Symbolism and Functional Blindness

Though many look at the contemporary moment and see change and solidarity, I see more of a Christmas tree decorated with what functions as beauty only under a gaze of white nationalism. As elucidated countless times during black presence in the Americas, symbolism tranquilizes the masses into a slumber that precedes a functional blindness. 

By functional blindness, I speak directly to the single sight, or one dimensional myopia, that anti-black symbolism engenders. I employ the word “function” to delineate that this hegemonic handicap does not disable black people but ables the black collective to perform in the best interest of the forces employed against them.

My use of anti-blackness may prove questionable to some that see the plethora of interracial images that dominate the digital and print press as constituting pro-blackness. I contend that these images exist to induce a functional blindness where the oppressed only see whiteness.

Symbolism precludes black sight. What I mean here, is that the symbols that inundate the present culture such as demonstrations that feature white bodies assuming the last position George Floyd assumed in life and whites hugging and dancing with black people, evolve from something seen and becomes the sight itself.

Take, for example, Mayor Bowser’s 16th street mural in the nation’s capital. In yellow letters, in the path leading to the White House, Bowser had the street painted to say “black lives matter,” renaming the plaza an identical phrase. The gesture satiates the low bar constituents set for politicians which requires superficiality not substance. In all honesty, it seems like a power play that depicts mayoral power in juxtaposition to the presidential power wielded to deploy miltary troops.

Nevetheless, while I won’t say that Bowser’s act constitutes nothing, I will say that it’s hard to celebrate this gesture given the gentrification the city has experienced in the past decade. The historic Howard University is as gentrified as the surrounding city with a plethora of costly rentals built footsteps from the campus. But the blindness of symbolism obscures the reality that human beings sleep on the same ground that bears a promise we have yet to see fulfilled. But with symbolism as sight, the black collective does not see the homeless couple displaced by gentrification or the black family relegated to live on the streets while city transplants sip wine in newly built high rises. Instead, they meditate and celebrate over the tangible manifestation of an intangible goal.

Similarly, fixating on the pervasive image of a white cop hugging a Black woman, implores the black viewer to fixate on a reconciliatory gesture and not the reality that this image suffocates the black psyche. This embrace is not about unity but does symbolize a unified gaze that represents cognitive asphyxiation, not nuanced intelligentsia.

An associate reached out to me yesterday and informed me that a work colleague was having trouble sleeping. The cause? Her team and managers failed to acknowledge the contemporary #blacklivesmatter movement. This scenario elucidates the blindness the contemporary movement engenders. Particularly, the #blacklivesmatter movement incites a blindness where the oppressed meditate on their oppressor’s reaction, not their action or intention. Specifically, oblivious to ways of white supremacy, the socially blind require apology not action. Blindness insights the oppressed to ask “why are they not saying anything” rather than “why am I content working for my oppressor?”

Though only illuminating a psycho-political pandemic, functional blackness manifests in a variety of ways.

Celebrity fixation: Symbolism evokes the blind to inquire about which celebrity said what and who didn’t say anything as opposed to inquiring about which black celebrities vowed to create jobs for black people amidst the current climate. Functional blindness engenders the masses to fixate on who said or did what, rather than mediate on their own actions and words.

There is also a sense of escapism here. For it is far easier to censure Al Sharpton for his behavior than to critically interrogate your own.

Individualism: This group faces a paralyzing inability to see anything beyond their own experience. A good motto for these people is that if they have not encountered it in any form throughout their life personally, read about it in the news, etc, it has not happened. This group lacks self and esteem and endures a life of trying to assemble these attributes and attain self-importance within a white supremacist space. The result is, they become blind to the collective ideology that must exist to remedy what Dr. Wade Noble called “a fractured identity and shattered consciousness”—symptoms of white supremacist cultural hegemony.

Exceptionalism: These individuals see themselves as exceptional and believe that those who have not attained what the white world deems success illuminate personal deficiencies and not systemic disfavor. Because the system seemed to work for these people, they become blind to the reality that the system was as designed for their cultural detachment as it was for the exclusion of their ancestors, elders, and peers. These individuals typically function as symbols themselves, a status they too often mistake for greatness.

Indifference: This form of blindness is as common as it is dangerous. This group views black plight toward liberation, or any racial conflict, as everyone’s battle but their own. These individuals typically consume the most and create the least. Even the opinions they hone are socially constructed by the forces cast against them. This group most conspicuously delineates blacks blind to their power as a collective.

Inclusion: These individuals just want to live, work, and breathe near the African-adjacent. They want the ability to exist in a white world with access to American-status, or whiteness. The only nationalist agenda these individuals wish to pursue is white nationalism veiled by what society calls an “American identity.” 

Deflection: Those who mediate on “looters” and “rioters” as anything but caricatures cast onto the black collective though performed by the African-Adjacent in history and the contemporary moment, exude a functional blindness. These labels only manifest in conversations about the black plight toward liberation when the speaker cannot see past the caricatures that cast black people as angry thieves. This constitutes blindness because those who created this caricature remains detached from their thug status by deflecting their sins onto the oppressed.

Collaboratively, the various forms of functional blindness underscore a glaring reality that we must face as a people. To put it bluntly, black lives, black perspectives, black ambitions, and black advancement must matter to black people more than anything any African-Adjacent person says or does. We must matter more to each other, and our adversaries—their perspectives and how they feel about us as individuals and as a collective—must cease to matter at all.

James Baldwin once said: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Symbolism, engendering a functional blindness, impedes black ability to face what we need to incite change beyond the white nationalist objective of an anti-black culture. Furthermore, if anti-black adversaries, or the oppression they incite, is what you see when you open your eyes, you are looking in the wrong direction.

3 thoughts on “Symbolism and Functional Blindness

  1. You’re so right CC. I’ve noticed too many of us are dying for their acceptance. We feel without their validation our efforts don’t matter. We need to do what’s best for us. I could care less what anyone else thinks. It’s a weight off your shoulders when you don’t care anymore.

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