The Moment of Racial Sight overturns the most familiar form of racial analysis in contemporary culture: the idea that race is constructed, that it operates by attaching visible marks of difference to arbitrary meanings and associations. Searching for the history of the constructed racial sign, Irene Tucker argues that if people instantly perceive racial differences despite knowing better, then the underlying function of race is to produce this immediate knowledge. Racial perception, then, is not just a mark of acculturation, but a part of how people know one another.
Tucker begins her investigation in the Enlightenment, at the moment when skin first came to be used as the primary mark of racial difference. Through Kant and his writing on the relation of philosophy and medicine, she describes how racialized skin was created as a mechanism to enable us to perceive the likeness of individuals in a moment. From there, Tucker tells the story of instantaneous racial seeing across centuries—from the fictive bodies described but not seen in Wilkie Collins’s realism to the medium of common public opinion in John Stuart Mill, from the invention of the notion of a constructed racial sign in Darwin’s late work to the institutionalizing of racial sight on display in the HBO series The Wire. Rich with perceptive readings of unexpected texts, this ambitious book is an important intervention in the study of race.