identity / space: “eyes of power”

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See also another post in which I reference this one and the work of Ibriham Awad.

These piece caught my attention for obvious reasons and though Ibrahim is speaking specifically of francophone African youth in Canada, not an urban European space, this writing can easily be applied to that urban European spaces as well (or urban American spaces, for that matter). Take, for example, my friend, Mohamad, a refugee from a country in the region that we in the “West” refer to as “the Middle East.” (The use of these terms is problematic, I know, but I’m using them for a purpose.) Though Mohamad has *been in Berlin for three years now (and still awaiting an answer as to his residency status), the public gaze and the “eyes of power” defined him as he made his way through the city. In his home country of Iraq, he is not “a refugee”, “a middle easterner”, “an arab”, “a terrorist” (I’m cringing over that last word) but walking through a city in a country in which he was not born, he is what the the gaze wants him to become. Upon arriving in Europe, and specifically Germany, he (and all other refugees) “became” refugees, “became” Arab, “became” a middle easterner, and on and on (see quote below

Likewise, people born into families of Turkish origin who have lived in Berlin / Germany for decades are still not “German” but Turkish or whatever else the gaze and society would like them to be.

And then I came along, merrily making my way through Berlin, snapping photos of interesting graffiti and wandering aimlessly while occasionally stopping to make attempts to communicate in the German language for breakfast, lunch, coffee, directions. Though I take great pride in my ability to learn and speak languages other than English, my pronunciation is not terrible but my German is basic and it’s clear that it is not my first (or even second!) language. But being a white woman with blue eyes, the public gaze and the “eyes of power” identify me as “German” or something close enough to it.

(Sidenote: I am of German heritage – a very small portion of my family came from Ireland and Scotland but the vast majority arrived in the US, by boat, from every corner of Germany. Anytime I would mention this during my time in Berlin, it was met with smiles and warm welcomes. A couple people had even told me it was obvious, that I “looked like” a German. I, who was born in the city of Philadelphia here in the US and whose family had left Germany roughly a hundred years ago, was considered more “German” than “immigrant” families who’d lived in Germany for generations.)

The Baudelairian flâneur – the white, educated, and middle to upper class man is what he is. He is able to slip quietly by while the public gaze, the male gaze, the eyes of power are focused on the rest, deciding what they are to “become” and whether or not they should be allowed to pass by.

… “It tells the story of the ‘new flâneur,’ a recent immigrant and refugee group of continental francophone African youth, who are attending an urban French language high school in southwestern Ontario, Canada, and who find themselves within what Nietzsche calls a ‘public gaze‘ where their bodies are already always read and imagined as ‘Black’. They are caught within the spectre of ‘and’, being continental in Canada and possessing a body that is read in a dominant social imaginary as a diasporic African body. The spectre of ‘and’ is also about what it means to be Senegalese or Nigerian, for example, and Canadian. This gaze, this social imaginary, which is yet to be fully understood within what Handel K. Wright (2003a) calls ‘cultural studies as praxis’, is a born shift in rethinking the discourse of race, identity and pedagogy and has three main implications. First, as I have argued elsewhere, these youth were not black in Africa; however, once in North America, they fall within ‘the eyes of power’ (Foucault) where they become black – and where blackness is conceived as a performative category, a form of speech, an attitude and a social location one takes up. Following Simone de Beauvoir, Monique Wittiq (2003) argued that one is not born a woman, but that one becomes a woman.”…

citation: Ibrahim, Awad. “The New Flâneur: Subaltern cultural studies, African youth in Canada and the semiology of in-betweenness” Cultural Studies, vol. 22, no. 2, 2008, pp. 234–253., doi:10.1080/09502380701789141.


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