The Anti-Iconicity of Blackness: A Theological Reading of the Modern Racial Optic

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Wong, Jessica Wai-Fong


Jennings, Willie J

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Recent focus on the police treatment of dark bodies has brought the visual perception of race to the forefront of national discourse. It has raised the question of why certain people are seen as a greater social threat than others. The current project engages this issue, offering a Christian theological reading of the problem of modern visuality in relation to race and gender as well as a constructive way forward.

Using Byzantine iconophile theology, namely, the concepts of iconic and anti-iconic, as the governing framework, this dissertation teases out the theologically charged nature of visuality deployed by the modern, western racial optic. Beginning with an exploration of the modern optic in the United States (chapter 1), this project applies the analytical framework of Byzantine iconophile visual theology (chapter 2) to the racial optic as it emerges in a modern form during the Colonial Period (chapter 3) and develops during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (chapter 4).

Through this theological study of the deployment of the racial optic upon bodies, it becomes clear that there are structural and procedural similarities that exist between the bodily evaluation, categorization, and conversion that take place within the liturgical practices surrounding the Christian icon of Jesus Christ and those belonging to the cultural liturgy of the racial optic, build around western modernity’s holy icon – the white male. In both cases, people are transformed by the practice of veneration. In both cases, the external body functions as an indication of internal character, revealing one’s state of fitness for inclusion within civilized society. Understanding the visual practice of the modern racial optic through Byzantine iconophile theology’s iconic and anti-iconic sheds light upon why the presence of those considered dark, deformed, and abnormal has been and continues to be treated as a threat to the order and wellbeing of the modern, western social body.






Wong, Jessica Wai-Fong (2015). The Anti-Iconicity of Blackness: A Theological Reading of the Modern Racial Optic. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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