Theorizing Modernities article

Turning Away: White Nationalism and a Paraphenomenology of Darkness

Zenit ET – Black – v1 camera. Via Wikimedia Commons.

I hate to admit it, but I think about White people damn near all the time. I’m constantly concerned about what they do, about how their words and actions affect me. I wish this weren’t the case. But I cannot help it. 

It is not simply the “conservatives” who occupy my mind, though. All that “anti-woke” foolishness is just that—foolishness. It is idiocy. It is violent. And it has brutal effects. But it’s not just them. It is also the liberals. They irritate me, too. For their hypocrisy is apparent. Everywhere. 

Or maybe it isn’t hypocrisy. Maybe DEI™ is just the latest iteration of an old philosophy. We have been here before. The “Great Chain of Being” called us here. It structured this world. In fact, it structured the very notion of world. (And if you know Hegel, you know a notion is always more than a notion.) According to this chain, we are all branches from the same Adamic tree. The chain was hierarchical, but it wasn’t exclusive—not in an absolute sense. As Zakiyyah Jackson and Sylvia Wynter remind us, it wasn’t that Africans-turned-negroes were left out. The “negro” might have been an invention, but even it had its place in the great schema (or scheme?) of philosophical and theological anthropology. They were—we are—included. Still. 

I therefore live according to their rules. Those rules govern my life. They shape my perception. They form my horizons. They dominate my attention. 

And, sadly, they control my thoughts. 

And that is the violence. I know we are here to talk about “White nationalism.” This term allegedly conjures up image of tiki torches and white hoods; it is meant to invoke fights over statues and “Moms for Liberty.” But if you look deeper, you recognize: White liberals are White nationalists, too. As they reach for reform at every turn, as they embrace a crass pragmatism disguised as “being realistic,” they name themselves as invested in the same project as their conservative counterparts. To miss this is to be foolish.

To speak of White nationalism, then, is to recognize White supremacy as a common project. A common project of whiteness. Which is to say, a common project of antiblack violence, of antiblackness. We are made to conclude that the source of this violence is found in the mass shootings and the book bans. We are supposed to conclude that the “southern” states are off their rocker, that they are the site and source of our national ills. 

White liberals are White nationalists, too. As they reach for reform at every turn, as they embrace a crass pragmatism disguised as “being realistic,” they name themselves as invested in the same project as their conservative counterparts.

But this is not the case. The source of White nationalist violence is not found in the physical and legislative brutality enacted in public spaces and proclaimed in state and federal legislatures. The violence is not simply in the people themselves. It is also in the institutions and structures that are built upon and sourced from that common antiblack white supremacist project. This project might be socially constructed, but it is not a fiction. It is real. It structures our social reality. To borrow from Wynter again, if we only think of the actors, if we only think of White supremacy in terms of those who say and do disgusting things, then mistake the map for the territory; for the real source of the violence is in its capacity to dominate our attention and occupy our headspace. Whiteness, White supremacy, White nationalism—call it whatever you like—shapes the horizon of what we can and should see. White people are beneficiaries of these horizons and this shaping. Arguing about monuments, getting riled up about White people enacting insurrectionist violence—hell, even getting caught up in Donald Trump’s latest legal fiascos—all of this is meant to distract, to turn our attention toward them and away from ourselves.

Steve Biko once said that “the greatest weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” I agree. But I must admit: my mind still needs work. Because they dominate my attention. Long ago, a philosopher—well, his translators—used the term “they” to discuss normative (read: White) actions, presumptions, and perspectives.  A “normal” person does what they do. One sees as they see; one attends to what they attend to. 

This philosopher said he was doing mere description. He claimed he was simply articulating the state of affairs. And maybe he was. I can’t call it. But I know that this philosopher was a White supremacist. Which means that his “description” wasn’t neutral. It was steeped in power relations. The “normal,” the they, isn’t neutral. There is power attached to normality. We call it normativity. And normativity structures what should be attended to and what shouldn’t. When they dominate my perceptions, it isn’t innocuous. In fact, as Frantz Fanon once claimed, they are the ones who tell me that I am nothing more than an “object among other objects,” that whatever I see (or want to see) is structured by what they see (89). 

When I speak of they, then, I am speaking of the various structures and embodiments of White supremacist anti-Black normativity. For, even when I might not want them to, they structure my perception and determine what I have come to understand as knowledge. What I see, what I am made to see, is dominated by them. 

Call me weak. Call me foolish. But I cannot help it. Not unless I focus. Not unless I turn my attention away from them, away from what they do. I cannot do my work so long as I am focused on them. For as long as I am preoccupied with them, I am not engaged with us. 

To turn our attention away: that is the move. I believe that the radicality of Black study is not simply found in its philosophical criticisms of White supremacist anti-Blackness—though there is something to be said for this, to be sure—but instead is sourced from a different kind of attention. And this different attention would entail a different kind of experience—a different structure of experience. Phenomenology wouldn’t hold here; as Derrida once told us, phenomenology is, always, a phenomenology of light. Phenomenological experience is about what can be brought to the light—to the White light of epistemological transparency. 

The radicality of Black study is not simply found in its philosophical criticisms of White supremacist anti-Blackness, but instead is sourced from a different kind of attention.

Visibility, then, is a tool of Whiteness and White supremacy. As Lewis Gordon once put it, Whiteness determines what appears—what is deemed a “licit” or “illicit” appearance. And as I’ll show later, Sara Ahmed makes it clear that a phenomenology of Whiteness is about who and what fits and how—which is to say, who and what is rendered visible, and for what reasons. 

But I come from the dark. And because I come from the dark, my appearance, my presence, my visibility—even my own perceptions—are rendered subject to the phenomenology of White experience that dominates this world. I am not always invisible, but my appearance is illicit. And that illicit appearance renders my perceptions invalid. Hence, my focus on them. 

And yet, I still come from darkness. My birthright is the darkness of night, the depths of the sea. And there is something about the darkness that opens possibilities. There is something powerful about darkness, something generative. And that’s what I want to think with. How might we think with the dark? How might we engage in a paraphenomenology of darkness, a description of what cannot be seen? 

Here’s what I have to offer.


For some time now, I have been mesmerized by a passage from Toni Morrison’s Beloved. It comes in Beloved’s chapter, where she begins to speak. In speaking, she leaves grammar and punctuation behind. Perhaps she leaves it behind because she is trying to leave her body behind.

we cannot make sweat or morning water so the men without skin bring us theirs one time they bring us sweet rocks to suck we are all trying to leave our bodies behind the man on my face has done it it is hard to make yourself die forever you sleep short and then return

Even if you have not read Beloved, the only context you need for this passage is that Beloved is in the hold. She is in Middle Passage. And being in Middle Passage takes away the sense, the meaning of this passage. This passage in and from the Middle Passage doesn’t make sense. In philosophical terms, it does not give itself. It is not given. It is not an object of perception, of meaning; it leaves the question of significance behind. Understanding is impossible here. All we have are fleeting observations, called and culled from the violence of being too close, of being in such frottage that even the very capacity to move is stunted: “someone is thrashing,” Beloved tells us, “but there is no room to do it in.” Fuck a body schema—the body is a trap. 

First paraphenomenological insight: the Black body is not a site of freedom.

There is more. Read the passage again. And now, pay attention to the “men without skin.” These figures are not beautiful. Their morning water, their piss, is not a gift. These men are ugly—physically and ethically. But pay close attention to Beloved’s method. She is describing the conditions of her experience, the structure of a lifeworld to which she does not have access. She is engaging in paraphenomenology here, and what we see, what we are enabled to see, is nothing less than the ghastly grotesqueness of White aesthetics. Whiteness is not beautiful. It is hideous. It has no skin. It is burned by the sun and changes color in the breeze. What is given in the light of whiteness is nothing more than the blinding luminescence of violence. 

Second paraphenomenological insight: White aesthetics are not to be embraced, let alone attended to.

There is one last paraphenomenological insight that I think we need to underscore: Blackness is to be loved. Though I didn’t record the whole speech here, there is a moment when Beloved says the following: 

if I had the teeth of the man who died on my face I would bite the circle around her neck bite it away I know she does not like it now there is room to crouch and to watch the crouching others

In “Blackness and Nothingness (Mysticism in the Flesh),” Fred Moten calls our attention to the possibility that the hold was a “language lab,” a space where care and love were possible in the midst of degradation. I no longer hold a rosy idea of this picture. But I do think there is something to be said for Beloved’s desire, for the way that she holds care for the woman who has her face. Blackness is to be loved. Blackness is beloved. Why? Because, at some point, there will be “room to crouch.” There will be room. Room will be made. Not because we want it, but because they will make it. Blackness is to be loved. Blackness is beloved. That is the last paraphenomenological insight. For now, anyway. 


You might be wondering what that detour into Beloved has to do with the idea of White nationalism. And I’ll be honest with you: it has nothing to do with it. Nothing at all. What this brief literary and paraphenomenological detour exposes is the sheer terror of Whiteness, the utter violence of White nationalism. How? Because it exposes how White nationalism seeks to dominate our attention. If phenomenology is about anything, it is about where and how we pay attention. It is about what constitutes “experience.” But, as Sara Ahmed intimates, the very terms under which “experience” is constituted is always White. Always steeped in philosophical and theological logics that posit transcendence and light as good things. But in that light, we are blinded. In that light, we are made to pay attention to the heinousness of White people—a heinousness with which we are already too familiar, a heinousness about which we do not need to be constantly reminded. 

This is not to say that there is no place for criticisms of White supremacy. In fact, a turning away from White aesthetics is itself a critique of their logics, their actions. And their history. In fact, a paraphenomenology of darkness allows us to see the brutality of history, the violence not simply of statues, but of the fight over statues. It allows us to the see the disgusting condescension of White liberals who, as Steve Biko reminded us, seek to tell us how and what to think. It allows us to see how this condescension is enacted in the name of goodness. Liberal condescension is their morning water; DEI™ is nothing less than the institutionalization of White people pissing on us and telling us it’s gold

At the beginning of this essay, I spoke of them. I consistently put it into italics because I wanted to underscore who and what they are. They aren’t (simply) individuals. They are the institutionalization of White normativity, the enactment and enforcement of a brutal social ontology that determines who and what we should attend to. They therefore names both the agents of White normativity and the normativity of Whiteness itself; they names the ways that normativity seeps into our everyday lives, structuring our perceptions, calling our attention toward Whiteness (and white people) and away from ourselves. They are White, and Whiteness is them. The “are” and the “is” in the previous sentence are meant to convey the reality of the they—a social reality, to be sure, but a reality nonetheless. And because it is a reality (though perhaps not the only one) DEI™ is yet another ontological tool they use to reinforce their continued dominance and normativity, to determine who is or isn’t eligible for resources, benefits, and healthy life options. 

Liberal condescension is their morning water; DEI™ is nothing less than the institutionalization of White people pissing on us and telling us it’s gold

Which means that DEI™ is also a nationalist project. It serves the project of U.S. imperial interests here and abroad. It functions to justify a nation steeped in White interests and White perspectives. We must not forget that anti-Black chattel slavery operated along the lines of a doctrine of inclusion; Black people were included—just not as beneficiaries of the country they were tasked with building. Even if they weren’t equitable, slave plantations were both diverse and inclusive; they were pictures of White people and Black people being in the same place. 

And what of equity? Equity is structured by them. So to speak of equity in this country is to always measure oneself “against the tape of a world that looks on with amused contempt and pity.” DEI™ is a White nationalist project, steeped in their interests and marked by their desires.  In fact, it has been the nationalist project since we hit these shores.  

But Beloved is not concerned about their morning water. She has turned away. 

She is trying to free the woman who has her face. 

I know she doesn’t like it.

Biko Gray
Biko Mandela Gray is an Associate Professor of Religion at Syracuse University. He writes, teaches, and thinks about the relationship between blackness, ethics, philosophy, and religion—with a particular emphasis on questions of subjectivity. His first monograph, Black Life Matter (Duke, 2022) sits with four lives as a mode of philosophical eulogy and criticism of religious and philosophical logics of subject-formation. He's also co-author (with Ryan Johnson) of Phenomenology of Black Spirit (Edinburgh, 2022) and co-editor (with Stephen Finley and Lori Martin) of The Religion of White Rage (Edinburgh, 2020). He is currently working on a monograph that explores Sojourner Truth's life as a way of thinking about black ethics. 

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