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Whiteness as a political category

Mikkel Bolt
Mikkel Bolt
Professor of political aesthetics at the University of Copenhagen.
POWER / The storming of Congress in 2021 was an attempt to reaffirm the white world that emerged with the colonization and renaissance during the 14th century. A prerequisite for colonization was the devaluation of socially constructed others who were racialized as black or dark – as backward or as non-human.


If we are to understand the meaning of the storming of Congress on January 6, 2021, when thousands of Trump supporters overran the police and entered Congress to prevent the ratification of Biden's election victory – we have to go back in history, according to Nicholas Mirzoeff's latest book White Sight: Visual Politics and Practices of Whiteness .

The Storm on Congress is a counter-revolutionary response to the challenge of the white gaze that arose in the Renaissance as part of the beginning of European colonization of the world. The central perspective was not primarily an artistic breakthrough, whereby Renaissance artists could scientifically reproduce distance on a surface and thus create a different kind of depth in a painting. It was also a fundamental element of a racial-colonial world construction that turned the world into a white world in the sense that it made the world available to people who saw themselves as white.

The storm in Congress

The storming of Congress in 2021 was an attempt to reaffirm the white world that emerged with the colonization and renaissance during the 14th century. The world where being white is understood as a natural high point in historical development. Where all others are reduced to objects of capital accumulation or white enjoyment or at best just appear backward and not up to par with white western civilization.

Following on from black thinkers such as Frantz Fanon, Cedric Robinson and Sylvia Wynter.

Following on from black thinkers such as Frantz Fanon, Cedric Robinson og Sylvia Wynter Mirzoeff describes whiteness as a political category by which some groups of people are endowed with unlimited ownership of the earth and everything that is on it. Mirzoeff's book is an important art historical supplement to the many analyzes of the racial-colonial system that whiteness establishes. He convincingly shows how the white vision arose as a particular way of seeing that maintains this ownership and naturalizes it.

The violent, but also bizarre scenes took place on the steps up to the Congress in the USA Armed militias such as the Proud Boys, but also Qanon supporters dressed in various role-playing costumes such as Vikings or US-American freedom fighters from 1776, overpowered the police and ended up breaking in in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Mirzoeff understands this as a desperate attempt to confirm the world that the white vision helps to establish and reproduce.

Some groups of people are constructed and seen as having less or no value.

Trump's 'Make America Great Again' (MAGA) movement is the almost caricatured expression of this worldview, in which some groups of people are constructed and seen as having little or no value. This is where it is natural for police officers in the United States to shoot young black men without prosecution, and where Trump can treat women as objects. When the Trump supporters filmed themselves fighting with the police and noisily tumbling around Congress, it was to recreate an image of whiteness where whiteness is from where the world is to be seen. The central perspective Renaissance painting, from which the perspective lines go. They wanted to re-establish themselves as the center of the world. The George Floyd revolt and the many statue topplings that took place in the spring and summer of 2020 threatened to break the white worldview. According to Mirzoeff, the protesters who toppled statues understood that the statues help to reproduce the white world. Statues of Robert Lee, Columbus or Leopold II do not just fill up urban space, they produce it according to certain coordinates and subject positions.

The central perspective

By going back to the development of the central perspective, Mirzoeff shows how artistic representations in the last 500 years have become entangled in the production of a certain worldview. The artistic representations not only show what Mirzoeff calls «a racialized surveillance capitalism», they help to produce it in an active sense. The central perspective was the emergence of a particular vision with which Europeans, first Italian trading towns and then Portuguese, Spanish, French and English monarchs, could set out and conquer the world. A precondition for colonization was the devaluation of socially constructed others who were racialized as black or dark. It is the story of racism as group-differentiated vulnerability, where some people are labeled and represented as backward or as non-human. They are placed in rooms, ships, plantations and prisons, where they are transformed into objects that whites can exploit or kill at will.

Western art history

Mirzoeff's book is an excellent contribution to a decolonial restructuring of Western art
history. Its strength lies less in the specific analyzes of historical situations or objects – Mirzoeff analyzes, among other things, perspective drawings by Abraham Brosse and a series of statues by artists such as Bernini – but in the committed attempt to write an art history that positions itself alongside what, Walter Benjamin in "On history-
the concept" called "the avenging class" which is nourished "by the image of the enslaved ancestors, not by the ideal of the liberated descendants."

Mirzoeff's book is an excellent contribution to a decolonial restructuring of Western art history.

Mirzoeff not only outlines a long historical course from the Renaissance onwards through colonial modernity. He also offers a critical contemporary diagnosis focusing on the struggle between a revolutionary anti-racist movement, which is still in its infancy, but i.a. includes Black Lives Matter and the more radical parts of the MeToo movement. Moreover, a counter-revolutionary front that will do everything it can to avoid the white vision that makes the world an object for viewing, exploitation and domination for white people, to be challenged and dismantled. Mirzoeff calls the struggle against whiteness a strike, referring to the intersectional Agamben-inspired art collective Claire Fontaine and their description of a strike against a certain human view that constantly divides people into identities and predicates: white, male, father, Norwegian, professor etc. Trump and the MAGA supporters are therefore strike breakers. These will prevent any radical transformation, and do everything in their power to preserve racialized surveillance capitalism. As Mirzoeff writes, the plantation overseer has never disappeared, but has simply been replaced by other 'transformation machines' – today surveillance cameras and drones flying around filming demonstrations. Machines still intent on violently dividing people and turning the subjugated into objects of exploitation.

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