Sara Ahmed’s ‘phenomenology of whiteness’

In my ongoing quest to read everything by Sara Ahmed (I really have a long way to go though – check out the publications list on her staff profile), I recently read her article ‘A phenomenology of whiteness’, published in Feminist Theory vol 8:2 (2007).

Ahmed argues that it’s useful to approach whiteness through phenomenology, because it provides “a way of exploring how whiteness is ‘real’, material and lived” (150). Drawing on Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks and Nirmal Puwar’s Space Invaders, among others, she argues that bodies are orientated in certain directions by their surroundings, and the surroundings in turn orientate towards the bodies which historically have been ‘at home’ in those spaces. When white bodies dominate institutions, the bodies and the institutions orientate towards each other, and white bodies become ‘habitual’ in these surroundings – whiteness becomes that which ‘lags behind’, unnoticed.

“When bodies ‘lag behind’, then they extend their reach.” (156) – they flow beyond their physical limits within the space, taking up more space. Ahmed describes this as a ‘sinking’ feeling, linked to comfort:

Comfort is about an encounter between more than one body, which is the promise of a ‘sinking’ feeling. To be comfortable is to be so at ease with one’s environment that it is hard to distinguish where one’s body ends and the world begins… White bodies are comfortable as they inhabit spaces that extend their shape… In other words, whiteness may function as a form of public comfort by allowing bodies to extend into spaces that have already taken their shape. (158)

Non-white bodies, on the other hand, due to their historic exclusion, do not extend in this way and can be either (or both) invisible and hyper-visible in institutionally white spaces. A history of colonialism and racism means, drawing on Fanon again, that the black body is “better described in terms of the bodily and social experience of restriction, uncertainty, and blockage…” (161) (Ahmed uses the example of being regularly stopped and regarded as suspicious at immigration controls).

…spaces we occupy do not ‘extend’ the surfaces of our bodies… Having been singled out in line, at the borders, we become defensive; we assume a defensive posture, as we ‘wait’ for the line of racism, to take our rights of passage away. If we inherit the failure of things to be habitual, then we might also acquire a tendency to look behind us. To be not white is to be not extended by the spaces you inhabit… When you don’t sink, when you fidget and move around, then what is in the background becomes in front of you, as a world that is gathered in a specific way. (163)

There’s much more in this article which is interesting and useful – in particular her concluding thoughts on why white people are so anxious to want solutions when she presents on whiteness to a predominantly white academic audience – suggesting that the desire to turn so quickly towards the need for a resolution is evidence of a resistance to hearing about racism – a defensive response, which risks not hearing at all.

For my work, I’m interested in this approach to whiteness, as it helps to scrutinise and put into language what is often ‘felt’ in spaces, but difficult to explain. It will be useful in my examination of contempory feminist spaces, something which I haven’t successfully written about much yet, but which I’m very interested in exploring.