Some Technologies Fail to see Blackness

Multiply Exposed Some technologies fail to see Blackness, while others render Black people hypervisible and expose them to systems of racial surveillance.

Exposure, in this sense, takes on multiple meanings.9 Exposing film is a delicate process – artful, scientific, and entangled in forms of social and political vulnerability and risk. Who is seen and under what terms holds a mirror onto more far-reaching forms of power and inequality. Far from being neutral or simply aesthetic, images have been one of the primary weapons in reinforcing and opposing social oppression. From the development of photography in the Victorian era to the image-filtering techniques in social media apps today, visual technologies and racial taxonomies fashion each other.

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Photography was developed as a tool to capture visually and classify human difference; it also helped to construct and solidify existing technologies, namely the ideas of race and assertions of empire, which required visual evidence of stratified difference.11 Unlike older school images, such as the paintings and engravings of exotic “others” that circulated widely before the Victorian period, photographs held an allure of objectivity, a sense that such images “were free from the bias of human imagination … a neutral reflection of the world.”12 Yet such reflections were fabricated according to the demands and desires of those who exercised power and control over others. Some photographs were staged, of course, to reflect White supremacist desires and anxieties. But race as a means of sorting people into groups on the basis of their presumed inferiority and superiority was staged in and of itself, long before becoming the object of photography.

What of the modern photographic industry? Is it more democratic and value-neutral than image was in previous eras? With the invention of color photography, the positive bias toward lighter skin tones was built into visual technologies and “presented to the public as neutral.” Neutrality comes in the idea that “physics is physics,” even though the very techniques of color-balancing an image reinforce a dominant White ideal.13 And when it comes to the latest digital techniques, social and political factors continue to fashion computer-generated images. In this visual economy, race is not only digitized but heightened and accorded greater value.

This chapter traces the complex processes involved in “exposing” race in and through technology and the implications of presenting partial and distorted visions as neutral and universal. Linking historical precedents with contemporary techniques, the different forms of “exposure” noted in the epigraph serve as a touchstone for considering how the act of viewing something or someone may put the object of vision at risk. This kind of scopic vulnerability is central to the experience of being racialized.

In many ways, philosopher and psychiatrist Frantz Fanon’s classic text Black Skin, White Masks is a meditation on scopic vulnerability. He describes the experience of being looked at, but not truly seen, by a White child on the streets of Paris:

“Look, a Negro!”

It was an external stimulus that flicked over me as I passed by.

I made a tight smile.

“Look, a Negro!” It was true. It amused me.

“Look, a Negro!” The circle was drawing a bit tighter. I made no secret of my amusement.

“Mama, see the Negro! I’m frightened!” Frightened! Frightened! Now they were beginning to be afraid of me. I made up my mind to laugh myself to tears, but laughter had become impossible.

This story reveals us that a key feature of Black life in racist societies is the constant threat of exposure and of being misread; and that being exposed is also a process of enclosure, a form of suffocating social constriction.

In a beautiful essay titled “Skin Feeling,” literary scholar Sofia Samatar reminds us: “The invisibility of a person is also the visibility of a race … to be constantly exposed as something you are not.”14 Yet, in the distorted funhouse reflection of racist conditioning, the White children are the ones who fancy themselves as being at risk. Fanon’s experience on the streets of Paris foreshadows the technologically mediated forms of exposure that proliferate Black life today. Whether we are talking about the widespread surveillance systems built into urban landscapes or the green light sitting above your laptop screen, detection and recognition are easily conflated when the default settings are distorted by racist logics.