Black Lives and White Sight: Reading Invisible Man in This Age of Black Death – Part 2
White Sight and Black Lives
Ellison’s image of the glass eye reminds us that the societal dehumanization of Black people is not the result of a fault in us. The fault resides in the gaze of persons and institutions that blend into “one single white figure.” The locus of moral fault is so critical that Ellison establishes on the first page as his protagonist reflects back on his existence in American society:
“My invisibility…occurs because of a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come in contact. A matter of the construction of their inner eyes, those eyes with which they look through their physical eyes upon reality.”
Our societal history—whether the last three months or the last three centuries—attest to a similar inescapable truth: The eyes with which our society sees Black people are not whole, not healthy, nor righteous. To not see our shared and God-given humanity is a theological and moral emergency. Karl Barth expresses this urgency:
“That the other should be visible to and seen by him as man, is the human significance of the eye and all seeing. Seeing is inhuman if it does not include this seeing, if it is not first and supremely, primarily and conclusively, this seeing—the seeing of the fellow-man.”
And, yet this humane seeing is absent in America. True moral vision—the true sight of our God-given humanity—is not present in our land. Moral surgery is required and long overdue. New sight is necessary.
How else can we make sense of Breonna Taylor killed in her own home? How else can we make sense of the God-given flame of George Floyd’s life extinguished by the cruel knee of the police? Our society possesses a glass eye, a “polished and humane facade” of moral sight behind which is a “harsh red rawness.”
Glass eyes do not see Black people as image-bearers, but as people on a sliding spectrum of dignity dependent on optics of the situation and our proximity to what is deemed respectable. But even if we play the respectability game, our advanced degrees won’t protect us nor will our personal achievements save us.
Black merit, Black dignity are subordinate to the evaluative gaze of white sight—how they see us. Functionally speaking, white sight determines if Black lives matter. Michael Eric Dyson says it painfully well: “We draw breath. They draw conclusions. Our lives draw to an end.”
Plucking Eyes and Healing Sight
Jesus preached about the importance of sight. The unimpeachable logic of our Lord tells us that a problem with the eye is a problem with the whole body. What the mind is to the body, what the heart is to the whole person, so also is the eye to the body.
The continued refusal to see and acknowledge the God-given value and beauty of Black lives in both word and deed is yet again proof that our nation’s social and moral sight is thoroughly rotten. Like the man born blind whom Christ restores, our social and moral eyes are in desperate need of healing (John 9:1).
In The Christian Imagination, theologian Willie James Jennings traces the colonial history of “whiteness” as “a means of seeing all peoples” through an evaluative gaze. Whiteness exchanges the truth of divine gaze for the lie of white sight. No longer is God’s truth and our shared humanity as those in and of his creation the basis of our social and moral sight. Instead “whiteness transcended all peoples because it was a means of seeing all peoples…people would henceforth (and forever) carrot their identities on their bodies, without remainder.” This is our society’s ocular lineage—the place from which our societal sight descends. This is the white sight that renders Black lives invisible and expendable.
Our society has long been in need of the healing of a new imagination, a new vision. How we see the world and those who are other must radically shift at every level. The first step must be an honest assessment of our faulty vision.
What Ellison Diagnoses, the Wisdom of Jesus Remedies
The remedy, however, requires the cold, hard truth with swift commensurate action. “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out.” These are urgent words our Lord once said about a different topic yet apply in their significance all the same. White sight must be plucked out to be replaced by our common kinship and human mutuality as those in and of God’s creation.
This is where change seems to stall and our glass eyes remain solidly in place, providing a glossy illusion of righteousness and unity until the next round of Black people receive hashtag eulogies.
When we will come to the realization that the old way of seeing and living has failed us? Our collective glass eyes must be plucked out and in their place, by the mercy of God through rigorous work, fresh healing, new vision, and righteous change may occur.
Until individuals and systems take up this radical, divinely-guided plucking and healing of white sight, again we must ask: “…what kind of society will make them see us?”
 Barth, K., Bromiley, G. W., & Torrance, T. F. (2004). Church dogmatics: The doctrine of creation, Part 2 (Vol. 3, p. 250). London; New York: T&T Clark.