Privilege and Pity

This week I’m working in collaboration with Joshua Trey Barnett at Rhetorical Worlding in conversation with Susan Sontag.

I want to start with Sontag, who poses a problematic at the beginning of Regarding the Pain of Others that:

being a spectator of calamities taking place in another country is a quintessential modern experience, the cumulative offering by more than a century and a half’s worth of those professional, specialized tourists known as journalists. Wars are now also living room sights and sounds. Information about what is happening elsewhere, called ‘news,’ features conflict and violence — ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ runs the venerable guideline of tabloids and twenty-four-hour headline news shows — to which the response is compassion, or indignation, or titilation, or approval, as each misery heaves into view. (p. 18)

It is to this that Susie Linfield Responds in her book The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence. (I’ve talked about Linfield before on this blog, in The Problem of Pity.) Linfield argues in that book that while a photograph may be “created by a person of relative privilege, it might nevertheless foster ideas of human connection and a vision of a less unjust world” (237).

I’d like to think about this possibility: the privilege of the photographer, often inhabiting a privileged body – one that ventures into danger, violence, and pain, but also has the means to leave it behind.

What does it mean to inhabit a white body, and take photographs of violence that (the) ‘Other’ (non-white) body is experiencing? What is the potential for these photographs to intervene in that violence?

In order to engage this, I want to talk about Kevin Carter. Carter, a white South African who grew up during apartheid, took a now iconic photograph of a small child attempting to reach a feeding center in Sudan, while a vulture looks on.

Kevin Carter, 1993

Kevin Carter, 1993

Carter waited at the scene for 20 minutes to see if the vulture would spread its wings (it did not) before shooing the bird away. The girl continued her trek to the feeding center.

After taking this photograph, Carter took more, including executions in South Africa. In the months following the photograph, Carter had continued issues with drug use, developing relationship problems, and had a friend killed while covering a violent outbreak in South Africa. Oh, and a Pulitzer Prize.

And then, just months after winning the Pulitzer Prize, a little over a year after taking the iconic photograph, Carter took his own life in a Johannesburg suburb.

I don’t think that the photograph provides a simple explanation for Carter’s suicide. He described in his suicide note a variety of events and situations that haunted him.

Carter’s experience prompts me to (continue to) think about the implications of whiteness in a world that can’t seem to shake colonial systems of power and relationships. People have talked at length about the photograph, and about the child featured, but I’m also interested in how the body of the photographer is implicated.

Sontag presents a striking problematic: watching, and the gaze, particularly the white gaze, presents a culture of awareness and education. Watch and learn. But as I’ve discussed with the issue of Pity and the Slacktivist, there is continued controversy about the benefits of seeing, watching, and being aware.

Speaking of awareness, and whiteness, Christian Lander has a blog called Stuff White People Like, also found in book form: Stuff White People Like: A Definitive Guide to the Unique Taste of Millions. One of the problems of whiteness, privilege, and photography, is the connection to awareness (#18).

An interesting fact about white people is that they firmly believe that all of the world’s problems can be solved through “awareness.”  Meaning the process of making other people aware of problems, and then magically someone else like the government will fix it. This belief allows them to feel that sweet self-satisfaction without actually having to solve anything or face any difficult challenges.  Because, the only challenge of raising awareness is people not being aware.  In a worst case scenario, if you fail someone doesn’t know about the problem.  End of story.

(Aside: I recognize that as I write this I’m sipping on a mocha with foam art in a grocery co-op, #1-Coffee and #48-Whole Food and grocery co-ops on Lander’s list. I’m in Graduate School – #81, and I’m writing on an Apple product – #40.)

I’d like to think that there are significant benefits to being aware. That, like Linfield, we can conclude that even photographs taken by privileged bodies can create spaces for rhetorical recognition, for deliberation.

However, I think the key is that there is potential. If we’re going to talk physics, this potential energy, or discussion, or debate, needs something to prompt or motivate motion, or kinetic energy. Photographs that possess the potential for change, action, and recognition need to be engaged to the extent that their energy is realized.

In Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life, Thich Nhat Hanh claims that:

When we see photographs and programs about the atrocities of the Nazis, the gas chambers and the camps, we feel afraid. We may say, ‘I didn’t do it; they did it.’ But if we had been there, we may have done the same thing, or we may have been too cowardly to stop it, as was the case for so many. […] There has been so much unnecessary suffering in our century. If we are willing to work together and learn together, we can all benefit from the mistakes of our time, and, seeing with the eyes of compassion and understanding, we can offer the next century a beautiful garden and a clear path. (p. 133-134)

In my desire to be optimistic, I think that the transition from potential to kinetic conversation, deliberation, and recognition is possible.

See also:
Time Magazine, The Life and Death of Kevin Carter. (Subscription or institutional access required).

Pity and the Slacktivist

When Invisible Children’s viral KONY2012 Campaign came out, it prompted a lot of discussion about the internet and activism. A debate arose about an emerging term: “slacktivism.” Urban Dictionary defines slacktivism as “The act of participating in obviously pointless activities as an expedient alternative to actually expending effort to fix a problem.”


Basically, slacktivism is the idea that the internet provides a way for individuals to look like they’re doing something, or to look like they care, without having to make significant changes or effort.

However, Jenna Arnold argues in a Huffington Post essay that “what Invisible Children has done is redefining the game of activism. Just ‘knowing’ and ‘forwarding’ is a simple and attainable task. Those who call social-media ‘slacktivism’ must not remember the recent events in Tahrir or Tehran. Educating people is an act of activism. Period.”


Arnold’s argument brings us to the other side of the coin: that maybe education, knowledge, awareness, and the internet don’t have to be passive experiences.

So, this is a concept that has been on the back burner for me for a little while now, but I’m drawn back to it after reading Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life, where he claims  reading images or texts isn’t necessarily a passive activity.

“In reality, the activity of reading has on the contrary  all the characteristics of silent production: the drift across the page, the metamorphosis of the text effected by the wandering eyes of the reader, the improvisation and expectation of meanings inferred from a few words, leaps over written spaces in an ephemeral dance. […] This mutation makes the text habitable, like a rented apartment.” (p. xxi)

I want to think about this in the context of last week’s post on pity. While I can see that slacktivism is entirely possible as a response to many images of aid, I can also see how readers can take texts, and respond to them in productive and creative ways. Not responding with pity doesn’t mean to avoid situations that commonly evoke pity. It means engaging those situations, and putting the pieces together differently, assembling paths and opportunities for recognition, for deliberation, for engagement.

I’d like to make clear that I think that we can be passive readers or sharers, and those responses seem much more closely linked to a traditional ethics of pity. Rhetorical recognition requires judgment, and choice. It requires engaging in individual and collective agency. It requires that readers not be passive – but instead engage with problematics of cultural representation differently.

The Problem of Pity

I’d like to briefly introduce and talk about pity. Consider this the start of a conversation far from finished. Particularly in this small space, I’d like to talk about images that evoke pity.

Photographs are often used to display suffering that evokes pity from viewers, and that pity creates a distance, an ‘other.’ However, I’d like to think about ways that  photographs of violence and suffering could be used to create situations and contexts of recognition.

Pity is a passive reaction that perpetuates uneven distributions of power. By this I mean that pity allows people to feel sorry for other people, somewhere else, who are worse off than them. Being able to feel pity is most often a luxury afforded to people with more means and resources and life situations. While pity solidifies distinction (“I feel sorry for you, because I am better off than you”), a deliberation aiming for recognition in order to make judgments creates moments and situations of solidarity. I think that there are more productive responses than pity.

Susie Linfield argues in her book Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence that photography provides opportunities to recognize and engages issues of human rights, violence, and suffering. She argues that while a photograph may be “created by a person of relative privilege, it might nevertheless foster ideas of human connection and a vision of a less unjust world” (237). Much of Linfield’s book works to provide support that viewing images of violence does not necessarily participate in the violence; instead, it can connect people in ways that develop mutual understanding, and the foundation for a performative deliberation that allows for both solidarity and judgment.

However, these potentially productive interactions are not productive when they provoke pity from the viewer. Linfield begins a chapter of her book (chapter 5) with a photograph of a child, Memuna Mansarah, and her father. Both are victims of civil war, and each lost part of their right arm. In responding to the typical reactions to the photograph, particularly pity, Linfield quotes Pascal Bruckner in The Tears of the White Man: Compassion as Contempt as claiming that “pity becomes a form of hatred when it is the only basis for the image we have of the far off ‘other’” (Linfield, 128). Part of this is because “pity creates a top-down relation in which on person’s power is predicated on another’s weakness; this unequal relationship then presents itself in the maddening guise of generous virtue” (128).

Images of violence often evoke pity, which leads to charity, not deliberation. Linfield turns to Hannah Arendt as well to engage the problem of pity as she explains how “above both pity and compassion Arendt placed solidarity, which, she rightly noted, is not a feeling but a principle through which men and women create a ‘community of interest with the oppressed and exploited.’ Solidarity!” (Linfield, 129). The primary point here is that this community of interest is not invested or motivated by a feeling of pity or compassion, but of recognition (see: About The Blog Name) that allows for deliberation. This creates the conditions of solidarity.

So while I don’t want, in any way, to discourage an ethics and politics of care, I do want to think about the ways in which care – when it comes in the form of pity – doesn’t really get to the root of the problem. Perhaps we can move away from an ethics and politics of pity and towards an ethics and politics of recognition and response.

Maybe instead of feeling pity – feeling sorry for someone – we can cultivate means by which to hear their stories, to listen, to recognize, and then to respond. Maybe we can respond not only to their immediate problem (which does often call for response) but also to the systemic causes of that problem, which make the pity a response in the first place. Maybe it even means questioning our own modes of living, and being, in relationship to that of others…

See also:

Post-Superbowl Charity

Let me start by saying that I am a World Vision sponsor, and have been for years. This is not meant as a ‘diss’ to the organization. This is larger cultural issue that I want to talk about. For years, the NFL has donated the merchandise created for the losing Superbowl team to World Vision, which is then allowed to distribute the products outside of the country (not inside the United States, that’s part of the deal with the NFL).

A few things:

1. I’m all about reduce, reuse, recycle, and healthy environmental actions on all fronts. So I completely support not letting these products go to waste.

1a. However – what does it say about our experience of culture and consumption that there’s apparently no way to avoid this sort of excess production?

2. Also, I super like for people to have access to the things they need, like clothing. And food, and housing, and clean water, and clean air, and shoes, and education, and toys for kids and books for everyone – you know.

2b. That being said, it is hard for me to come to terms with shipping out our excessive excess to other countries as a charitable move. I’m prone to turn to Slavoj Žižek here (I know, I know) when he notes in Living in the End Times that charity is “one of the names (and practices) of non-love today” (117). The sorts of charity that don’t require us to challenge inequalities in the world pose a problem for me. 

This is a short post, and one with one point. When charity is a part of a gift economy, where we (Americans) get to keep being the benevolent benefactors, it might be time to look at ways in which we can interrogate, intervene in, and ultimately change the way those structural inequalities necessitate aid in the first place.

(Dear World Vision: from what I know, I recognize that you work closely with communities to meet their needs in ways that mean they won’t always rely on you. You communicate directly with communities to collaboratively determine sustainable collective actions. I appreciate that. And I appreciate a lot of the work that you do.)

With that, I think it is important to look at the systemic ways in which charity can work to reinforce the need for charity and to find ways in which to change that system. Additionally, the ways in which our cultural cast-offs highlight problems of consumption and production should help to key us in to the systems of production that are themselves oppressive in many ways. (Think: issues of fair trade and fair pay all along the process of production.)


White Skin, Invisibility Cloak

I’m re-reading Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks this week, and thinking about my own work in critical whiteness and myth. Fanon, experiencing life in a black, male body, writes from his particular situated experience. From my different positionally, I want to look at white skin, and the invisibility that it offers to wearers.

I experience life in a body that is read by others (and myself) as white. By read as white, I often mean not read at all. When I meet someone new, I rarely feel the need to describe myself as white: by not describing my skin tone at all, it’s taken as expected, or the norm, most of the time. Thomas Nakayama and Robert Krizek explain how whiteness “is a relatively uncharted territory that has remained invisible as it continues to influence the identity of those both within and without its domain. It affects the everyday fabric of our lives but resists, sometimes violently, any extensive characterization that would allow for the mapping of its contours. It wields power yet endures as a largely unarticulated position” (p. 291). My whiteness affords me significant privilege.

Fanon claims in Black Skin, White Masks that, essentially, a person of color becomes whiter (and, Fanon claims, closer to being a “real human being”) with mastery of the colonial language (French in his case, but also can be applied to English). “A man who has language consequently possesses the world expressed and implied by the language. What we are getting at becomes plain:” continues Fanon, “Master of language affords remarkable power” (p. 18).

This sort of claim refers us to the title of the book: individuals who are read as black (in Fanon’s writing, primarily men – see Madison’s angry love letter for more) want to be read as white, or more white. So the ‘solution’ proposed for black skin is to mask it with whiteness. And often, oddly enough, that whiteness does not always have to do directly with skin color. Whiteness has become a signifier for power, for the center (not the margins). So to put on a mask of whiteness is to act white, whatever that means. For Fanon (who I agree with in this case) it often comes down to language.

Discourse is powerful, and like Fanon claims, it affords remarkable power. Mastery of dominant languages (like Standard English for much of the world today) is related to whiteness as they both signify access to positions of power.

White skin doesn’t need a mask: it functions more like an invisibility cloak. The implications of this argument, for me, lie in the way that white bodies approach privilege.

In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry receives an invisibility cloak that had belonged to his father:

“He had to try it, now. He slipped out of bed and wrapped the cloak
around himself. Looking down at his legs, he saw only moonlight and
shadows. It was a very funny feeling. Use it well. Suddenly, Harry felt wide-awake. The whole of Hogwarts was open to him in this cloak. Excitement flooded through him as he stood there in the dark and silence. He could go anywhere in this, anywhere, and Filch would never know.”

Like an invisibility cloak, whiteness allows bodies to move unfettered in many ways. And as Peggy McIntosh claims, the first step in dealing with the systemic inequalities related to whiteness is to recognize them – to make them visible.


Fanon ends the book with a prayer: “O my body, make of me a man who always questions!” (p. 232)

Fanon’s prayer is poignant, and perhaps an even more relevant call to white bodies. If we listen to voices like Hegel and W.E.B. DuBois who elaborate a master/slave dialectic and a double consciousness respectively, perhaps black bodies are always called to question. What does it mean for a white body to always question? What does it mean to question linguistic and racial privilege from within?

What it means is complicated. Artist Jamie Kapp created a cartoon explaining white privilege, and then basically left the internet after her comic went viral and set off both praise and death threats, claiming that “Education is NOT where oppression ends, it’s where change begins.”

While I don’t have the answers, it is important to consider how to talk about white privilege in ways that don’t have to re-inscribe it.

So here is my prayer: Oh my body, make of me a being who questions and reflexively situates myself and responds to the being and positions of the other.

See Also:
Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove Press, 2008. (Amazon: Black Skin, White Masks)

Madison, D. Soyini. “Performing Theory/embodied Writing.” Text and Performance Quarterly 19, no. 2 (1999): 107-24. doi:10.1080/10462939909366254. [Scene III: An Angry Love Letter to Frantz Fanon]

McIntosh, Peggy. “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” Peace and Freedom, July/August 1989. (See it here.)

Nakayama, Thomas K., and Robert L. Krizek. “Whiteness: A Strategic Rhetoric.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 81, no. 3 (1995): 291-309. doi:10.1080/00335639509384117.