The White Gaze is Killing Us: Introduction

Introduction

When regarding American culture, one can see the commodification of black bodies and culture everywhere—marketed with only the appeals of the white consumer in mind. But how did we get here? What institutionalized whiteness as the standard for existing in this country?

When Echol Cole and Robert Walker were crushed in a garbage truck, more than 1,300 Memphis sanitation workers went on strike to protest inhumane wages and working conditions. Photo taken February 12, 1968. (Richard L. Copley, 1968)

In 1968, nearly 1,300 sanitation workers in Memphis, TN went on strike following the deaths of their colleagues Echol Cole and Robert Walker. Although Memphis was facing a sever downpour that overflowed streets and sewers, the Memphis Sanitation Department still required their work force, comprised only of black men, to continue to work.

They received no benefits. They received no overtime pay. Most relied on welfare to support themselves, and their families, due to their extremely low pay. As a workforce– a nearly all black one at that– they were abused, neglected, and discriminated against by their employers.

So, when Echol Cole and Robert Walker decided to sit on the back of their garbage truck to shelter them from the sever rain, and when water caused the electrical compressor to malfunction and crush their bodies to death, what did the Memphis Sanitation Department do?

Nothing.

To them, they did not owe their workforce a living wage, safe working conditions, overtime pay for late shifts, breaks/time off, or even respect. Why?

Original newspaper article where Mayor Henry Loeb justified not giving sanitation workers a living wage by comparing their wages to New York, explaining that they could not afford New York wages. (Barney Sellers, 1968)

Because these black men were not considered human beings, instead they were the indentured servants of Memphis– only to be seen as a sanitation force for the state, nothing else.

This dehumanizing narrative is all too familiar in an anti-black, settler colonial state, where the deaths of people of color are normalized by regarding them as in excess. Settler colonialism is defined as “a distinct type of colonialism that functions through the replacement of indigenous populations with an invasive settler society that, over time, develops a distinctive identity and sovereignty.” (Veracini) This distinctive identity in America, and other imperialist states such as Canada and Great Britain, is whiteness– and anyone who does not fit this distinctive identity sticks out.

“This excess is carried in and on the bodies of Black peoples, it is embodied and illegible to the state, unable to be incorporated into Whiteness, and is thus always present before, beyond and against the state. Blackness as excess is, as Alex Weheliye explains, a fleshy excess. It spills over and protrudes; it cannot be contained. It is always escaping. It is always already too much.” -Eric Ritskes

The sheer embodiment of blackness is a threat to the sovereignty and identity of the state, subsequently creating the marginalization of people of color and any other group that deviates from the state’s identity.

In order for those deemed “other” to be seen as human, they must become one with the anti-black, colonial state. This would require the erasure of blackness and assimilation into whiteness, which the colonial state has equated to humanity. Ritskes builds on this, stating “there is only allowance of Black life in-so-far as it legitimates and supports settler colonialism, either materially (as through slavery) or through the seeking of inclusion and recognition.” (Ritskes 5)

The social and political ramifications resulting from this violent preservation and imposition of whiteness has shaped how black Americans are represented  and,  subsequently, treated by society. We can see the effects of this today by analyzing the stark responses by the public to the current opioid crisis and the crack cocaine & HIV/AIDS epidemics of the 80’s and 90’s. 

“Robbed of the markers of their social existence, the violence of commodification signaled to captives—stripped of material adornment, physically displaced, torn from the social embrace of kin and community—that they had been doomed to social annihilation.” – Stephanie Smallwood, Saltwater Slavery (60) 

By understanding the repercussions of the commodification of African-Americans on their health care access and incarceration rates, we can create sustaining solutions to the opioid crisis and rectify unjust legislation/action introduced in the past. The latter is critical– for the exclusion of those disenfranchised by the actions of our lawmakers from the solutions to the opioid  crisis will inevitably lead to further marginalization within those communities.

Next: America’s History of Commodification