Historical essay
If You See Something, Say Something: Imperial Origins of White Women’s Modern Racial Profiling

If You See Something, Say Something: Imperial Origins of White Women’s Modern Racial Profiling

In 2018, confrontations between white women and people of color in the United States have become viral news bytes emblematic of widespread systemic racial profiling. Journalists, attorneys, civil rights activists, and armchair social media commentators point to the cases involving BBQ Becky, Permit Patty, and Golfcart Gail as examples of deep-seated beliefs in white female entitlement and an obligation to watch and report on activities of non-white neighbors. The phenomenon, however, is nothing new. In fact, we can trace its origins back to imperial European conceptualizations of race and Victorian-era gendered ideology.

Origins of White Superiority

European empires did not invent surveillance. But the empowerment of an entire group to watch over another based upon social constructions of race was an innovation of colonial-era Europeans obsessed with taxonomic-based control over colonized populations. Eighteenth-century Linnean categorizations of living organisms defined by physical characteristics alongside nineteenth-century Darwinian arguments regarding natural selection underscored the construction of hegemonic assumptions of race.

Line drawings of three heads correlated with skulls, with a classically Greek head and scull on top, followed by an African and a Chimpanzee.
Illustration from Types of Mankind (1854), whose authors Josiah Clark Nott and George Robins Gliddon implied that “Negroes” were a creational rank between “Greeks” and chimpanzees. (Wikimedia | Public domain)

Imperial scholars created pseudoscientific theories that categorized humans by phenotype and argued that people with European physical traits claimed superior evolutionary advancements. It was in this context and through these processes that the modern concept of race was invented and assigned scientific labels.

Using this race-based categorization, imperial government officials and civilians of fair-skinned European heritage, in Europe and abroad in the colonies, began to see their pale skin tone as an indicator of progress, a notion itself that came to mean anything reflective of the cultural norms, sensibilities, activities, and concepts of morality promoted in communities of “white” people. This idea led to a dichotomous worldview that humans were scientifically classified into two groups:

  1. an evolved, civilized, and moral “white” race, or
  2. any of the other “non-white” races, who, by default, were unevolved, uncivilized, and immoral.

Colonial authorities relied on these pseudoscientific distinctions, utilizing the same words and scientific terminology of Linnaeus and Darwin to justify the segregation, dehumanization, forced labor, and subordination of non-white subjects under European control.

Under His Eye – Surveillance as a Performed Power

This “white” or “not” classification influenced imperial attitudes and resultant policies that regulated the lives of all people in the colonies. Using notions of their own “scientifically-proven” racial superiority, white colonists argued that the uncivilized others had inherent and incurable physical and psychological deficiencies that prohibited them from evolving as whites did, and, therefore, they were in need of constant oversight. This perceived need resulted in the construction and continuous reproduction of systems of race-based surveillance.

Acts of surveillance manifested in many forms throughout the era of European colonization. On plantations, overseers and estate managers gazed upon slave, indigenous, and migrant laborers. In the anti-slavery movement, the look shifted to the eyes of the inspectors and abolitionists, empowered by their positions in the racial hierarchy. After slavery, white officials built prisons to monitor the every move of prison populations comprised mostly of people of color. Later, in factories, white managers watched over wage laborers, and in touristic colonial locations and metropolitan events such as World’s Fairs, any white person had the power to be a tourist and gawk at the “Other.”

Two men in American Indian attire.
19th and early 20th-century World’s Fairs often included “exhibits” of ethnic villages, such as this Moki “rain maker and chief in costume,” at the St. Louis World’s Fair, 1904. (William Herman Rau/US Library of Congress)

Looking downward from atop the social hierarchy was not an exchange. Rather, it was a unidirectional performance of power through which white colonists forbade reciprocation. It was typical for overseers to force slaves to keep their eyes directed to the ground and to punish a slave if their eyes rose up to meet their master’s. In the panopticon setup of most prisons that rose to prominence during the nineteenth century (concurrent with the end of slavery), the guard in the tower could watch but not be watched. Factory owners and fair planners clearly established racially defined relationships of viewer and subject by staging workers and exhibitees in enclosed spaces while managers and fair visitors freely moved about and looked upon those on display.

White Woman as Morality Police

Power in white society was not universally distributed. White men subjected white women to social, economic, and political domination via a gender-based hierarchy that extended across generations and borders of nation-states and empires. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, as Victorian gender ideals increasingly excluded women from public life, rising concern over the social effects of colonization on the morality of whites opened an avenue for the extension of women’s roles outside the domestic sphere. Once used as an excuse to keep women out of the “dirty” world of business and politics, assumptions of women’s inherent purity and maternal instincts led to the establishment of new roles for women as imperial monitors of morality.

By virtue of being female in a system of global patriarchy, white women were subject to the gaze of white men. But as white women with the extended roles of unofficial morality advisors, they occupied a unique space at the intersection of race, gender, and empire. They were both objects of the gaze of white men and empowered actors in their gaze upon colonized people of color. They seized this moment by joining abolitionist and missionary organizations that gave them voices and leadership positions.

It was under these early forays into the public domain that white feminism blossomed in Europe. Therefore, white feminist ideology grew from notions of white female superiority over people of color and their obligation to protect others from potential degeneration. In continuation of contemporary practice, early white colonial feminists appropriated the same pseudoscientific ideas and terminology as their male counterparts to justify their own superior position over people of color.

Legacies and Prescription for a Cure

The long-term ramifications of the entrenchment of these ideologies is evident today in former European colonies. Sovereign nation-states like the United States were founded upon these ideologies and both overtly and subconsciously have continued to reproduce them in new generations. White Americans, before and after independence from Britain, acted as imperialists. While the United States has often maintained an official position of anti-imperialism, it has also applied the same “scientific” race-based methodology of control over enslaved and free blacks, Native Americans, Puerto Ricans, Filipinos, and others. The result is a set of hegemonic ideas of racial superiority that are so deeply embedded in the collective psyche that white Americans do not recognize and thus deny the racism underscoring current-day acts of profiling.

And while modern women have made great strides in overcoming assumptions about their gendered roles, one that has held on with grit has been that women, as maternal beings, carry an obligation and instinct to watch and report any activity they think threatens their families or community, though they fail to recognize the racism that underscores their actions. Instead of acknowledging that their calls to the police on black community members were grounded in racial bias, Permit Patty and BBQ Becky instead justified their actions within the language of protection.

But protection from what? Minor indiscretions? Water bottles? Hot dogs and hamburgers? Golf? In reality, white women feel empowered to perform duties as morality police and watchers over people of color because of their ingrained understanding of their place in society. And they learned that understanding from their communities as part the continuous process of reproducing racial and gendered imperial ideas in the post-colonial world.

All is not lost, however. A potential adjustment to the balance of power in the gaze is emerging in the world of modern technology and social media. It is significant to note that these women have become household names due to the use of cell phone cameras, social media, and the use of the “meme” to rapidly spread ideas to people. In a manner unprecedented, the communities of people that have historically been objects of this surveillance-based system of control now use technology to turn the eye back on the watchers themselves. This shift could have important and fascinating long-term effects as white people from their perceived perches of power are continuously subject to the unsettling returned gaze of a newly empowered generation of people refusing to accept a subordinate status.

Further Reading

Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press, 2010.

Boisseau, Tracey Jean, and Abigail M. Markwyn. Gendering the Fair: Histories of Women and Gender at World’s Fairs. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010.

Brace, C. Loring. “Race” is a Four-Letter Word: The Genesis of the Concept. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Crowdy, Terry. The Enemy Within: A History of Espionage. New York: Osprey, 2006.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Pantheon Books, 1977.

Kaplan, E. Ann. Looking for the Other: Feminism, Film, and the Imperial Gaze. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” in Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Dionna Richardson is currently a Visiting Professor of Non-Western History at the University of Mary Washington and a doctoral candidate at the University of Akron. She is in the final stages of completing her dissertation on the experiences and identity formation of migrant Indian women in the British colonial Caribbean.