I’d like to start with a question about audience. I recently watched a Toni Morrison interview in which she was recounting her time as an editor at Random House. She mentioned that she was looking for authors, black authors, who were not writing to the specter of a white audience, “the white gaze.” The idea of a white reader, it seemed, would make their writings inauthentic or betray a truth of the experience of being black. I bring this up because in thinking about this journey the three of us are undertaking by having a conversation, I had an early idea that we could explain the whole history race using categories and evidence in a way that would make crystal clear to white people why groups like Solvency are charging Genocide after the nonindictments of the killers of Mike Brown and Eric Garner. Almost immediately though I pulled back from that course. It seems mathematically incorrect to tailor this conversation to a white audience. Taking these considerations into mind though, to what extent do you consider the makeup of your audience, racial or otherwise, especially when introducing a radical politics? What are the dangers implied by the phrase “white gaze”? Then, is any message a universal one? Does Black Unity take priority? Are the previous two questions contradictory? If not, why not?
I’ll begin with this: Holiday shopping has been tedious when it comes to representation. I go to books when I want to buy gifts for young people. I instinctively go for books that feature young children of color, especially when gifting to a young person of color. Each time I’ve stepped into a book store, I’ve had to ask a representative “Can you direct me to a collection of books featuring kids of color?” At one point, I even changed my language after being met with an incredulous look. “Do you have books with brown children on them?” Can’t get any more candid than that.
When I ask those questions, I am faced with the burden of a perceived radicalism. How radical that I request a narrative that a child I love might find herself in? How radical that I’d expect the white store representatives would be able to meet that request. How incredibly radical that I look for the other in the overwhelming collections of normativity I’m offered.
Except this doesn’t feel radical to me. It feels like a basic human want finally realized. Is it whiteness that makes this radical? Is it the gaze from the white representative who’s never been asked this question before? Is it the gaze of the white authors on the bookshelves that I deliberately walk past? What part of this exchange is truly radical?
This realization is paramount. It says that in this world I’ve created, where I know exactly what I need from literature, and of myself as a writer, I am safe from the white gaze. If I say I’m black often enough, and write from a Black place, then where does the white gaze even fit? Where does it rear its head?
Well, one place is academia. The other place is everywhere else.
The white gaze makes my work topical instead of timely. I’m just being honest about what I’ve got here, in my hands, about the lack of nostalgia.
As a blk American woman, I am well versed in the “white gaze.” I am also well versed in whiteness: literature, history, traditions, societal values, respectability. I know how these values shift for a wide spectrum of whiteness, for white folk of differing socio-economic backgrounds, religions, geographical locations. I know that a blue collar white family in Bay Ridge who immigrated from Italy via Ellis Island is inherently different than a white family off the Mayflower, WASP tradition, living in Boston, vacationing off the Cape in the summers. I know how to read room of white folk and I know how white folk would like me to act upon entering a room.
I don’t know these things, I don’t understand these nuances, because I went to school and took a “White Studies” class. I don’t know about whiteness because I am interested in it. Or because I am writing my PHd thesis on it. I know about whiteness because I am inundated with whiteness. Textbooks in every school in America are tailored to this “white gaze,” history is edited to credit the “white gaze,” every system, from our system of governing (federal, state-wide, city-wide, etc), to our systems of business are catered to whiteness. Even writing this now seems incredibly obvious and trite until I realize whiteness is so normalized and engrained in our everyday and every action, that reiterating it is impactful to most.
All of this to say, thank you for not going forward with your initial question. I appreciate your further reflection of your own positioning and understanding of blackness. If you would like to know about the history of blackness, why POC4Solvency is important to the black tradition and furthering us as a people, there are public libraries open city wide. The Schomburg is a great resource for literature on black history. If I am expected to give an explanation for black anger, I’d like to be paid for it as a professor is paid for it. I think that’s one of the reasons Toni Morrison is not interested in black writers that appeal (pacify) a white gaze. It’s draining for black folk, it’s asking us to write textbooks instead of literature. We in the age of Google, J Store and accessibility. Look it up! Mainly, look it up so we can have a more nuanced conversation regarding quality of life, not bridging the gap between my education in whiteness and a white gaze’s lack of education in blackness.
I do believe the question, “is any message universal or is black unity more important” is contradictory in that, why should these questions be mutually exclusive? Universal is black. People conflate the two or demand “universal” or a call to “let’s all be human” because they are not studied in blackness, do not understand it, and feel afraid. The reaction is only to assert their whiteness under the guise of “humanity.” This is an insidious tactic, borne of fear of an unknown and (assumedly) “hostile” subject. More importantly, it veers away from an actual “universal” message, which would look like (to me): I am black. You are white. We are aware of each other. A white person can hear “Black Lives Matter” and not squirm and demand to be included because they know our shared history.