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Hum, Sue. Racialized Gaze, Design. CE, 1/15. Posted 3/2/2015.

Hum, Sue. “‘Between the Eyes’: The Racialized Gaze as Design.” College English 77.3 (2015): 191-215. Print.

Sue Hum, associate professor of English at the University of Texas, San Antonio, examines the 19th-century political cartoons of Thomas Nast to argue that the assumptions, ideologies, stereotypes, and received knowledge of our social, cultural, and political environments constitute a “lifeworld” that inescapably influences our choices in designing visual messages. She focuses on the “racialized gaze” that, she contends, as one of the “habits of looking” (191) to which all design is subject, undercuts Nast’s efforts to ameliorate anti-immigrant attitudes and legislation directed at Chinese populations from the mid-1800s well into the 20th century. Her exploration of Nast’s activist visual rhetoric leads to a call for teachers and scholars involved in the analysis and production of visual rhetoric, particularly as it becomes a focus in English Studies classrooms, to become more alert to the degree to which the readily “available resources” provided by our “lifeworld” direct and constrain our choices in design (197-99).

Hum develops her argument along two axes. The first involves the “characteristics” of “sight” and “site,” which she sees functioning as verbs. Sight as a verb results in the use of visible markers to stand in for a range of judgments about the nature of an individual; visible characteristics take on the power of “facticity,” informing us of supposed truths about a person based solely on what she looks like (194-5, 199-201). “Site” uses these visible markers to incorporate individuals into a “homogenous group” that can then be located in an extant social and cultural hierarchy (195, 202-3).

The second axis is that of the “dynamics” of “authenticity” and “universality,” which Hum sees acting as nouns. Authenticity requires the use of visual detail to represent individuals in the ways that the contemporaneous culture views as accurate representations (195-96, 203-04). For example, Nast used elaborate, stereotypical indications such as flowing robes and long queues to establish the ethnicity of his Chinese subjects. Universality involves depictions that attempt to establish the shared humanity of different groups, for example, by attempting to evoke sympathy for the anguish felt by a bullied “coolie” in an 1869 cartoon (196, 205-08). This attempt to subsume specific cultures by incorporating them into the conception promoted by the dominant social order of what it means to be a fellow human, Hum contends, “elides the lived experiences of people of color by overlooking how differences are produced by histories of oppression and ideologies of exclusion” (196). Hum argues that these two dynamics function both simultaneously and at odds with each other. The care Nast took to mark his subjects as Chinese rendered them inescapably alien even as he hoped to show their commonality with the culture that characterized them as the “yellow peril” and a dangerous “horde” (195, 206, 204)

Thus, Hum writes, the “racialized gaze” invests the visible with the power of a truth that is in fact a product of the culture’s readily available beliefs and expectations. It focuses on markers of difference as statements about individuals and groups and in doing so, reinforces extant hierarchies and divisions even when meant to challenge them. Hum’s closing suggests that awareness of such tendencies can temper their power and urges scholars and teachers in English Studies to cultivate such awareness in the examination and production of visual rhetoric: “This historical inquiry offers students an understanding of the broad array of contextual decisions involved in producing images” and “highlights how well-intentioned designers, as a result of the perceptual habits of their time, may be blind to the ideological grammar, structures, and conventions of their lifeworlds. . . .” (210).

Author: vanderso

I'm a recently retired associate professor of English in Southern Indiana. I've been teaching writing for twenty-five years, but I feel I have much to learn about how people really learn to write. In this blog, I'll be sharing research and thoughts and hopefully gathering information from others about the process of learning to write.

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