Anti-Blackness, intimacy and the fear of death

‘How afraid we mortals are of such a closeness,

Perhaps we will be swallowed up and lose ourselves,

Perhaps we will die. 

We try to keep our separation at all costs, Afraid and afraid

Marjorie Pizer, ‘Intimacy’, Poems (2014).

Intimacy is one of these words that can be hard to put into words. An embodied word. A feeling word, that comes with baggage. It evoke closeness, nurture and safety, to me. But I also know so many of the fears it can give rise to. Intimus, in Latin is the superlative of inside. The primary meaning of intimacy is accordingly, to be in contact with one’s own inside, one’s internal world and by extension that of another. The capacity for intimacy is thus both the capacity for human contact and the capacity for self-contact. Something about how people communicate, separate and are willing or unwilling to merge with the Other, tells us something about intimacy and, about sensuality. Intimacy cannot happen without merger. It requires exposure and psychic penetration. The crossing of ego boundaries with another some have said, as such, the willingness to be permeable. And, vulnerable. In this piece, I use intimacy as a lens, together with sexual desire and death fears (thanatophobia) as an analytical framework to formulate anti-Blackness.

Intimacy, the other and the self

Although intimacy manifests in the domain of the interpersonal and specifically in how comfortable we are with others, it is arguably primarily an intrapsychic process. Or, it is at least based on an intrapsychic blueprint so that our capacity for intimacy with another is necessarily contingent upon our capacity to be intimate with ourselves. This may sound a little odd for some to read. But essentially, what is being said, is that our capacity connect with ourselves, to be at home within ourselves and to tolerate or bear all that we are, is intrinsically linked to our capacity to be in contact with and to tolerate others. And indeed Others.

When we find proximity to others unbearable or too anxiety provoking, we are often said to fear intimacy. Intimacy fears exist on a continuum. Most of us will struggle with them to various degrees at some point, some much more than others. Those who have experienced abuse, neglect or other disrupted early attachment or losses often find intimacy more challenging. And for good reasons. Often, they would have faced the reality of annihilation and; the possibility and proximity of death. And so they have adapted, as human beings do, learning to keep others at bay as a way of protecting or defending against further existential threats, boundary breaches or violence.

The fear of intimacy is widespread. It is arguably the existential angst by excellence and, it can have many meanings and symbolism. At its most basic, intimacy fear is the fear of closeness, psychologically and/or physically. Usually both. It is the fear of connection and, the fear of psychological contact. It can mean the fear of being seen or the fear of seeing oneself thus, the fear of mirrors. But also, it is the fear of losing oneself in others, the fear of disappearing, of being ‘swallowed up’ or annihilated by the other. Consequently, the fear of intimacy cannot be meaningfully separated from the fear of death whichever way one looks at it. There is always that ‘perhaps, we will die’ conundrum.

Individualism in its extreme form is said to inhibit connection, attachment and empathy. One may argue as a result, that individualism is a defense against human contact and intimacy. Another form of ego protection, and arguably too a tool to facilitate violence against the Other since detachment or dissociation mean brutality can be enacted without it ever being fully experienced. Any examination of the defensive functions of racism will invariably confront splitting (and thus projection). Indeed, what is splitting fundamentally, if not the fear of contact and intimacy with the self.

Fear of blackness, fear of death?

Racial hatred has long been considered to be a form of protection against these aspects of the self or the world, one cannot tolerate. Defense against one’s sexual urges. Defense against one’s immorality or sense of depravity. Defense against the fear of the unknown. Defense too against existential terror or threats. Thus, more broadly, protection against uncertainly, powerlessness, and again against fears of annihilation. Some of our most primal anxieties.

That blackness has become the repository of disown and intolerable material or content is not a new thought. It is in fact one of the oldest psychoanalytic formulation of racism. Similarly the negative connotations or symbolism attached to the word black have long been noted (Malcolm X and Fanon, have written in my view the most compelling deconstructions of the linguistic and etymological origins of Blackness). From dirt, uncleanliness and illegality, to dishonesty, bestiality and depravity. There is one particular symbolism which is of particular significance here; death. Black has been used as a signifier of death and dying for centuries. Across various cultures. In western countries in particular, ‘we’ wear black in mourning practices as exemplified by the ‘black widow’.

This is significant. Since as human beings we are constantly engaged in denial and in avoidance manoeuvres when it comes to death, if the black object has come to symbolise death, we will do all we can to avoid its proximity, in the same way we try very hard to avoid staring death in the face. We lie to others, particularly to children. We also lie to ourselves. We distance ourselves from those who remind us of our mortality. Blackness from that standpoint, like death, is the ultimate otherness, the ultimate unknown. Terror management theory proposes that death anxiety drives much our thinking and behaviour. We shift our worldview, exaggerate our importance, construct fantasies of omnipotence because we cannot fathom the reality of our insignificance in the face of death. In that vein, we may see the controlling of the black body, as an act of displacement. As a way to master ‘our’ fear of death. Racism and in particular anti-Blackness can be conceptualised, it follows, as a defense against making contact with death.

Whiteness and the fear of contact

Intimate potentialities differ from person to person as we have seen, often based on psychohistories and, in particular on experiences of interpersonal trauma. The capacity for intimacy also varies from place to place and from culture to culture. Corporal arrangements in space, tell us something about intimacy and thus about intrapsychic configurations. If we agree that fear of the black object, the ultimate Other, is necessarily the fear of projected material, including existential angst related to one’s mortality, then the fear of blackness is the fear of the self. So, avoiding contact with Blackness is fearing making contact with the self or at least, part of the self. It is fear of Intimus.

One of the most basic fear related to racism is the fear of contamination. Of note, how does one get contaminated? Via contact. Foreigners, immigrants, racial ‘minorities’ have been constructed as the bearers of diseases and germs. The promotion of fear over health risks at times real but mostly exaggerated if not fantasised, is still central to immigration discourses and, it is instrumentalised to legitimise draconian border controls once more, echoing the recurring link between death anxiety, the Other, and other-self boundaries.

This link at least in part reflects a deep-seated wish to maintain white racial purity without which whiteness could not stand. It is therefore related to the need to protect white supremacy. And of course, widespread concerns over racial purity (although today mostly expressed covertly or indirectly) would not exist in a context where sexual contact with and, sexual desire for or interest in the black (masculine) object, were non-existent. Blackness and in particular Black maleness is a constant threat to the reproduction of white supremacy because of the heterosexual desire it is feared to evoke in white women.

Masculinities, sexualities and intimacies

There is a well-documented ambivalence towards proximity and intimacy in ‘the West’. The space between bodies is notable. In places populated by black and brown bodies, bodies are generally closer to one another. They are often confined to smaller spaces. Bodies touch, psychologies enmesh and co-shift. Any observant traveller would have noticed variance in corporal proximity. How much intimate sense, in the literal meaning, you can have of the other. How much or how little of the other you can access through your senses, your sense of touch, of smell, sometimes even of taste. The interconnection between empire, whiteness and masculinity has been amply theorised and, any attempt to explore anti-Blackness via the prism of intimacy, cannot be agendered.

Dominant masculine norms have been hypothesised to be in direct opposition to emotional expression, intimacy, and vulnerability. (Cishet) male gender role socialisation often leads to difficulties with intimacy. Western individualism has been generally thought to promote autonomy rather than dependence and interdependence and with, that less permeable boundaries; replacing some have argued, the desire for closeness and intimacy with competition and a thirst for destructive and abusive power.

It is no surprise in this context that intimacy has been feminised and that emotions have been attached to beings constructed as less mature or intellectually sophisticated: women, children, and people of colour who, as we know are ruled by the world of senses, the body and libidinal impulses rather than rational thought, objective detachment and discernable judgement. The feminisation of intimacy and emotions mean that the suppression of psychological contact, has been used for the advancement of capitalism and the furthering of the colonial project under the guise of reason. Objective hatred. Rational violence.

Although sex can entail intimacy, in the colonial context, it has usually been manualised and instrumentalised and, devoid of psychological contact. Perhaps we may say, sex has been used as a proxy for contact when contact was prohibited and/or intolerable. The colonial encounter illustrates something of this ambivalence towards intimacy. And white intimacy with the black female body has been complex and contradictory. From the breastfeeding of white infants by black maids, to the keeping and impregnating of black ‘mistresses’ by slave holders and colonialists, violent sexual intimacies and non-consensual sexual contact have endured in the mist of segregation. Deep physical joining amidst psychological separation. In that sense, one may note that on the one hand, European colonialists carried out voyages spanning weeks if not months to get to or to get closer to these foreign lands and these ‘savage’ beings, on the other, once there, elaborated Othering fantasies were constructed to establish a safe psychological distance.

Christian complicity 

And again, on the one hand, one imposed violent geographical thus physical boundaries between whites and the colonial subject, on the other, access to colonised bodies and their consumption were regular imperial practices.

That anti-Blackness is founded on fantasised fears of black sexuality is significant here much beyond biological and racial purity concerns. The fear of Blackness encapsulates not only desire for the black body, as a sexual object and as a sexual subject, as often what we fear we desire…It represents a psychic pull (and resistance) towards all that is socially prohibited, unthinkable and intolerable thus repressed including, lust, dirt, temptation, greed. All that is improper. All that is so systematically split off from the self. All that is evil and ‘id’. All that is unchristian.

Christian history, as a reminder is an extremely brutal one. It is a history in which intimacy has meant exploitation, oppression and violent death. Of people of cultures, of ways of life, of epistemologies, of natural habitats. Christianity and what has been termed the Christian imagination has deeply coloured and shaped racial dynamics and, our understanding of the world. It provided the life blood of European colonialism. It helped whitewash white supremacy for centuries by enforcing a strict puritain ideology, racial divisions and, the dualist separation of body and mind/soul, which I have argued elsewhere fed racial violence, splitting and repression fuelled conflicts. In 12 years a slave, these issues are poignantly and viscerally captured.

The brutalisation Pasty suffers at the hands of Epps her slave master in the mist of regular prayers and sermons speaks of the kind of violent intimacies Christianity promoted within the Antebellum period. Throughout the movie we watch Epps consumed and so painfully conflicted by the sexual attraction he feels towards his slave Patsy. We see him go from admiration to contempt, from ‘affection’ to hatred and from ‘care’ to sadism often within a matter of instants. One of the most powerful and distressing scene in the movie is the night we witness him rape her. Unable to contain his sexual urges Epps creeps into Pasty’s quarters and forces himself onto her as she lays motionless and expressionless, possibly in a dissociative state. Possibly in a survival posture, instinctively adopted because of the grave perils she is indeed under.

After Epps climaxes, he stares at Pasty for an instant and as he sees himself, starts hitting and punching her in the face. Then attempts to strangle her. He has succumbed to the lust of the (black) flesh. He is almost instantly consumed by shame, then later in the movie, by fear. Not shame at the harm he has done to Pasty, as this would entail psychological contact, neither fear for Pasty’s welfare, as this would require less narcissism. Rather, Epps feels shame at what he was no longer able to repress. And fears the wrath of the Christian god he prays to, will turn to him because he has transgressed and trespassed the colour line. Pasty is left paying the price not only for Epps’ repressed then unleashed sexual impulses but also, for his damaged Christian and virtuous self-concept.

Concluding thoughts

To be authentically human, means coming to terms with our mortality and inadequacy. Heidegger famously calls this being-towards-death. Blackness offers a convenient hiding place for fears, anxieties and, projections of one’s inadequacies. Of one’s shadow self. It has allowed white groups the ability to maintain the illusion of superiority. And of freedom as they have sought so violently to restrict that of others. In doing so they have however, enslaved themselves too. Psychically. Using intimacy as a lens and, examining  concomitant fears of sexual desire for the Other and thanatophobia, can help us understand how racism has historically become enacted, as well as the gendered performance of anti-Blackness. Heidegger posited that it is only in being-towards-death that one can truly come to be. If so, perhaps being-towards-blackness is an imperative to connect to the self, to life and to learn to form authentic relationship with all others.

Thank you for reading

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