Seeing Race in Modern America

Seeing Race in Modern America

Seeing Race in Modern America

Seeing Race in Modern America


In this fiercely urgent book, Matthew Pratt Guterl focuses on how and why we come to see race in very particular ways. What does it mean to see someone as a color? As racially mixed or ethnically ambiguous? What history makes such things possible? Drawing creatively from advertisements, YouTube videos, and everything in between, Guterl redirects our understanding of racial sight away from the dominant categories of color--away from brown and yellow and black and white--and instead insists that we confront the visual practices that make those same categories seem so irrefutably important.
Zooming out for the bigger picture, Guterl illuminates the long history of the practice of seeing--and believing in--race, and reveals that our troublesome faith in the details discerned by the discriminating glance is widespread and very popular. In so doing, he upends the possibility of a postracial society by revealing how deeply race is embedded in our culture, with implications that are often matters of life and death.


Discrimination, 1a. The action of discriminating;
the perceiving, noting, or making a distinction or difference between
things; a distinction (made with the mind, or in action).


In the early 1920s, young Langston Hughes was an avant-garde New Negro poet, a conduit for both white and black audiences to a racially authentic aesthetic emerging from Harlem’s cobblestone streets (plate 1). As young crewman on the S.S. Malone, Hughes had left New York for Europe’s postwar possibilities, but the route took him to the western edge of Africa first. He had hopeful expectations of a spiritual connection with his ancestral continent. Arriving at the “long sandy coastline, gleaming in the sun” after transatlantic passage aboard the tramp steamer, he watched as the men, their “rippling muscles” on display, off-loaded the stuff of modernity— “machinery and tools,” he remembered, “canned goods and Hollywood films”—and then loaded the belly of the ship with the spoils of empire. Embittered by his encounters with prejudice in the United States, and moved by the busy drama of imperial exchange below the ship’s deck, Hughes sought out and spoke to the dockhands, and expressed his commitment to racial solidarity. “Our problems in America are very much like yours,” he stressed. “I am a Negro, too.” Looking him up and down, they merely laughed, insisting, “You, white man!”

Africa, Hughes mused in 1940, “was the only place in the world where I’ve been called a white man.” Thinking back on it, he emphasized the way he appeared to the stevedores and wharfies, and not the uneven power dynamic between First and Third Worlds. “They looked at my copper-brown skin and straight black hair—like my grandmother’s Indian hair, except a little curly—and they said: You—white man.” It was such a mystery, this abrupt reclassification of a man who was undeniably “Negro” in Harlem but indisputably . . .

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