on which Black Lives Matter, the struggle is all we have. If victory means finally destroying white supremacist voyeurism, we do not have assurance of victory, but together we can struggle. We can resist the objectification of black bodies wherever we find it, whether we find it in ourselves or encounter it in the gaze of others. Holding in mind the vital role of accepted social institutions and practices in perpetuating white supremacist voyeurism, we can question any and all social norms that objectify black bodies. Recalling the political and economic roots that nurture white supremacist voyeurism, we can gather those we live with to rethink how we vote and spend. Remembering the environmental destruction wrought by white supremacist voyeurism, we can collectively tend to the health of the spaces we call home. Wherever we begin, however we feel compelled to act, the struggle against white supremacist voyeurism really is all we have. If we are not actively struggling, we are more than likely “Dreaming” and perpetuating the existence of a world in which black lives only matter as bodies to be consumed, controlled, and disciplined by white supremacy.

Ben Sanders, III

About Ben Sanders, III

Ben Sanders, III is Assistant Professor of Theology & Ethics at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. He is a Ph.D. candidate in the joint program of Religious and Theological Studies at the University of Denver and the Iliff School Theology where his dissertation, Traditioning Blackness: a Theo-Ethical Analysis of Black Identity in Black Theology, examines the perpetually transforming nature and role of black identity in black theology. Ben is a member of the American Academy of Religion’s Black Theology Steering Committee and has also served the AAR’s Transformative Pedagogy Consultation and its Graduate Student Committee.

Ben Sanders, III

Ben Sanders, III

Ben Sanders, III is Assistant Professor of Theology & Ethics at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. He is a Ph.D. candidate in the joint program of Religious and Theological Studies at the University of Denver and the Iliff School Theology where his dissertation, Traditioning Blackness: a Theo-Ethical Analysis of Black Identity in Black Theology, examines the perpetually transforming nature and role of black identity in black theology. Ben is a member of the American Academy of Religion’s Black Theology Steering Committee and has also served the AAR’s Transformative Pedagogy Consultation and its Graduate Student Committee.

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