Performing the Brown Man Post 11/8

The Looks of Strangers and the Gaze of Phantoms

I noticed him straight away. It was not the way he walked, slouched, each step an exercise in ascending and descending; like his legs were made out of the springs that vacillate bobble heads. It was not the casual style in which his hoodie was draped over his head, a dome of grey fabric encircling his white face, making his narrow, darting eyes the most distinguishing feature to me.

It was what he did with those scurrying, dervish-like eyes as his legs bobbled him past me on the Q train at around midnight on a weekday. He held my gaze and refused to let go for what made a few seconds seem an eternity. Even when I had looked away in Goffmanian ritual courtesy, he kept looking back. Was he looking out of boredom? Curiosity? Interest? Hostility? Suspicion? Indifference? His languid demeanour and his look gave nothing away as he went and stood by the train doors despite the number of unoccupied seats, forming a diagonal line of sight towards where I sat suddenly alert to the fact that I had to “pass” a situation again.

For the rest of the trip, he kept looking over, the intentionality of his gaze ambiguous. Amid rising anxiety, I bopped my head to the music despite the fact the serene quality of it was not really bop-able. It was the only thing I could think of in order to attempt situation stabilization: normalize my own behaviour in the face of the unknown. Such was my awareness of this individual that his every action prompted a cascade of alarming hypotheticals: Who is he calling on his phone? Why is he looking at me as he speaks? Is he telling some of his friends about me? This stranger had turned into a phantom. A nondescript traveller on the subway had transformed into an unsettling apparition with a gaze that made me feel the vulnerability of my brown body.

Exercising my self-reflexive rationality, I berated myself for this absurd speculation. Even so, I bopped my head to the un-bop-able music, and performed the nonchalant self of a graduate student, tired, bored and entirely “normal.” As my stop came closer, I considered my options for walking home: Would I take the street with more streetlights? Would the longer time be worth it?

When my stop came, the phantom got off. I waited for a few seconds and considered if I should just get off at the next stop and take another train back. But I did not. I stepped off to see the phantom walk inside in a different car of the train. As the doors closed and the train pulled away, the phantom turned into a stranger again, just another passenger about whom I knew nothing, living his own life. I felt the vulnerability dissipate as my shoulders drooped from the labor of my performance.

I had never experienced the combination of my brown skin and my beard feeling so embedded, so conspicuously vulnerable. Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his book Between the World and Me, talks about the vulnerability of the black body, interrogating what it means to live in a body that is both scary and scared. While, his poignant narration comes from an experiential and historical vantage point far removed from mine, the aspect of vulnerability that emanates from having a body upon which hegemonic discourses and stigma have been branded, feels familiar.

Goffman described stigma as “an attribute that is deeply discrediting, but it should be seen that a language of relationships, not attributes, is really needed.” He goes on to describe three kinds of stigma of which the third, “the tribal stigma of race, nation and religion” is most relevant here. This stigma has an “undesired differentness” and those who do not possess this are called “normals.” Not only is this stigma considered a symptom of an underlying moral failing, it also intervenes in the presentation of self, harming social, personal, and ego identities. The stigmatized individual then tries to manage discrediting information, which may also be considered, in Goffman’s terms, impression management. My reaction to the stranger on the train is a phenomenological account of impression management (whether successful or not): the bopping of the head to an invisible rhythmic song and the attempt to appear nonchalant. I have also found that reading a book, even outside its inherent value to me, is a useful prop around which to perform my role of the non-threatening, intelligent student, completely in tune with not just subway norms, but under the gravity of grander discourses converging (more on that in a bit) in a train car filled with strangers and phantoms. For Goffman,these impression management tactics are all temporally constrained within specific, distinctive contexts. He remarks in Interaction Rituals: “Not then, men and their moments, rather, moments and their men.” Goffman’s performances are then episodic, little bubbles of theatre we enact to perform ourselves.

Harold Garfinkel calls this tip-toeing performance around stigma, my “passing.” He would be critical of Goffman’s episodic idea of impression management. Such instances when taken individually exemplify Goffman’s point, but for Garfinkel the notion of impression management is an oversimplification because it overlooks “inner time” during which an individual analyses and revaluates his/her performances. Garfinkel’s point is that we are constantly working at passing, in Sisyphean dialogue with ourselves over our performances. I certainly feel this way, especially after November 8th 2016.

If nothing else, Donald Trump’s victory in the US Presidential Election has legitimized a divisive discourse that brazenly constructs a hierarchal order with normals at the top and stigmatized at the bottom. White people with a nostalgic yearning for a former utopia opposite the inconvenient blemishes upon that dream: the Hispanics, the LGBT community, the Muslims, the African-Americans, the colored immigrants. This legitimized discourse only emboldens some to take liberty with their own racialized versions of “breaching experiments”:

These news stories are testament to the power of Trump’s words; in Garfinkel’s terms, they have made visible the stigma symbols of a whole community and catalyzed their public expression.

Just a point to add here: Despite the stigma symbol of my brown body (this Other can be Muslim, Arab or Hispanic but never normal), it still offers scant recourse in its ambiguity. Goffman differentiates between people who are discredited (whose stigma is visible) and people who are discreditable (whose stigma is unknown and concealable). The fact I can be mistaken for an Indian or a Hindu (a delicious irony given the historical animosity between Indians and Pakistanis) allows me to be discreditable. My experience is unlike that of the Muslim women in these news articles, who are automatically discredited by the hijab. The colored Muslim woman in Trump’s America is triply vulnerable, triply stigmatized, by her gender, her race and her religion. The experience of a triple stigma cannot be justifiably covered in this short piece. Not only does it require its own work, it has to be communicated by someone more qualified than I am.

Does the permanent nature of the stigma symbol not produce a negotiated, better performance? Can one not improve their management of this constant phantasmal gaze? Goffman says yes: “since the stigmatized person is likely to be more often faced with these situations than we are, he is likely to become the more adept at managing them.” One would think so. As Garfinkel would agree, one would be wrong. Major attacks in Nice, Brussels, Orlando, and San Bernardino have forced me to not only re-plan, re-negotiate my own performances, but to question whether I want to trim my beard a little more, refrain from taking the subway if I can help it or even if I want to stay out as long. After any such major event, each time I have ridden the subway has felt like stepping into a travelling Panopticon, a journey of great passing labor, where the looks of strangers have turned into the gaze of phantoms, steadily monitoring and disciplining my actions. What is lost temporarily in such contexts is my adeptness or as Goffman would say, the ability to reconfigure my performance, because I can no longer confirm the nature of the gaze. Normal courtesy glances are transformed into a guessing game of whether these are looks of curiosity, indifference, boredom or what Goffman called a “hate stare.” To use words of WEB Du Bois in his 1903 The Souls of Black Folks, I see myself “through the revelation of the other world…always looking at one’s self through eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” And through this “second-sight,” I recover my bearings and the play the roles I know the gaze of strangers and phantoms would allow to pass.

Usually time diminishes the overarching repressive swirling discourses of such events, and impression management becomes easier. But with November 8th, time is no longer an ally. If anything, Garfinkelian ‘passing’ has become even more laborious: enduring the glances and stares of ever more phantoms.

Beyond the usual costs of such performative toil (emotional, egotistical), is the cost of my own gaze. I “stigmatize” others (if that word can even be applied in such directional relationality), the ones whose approval Trumpian discourse panders to (or so the news or the post-election polling shows). My own phantom gaze looks at glancing older white individuals and sees the imprint of stigma on them, the moral weakness of being unable to tolerate the presence of a colored, bearded individual. This cost is particularly galling to my own sensibilities. It also hints at the dichotomous hegemony, which the frames of Garfinkel and Goffman both produce: the hegemony of normal appearances or “normal.” Would placing the production of the interactants’ selves over and above interaction as the production of normal appearances be a way for me to assume control? Escape the gaze of phantoms? Maybe an inquiry for the future.

But for now, all I want to do is sit in a train full of strangers.



Coates, Ta-Nehisi. 2015. Between the World and Me. Spiegel & Grau.

Du Bois, W.E.B. 1903. The Souls of Black Folks. Accessed December 2016 from http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/dubois/ch01.html

Garfinkel, Harold. 1967, Studies in Ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice- Hall.

Goffman, Erving. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Doubleday Anchor Books.

Goffman, Erving. 1963. Stigma. New York: Touchstone Books

Manning, Philip. 1992. Erving Goffman and Modern Sociology. Stanford California: Stanford University Press

Travers, Andrew. 1994. Destigmatizing the Stigma of Self in Garfinkel’s and Goffman’s Accounts of Normal Appearances. Philosophy of the Social Sciences, March 1994.


Ahad Ali

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