The Western eye, Work, and Sensual escape
By: Esther Omole

“In that regard, the names by which I am called in the public place render an example of signifying property plus. In order for me to speak a truer word concerning myself, I must strip down through layers of attenuated meanings, made an excess in time, over time, assigned by a particular historical order, and there await whatever marvels of my own inventiveness.”
- Hortense Spillers, Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe
Though light is unfettered and searching, sight can have many trappings. For those of us humans with a degree of visual acuity that allows us to take in our surroundings by the way light bounces off of it, we know it to be a powerful sense. In the Western world, where hierarchy abounds and is written into the organization of life itself, sight is placed on a pedestal among our human senses. It is deemed “naturally” the most powerful and dominant interpretive tool for our bodies and minds. Words like “worldview”, “lens”, “vision”, and “sight” hold abstract and metaphorical cultural value and are ubiquitous in our everyday language. Their meaning transcends our cells and often carries the figurative weight of living itself.

In “Invention of Women”, Nigerian sociologist and gender scholar Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí writes that “the term "worldview," which is used in the West to sum up the cultural logic of a society, captures the West's privileging of the visual";
Consequently, since the body is the bedrock on which the social order is founded, the body is always in view and on view. As such, it invites a gaze, a gaze of difference, a gaze of differentiation — the most historically constant being the gendered gaze…The reason that the body has so much presence in the West is that the world is primarily perceived by sight. The differentiation of human bodies in terms of sex, skin color, and cranium size is a testament to the powers attributed to "seeing." The gaze is an invitation to differentiate.

Sight is defined as the faculty or power of seeing; a thing that one sees or that can be seen. As a verb it means to see or observe (someone or something); to catch an initial glimpse of. This “glimpse” fractures who we are from what we look like instantaneously, linking what can be read on our biological bodies to our human capacities. It allows our figures to be consumed by a social order that requires categorization to function, primarily mapping us by race, gender, and class.   

That pedestal of sight can organize our individual realities in the West when we grow to trust it as the primary marker of substance–in ourselves and in the world. We produce knowledge through our senses every day, and sight, in the service of white supremacy, produces a very specific type of knowledge. If internalized, this thinking imposes whatever visual inferiority we are deemed to possess on our own self-concepts. Jamaican philosopher Charles W. Mills wrote in “The Racial Contract”, that the racial contract of Western thought is “an agreement to misinterpret the world. One has to learn to see the world wrongly, but with the assurance that this set of mistaken perceptions will be validated by white epistemic authority.”

Western hypervisuality abounds in the microcosm of the social world that we call our workplaces. For most adults, the workplace is the environment in which we find ourselves most often, a watering hole we return to in order to sustain the rest of our lives. This consistent exposure amounts to just that, a place that relies on varying degrees of surveillance and perception to certify workers’ compliance. For that reason, it provides a very valuable example of the way sight forms experiences under white supremacy–one I can personally attest to.

When I first started work, a 9-5 administrative role supporting the day-to-day operations and financial needs of my colleagues, I understood my presence would be made distinct by the fact of my Black womanhood. At the time, I was the only Black worker and in the most subordinate position this workplace offered. I underestimated completely, however, the degree to which my skin would come to magnetize the labor demands of the environment.

I started to experience abuse at the hands of my employers. They targeted me through shaming, yelling, derogatory and punitive messages, and threats. I was asked to assume the role of a supervisor without the pay or benefits. Throughout the process I was discouraged, told I was not meeting the standards of the department, and given no room to truly learn, ask questions, or make any aspect of my humanity robustly known. As a new employee, I fought against the deliberate opacity of the specifications of my role from those who had the power to alter it to serve the dynamized needs of the workplace. 

The needs were, as I came to discover, to perform perfection in the form of ultimate capitalistic productivity. Perfection is a concept fundamental to Western ideology, its definition usually employed for violent means. Perfection looked like order, hierarchy, and an unceasing operation of office functions year-round. It meant, importantly, that no “problems” or “issues” arose, even though mistakes and conflict are a necessary part of being human. That meant that when these phenomena inevitably appeared, the person who “caused” the problem or was in any way associated with it is incentivized to disappear it, lest they be identified with it, or more crucially destructive, as it. 

Within this framework, the “problem” is thus passed from hand-to-hand, down a hierarchical line, until it reaches the most marginalized or subordinated member of the workplace who has no means to refuse it. This subordination occurs through forms of oppression like class, race, gender identity, ability, etc. that can also map across administrative levels, from manager or supervisor to employee. 

These needs extend to any workplace that relies on forms of domination like racism to function. This aim is often achieved at the expense of all who do not conform to the visual biological landscape of white supremacy. The being that my colleagues sighted in me was one undeserving of humanity–through the denial of it, I could be exploited, scapegoated, and dismissed when my labor was no longer of use. When the form of marginalized bodies is consumed by this kind of vision, the effect is not the static exchange of seeing. It is the dynamic and invasive pressure of the Western gaze. It is devoid of compassion or creativity, desperate to categorize and rank.

It made me press my lips together in focus and in fear. It made me feel backed into a wall, unnoticed yet targeted, unseen and unsafe. When the world resolved only to what could be seen by this gaze, I was always a blemish in it, a shadow or specter. The reality that I was forced to live in at work was not my own, one in which I was free to dream up my own way of sensing the environment around me. It was a falsified network of eyes, looking and labeling me for the labor it needed swept away. 

I recognized that white supremacy was not simply the environment in which my superiors operated, it was a crucial condition for the proper functioning of my workplace. For that reason, I have identified it and similar environments that rely on racism and other forms of domination as white supremacist workplaces. Such sites require a formulaic imposition of hierarchy at every turn. Front-facing workers–janitorial staff, security officers, ticketers, and others–are statistically more likely to be Black or brown, while senior staff, department heads, and executives are more likely to be white. These are phenomena mapped by the gradating color of the skin of each worker and perceived gender identity–things one could read on sight–with whiteness and manhood concentrated at the top where the wealth accumulated.

I discerned all of these things through the experience of the force of my colleague’s looking. That force became a physical part of my experience, a new reality with its own rules. The first step to escaping this skewed vision was to name it as such. By identifying this environment as a white supremacist workplace, I worked to extricate myself from its contortions.

White supremacy and Western hypervisuality are socially inscribed ways of knowing the world around us. As Mills writes, it is an “officially sanctioned reality [that] is divergent from actual reality”. In order to combat it, I had to fashion my own safety by re-asserting my reality. I took notes on my work, what I was learning, the tangible and intangible growth I experienced. I recorded events, noting their time or occurrence, what was stated, and who was involved for future use. Snug within my recorded reality, I could exist beyond their gazes and defend myself against their abuses.

My experiences in the workplace are emblematic of the harms of white supremacist sight on a large societal scale. They have affirmed a blooming internal knowledge that we don’t have to place so much value on the visual, and we certainly don’t have to make the visual an organizing power in our minds and in our lives. When we rely on all our senses we can more robustly perceive the natural world and ourselves – beyond how we’re perceived by the white eye.  

We all sense differently, and to differing degrees, but there are a few that occur most frequently across our experiences of our environment–touch, sound, balance, taste, and smell. Even more refined are the combinations of reactions that specialized cell types produce in our bodies, such as motion-detecting cells or chemically sensitive cells. Recognizing these interactions can expand the number of senses from six to twenty.

I utilize “sense” for its lexical inclusivity, based on the work of Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí. She writes that “different approaches to comprehending reality, then, suggest epistemological differences between societies. Relative to Yoruba society, which is the focus of this book, the body has an exaggerated presence in the Western conceptualization of society….The term "world-sense" is a more inclusive way of describing the conception of the world by different cultural groups.” 

This passage affirms that there are cultural ways of beings entirely divorced from a sense, or reliant on a sense that isn’t sight. This fact alone is mentally grounding in that reality need not be organized through a hierarchy of sense. It opens up the possibility of being present with the myriad aspects of our bodies that cannot be read visually and placing our own set of values on each sense. I am suggesting that we know our senses as we know ourselves, to be a fiercely unique and delicate web that mutates across time and space. And while the visual world in the West is loaded with signifiers, we can still trust it to be supportive to our individual sense-searches as we un-learn and un-link it from racist, xenophobic, homophobic, and transphobic projections.

In white supremacist spaces, my skin and hair have these projections that cling onto them, the grotesqueness of dark pigments, unruly lines, and queer bodies. At home, I am free of that reality and furnishing my own. Here, there is a need for me to attend to the beauty of not just the look of myself, but the experience. I find pleasure in massaging my skin, absently untangling the knots in my hair. In the shower, I sing to myself and enjoy the sweet shiver of my vocal chords and crack of disuse breaking away. Exploring the way your senses build your individual reality allows you to love the world and yourself through the fineness of your feelers.

I am growing to delight in the discovery of my individual network. As humans, we can touch the world and let it touch us back in figurative and physical space. This practice allows us to divide truths from projections. How does the ground beneath me feel? Can I close my eyes and activate a memory from the scent sweeping over me? Our minds are fiercely individual and complex, and we can utilize it to build safety and confidence in our own way of interpreting space.

Before I arrive at work, I am sensing, my skin a net for the world, a lattice of nerves. I taste the cold clarity of air and let it dry my throat before I wet it with the rumble of my song. The sound bounces off my ceramic-laid bathroom and melds with the buzz of the waking street. I dance as I walk, bouncing on the balls of my feet, trying not to slip on wet grates, swinging my arms for added effect. The train hums in my chest and the palms of my hands. When I move, I change the space of the world around me, altering it with my form. I assert, tenderly, I have my own way of being here.

Works Cited
Oyěwùmí, Oyèrónké. “Visualizing the Body: WESTERN THEORIES AND AFRICAN SUBJECTS.” The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses, NED-New edition, University of Minnesota Press, 1997, pp. 1–30. 

Mills, Charles W. “The racial contract.” Cornell University Press, 2019, pp. 18.

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