White Voyeurism

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Patricia Williams gives what I think are terrible examples of a legitimate idea -- white voyeurism. She starts from the idea that white people tend not to think about race most of the time, as if it's a non-issue, unless you want to get into the bad aspects of those of other races that white people need to avoid or fight against (see Normative Whiteness and below and people's comments on it for some aspects of this). Now I have a much more positive outlook on most white people's attitudes about non-whites than she seems to have, but I do think there are some elements of this. I have definitely seen some evidence that white people enjoy controlled access to the fun cultural aspects of black society, for instance, but don't want to go out of their way for it to be much more than that. It's a spectator sport.

She somehow thinks the O.J. Simpson trial was an example of this, and I'm sure she'd say the same about Michael and Janet Jackson's current scandals, though I don't see how those fit this at all. One example she gives that makes some sense is the tourist attraction to black churches in Harlem. European travelers will show up in droves, invading people's ordinary lives as a fun way to experience the spectator sport of seeing black people in worship. As Williams notes, this isn't an experience of black culture but just a shallow appropriation of it.

I'm unfamiliar with this particular example, but her description of it makes it sound as if Americans don't do this, so I want some better examples, ones my students will be able to see and understand. The idea is that in some ways white Americans tend to desire the diversity and exoticness of other racial groups and cultures but don't tend to go out of their way to understand and appreciate the people involved. There's probably lots of evidence for this in pop culture. I could do better at coming up with them myself if I weren't about to collapse from exhaustion and congestion, so I'll put out a request for other ideas to get things rolling.

The result of these things would be the many things that white people just haven't thought about amidst what seems on the surface to be an appreciation for some of what black (or other non-white) culture has produced. Williams wants to be "seen but not spotlighted, ... humble but not invisible."

Update: Let me give some examples of how this sort of thing might go. I know some white people who have befriended black people and come to appreciate who they are, in the process also appreciating hip-hop culture in ways that I don't. I don't think that's true of every white, middle-class hip-hop fan. Are there ways this sort of fan is appropriating black culture in a way analogous to voyeurism? I don't know. The way Williams describes this sort of thing, it's an unwillingness (or inability, perhaps, sometimes due to geography?) to be a part of the lives of those whose surface ways one adopts, without any understanding of the deeper motivations or feelings behind those ways. It's one thing to enjoy the beat, the skillful weaving of rhymes into rhythmic lyrics, and whatever musical value there is in the background tracks. I think that's fine. It's quite another to adopt the whole surface acts of inner city youth in the process, imitating urban black youths' demeanor, linguistic patterns, and physical tendencies like ways of walking or postures. Imitation is flattery, certainly, but is it mere enjoyment of the surface elements of the lifestyle without the risky and racially difficult involvement in people's lives? I don't know. Maybe it depends on the person. The old minstrel shows were like that. This new hip-hop appropriation by white youth seems less so, but maybe there are similar elements.

Is our use of black comedians and black churches in movie and TV stories like this? It's a way for the average middle class white person to experience the "safe" parts of black culture (and even those that aren't viewed as so safe, for that matter, some of which I think are quite bad, others of which are usually just misunderstood or avoided because they make white people uncomfortable) without having to engage in anyone's life. It's one thing to appreciate black gospel music by watching The Blues Brothers or Sister Act or to enjoy the urban style, speech, and somewhat violent mannerisms of Chris Tucker in Rush Hour or Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop, to appreciate the incredible athletic skills of Michael Jordan. It's quite another to walk into a black church and participate in all the rituals of worship rather or to work hard at building relationships with inner city kids through playing basketball with them on a regular basis. I'm not sure most people are on either extreme of this spectrum, but I would expect most white people in the United States are closer to less interaction.

Update 2: Other suggestions for things in the direction of this phenomenon (though not clear examples of it by any means) would be the fascination with martial arts and the ninja without any sense of the larger cultural and even religious elements behind them or the daily lives of people who practice them, the baby boomer love affair with eastern religious views (including surface versions of Buddhism) with very little understanding of the background behind either or the people who take those beliefs seriously because it's from their own culture. A Zen Buddhist former student of mine, who does happen to be a white American, has complained about this to me.

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keeping up from American Black on February 17, 2004 2:28 AM

It's hard to read all the usual stuff while onthe road but I did squeeze these in today: Parablemania has an interesting post on White Voyeurism. Though the author is a bit too conservative my blood it's interesting reading. Article... Read More


I can't help but think about how Americans love to take elements from other cultures and turn them into the latest fashion trend without having a clue what these elements mean in their culture or origin. Example, all of the people running around these days with Chinese characters tattooed on their bodies. How many of them know Chinese or what those characters actually mean? There are also the "modern primatives" (I'm thinking of the dude from Scifi channel's new reality show) who assimilate the body art and mutilations of todays primitive tribes without any understanding of the cultures that led to those practises in the first place.

Come to think of it, doesn't the American black culture do this with African cultures? It's usually not even from the same part of Africa that slaves were taken from, either.

Now that I've got comments, I'll stop putting updates in the posts, so it will be clear that the comments are all after the updates (which don't have a timestamp).

I've thought of another example that at least tends in this direction. Christians like to have big conferences, meetings, and so on where Christians of different denominations, races, etc. come together to worship. Promise Keepers has been notable for urging Christian men to deal with race issues. Yet it doesn't seem to affect anything other than people's willingness to worship together for these brief gatherings. I don't see this as reconciliation. It seems to me to be a way to have a feeling of unity among Christians without doing the hard work to be united. This is true both on the denominational level and on the racial level, so it does serve
as an example of one-way attempts to feel connected across racial lines without actually being connected. I don't know if I'd go as far as calling it voyeurism, but it's in the direction of what Williams is talking about.

Note: I don't think you have to gather together with someone regularly to be united, but I do think there are signs that racial groups within Amerian Christianity are split for silly reasons, not all the fault of white American Christians. To overcome this problem, it might take sacrificing some otherwise ok standards held by white people. For example, I'm firmly convinced that the vast majority of black churches are unreflective on how worship should take place, biblically speaking (though many predominantly white churches also are, in different ways) and even less reflective on what the teaching of the scriptures should look like. Yet for black Christians to see that white Christians are willing to see themselves as part of the same Christianity as black Christians, it might take large numbers of white Christians willing to sacrifice on some of these principles to go to the black churches to join them in their ministry and only helping to improve them as they're gradually accepted as having something to offer.

You've got me curious. What elements of black worship would you say are unreflective of the biblical standard? I've got a few of my own, but I'm still trying to divide the stylistic from the structural, if that's possible.

This overgeneralizes a bit, but some that come to mind that are fairly common are:

1. An appreciation of a worship experience only if it's emotionally moving rather than evaluating it in terms of content, (what a song says about God, the one we're worshiping, what we're saying to each other by singing this song). This is true of most college students involved in campus ministry groups regardless of race, but it's particularly embedded in the highly repetitive, memory-based singing styles still retained from the days when slaves weren't allowed to read. You'll have a two or three line song last 15 minutes. My father-in-law is a pastor in a black congregation, and he wishes they would be willing to sing hymns, but there's a strong resistance to anything that can't be learned and remembered without having to look at anything, and so much of the song choice is based on how it makes people feel. It's more of a worship of the worship experience sometimes than it is a worship of God.

2. In preaching, speaking style and direct discussion of everyday life too often take priority over in-depth study of the word. One of our elders took a sabbatical for three months, During that time he spent most of his Sundays with the black churches in the area, and the one thing that hit him the strongest about their weaknesses is that only one of the 6 or 7 congregations he visited had regular teaching through a portion of the word, following the movement of thought through a passage. This happens in many evangelical churches also but is a particular problem in black churches, partly due to the historical oral emphasis from illiteracy.

3. The performance angle often takes priority in an environment where everyone is expected to sing well. This is even stronger in charismatic or Pentecostal black churches, which emphasize movement and activity even more than other black congregations, but it can be present in any. It's too easy to fall into the trap of being there to impress people. It doesn't help that children are expected to perfom in front of the congregation at a young age. This can show up in dress as well. Part of the explanation for that is that Sunday was the only time of the week black Christians could look nice, so they had to do it up extra special.

There are probably other things that I'm not thinking of now, just as there are a number of things that predominantly white congregations need to learn from the black congregations, but those are some of the more obvious ones, to me at least.

Okay. Those are mine. I will admit that I have a certain ambivalence about the whole performance aspect of the sermon. On the one hand, I think that the traditional "black" style of preaching (which Zora Neale Hurston actually did a very good job of capturing) is not really conducive to an in-depth discussion of the nuances of scripture. In every sermon, it seems that there is a point at which the preacher (and it's important to distinguish a preacher from other types of ministers. In my experience, I've found that the non-shouting ministers, more lecturers or teachers than preachers, used more scripture and less of what's happening now.) can either go into scriptural calculus or he can stick with the familiar addition and subtraction. Generally, I've found that it's more addition and subtraction, but highly stylized.

That said, I think that preaching, when done correctly, is an art form. Almost in the same way that MC'ing is an art form. (But not rapping. The Chicago Bears had a rap record, but that doesn't make them MCs.) To really understand and appreciate preaching, you have to look at the poetic aspects; the rhythm, the interplay of the words and finally the HA! aspect. That's a very special thing. There's just a limited amount of Word you can get out of it.

Another thing to keep in mind with the easily-memorized aspect is the whole tradition of call-and-response. You can't have call-and-response if the people don't recognize the call. Therefore, if you analyze a traditional black preacher's sermon (or maybe even any preacher's sermon, although my experience with white preachers is very, very limited) you will hear many references to traditional hymns and very familiar portions of scripture. Again, while this does not lend itself to giving the people the meat of the word, there is something to be said for getting the congregation involved.

In a way, though, I think that church services go that way because that's the way they're expected to go. I've heard it explained, for instance, that the minister does his preaching on Sunday, while he goes more in-depth at Bible Study during the week, which is when the people who are interested in more than the performance aspect will show up. I didn't hear that from a minister, so I don't know how valid it is, but it seems to make sense.

Regarding the singing, I think that, as with most things, there's a critical level at which the experience begins to fold in upon itself. It's hard to define, though. To use the example of the scene in The Blues Brothers(and as an aside, James Brown as the Rev. Cleophus James is probably one of the top 5 casting jobs of all time. You talkin' about somebody who was born to play a role...) there were two or maybe three sets of dancers, each group more outlandish and theatrical than the last. Of course that was a parody, but I think that within a given service, you will have all three groups going on at the same time.

thanks for opening this bag/pinata: I will say that it's "salvagable, but still rationally dangerous" to wade in these depths; the risk is obvious and the rewarding part is kind of like that where you KNOW that God is there, but you're going to be totally depending on Him for warmth, light, and sustenance. Like in the prayer that His Son gave us, right ?

I have a submission of a man whose Brit roots are substantial and whose criticism of Rev. Al Sharpton are tough, but close to my own. I am submitting the link: http://www.nationalreview.com/derbyshire/derbyshire200312050844.asp
the due for those brave souls who don't fear attention or confrontation is his: I like when the Reverend comes on "The O'Reilly Factor" and tells us what he thinks even more than Rangel, Reich, or Falwell. (Imagine a list of those who fear O'Reilly and you can guess why they do.) All of those who show up have guts, but Reverend Al has a razor-sharp wit and less guilt about his "work/mission" than I imagined. It was surprising that he could not gain more attention or votes in what seemed to be a tumultuous race. He made everyone pay at least some attention that might not have been paid had he not been there.

Pax et Bonum

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