Illustration by Tianxing Wan.

With four eyes scanning in two directions, a whirligig beetle twirls on the water’s surface, scrawls rapidly, looks up for wing flash or down to navigate its place in the drought pond.

No matter what images pour into the storm drain of our eyes, we remain stuck in our own sliver of sight.

On my laptop, I watch riots blossom on an animated map like raindrops on parched concrete, across continents, over decades. From my office in a segregated city near the US-Mexico border, I try to map my relation to these events, while clouds gather on mountains to the east.

*

Ancient Greeks formulated two major theories to explain vision. The first postulated the eye sent out light rays and took them back into the mind. The second imagined that objects emanated rays that entered the eye.

Both schools of thought relied upon the understanding that something within the eye—an “internal fire” (according to Plato) or light or rays—allowed the eye to be receptive to external fire or light or rays produced by the world beyond it as summarized by the adage: “like is known by like.”

*

In economics, a Harmonized System refers to the assignment of a standardized code to facilitate the exchange of goods and products: across nations and trade zones a rose is a rose, a computer chip is a computer chip: barcode to barcode, like to like.

*

While I sweat on the couch, my infant daughter screamed and cried. In weeks that stretched to months after her birth she cried often because she was tired, because she was wet, because we lay her in her crib, because she was bored or angry or hungry. While I sweat on the couch, she cried because my husband, Farid, was trying to put her to sleep, and she wanted me.

I sat in the dark trying to watch TV, trying not to gnaw the paint off the walls, sweating through my T-shirt because I sweat every time my infant daughter cried.

*

“Why is pain the conduit of identification?” writes the scholar Saidiya Hartman, considering empathy in her book Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-making in Nineteenth Century America

*

When witnessing someone’s hand slammed in a door, a region of the brain lights up like a storm cloud over mountain: the same region of your brain that lights up if your hand was slammed in a door.

*

In the mid-1820s the abolitionist Rev. John Rankin wrote a series of letters to convince his brother, Thomas, to free his slaves. In one, he explains his opposition to slavery came in part from envisioning how he would feel if he and his family were enslaved:

“I began in reality to feel for myself, my wife and my children—the thoughts of being whipped at the pleasure of a morose and capricious master, aroused by the strongest feelings of resentment; but when I fancied that cruel lash was approaching my wife and children, and my imagination depicted in lively colors, their tears, their shrieks and bloody stripes, every indignant principle of my nature was excited to the highest degree, and I could not well avoid execrating the law that permitted such injustice and cruelty.”

*

Eyes on the lower wings of butterflies and moths, eyes on peacock feathers, on the trunk of a desert tree, eyes on the back of a cat, haunch of the big cat, eye in the palm to ward off danger, in the middle of the forehead just under skin, eyes tattooed on the back of the neck.

*

When I first caught sight of Farid across a room at a crowded graduate school party, I registered attraction not difference.

Was that love? Was that the beginning of an erasure?

Desire makes sparks as well as shadows.

*

By 1604 the German astronomer Johannes Kepler publishes a Supplement to Witelo in which he explains an object in the field of vision could be perceived as a multitude of separate points, each emitting light rays in all directions. Some of these rays would enter through a lens in the eye, be bent and made to converge to form an image of an external object on the retina.

By 1608 the first refracting telescopes were invented in the Netherlands. A year later, Galileo built his own and pointed it toward the night sky.

*

Light falls from the furthest galaxies first upon and then into our bodies.

*

Our five-year-old daughter plays in a gully beside our crumbling street in a segregated city near the US-Mexico border. Spindled branches of mesquite trees crisscross above her. The mesquites weep a clear sap, medicinal. Her boots fill with rainwater.

“Are monsters real?” she asks.

*

An illustration from the 1750 treatise “An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe” by Thomas Wright depicts a sky filled with eyes.

*

In her essay “After Quiet: The Black Writer in Spaces of Privilege,” the award-winning poet and scholar Ruth Ellen Kocher writes about being misidentified as a service worker on two separate occasions by white strangers while attending the 2016 Associated Writers and Writing Program conference despite wearing a name tag and the lanyard that identified conference participants, despite dressing in colors and styles that differed from hotel or convention center employees’ uniforms, which is to say the award-winning poet and scholar Ruth Ellen Kocher, dressed in a black suit, white shirt, carrying a Louis Vuitton bag, wearing a name tag and the lanyard that identified conference participants, was mistaken twice for a service worker by white strangers.

*

“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me…” writes Ralph Ellison. “When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me.”

*

Now we know that objects don’t emit rays as Kepler believed, but that an image is formed from a “non-uniformity” in light distribution, that an image is “composed of overlapping patterns of varying frequencies and contrasts.”

And if an image is a non-uniformity, to deviate from uniformity is to mean, is to be made visible.

*

When I first met Farid with his new car and expensive watch, I thought he was wealthy. Eventually, over drinks at a dive bar he revealed he grew up in a mobile home.

Both of our mothers were hourly wage earners. Neither went to college. And I felt a flood of identification and relief, because I worried a perceived class difference would create a gulf between us too large to breech.

*

In the late 1880s scientists begin to theorize that the mind warps visual images with rays of thought through a process known as unconscious inference (in German, unbewusster Schluss) or unconscious conclusion, a term coined by the physicist Hermann von Helmholtz to encompass the reductions and revisions that make up “sight.”

*

When I first told my mother I was dating someone new, she asked if Farid was Italian-American. And when I told her he was not, that he was Peruvian- and Syrian-American, she asked: “How dark is he?”

*

cyclophobism: fear of eyes

*

A whirligig beetle sees with four eyes in two directions. And in the beetle with its two simultaneous views I find a metaphor for metaphor.

A metaphor is often depicted as two circles overlapping where the common characteristics between two objects might be. But as one circle eclipses a part of another isn’t there always a little shadow, out of which we cannot see?

*

The differences between Farid’s background and mine slowly became apparent.

My great-grandfathers emigrated from Italy at the turn of the century and settled in a New Jersey Italian-American community. My father’s father, a gravedigger, loan collector, and unionized laborer, sent all his children to college.

Farid’s mother and aunt left Peru when he was six years old. After working as high-level civil administrative assistants in Lima, they found hourly wage work in an Anaheim, California, nursing home.

When I first met Farid, he had paid off his student loans, but not his car. He sent money to his mother to help cover her rent.

*

Critic Saidiya Hartman examines Rankin’s need to substitute himself and his family for slaves. Hartman concludes, “Empathy in important respects confounds Rankin’s efforts to identify with the enslaved because in making the slave’s suffering his own, Rankin begins to feel for himself rather than for those whom this exercise in imagination presumably is designed to reach…. The object of identification threatens to disappear.”

*

When witnessing someone’s hand slammed in a door, a region of the brain lights up like a storm cloud over mountain: the same region of the brain that lights up if the hand were yours.

“To me, that’s not empathy,” writes the cognitive neuroscientist.

*

Eyes on the trunk turn a tree to monster, eyes and branches, hands and leaves, shadows like script from a tree-thick book, history of all-eyes-on-you, history of unseen, history of whose-story-are-you-telling, eyes on the trunk of a silent, monstrous tree and through the branches murmur slur murmur slur murmur slur.

*

When posting on social media, about her experience being mistaken for a service worker on two separate occasions by white strangers while attending the 2016 Associated Writers and Writing Program conference, Ruth Ellen Kocher recounts that one white writer and editor attempted to liken Kocher’s story to her sister being mistaken for a Target employee when she wore a red shirt to the store.

Another white writer suggested Kocher should maintain “goodwill” in such situations.

*

In their book The Undercommons, theorists Fred Moten and Stefano Harvey sketch out relationships between race, labor, speech, and exploitation.

“The compulsion to tell us how you feel,” write Moten and Harvey, “is the compulsion of labor, not citizenship, exploitation not domination, and it is whiteness.”

The compulsion to tell us how you feel is also a compulsion of the lyric.

*

“Daddy, were you sad when my friend called you a hairy monkey?” our daughter asks Farid, recounting a moment spent at the beach with a group of families. Those of us who heard what was said laughed, as did Farid.

All of us, excerpt for Farid, are white.

When our daughter asked him about it days later, Farid admitted he was hurt, but had not realized it, until our daughter made a space for his feelings.

*

Experimental poetics taught me to love the fragment and juxtaposition. Experimental poetics taught me to use the fragment and juxtaposition, white space and silence, to promote non-authoritarian reading practices, liberating reading practices, polyvocalism, a non-centered subject position, but silence (or a white space) can also be read as complicity.

I know that whiteness is a construct of convenience and improvisation. Farid will tell you that his Syrian family was considered “white” in Peru. But in the United States Farid is seen differently. When our daughter’s friend called Farid a hairy monkey, whiteness made itself manifest in the way that not one of us called out her language as inappropriate. Because calling that out would have called attention to our differences.

Instead of correcting the comment, I remained silent and complicit.

*

Two days after another two African American men are shot by police, author and radio host Michael Eric Dyson addresses white people in the New York Times: “At birth, you are given a pair of binoculars that see black life from a distance, never with the texture of intimacy. Those binoculars are privilege; they are status, regardless of your class…. Whiteness is blindness. It is the wish not to see what it will not know.”

*

If you close your right eye as you look at this page, you will not see something at the far left, but you will not be able to perceive what is unseen. The eye does not mend holes in a field of vision; it simply tricks us into not seeing them.

*

As with vision or empathy, equations of distance and proximity figure large in theories of humor. A provocateur might ask “Too soon?” when making a joke about a celebrity’s death or an audience member might recoil from a stand-up comic’s remark claiming it struck “too close to home.”

When I ask Farid about the moment when our daughter’s friend called him a hairy monkey he suggests the image of the monkey stood beside him just close enough to provoke a laugh but far enough that it would not take his place. Farid says: “There’s just enough ethnic and racial ambiguity in how I inhabit a POC identity that I can be identified as white.” Until whiteness delineates its boundaries.

Farid is seen through a name that identifies his Syrian heritage, through his fluency in Spanish, as something other than white at a time when Middle Eastern and Latin American immigrants are the subjects of distrust, suspicion, prejudice, and hostility.

Even our five-year-old daughter can see how her father is seen.

*

To be black in these United States of America is not the same as it is to be Peruvian- and Syrian-American. To be silent before a microaggression is not the same as participating in state-sanctioned racist violence. There is a continuum, and overlapping histories, a commonality of blindness and a silence that is whiteness.

I apologize for my laughter and silence as soon as I hear our daughter ask Farid how he felt when her friend called him a hairy monkey.

I remain concerned that white empathy, even white love, seeks to elide difference. White love like whiteness brings with it a history of assimilation, colonization, dominance, and violence.

I love you because you are so much like me, is not the same as

I love you because you are so different from me, is not the same as

I love you because you are.

*

Ruth Ellen Kocher concludes her essay about her experience being misidentified as a service worker on two separate occasions by white strangers while attending the 2016 Associated Writers and Writing Program conference with this: “You, my self-appointed and so-named white allies will continue to respond with stories of selfhood that mean to equalize us in our adversity but instead expose your inability to understand that our adversity is simply not equal. Such “identifying” asks me, once again, to inhabit a space of whiteness that simultaneously refuses me. Asking me to inhabit that space is another way to refuse my space, which is to say, you dare not imagine the true impact of racialized occlusion because you would then have to concede to your own racial bias.”

*

Against a sunset scarlet and broken as metaphor, a mesquite tree sheds twigs for centuries. The lyric taught us to look at light, tree, archway of branches across a sky—but the lyric does not guarantee us a clear view to one another.

*

In place of empathy, Buddhist philosophy stresses compassion as feeling that leads to action. “Compassion is threatening to the ego,” the Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön writes. “We might think of it as something warm and soothing, but actually it’s very raw. When we set out to support other beings, when we go so far as to stand in their shoes, when we aspire to never close down to anyone, we quickly find ourselves in the uncomfortable territory of ‘life not on my terms.’”

*

Thomas Rankin, convinced by his brother’s words, moved to Ohio in 1827 and freed his slaves. In 1829 Rev. Rankin moved his wife and children to a house at the top of a 540-foot-high hill in Ripley, Ohio, that remained a stop on the Underground Railroad for forty years.

*

Our daughter lays her forearm against mine, looks up and tells me:

“We have pink skin, but Daddy’s is brown.”

In the mostly white neighborhoods of our segregated city near the US-Mexico border, in the mostly white halls of the public university where Farid and I teach, in the mostly white protagonists of the cartoons she watches or stories she reads, in the words of her friends and in my silence, the world teaches her to color us.

I do not know how she will or will want to be seen.

*

In 1937, amateur radio operator Grote Reber built the first parabolic “dish” radio telescope in his Illinois backyard, an innovation that would lead scientists to “observe” pulsars, quasars, planets, galaxies, and nebulae from the radiation they emit at radio wavelengths. And astronomers began to understand that to map the cosmos they needed to listen as well as look.

*

If we cannot acknowledge our racism and/or ethnic bias and the damage it does to those closest to us (our daughter places her forearm between Farid’s and mine) how can we feel, let alone act, in the interests of strangers?

*

At the telescope, one eye.

*

Theorist Sara Ahmed writes that “whiteness studies should involve at least a double turn.… The task for white subjects would be to stay implicated in what they critique, but in turning towards their role and responsibility in these histories of racism, as histories of this present, to turn away from themselves, and towards others.”

*

When eyes look out through a legacy of white supremacy what they see is always partial and distorted, yet their perspective has been privileged to the point of being normalized. Whiteness needs to learn to discern the limits of its perspective and learn from the perspectives of others before assuming shared viewpoints.

*

With four eyes scanning in two directions, a whirligig beetle twirls on a pond’s surface, scribbles across water, a signature of movement bending toward and away from the eye of the viewer.

*

Our five-year-old daughter plays in a gully beside our crumbling street in a segregated city near the US-Mexico border during monsoon season.

“Are monsters real?” she asks me.

I want to explain that she does and does not come from a whiteness that is monstrous, in our blindness, deafness, and silence.

I want to learn the flaws of my vision and correct them, to overcome habits and fear that provoke silence, to avoid the false equivalency, erasing empathy, the difference that erases and the erasing of difference.

While my plastic shopping bag twitches like a beetle I catch myself in the gully’s quick reflection.

I want to teach my daughter to stand in relation, in opposition, in full sunlight in gullies of rainwater washing down our desert street.

Susan Briante

Susan Briante is the author of three books of poetry, The Market Wonders (Ahsahta Press 2016), Utopia Minus (2011), and Pioneers in the Study of Motion (2007). She is an associate professor of creative writing at the University of Arizona.

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2 Comments on “Seeing White

  1. I love this with all my heart. I have been trying to put words to similar thoughts I have had about empathy for some time. So often, in place of meeting people where they are, we try to compromise in an equal fashion that asks for the same compromise that others cannot give, because of the position we have put them in. Meeting halfway can only ever work in situations of genuine, pre-existing equality. This piece is so important to me.

    I want to say, however, that as someone who is partially deaf, who has community with others who are more deaf than me, and who are blind (unlike me), I know that it harms when deafness and blindness are used as words for ignorance the way they are near the end of this piece, on more than one occasion. I do not feel that I can share this piece with my friends in a harmless and net beneficial way. I do not know if this piece can be edited or updated, or if what I say will be heard at all, or taken into account in future pieces. But I would rather say something in hope.

    1. Thank you, Lee, for your beautiful and generous response. My apologies that you had to point out something that I should have been aware of myself. I’m thinking through an edit. In the meantime, all the best.

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