PRINT April 1994

Fear of a Black Penis

One of the police officers in the attack on Rodney King is called Sergeant Stacey Koon. With a name like that, maybe you might have a problem about “race” too. According to Koon, when King was approached by a white female Highway Patrol officer with a gun, “He grabbed his butt with both hands and began to shake and gyrate his fanny in a sexually suggestive fashion . . . As King sexually gyrated, a mixture of fear and offense overcame Melanie. The fear was of a Mandingo sexual encounter.”

The Simi Valley verdict showed that denial, rather than guilt, remains one of the strongest psychic mechanisms in the psychology of white supremacy: seeing innocence in the accused police officers, despite the evidence of one’s senses, implies a near-psychotic repudiation of reality. But the event itself showed that wherever white male terror is wielded with the alibi of protecting white women from black men, the expressive violence of racism is always inescapably gendered and thoroughly implicated in sexuality. There is something visibly frenzied, a death-bearing fusion of erotic and aggressive desires, in the violence that breaks against the black male body. The image of King as ugly, broken, and beaten recapitulates the history of lynchings in the United States—the black man as the object of white male fear and fantasy, upon whose body history has inscribed the violence that white supremacy both abhors and yearns for.

Ultimately, the event also showed that the very idea of a white male supremacist identity is itself a contradictory political phantasy, the enactment of which always entails that the law, order, and authority of the state collapse into the lawlessness of the transgressive violence ascribed to its Other. Invoking “Mandingo” as the name of his fear/fantasy, Koon revealed that, despite history, the inner world of the white male psyche shows a certain timeless compulsion to repeat, a deathly repetition, underlining the relative autonomy as well as the mutual articulation of psychic and social relations.

But “straight white males” as such are not the problem: the problem is how this sequence of attributes became synonymous with the freedom to use and abuse power in all sorts of ways. The dangerous simplifications of identity politics consistently fail to recognize that the political problem of power represented by straight white males is a problem not about persons but about ideological subject-positions that reproduce relations of oppression. For example: Clarence Thomas is a black male person, but the political problem of his neoconservative positioning as a substitute for Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court lies not with his identity but in his identification with the normative and dominant ideological subject-position from which he speaks. When he invoked the emotive freight of “lynching” against Anita Hill’s charges of sexual harassment, he did so precisely to summon up guilt and shame on the part of his white male interrogators, and thereby to enable a collusive masculine solidarity across racial lines in order to discredit the black woman’s voice. Perhaps it was this reversal of roles at the level of phantasy—with the black woman, rather than the black man, as object of hatred, fear, and contempt—that led Senator Orrin Hatch obligingly to misquote Othello so as to re-fix Thomas under the image of uncontrollable black hypersexuality, just as King had been fixed by the Gorillas in the Mist stereotype that almost cost him his life.

Psychoanalytic concepts now float freely in debates on cultural politics, but there is still a stubborn resistance to the recognition of unconscious phantasy as a structuring principle of our social, emotional, and political life. Moreover, there is no shortage of text-centered studies of pleasure and desire, but where are the analyses of pain and hatred as everyday structures of feeling too? As Jacqueline Rose observes, “If psychoanalysis is the intellectual tabloid of our culture (‘sex and violence’ being its chief objects of concern), then we have recently privileged—sought indeed to base the politicization of psychoanalysis on that privilege—the first over the second.”1 It is in the domain of race, whose violent and sexy phantasia haunts America daily, that our need for an understanding of the psychic reality of phantasy, and its effects in the body politic, is greatest. Amidst the L.A. riots, why was it that the season’s most popular movie was called White Men Can’t Jump?

Just as Melanie Klein defined phantasy as merely the way we organize, perceive, and give form to our feelings, which are always ambivalent and conflicted by the coexistence of love and hate, we might also recall Juliet Mitchell’s insistence that “the unconscious is ordinary.” Against the tendency to personalize and psychologize the political, psychoanalysis enables us paradoxically to depersonalize and depsychologize the analysis of power relations by demanding the recognition of the ambivalence on which all social and psychic relations depend. Only by making a tactical shift from “identity” to “identifications” can we preempt the perpetuation of a public discourse in which white men remain at the center, as in Robert Bly’s men’s movement, where metaphors of wounding and healing don’t quite seem to include those men of color who have suffered white male power at its worst. The need is not for yet more angsty white male “self-examination”—puleeze!—but for common cause in the strategic analysis of the psychic and social anchoring points that keep us locked into the oppressive and unhappy phantasies of love and hate that condition our mutual enmeshment.

Kobena Mercer is director of the Center for the Study of Cultural Diversity, California Institute of the Arts, Valencia, Calif.



1. Jacqueline Rose, “Sexuality and Vision: Some Questions,” in Hal Foster, ed., Vision and Visuality, Seattle: Bay Press, 1988, p. 121.