The spatial phenomenology of white embodiment 

Marieke Borren

Publicatiedatum: 26 november 2019

I turned white in 2015, when, as a Dutch expat, I temporarily moved into an apartment in the inner city of Johannesburg, South Africa, which has a near-exclusive black population. Only through this experience did I learn about the facticity of white embodiment. Previously, living in my native country, I was colorless, blending in with my environment to the point of being unnoticeable. In my new city of residence, I suddenly became a member of a minority group—white people—which meant I stood out, visibly, in public space. Seeing non-white others see me as white, first made me see myself as white, too. [1]

Still recovering from the shock of going through this whitewashing operation, I started to learn, not just about the visibility of race, but also about the intimate connection between race, the body, space and movement. I observed, first, the lasting imprint of settler colonialism on the demographic composition of the South African population (the result of imperialist exercises in conquest and ‘population replacement’) and geographic distribution of racialized groups, that was kicked off by my distant ancestors. Second, there is no denying the persistence of the informal segregation of racialized groups as the visible legacy of Apartheid’s formal spatial regime.

It took me watching a Dutch documentary, Wit is ook een kleur (2016), by the white film maker, Sunny Bergman, to make me understand a dimension of white’s relation to space that so far had gone unnoticed to me. In a striking scene, Bergman takes a stroll with a friend of color along the IJsselmeer and ignores a sign prohibiting trespassing. She casually tells her friend that she has been doing this for years on a daily basis, as her routine walk (like many of her white neighbors’) covers this stretch of the lakeside. Bergman’s friend expresses surprise about Bergman’s carelessness. For a black person, ignoring prohibition signs is anything but self-evident. If caught, white people most of the time simply get away with trespassing, and will usually only receive a warning. Black people, on the other hand, report legalistic responses and even police abuse much more frequently. [2]

The incredulity of Bergman’s friend made me realize that the shock I felt when I learned that what had always simply seemed self-evident to me, namely that one can move around freely in public urban space, no longer applied here due to the high rates and violent nature of street crime, might well be a symptom of white privilege. Previously, I took it for granted to walk in and out of any (semi-)public space—shop, office, street, park, public transport system—without being summoned to leave, and even without someone paying attention at all. I felt it is a basic human right to move around public spaces and commercial areas without (reasonable, legitimate) inhibitions or restrictions and to settle in whatever (affordable) neighborhood one likes. Restrictions of one’s free movement and settlement therefore constitute a serious violation of a basic right. I experienced the prevalence of street crime in Johannesburg’s inner city, not just as a threat to my bodily and psychological integrity, but also to some vaguely sensed right to go wherever I wish. My neighbors, however, never even fancied having such a right (although everyone assured me no one ever gets used to living with the constant fear of physical violation). Still, all of them black, they were exposed to this threat far more incisively than me. Due to the double legacy of Apartheid – the structures of geographic segregation of different racialized groups are still largely in place and the already extreme socio-economic inequality is even on the up - black and colored people have significantly higher chance than whites of living in poor and crime-ridden neighborhoods (such as former townships and informal settlements), and of lacking the means to ‘opt out’ and of withdrawing into gated communities. As a consequence, these citizens are condemned to unsafe public spaces.

My ignorance (and Bergman’s, for that matter) about the racialized nature of the experience of unsafety could be seen as but another instance of what Gloria Wekker (2016) has recently called “white innocence”—culpable innocence, to wit—or of the “epistemology of ignorance,” in Charles Mills’ (1997) words. [3] White people’s implicit assumption—or “unconscious habit”—that they can go wherever they wish is what the American philosopher, Shannon Sullivan, calls “white expansiveness” and what she identifies as the ontological foundation of white Europeans’ proprietary or possessive relation to non-European territories, including its inhabitants: colonial conquest and land grab, exploitation of natural resources and of labor power (people, that is). Less conspicuously, ontological expansiveness also underpins the ways in which the racialized body inhabits and navigates its environment, the world. [4]

In other words, white embodiment is not just about visibility (one’s visible appearance), but also refers to a particular style of movement and of taking up space. In this essay I will explore the relation between the white body, space and movement (translated on the ontological level as embodiment, spatiality and motility), using conceptual tools taken from the phenomenological tradition in philosophy for its wealth of insight in embodiment. In the first section, I will discuss the ‘facticity’ of racialized embodiment, i.e. the ambiguous intertwinement of biology and history, nature and culture, self and world. The second section extends this account of white embodiment from the ontological register of visibility to that of motility and spatiality. In order to further explain the notion of ontological expansiveness (and its opposite, ontological inhibition), I will draw on the concept of the “I can” body in the phenomenology of the French philosopher, Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

Racialized Embodiment: Visible Differences

It is widely accepted that race does not belong to humans’ essential biological make-up and that this conception of race is to be qualified as pseudo-scientific and harmful. [5] The only alternative, it seems, is to regard race as man-made, a social construction, most notably by racist norms (whatever the variety of meanings and lived consequences of racialized embodiment across time and place). Yet the social constructivist view is not completely satisfying as it seems to explain away visible bodily differences. We cannot not see racial differences, even if we accept that these are the result of historical processes of racialization. Likewise, we cannot not appear (and hence be seen) as racially different from others. [6] The assumption that race is (nothing but) a biological essence—what I call ‘naturalism’—is historically closely related to anti-black racism; the opposite belief, that race is (no more than) a social construct—‘culturalism’—though it is far less susceptible to the charge of racism, is historically still inadequate, as it ignores the social and political consequences of visible bodily differences. Race seems to present us with a peculiar unyielding ‘realness’, or lived reality. This reality is captured in the concept of ‘facticity’ (Heidegger) or ‘situation’ (Beauvoir): we are born with a particular body, to particular parents, in a particular place in the world, etc. [7] Incidentally, the facticity of racialized embodiment may be the very reason that the belief that race is natural, is intuitively plausible to many people, not just to anti-black racists. Race cannot—at least not simply—be explained away conceptually, on account of its visibility.

The first people to acknowledge (‘get’) that race is a system of categorization related to visible, bodily differences, are usually those who are seen as racially inferior, for example, black people, Arabs, Roma, Latinos, native Americans—the list being contingent on place and time. Even if race plays no or only a minor role in one’s self-identification, others, sooner or later, will remind one of the facticity of one’s race; the overwhelming majority of them being ‘non-white’. The French-Antillean phenomenological philosopher Frantz Fanon was the first to account for the meaning of race as visible bodily difference in Black Skin, White Masks (Peau noire, masques blancs) (2008 [1952]). In a chapter entitled “The Lived Experience of the Black Man”, he observes that “The Jewishness of the Jew can go unnoticed. He is not integrally what he is (…). But with me things take on a new face. I’m not given a second chance. I am overdetermined from the outside. I am a slave not to the ‘idea’ others have of me, but to my appearance.” [8] The opposite may incidentally happen, as my own experience of whitewashing and being whitewashed, related above, demonstrates. However, the lived consequences of the facticity of whiteness are completely different from those of blackness, due to the privileges and symbolic power which come with whiteness. Most of the time, however, the white body qua white simply “goes unnoticed,” as if white is no color.

Now, if we accept that race is non-essential, then how are we to account for visible racial differences and, subsequently, for their relation to asymmetries of privilege and power? 

I would argue that the relation between the white body and white privilege is not necessary (as racial naturalists believe), yet neither is it completely contingent (as racial culturalists hold). Apart from the historical (social, political, cultural) reasons mentioned before, there are sound philosophical reasons as well to challenge both racial naturalism and culturalism. Both takes on the relation between race and embodiment are reductive. Naturalists regard the body as a machine and hold a determinist view of racial embodiment. Culturalism is reductive too, for it reduces the body to a canvas for culture and (racist) symbolic norms to paint on. For naturalists, there is nothing but the raced body; for culturalists, on the other hand, the body is merely a passive object, devoid of biological reality. As such, it is emptied of ontological dignity. [9]

By questioning both naturalist and culturalist conceptions of raced embodiment, I don’t mean to make a case for steering an—all too predictable—middle course between ‘nature’ (the biological body with its visible differences) and ‘nurture’ (cultural meanings and evaluations attributed to those differences and the norms informing them). If race would be partly natural, partly cultural, then how are we to distinguish between the two to begin with?

In light of this ambiguity, it is no easy task to conceptualize the facticity of racial embodiment. Phenomenological accounts of the body, most notably those developed by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Frantz Fanon and Simone de Beauvoir in the mid twentieth century, are helpful in exploring and challenging the very distinctions that conceptions of race tend to get stuck in, especially between nature and culture, body and mind, subject and object, self and world, etc. themselves. According to phenomenologists, human existence is paradoxical, since we are both part of the world and coextensive with it, constituting and constituted at the same time. [10] For Merleau-Ponty (2002 [1945]), this paradox is bound up with our embodied existence. He demonstrates that it is the body that allows us to have a world in the first place. The body and the world are ambiguously intertwined. The subject or self in the traditional metaphysical sense does not precede what is traditionally called the object or world, or vice versa. They are co-constitutive, precisely by virtue of our embodied existence: “The distinction between subject and object is blurred in my body.” [11] The body, according to Merleau-Ponty, is not “merely an object in the world,” rather “it is our point of view in the world.” [12] It is through the body that we have access to the world.

Merleau-Ponty has been accused of being oblivious of the racialized as well as the gendered body and of implicitly universalizing what is actually a particular—male and white—mode of embodied being in the world. Frantz Fanon (2008 [1952]) and Simone de Beauvoir (1989 [1949]), by contrast, demonstrate that, and how, the ambiguous intertwinement of body and world is informed by one’s situation in terms of race, respectively sex/gender. [13] Despite the reservations just mentioned, many contemporary phenomenological accounts of racialized embodiment draw upon Merleau-Ponty’s work (in addition to Fanon’s), for the clues it provides for rethinking the black or white body in non-reductive and non-dualistic ways. [14] The next section of this essay is meant to elaborate what this process of rethinking is about and to illustrate what it could look like. Unsurprisingly, phenomenologists of race initially focused on black embodiment. More recently, they have started to develop accounts of whiteness in addition. [15]

White Motility and Spatiality

Phenomenologists excel in describing and analyzing the visual register of racialized embodiment. Yet from an ontological perspective, there’s more to the racialized body than visibility, i.e. appearing and being seen as white or black. Race also comes—among other features—with a particular ontological situation vis-à-vis space and a particular style of movement. Recall that phenomenologists as diverse as Heidegger and Beauvoir put forward the concept of facticity, the claim that humans are situated beings. Our racial situation is manifest, among other things, in our bodies’ being ‘oriented’ in the world in a particular way, British philosopher Sara Ahmed argues, following the founder of phenomenology, Edmund Husserl. [16] Shannon Sullivan’s concept of ontological expansiveness and the unconscious habits associated with it could be seen as a particular elaboration of the typically white mode of orientation in the world. [17] I would call the complementary non-white mode of orientation in the world ontological inhibition.

To clarify ontological expansiveness and inhibition, I will now turn to Merleau-Ponty’s account of the “I can” body. As said, Merleau-Ponty argues that the body allows us to have a world in the first place. Now, the world is spatial as a matter of course. In fact, “there would be no space at all for me if I had no body,” Merleau-Ponty writes. [18] My body does not exist ‘in’ space as water is in a glass, nor is it merely a ‘fragment of space’, but it is our very ‘anchorage’ in the world. [19] We perceive the world, including its spatial dimensions, as, and to the extent that, it offers us possibilities for action, or rather, as it solicits our skillful responses and flexible bodily competences, i.e. what ‘I can’ do, given the particular projects I am involved in. The ‘I can’ refers to our pre-reflective or prediscursive embodied knowing how to do something. It is our everyday ability or power to cope with whatever the world and our projects, in their interplay, present us with, without the need of any mediation by explicit intentions or the will. The ‘I can’ is, according to Merleau-Ponty, our basic mode of being in the world and the condition of the body’s constitution of space. Perception is a matter of ‘I can’ instead of ‘I think that’, of ‘knowing how’ rather than ‘knowing that’. [20] Our environment shows up, reveals or discloses itself, relative to our practical projects and our bodily capacities to engage in them. So perception takes place in an ambiguous interplay between our environment, our projects (the task at hand that we are presently engaged in), and our bodily capacities.

Because of our bodies we can hold something before ourselves—that is, to have a ‘here’ with respect to which a ‘there’ can be experienced, while in the process we get a sense of their particular place (i.e. their position/ality) of these objects of attention and the relations among them. We and the things around us are ‘implaced’. [21] The ‘things’, or the aspects of it that are revealed to me, are dependent upon my bodily situation.

So space in Merleau-Ponty’s account, is always – at least initially - ‘oriented’, ‘phenomenal’ or ‘lived’ space, or what others, such as Casey, call ‘place’, because it requires us to perform certain actions, as opposed to the abstract homogeneous space of geometry. Likewise, spatial things are far from objects or dead matter, a la the Cartesian res extensa. The world in general and its spatial features in particular is always already meaningful to us, that is, of a particular kind and relevant to our practical projects and corporeal capacities, it discloses itself in relation to those. For example, ‘distant’ is that which is far away from me, out of my body’s⎯immediate⎯reach and ‘proximate’ is what is close to me, within my body’s reach. Similarly, I experience movement as a thing moves into and out of my attention, the phenomenal field. The same goes for depth, dimension, direction, size and shape.

For Merleau-Ponty, the body, to the extent that it is competent, creates an immediate link between the spatiality of one’s own body and one’s surrounding or outlying space. “Each instant of the movement embraces its whole span, and particularly the first which, by being active and initiative, institutes the link between a here and a yonder.” [22] However, in her seminal 1980 essay ‘Throwing like a girl’, feminist phenomenologist Iris Marion Young demonstrates that Merleau-Ponty may paint a falsely universalistic picture, which generalizes a particular - male - way of moving one’s body in space. A careful phenomenological analysis of the way girls respectively boys throw objects, reveals that men and women (or at least boys and girls) “live and move their bodies in space” differently. As Young writes: “[G]irls... tend to project an enclosed space and boys to project in open and outwardly directed space”. [23] She continues: “In feminine existence (...) the projection of an enclosed space severs the continuity between a ‘here’ and a ‘yonder’.” Girls thus experience a “dual spatiality”. [24] What is most significant for my purpose, is that Young demonstrates the possible ‘severing’ of the link or continuity between the spatiality of my own body—the ‘here’—and outer space—the ‘yonder’ or ‘over there’.

In short, while Merleau-Ponty holds that we project an open space, that is, a space in which outer and inner are continuous, Young points out that this may not be a universal human experience. In fact, everyday (‘normal’) open space may give way to an enclosed or confining one that inhibits, rather than enables our movements and projects. What we “can do” is contingent upon our situation, entailing not just our sex/gender, but also, I would add, our racial situation. [25] The projection of open space or ontological expansiveness is typical for the spatiality and motility of white embodiment, while the non-white mode of orientation in the world is ontological inhibition. To put it in Ahmed’s acidic phrasing: orientation in open space may be a symptom of privilege rather than a sign of competence. Particular non- discursive (‘unconscious’) habits illustrate this orientation, for example Sunny Bergman’s illegal stroll along the Ijsselmeer and my own innocence regarding the traversing of public spaces. White expansiveness is manifest in going wherever one fancies, but also in leaving any place whenever one likes. In Johannesburg, I realized I could leave at any moment and return to the Netherlands, should my stay become uncomfortable, by virtue of a privilege that was denied to my neighbors, directly reflecting global racial, social and economic inequality.

In Wit is ook een kleur (VPRO, 2006), Sunny Bergman went ahead in an experiment which was set up to measure racial privilege and the lack of it. To watch a short clip, see here.


In this essay, I have argued that there’s more to white people’s spatial imperialism than military, political and economic colonialism, or even than instituting and sustaining informal segregation. One’s racialized relation to space also has an ontological dimension. As the reader may have noticed, I have only tried to describe the spatial dynamics of white privilege. The normative implications of the phenomenology of white expansiveness—what should white people do, given their ontological expansiveness?—are undecided. Expansiveness might be strategically employed for undercutting itself. However, any effort to fight white privilege may end up reconfirming rather than undermining white expansiveness.


[1] Racial classifications vary across time and place. In South Africa, at least four racial groups are distinguished - white, black, colored and Indian - if we leave out significant ethnic minorities such as Jews (whom may or may not be included under ‘white’) and divisions among white people (especially Afrikaans and English) and among black people (comprising at least seven different ethnic groups) and more recent migrants from the continent. In North-West Europe, white is usually opposed to black. The descendants of Arab and Turkish migrants, especially those visible as Muslims, are also typically racialized as non-white. More significantly, language may hardly ever be innocent (power neutral), normative neutrality is arguably ruled out as a principle when it comes to naming racial difference. ‘Non-white’ reinforces the white hegemonic norm. However, I choose not to use ‘non-black’, as this group includes many people who do not identify as white (native Americans, colored people, Latinos, Roma, etc.), whereas whiteness is what I am talking about in this essay.

[2] See: (last consulted 11 November 2019). [3] Gloria Wekker, White innocence. Paradoxes of colonialism and race (Durham, NC 2016), Charles Mills, The racial contract (Ithaca, NY 1997). [4] Shannon Sullivan, Revealing whiteness. The unconscious habits of racial privilege (Bloomington 2006). Sullivan mainly draws on the early 20th century pragmatist philosophers John Dewey and W.E.B. Du Bois. [5] See, for example, the UNESCO statements on ‘The Race Question’, 1950, 1951, 1967 and 1978. However, 19th/early 20th century style biological racism has recently gained renewed traction among old and new extremist right-wing groups such as neo-Nazis and Alt-Right. [6] To argue that one’s race is visible is not to deny that racial categories are unstable and highly volatile – who ‘passes as white’, for example, has historically seen astonishing variations. And obviously, racial ambiguities abound. Bi- or multiracialism are still racial categories, though. [7] See Martin Heidegger Being and time, John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson transl. (Oxford 1978 [1927]), respectively Simone de Beauvoir, The second sex, H. M. Parshleyn transl. (New York 1989 [1949]). [8] Frantz Fanon, Black skin, white masks, Richard Philcox transl. (New York 2008 [1952]) 95. [9] I borrow the metaphors for the body as respectively ‘machine’ or ‘canvas’ from Robert Connell, Gender (Cambridge 2002). Incidentally, he develops these conceptions in relation to sex and gender, not to race. [10] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The phenomenology of perception, Colin Smith transl. (London 2002 [1945]) 453. [11] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, ‘The philosopher and his shadow’, Signs, Richard C. McCleary transl. (Evanston, Il. 1964a) 159-81, there: 167. [12] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, ‘An unpublished text by Merleau-Ponty: A prospectus of his work’, in The primacy of perception, Arleen Dallery transl. (Evanston, Il 1964b) 3-11, there: 5. [13] While Beauvoir is often considered a social constructivist, and her famous line ‘one is not born...’ is often credited for having single-handedly introduced the sex – gender distinction in theoretical discourse, her view on sexed embodiment is actually more complex. The sex-gender distinction, neatly maps onto the body-mind dichotomy which she as a phenomenologist rejects. Hence my own, somewhat awkward use of ‘sex/gender’ in this essay. [14] Emily S. Lee (ed.), Living alterities. Phenomenology, embodiment, and race (New York 2014); Gail Weiss, ‘Race and phenomenology (or phenomenologizing race)’, in Linda Alcoff, Luvell Anderson, and Paul Taylor eds., The Routledge companion to the philosophy of race (London 2018) 233-44; idem, ‘The normal, the natural, and the normative: Implications of Merleau-Ponty’s work for feminist theory, critical race theory, and disability studies’, Continental Philosophy Review 48 (2015), no. 1, 7-93; Linda Alcoff, The future of whiteness (Cambridge 2015); idem, Visible identities. Race, gender, and the self (Oxford 2006); George Yancy, Look, a white! Philosophical essays on whiteness (Philadelphia, PA 2012); Lewis Gordon, Bad faith and antiblack racism (Atlantic Highlands 1995); Alia Al-Saji, ‘A phenomenology of hesitation. Interrupting racializing habits of seeing’, in Emily S. Lee ed., Living alterities. Phenomenology, embodiment, and race (New York 2014) 133-72; idem, ‘The racialization of Muslim veils. A philosophical analysis’, Philosophy and Social Criticism 36 (2010), no. 8, 875–902; Robert Bernasconi (2012), ‘Critical philosophy of race’, in S. Luft and S. Overgaard eds., The Routledge companion to phenomenology (London 2012) 551-62; Sara Ahmed, ‘A phenomenology of whiteness’, Feminist Theory 8 (2007), no. 2, 149–68.

[15] Alcoff, The future of whiteness; Sullivan, Revealing whiteness; Ahmed, ‘A phenomenology of whiteness’; Yancy, Look, a white!

[16] Ahmed, ‘A phenomenology of whiteness’; Edmund Husserl, Ideen zu einer reinen Phänomenologie und phänomenologischen Philosophie. Zweites Buch [1912] in M. Biemel ed., Husserliana 4 (Den Haag 1952).

[17] Sullivan, Revealing whiteness. [18] Merleau-Ponty, The phenomenology of perception, 117; cf. idem, 126. [19] Idem 167. [20] Idem 159. [21] Edward Casey, The fate of place. A philosophical history (Oakland, CA 1997) x. [22] Merleau-Ponty, The phenomenology of perception, 162. [23] Iris Marion Young, ‘Throwing like a girl’, in On female body experience: ‘Throwing like a girl’ and other essays (Oxford 2005) 27-45, there: 40. [24] Idem. [25] Moreover, in terms of spatiality and motility, race and sex/gender intersect. My female neighbors in Johannesburg were even more cautious to navigate public space than their brothers, male spouses and sons. My whiteness opens up space, my sex/gender restricts it somewhat.

Over de auteur

Marieke Borren is an assistant professor in philosophy at the department of humanities (cultuurwetenschappen) at the Open University Netherlands. Her research expertise lies in the intersection of continental political philosophy and phenomenology, with a focus on feminist and postcolonial perspectives. She is specialised in the work of Hannah Arendt. Between 2015 and 2017, she worked as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pretoria, South Africa, and lived in downtown Johannesburg. 

Marieke Borren, ‘The spatial phenomenology of white embodiment’, Locus – Tijdschrift voor Cultuurwetenschappen 22 (2019).

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