Simone Browne argues for an understanding of surveillance that takes into account the massive role and history that the policing of blackness has had on the development of surveillance. She “locates the conditions of blackness as a key site through which surveillance is practiced, narrated, and resisted. She shows how contemporary surveillance technologies and practices are informed by the long history of racial formation and by the methods of policing black life under slavery, such as branding, runaway slave notices, and lantern laws… Surveillance, Brown asserts, is both a discursive and material practice that reifies boundaries, borders, and bodies around racial lines, so much so that the surveillance of blackness has long been, and continues to be, a social and political norm.” 1

Notes & Quotes

  • Browne offers methods of resistance in her reading of “dark surveillance” and “dark sousveillance,” which she defines as “a way to situate the tactics employed to render one’s self out of sight, and strategies used in the the flight to freedom from slavery as necessarily ones of undersight…I plot dark sousveillance as an imaginative place from which to mobilize a critique of radicalizing surveillance, a critique that takes from in anti surveillance, counter surveillance, and other freedom practices” (21). For Browne, this is enacted by taking the antiblack gaze that dominates “racialized surveillance” practices and repurposing, challenging, or appropriating it so that it instead surveils the watchers or makes it so that those in power under surveillance can no longer see those they would watch. She gives examples from the antebellum period as well as more contemporary examples (i.e.: the filming of Rodney King by Holliday). This could probably be very helpful also in considering the white gaze often employed in film or in the current era of social media in which examples of dark sousveillance such as the “Becky at the BBQ” video are common place.

  • In her fourth chapter on “Security Theatre at the Airport,” Browne spends some time describing  the  racialized image of the TSA agent currently prominent in popular culture: “The image of the black woman as the aggressive, sassy, and uninterested screening agent at US airports is a not too uncommon composite and controlling image- or border patrolling image- in popular culture representations of commercial airplane travel and public safety. She is now a common archetype that is emblematic of state power in popular representations of the airport” (150-1).  Browne highlights the way that this figure often takes on the stereotypes ascribed to black women since the era of slavery and continues in the present day. However, what Browne is most interested in this figure is its status as a symbol of state power: “She comes to stand for something specific about working in the airport service sector: she might not be able to access the very thing that she is tasked with protecting… ‘freedom of movement'” (152).  There is a very prominent TSA agent character in Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2016), however, this character is a black man rather than a black woman. Additionally, the skills that he claims to have learned on the job help him to rescue his friend Chris from the sinister Armitage family. I think that this might be a filmic example of dark sousveillance. Although Rod Williams (the TSA agent in Get Out) is, according to Browne, emblematic of state power, he gains his own agency throughout the film and even takes on a sort of meta-role. In the NY Times article linked above, Lil Rel Howry, who plays Rod, describes the character as “basically everyone in the theater who’s screaming at the screen…A character like that in a horror film is just genius.” As the film progresses, the audiences slowly takes on Rod’s view of the situation, which at first seems crazy, but eventually becomes the dominant perspective. Additionally, Rod’s surveillance (done mainly through social media and phone calls with Chris) eventually allows him to rescue his friend from state punishment for a crime that he did not commit but which the dominant white gaze of the police would probably accuse him of (in the original ending of the film, Rod fails to rescue Chris, who finds himself in a maximum security prison).

Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness (2015) by Caitlin Duffy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.