Here is something that should be acknowledged; we made national news. A swastika was painted on a dorm hall with the word “Trump.” Look, Time mentions us.
These kind of acts have increased since the election and they have been met with social outrage. I’ll come back to this.
Something that struck me while reading Dante’s Paradiso was the focus on sight. Dante has to see God and in order to do so the powers of his vision must be increased. My impression is that sight as a sense is weighed by Dante’s text as being far more important than any other senses. If anyone has a virtual copy of the book and is able to do a quick text-search, then I would implore you to please lookup words such as vision, sight, see, eyes and then report the results back to our class.
Not surprisingly, sight also seems to be important in Morrison’s Paradise. Sight is used as a comfort, a way to protect another while they are vulnerable “Just watch. I haven’t closed my eyes in seventeen days…I don’t want to sleep when nobody there to watch” (70). This protection extends to sacrificing one’s own well-being for others, such is the case when Anna Flood’s cat refuses to eat if it means turning her gaze away from her litter, “the cat would not eat while being watched” (115).
However, sight does not always protect. Deek watches Sweetie—outside of her house for the first time in six years—walk out of town, “The woman Deek was watching seemed to be leaving Cross Peter Street…moving resolutely north, where Deek knew there was nothing for seventeen miles” (114). Deek sees Sweetie “coatless on a chilly October morning” but decides not to do anything because he needs to open the bank on time, “After considering letting Poole wait and driving on to catch up with Sweetie, Deek cut off his motor.” Deek’s sight opened up a space for protection, but he did not take the action required to occupy that space.
Sight is important but it is not everything. The acts that have been witnessed in an increasing amount are important to see, but the fact that they are being seen now and with such an inflammatory outrage is misleading. I want to introduce both Akwugo Emejula and the website Verso Books into our class discussion (both were shown to me by Dr. McCoy), through Emejula’s article on Whiteness in the Brexit Vote. This article discusses something that we are now seeing in our own country; an increased number of racial attacks following a controversial vote. Emejula discusses the public’s response, “public ‘shock’ and outrage about increases in racial harassment seem to define racism as an aberration in Britain—that it only exists in relation to extraordinary events such as the Brexit vote (‘This is not who we are’).” She calls this the act of framing Whiteness as “innocent.”
Mejula also discusses sight and what she calls “performative outrage,” and I apologize for the lengthy quotation but it is too important to cut, “Secondly, whiteness also seeks absolution of responsibility through performative outrage. Racial attacks that heretofore would have remained ‘invisible’, ignored or subject to question (‘Aren’t you just being over-sensitive?’) now gain legitimacy through the white gaze. Now that some have decided to ‘see’ racism, it can, in a very limited and non-threatening way, be named. Whiteness is thus recast as witness to racism, but without any imperative to dismantle white supremacy, the system of racial hierarchy remains firmly in place, with whiteness preserved, unchallenged and intact.”
The claim that “This is not who we are” is not accurate. This is who we are. This is what our country elected. The wealth of our country was based on the exploitation of other people’s flesh. We can not only look at the most recent displays of Racial Attack without attending to the history of it and the white supremacy that enables the continuation of these attacks. The problem here is not simply a blindness to racism, it is a willed blindness countered by a performative sight. It is not enough to only “see” what is happening.
As Morrison shows in Paradise, sight is powerful, “The clenched fingers…hurt more than a blow and lasted longer. It produced a nagging pain that Kate’s and Anna’s scrubbing could not erase. Soane couldn’t understand it. There were no whites…around to agitate them…But during the war, while Ruby thrived, anger smallpoxed other places” (102). Here, Morrison shows that the removal of the sign cannot remove the sentiment. The Swastika painted on Nassau Hall “has been removed and the New York State Police in collaboration with Geneseo’s University Police Department are undertaking a full and immediate investigation” (Gail Glover’s email to the student body), but the sentiment behind it and the history that has produced it will not be erased so simply, and removing its sign from our sight does not remove its existence from our own.