“The Jewishness of the Jew, however, can go unnoticed. He is not integrally what he is. We can but hope and wait. His acts and behavior are the determining factor. He is a white man, and apart from some debatable features, he can pass undetected. He belongs to the race that has never practiced cannibalism. What a strange idea, to eat one’s father! Serves them right; they shouldn’t be black. Of course the Jews have been tormented–what am I saying? They have been hunted, exterminated, and cremated, but these are just minor episodes in the family history. The Jew is not liked as soon as he is detected. But with me things take on a new face. I’m not given a second chance. I am over-determined from the outside. I am a slave not to the ‘idea’ others have of me, but to my appearance.”
-Franz Fanon, Black Skin White Masks
Every day we are subject to stereotyping. Broad groups exist based on skin color, sex, etc., and still there are more nuanced categories we may not even be aware of based on how others dress, height, age, and more. The beginnings of these stereotypes are in visibility. We see before we speak to one another, in most cases, and it is from here that we base our first impressions of one another.
Not only do the ways others see us shape how they react, and therefore how we experience the world, but it also determines our behavior. We often must use what we understand about other’s perceptions of us in order to act in a way that gets our desired response. In this way we are trapped by our visage.
This concept is illustrated well by a little thought experiment. The British philosopher Jeremy Bentham once drew a sketch of a prison. His idea was to create a circular prison with the cells facing in so that a watchtower could be put in the center, and all the prisoners guarded at once. Suppose that the prisoners cells were covered in a two way mirror, so that they never knew when the guard was present, and that if they misbehaved and were caught they could be subject to harsh punishment. Would they have reason to behave, even though they don’t know whether or not the guard is even looking?
For further reading: http://www.utilitarianism.com/panopticon.html
Fanon, Franz. Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove Press, 2008. Print.
“The Panopticon.” UCL Bentham Project, https://www.ucl.ac.uk/Bentham-Project/who/panopticon, accessed Nov. 17, 2015