The White Gaze is Killing Us: The Commodification of African-Americans

Commodification’s Deeply-Rooted History in America

When regarding the commodification of African-Americans, the institution of American slavery cannot go unnoticed. This stain on American history is arguably the origin of the contemporary means of commodifying African-Americans. 

Through the capitalist slave trade, the marketing of slaves during the slave trade gave birth to the white gazecommonly defined as the delusional and problematic perception of people of color held by privileged white peopleconsequently, the perceptions of the privileged class filter our media, literature, politics, entertainment, and more, infusing elitist and exclusionary ideals into them. Above all, this rhetoric can influence how the American public perceives a particular issue, meaning the white gaze acts as a tool to control the views of the public– a clear example of draconian censorship.

The main mechanism employed in the trading of slaves was

Slave auction advertisement describing those enslaved as “fine and healthy”. (Monticello Digital Library)

the slave auction. Here, black bodies were prepared for auction by being polished, dressed, fed, and relatively well treated. This was done in an effort to present the most visually appealing slaves to white consumers, not for the betterment of the slaves themselves. (Walton 11

This process resulted in the greatest profit for slaveholders, while reinforcing the institutions of white supremacy that allowed slaveholders to operate and retain their power. Due to the extensive influence of commodification, the culture of slavery pushed slaves to self-commodify. In an effort to appeal to the gaze white of consumers, slaves would compete to maintain their visual and overall appeal.   

Reintroducing the White Gaze…

As the commodification of African-American’s was further institutionalized and normalized, the white gaze began to spread into the realms of advertising through the marketing of black bodies.

Now, African-American’s were being represented in media through the white gaze in an effort to promote the slave trade industry. Advertisements, posters, and newspapers further objectified black bodies through the gaze of white consumers, using language that equated African-Americans with material goods for trade. (Reinhart 1)

By treating black bodies as an inanimate product and marketing them in order to appear as attractive as possible to white consumers, the prevailing sentiment of white supremacy and patriarchy was cemented into the fabric of American culture— having egregious effects on the representation and treatment of African-Americans today. To fully understand white gaze’s violent influence on the African-American community, one may look no further than the crack epidemic of the 80’s and the War on Drugs.  

Next: The Crack Epidemic