The General Crisis of Whiteness: A Conversation with Nicholas Mirzoeff

By Natasha LennardJune 1, 2023

The General Crisis of Whiteness: A Conversation with Nicholas Mirzoeff

White Sight: Visual Politics and Practices of Whiteness by Nicholas Mirzoeff

WHEN EUROPEAN COLONISTS first arrived in the lands they would steal and plunder, they claimed that these terrains were empty—terra nullius—and therefore available for the taking. What must it have required—to see nothing, or claim to see nothing, when faced with such richly populated worlds, without whose inhabitants’ guidance colonizers would have surely perished? According to visual culture theorist Nicholas Mirzoeff, it requires “white sight.”

Mirzoeff’s new book, White Sight: Visual Politics and Practices of Whiteness, published in February by the MIT Press, explores how systems of white supremacy see, and thus order, the world in the unbroken history of colonialism, up to the present day. White sight finds articulation in a vast array of visual culture—from the monuments of colonialists and Confederates that occupy (literally) key points in cities and towns, to the deadly vision of the military drone’s-eye view, to the museum displays of species made extinct through colonial slaughter. Where the British Jamaican philosopher Charles W. Mills coined the term “white ignorance” to describe the historically entrenched epistemic block that forecloses knowledge of the brutal material realities of racial capitalism, Mirzoeff’s term takes up the question of how practices of whiteness operate in our fields of vision—and, crucially, how to rupture that white reality and see otherwise.

Mirzoeff spoke with me about the meaning of “white sight,” its long history, and the concurrent legacy of resistance against it.


NATASHA LENNARD: My first question is perhaps an obvious one: what is white sight?

NICHOLAS MIRZOEFF: It’s not the way that people who are identified as white see, or have vision—that’s something different. This is a collective enterprise, a systemic making visible. A couple of things come together here. On the one hand, there’s the foundational idea that there is such a thing as white people, who possess something called “whiteness.” This whiteness is not an unchanging or natural category. Seventy years ago in this country, for example, as a visibly Jewish person, I wouldn’t count as white. Now I do. Likewise, white sight is always relational—a way of organizing the world so that the invented collective “white people” can create a reality that accords to their sense of the world. And if it doesn’t, they use violence to close the gap between their version of reality and what exists.

The simplest way to answer this is that we already know what white sight is because every time a cop comes up to someone, they make an immediate judgment based on their perception of whether that person is or is not white. And they act accordingly. Or we might think of that egregious incident, three years ago now, when a white woman was walking her dog in Central Park, and a birdwatcher who happened to be Black came up to her and said, Hey, this is a wildlife area. Would you mind leashing your dog? And she freaks out. She starts yelling at him and she calls the cops. She’s immediately panicked, not by anything that this man has done, but just because he’s there and he’s a Black person and so he appears to her to be a threat.

So, at that level, we already know what white sight is. At another level, white sight is an operating system of what it is to make whiteness and white supremacy, which functions by connecting assumptions, contexts, learned experience, stereotypes, and techniques into a whole. And it has a long history. That history became fully visible in 2020 because of the actions that people took [in the form of the George Floyd uprisings]. And we’re still in that moment, which I call the general crisis of whiteness.

What were the conditions for white sight to become an operating system? In the book, you talk about the colonial settler—the invariably white, male surveyor of terrains of colonization and subjugation.

We are perhaps toward the end of a long moment of racial capitalism, to use the term proposed by Cedric J. Robinson, that opened in the 15th century with the beginning of European expansion and the transatlantic slave trade. That system created a number of conditions centering around extraction: extraction of labor, extraction of value, and the claiming of land. There is a long continuity, but with changes. There’s a clear difference between an overseer on a plantation and the foreman in a factory and the soldier operating a drone—and it’s almost always a guy. Yet there’s a way in which they’re also the same, because what they’re doing is using surveillance to regulate and organize labor and the economy. White sight regulates bodies, land, and the relations between them by means of its capacity to survey colonized space, to claim it, and to place all forms of life under surveillance.

I think of white sight not as flat, like a painting, but as deeply layered and sedimented, as in geology where you have stratigraphic layers of rock; or like a Photoshop document, which is composed of multiple layers, some of which you can see and some of which you can’t, but they’re all there. And if you manipulate the document, another part of that layering can become visible. It was important to me to evoke this long history, because otherwise I don’t think we get a sense of the force of the deeply embedded system that we’re trying to contest.

That history, as you point out, is also legible through monuments, as colonial tools of white sight.

One of the mistakes in the first generation of so-called whiteness studies was, in retrospect, that it was often said that “whiteness is unmarked.” And that’s clearly not true. The whole point about whiteness is that it’s absolutely marked, while creating a structure of unknowing among white people. But no one who’s not white is unclear about how very marked whiteness is—it’s visibly and blatantly marked, especially in colonial situations. And this is still a colonial situation in the US. By the same token, we’re supposed to take it for granted that there are white men made out of stone on every street corner, eight feet up in the air. Frantz Fanon called the colonial regime a “world of statues,” and he didn’t mean it metaphorically. He meant that the colonizer will put up a statue in the town square of a colonized city as a foundational act of colonization. After my book went to print, an organization called Monument Lab in Philadelphia counted 48,000 of these monuments in the US, a huge number for a relatively recently colonized country.

You reflect upon the taxonomies of white supremacist racial hierarchy and how they’ve been visualized—the dehumanizing ways Black and Indigenous people were presented as types in wildly racist phrenology, for example. But also, how whiteness has been visualized through the image of the white marble statue, particularly the classical Apollo Belvedere (known through a second-century Roman copy of a Greek original). Whiteness as a literally impossible, nonhuman ideal. Can you talk about that?

When it comes to the construction of whiteness, and how it has been peculiarly projected through white marble statues, there are two important historical points to stress. One is that actual marble statues in ancient Greece and Rome did not appear to be white. They were very brightly and powerfully colored and the skin tones were not light—it’s the southern Mediterranean, after all. The second point is about why and when the statue of the Apollo Belvedere began to be used as the figure for whiteness. It happened at the beginning of the 19th century, when Haiti had just carried out its revolution against slavery (1791–1804). No sooner had this “unthinkable” revolution happened than the figure of the Apollo Belvedere became the racializing type of whiteness—perfect whiteness, in a way no person could actually be.

In 2016, when people were campaigning for Donald Trump, there was a poster flying around from a far-right group called Identity Evropa with the head of the Apollo Belvedere statue on it saying, “OUR FUTURE BELONGS TO US.” The simple display of a classical statue to a white audience was intended to make them think: “Yes, I identify with that, that’s the European tradition to which I belong, I look like that.” That’s what we saw in Charlottesville [at the 2017 Unite the Right rally]. Charlottesville was the moment when I realized that this book was going to have to center around the sculpted white figure as the literal figure of whiteness and white sight. Because the far right gathered in very large numbers to defend a statue of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee. And when I saw someone get killed—[the antifascist counterprotester] Heather Heyer—deliberately murdered in the street over a statue, then I realized that this wasn’t just about representation; whiteness actually is a statue.

In what I call the “collective cultural unconscious,” following Fanon, there’s a racialized hierarchy that allows the police to see a person like George Floyd as disposable, and that also places whiteness at its peak, for which no individual body can be sufficiently perfect. So, it turns to a statue, not as a representation, but as the actual form that whiteness takes.

This violence is connected to the state linguistically—via the word “statute”—but also substantively. In the American South, there are laws that protect statues, meaning that you can’t move them and you can’t take them down. Florida has recently banned even placing an explanatory sign next to a Confederate monument. A material example of how white supremacy and the statue are directly connected is that Confederate statues were frequently placed right outside the courthouse. The law of white supremacy and the statue were right next to each other, creating an infrastructure. It makes sense to respond, as protestors found obvious after the murder of George Floyd, by taking down Confederate and other racist statues, not just to remove racist iconography but to disrupt that infrastructure with a view to replacing it.

Toppling Confederate monuments became a key part of Black liberation struggle in recent years in the United States, and the United Kingdom to some extent. But such acts of resistance are not new practices, as you cover in the book. They were part of decolonizing liberation movements across Africa in the last century, and then the Rhodes Must Fall efforts in South Africa against statues of colonial prime minister Cecil Rhodes more recently. Do you think this international history gets lost in how similar efforts in the US are discussed and covered?

We need to understand the histories of decolonizing from the 19th century forward, and what those practices were. When Algeria gained independence in 1962, one of the first things they did was take down the statues that the French had put up around Algiers and other cities. This was known locally as the “war on statues.” And it spread down Africa as a wave of liberation that went from Algeria down the continent. In Angola and Mozambique, in 1974–75, so seriously did people take the idea of removing Portuguese statues that they did it while the fighting was still going on. People risked their lives to do this.

Under apartheid, everything froze for a while, and the Black radical youth in South Africa showed enormously disciplined patience after the end of apartheid in 1994. Twenty years after majority rule, the born-free generation said, “Okay, this is enough.” They started Rhodes Must Fall in 2015 to bring down the statue of Rhodes at the University of Cape Town. This statue occupied a stunning location, with a backdrop of mountains and a view down to the sea—that position was all about colonizing white sight. What the young people did was bring what Fanon talked about as the world of the lumpenproletariat and the shacks onto Rhodes by literally throwing their shit on the statue. They disrupted white sight by forcibly bringing in the senses of smell and taste. It wakes you up, forces you to think about why this appalling human being, Cecil Rhodes, is still being commemorated at the leading South African university. Human waste was used because most people living in the township of Khayelitsha, which is the million-person, 99-percent-Black, informal settlement on the edge of Cape Town, still don’t have access to sewage and indoor plumbing, so people have to collect waste in their houses at night. That’s why they had a container suitable for carrying it and it had become an established form of protest to throw human waste at politicians. By throwing it at the statue, the activists deinvisibilized its power in the continuing infrastructure of white supremacy.

Rhodes fell very quickly, within a month of the first action. That same year, 2015, activists in Charlottesville, Virginia, deinvisibilized the statue of Robert E. Lee by tagging it with Black Lives Matter graffiti. The tag made a connection, then, to the transnational decolonial movement that has its roots in the 19th century but became very active from 1962 onward across Africa.

The statue connects many long histories of coloniality that continue to be active today. It allows us to make visible and disrupt those practices by taking direct action against them. It is not the only way to unbuild white sight. But it’s a noticeable, motivating action that’s exciting to do and creates something new. Because something happens when you take down a statue. It creates a new energy. Think of the Edward Colston statue being thrown into the [harbor] in Bristol, England, in 2020. That action made a tear in white reality because it’s not just that the statue has come down, it’s what’s not there that is now palpable, and there’s an energy around that space that allows you to think, what else might we do here?

Sometimes these actions are seen as primarily symbolic—important as such, but it’s not always clear how they connect to a more material toppling of white supremacy and racial capitalism. You use the concept of “white strike” to point to a way to think beyond the symbolic—can you explain this idea?

The strike against white sight is the key activist idea in the book. I don’t want people just to feel bad about whiteness. No. I want you to go on strike. By striking, I don’t mean the withdrawal of labor, because it’s not that kind of strike. It’s a refusal—a refusal to go along with the practices and the violences that make white sight “normal.” In Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” Bartleby’s job is to circulate capital by copying out contracts, to keep capital moving in the 1850s, a decade that saw the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act, which allows for plantation slave owners to come into the North and claim people they identify as enslaved, and then the infamous Dred Scott case at the Supreme Court. It’s in this context that Bartleby says “I would prefer not to” when asked to work. Other workers at the law practice started using the term “prefer,” meaning that the strike had spread. So, Bartleby was fired, but he doesn’t stop his strike, because it was a general strike against racial capitalism, not just a strike against the practices of the office. He turns it into a hunger strike that leads to his death, but his refusal to comply was his strike and he was not defeated.

This concept of a general strike across the social order comes from the feminist strike in Argentina in 2017, in which women, queer, and trans people organized a mass strike for bodily autonomy; they made heteropatriarchal hierarchy visible, to gain what’s now being lost in North America—i.e., bodily autonomy. Activist Verónica Gago called it the “feminist general strike,” which has now expanded to the feminist strike against debt.

When the Women’s Social and Political Union—the militant wing of the suffragettes—in early-20th-century Britain were still being denied the vote, they took direct action to disrupt normal practices of white heteropatriarchy. Because British imperialism viewed its empire through an imperial screen, imagined by art critic John Ruskin as a mile-square sheet of glass, one of these actions was to break windows, which they did in a very organized way for six years, from 1908 to the start of the First World War. Militants would go to a designated location, and each would say how much jail time they were willing to do. According to that, they’d be allocated a particular window to break, with a hammer that had a slogan on it relating to the movement. Many shop windows were broken, but windows in museums were also systematically broken, because museums were and are central to this hierarchy. I learned something from this, a 100-year-old lesson, which is, don’t break one window as an activist organization, break them all to show that this is not vandalism but a making visible of the operations of power.

The consequences were not minimal. The suffragettes were imprisoned. Many of them went on hunger strike in the manner of Bartleby; they were force-fed, unlike Bartleby. That is an extremely unpleasant process, directly derived from the practices of enslavement, because Africans taken into slavery often refused to eat on the boats. Historian Marcus Rediker wrote a history of the slave ship that describes the slave trade as a “400-year hunger strike.”

When we’re talking about risks and consequences, though, the suffragettes were, on the whole, white and middle class—and often held really vile racist politics too. As you point out, white sight operates to subjugate and make disposable Black and other people of color. What could be a more invisibilizing force than the criminal legal system, which locks Black and poor people away in jails and prisons en masse. That’s a major risk for striking out against whiteness. As we saw with the violent, militarized policing of the Standing Rock encampment, for example, and now with Stop Cop City/Defend Atlanta Forest participants facing domestic terrorism charges for allegedly committing acts of minor vandalism. This surely has to be, and is, a major consideration?

It’s an important point. These are tactical questions. I think, for example, of protests during the 2015 #FeesMustFall movement in South Africa, where white students arranged themselves on the edges of the demonstrations so that if police were going to make arrests, they had to take visibly white bodies first. That’s a deployment of white privilege, but it’s also making it highly visible. And it was a decision with which the Black South African students were in agreement. This is the key here: rather than saying, “We as white-identified people are going to choose to do this,” it’s vital to be in relation to social movements led by feminists, LGBTQ+, Black, Brown, Indigenous, and other people of color and ask, “What would you like us to do?” In 2020, it was clear that many white people wanted to be accomplices and to follow the lead of the movement. The police violence and sentencing you mention is designed in part to break up such alliances.

The book is full of many, many images—photographs, illustrations, works of resistance art, and visualizations of the workings of white sight. It’s clear that you considered very carefully what to include and what not to include. You do not, for example, reproduce still frames of the lynching of George Floyd, or other police murders caught on video. The discussion of the ethics of reproducing and circulating such images is not new—I’ve learned, particularly from Black feminist scholars, about the harms of this type of content circulation, and to challenge the idea that it’s necessary to share this content to somehow expose white supremacist violence. As if we need more evidence. Can you speak to the decisions you made along those lines, not to reproduce such imagery but nonetheless to find ways to show the violence of white sight at work?

It was a central choice within the book. On the one hand, I wanted to deinvisibilize the way in which the institutions of white sight—museums, statues, and other forms of visual culture—sustain and disseminate white supremacy. But it also does that through the practices of violence, including by means of images. There can be a default to circulating images of violence as the supposed means of undoing white sight. What I’m trying to do in this book is focus on something that’s harder to see: the way that white sight sees you and how “whiteness” is seen by white sight, rather than rely on the more established examples of violence done to Black and Indigenous people.

There has been a shift in what is being said by Black and Indigenous and other people of color activists, thinkers, writers, poets, artists in the last several years, where they’re saying, “We don’t want to see these images in circulation anymore.” The videos of the police murder of Tyre Nichols made an appalling spectacle and many people from the Black community said, “Please don’t recirculate these.” And by and large, (white) people didn’t. Nonetheless, murder charges were brought, showing that there’s not a direct connection between circulating violent imagery and holding police accountable. Often, in fact, the reverse. One of the reasons the police carry body cameras is that the police themselves believe that if (white) people see what their lives are like, then they will agree with their use of violence.

That’s how entrenched their white sight is! They assume some imagined viewers—presumed white—will agree that a young Black man should be seen as a threat.

Indeed. So, I had to make interesting tactical decisions. In one case, there was a photo of a woman holding up a sign during an anti-vax protest in California in 2021, and she used an appalling image on the sign that she had found on the internet by googling “mask and slavery.” I chose not to use the picture. Again, in an illustration of racial hierarchy from a 19th-century natural history text, I deleted the racist caricature of an African because I want readers to focus on the use of the Apollo statue to depict white people. Having been a teacher for a long time, I have learned that, as soon as you put up a violently racist image, it, as it were, downloads into people’s minds very quickly.

Because we live in a visually saturated culture, we respond to visual imagery quickly. And it’s part of the function of visible violence to say, “See, this could happen to you,” or, “See, this is what we’re capable of doing.” It’s almost always intended to be visible. Even in the case of so-called clandestine violence during the war on terror, it was never invisible to its targets. A US drone is not visible to people here, but if you are its target, even if you can’t see it, you can hear it. The drone operator and the drone regime want people to know they’re watching. People live with that every day in Iraq, in Yemen and Afghanistan and Somalia, and other places that are permanently under the regime of these seeing objects, which are also sonic objects.

My final question is about the concept of “murmuration,” which you deploy as a way to think about a form of collective being, and seeing, against white sight. Can you explain what that is?

People often ask whether there’s any hope. I think there can be, if you look, for example, at the set of associations that murmurations bring about. The first gallery show that I went to at the end of the pandemic lockdowns was in New York by the British Ghanaian artist John Akomfrah, called Five Murmurations. This is a three-screen black-and-white projection, with a layering of visual images. It marked a shift in Akomfrah’s visual style, away from lush color cinematography to a montage within the frame. He layered Renaissance painting with classic documentary photography, for example, of the murder of Che Guevara in Bolivia, and footage of Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, or of the conditions people endured under the pandemic. Looking at the film, I thought, this is exactly what I’m talking about in the book—the layering of different moments to make visible that “portal,” to use Arundhati Roy’s term, opened by the pandemic through which another world was visible.

Akomfrah interspersed sets of murmurations between those recognizable scenes. Murmurations are patterns created by flocks of birds, particularly starlings, that swirl and circle in remarkable, fractal ways. I sat there for a long, long time watching the film, remembering a number of conversations I’d had with Fred Moten, my colleague, and some things I’d read by Saidiya Hartman, both of whom have used the idea of murmuration within the Black radical tradition. It is a different way to be together. It is a flying in formation, a way to put your body in formation, and it creates information, but not as the be all and end all. It creates informal beauty in transient patterns.

Nobody really knows why the birds do this. What they definitely do is make active choices. As they fly in a pattern, they can choose to head toward light or dark—light is the sky, and dark is the body of another bird. So, each makes a choice. But collectively, they produce this form. And so, there’s a kind of writing here, a kind of data inscription that generates a way of being together. It’s a way to “consent not to be a single being,” as Édouard Glissant put it, and to imagine a way of being beyond the heroic individual, which humans have found so hard to imagine. Because what you see in murmuration is something that’s so much more than the assemblage of individuals, in the sheer beauty of their ephemeral movement and constant creation of three-dimensional form.

To see a murmuration now evokes a sense of loss, because in the past there have been murmurations involving millions of birds in a single formation. And we can’t see that anymore because settler colonialism has set out to debird the colony in a most violent way. Ornithology is in one perspective nothing but the record of bird slaughter in the United States, or in any settler colony. The idea of murmuration, by contrast, connects a series of histories, from the classic 12th-century Sufi poem The Conference of the Birds by Farid ud-Din Attar, which also thinks about the coming together of birds in pursuit of justice, to the Black radical tradition and the urgent need to reimagine what it is to be human.

The murmuration shows how one could decenter “the” Human, moving away from what philosopher Sylvia Wynter calls “monohumanism,” the idea that whiteness is the one way to be human. Instead of adding everybody into this exclusionary category, “the” Human, why not try to understand human life in relation to animal and other-than-human life—spirits, ancestors, and so on? It would create a different kind of collective cultural unconscious. If one looks at the history of murmuring as a word, it has always been about conspiracy and revolt. There’s always anxiety from elites that those who are under surveillance are murmuring among themselves, which indeed they are. And that might lead to some other formation. An old word for starling is “stare.” The murmuration of stares is a way of seeing beyond white sight—a collective way of seeing as something other than a single being.


Nicholas Mirzoeff is professor of media culture and communication at New York University. He is one of the founders of the academic discipline of visual culture in books like An Introduction to Visual Culture (1999) and The Visual Culture Reader (1998).


Natasha Lennard is a columnist at The Intercept, teaches critical journalism at The New School, and is the author of Being Numerous: Essays on Non-Fascist Life (2019).

LARB Contributor

Natasha Lennard is a British-born, Brooklyn-based writer of news and political analysis, focusing on how power functions and how it is challenged. She writes regularly for The Intercept, Al Jazeera America, and Fusion. Follow her on Twitter @NatashaLennard.


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