The White Gaze and Unconscious Privilege
Updated: Jul 24, 2018
Marisa Guerin, PhD - Revised, July 22, 2018
Note: I've revised this post to reflect the thoughtful and helpful feedback of readers. Thank you for taking the time to write! -- MLG
I try, as best I can, to pay attention to how life is for me versus my friends or fellow citizens of color; in particular, what it means to be the beneficiary of pervasive social privilege because of being white. It's a pernicious paradox -- the privilege that comes with growing up white is very hard to see precisely because it is baked into the world as I know it. That makes it all the more important to challenge myself to question my first reaction -- or harder yet, my non-reaction -- to what I see or read, and to consider how things I take for granted might be different if I weren't white.
I have recently been thinking about the subtle dynamics of my gaze. I'll explain what I mean in a minute, but first, some context.
Not long ago, I finished reading "The Underground Railroad" by Colson Whitehead. His book isn't about the white gaze, of course, it is an alternative history about attempting to escape from slavery -- alternative because, no, the railroad wasn't a "real one", although that's a clever device that serves the story well. The novel brings into harsh relief the impossibility of outrunning the cruelty of slavery/racism. I think it's quite appropriate that the book ends with Cora -- the protagonist, the determined survivor -- making her way to California. The honest reader, black or white, knows that there is no guarantee that Cora will finally be safe if she crosses the geographic distance to California -- nor for that matter if she crossed the temporal distance to 2018. There is no happy ending, because racism has not had any happy ending.
So I finished the book on a Saturday, and the next morning found myself in Church for Sunday Mass, as usual. The congregation Mike and I have worshiped with for many years now is primarily African-American and African immigrant. We feel welcome there and we feel we belong to this parish community; it nourishes our faith life in ways we didn't find elsewhere, and we serve the life of the parish as we can. But we are never confused about the fact that we are, in a certain way, at its margin and probably always will be. For one thing, it is not our childhood parish, as it is for some of our Church friends. More important, we don't arrive to celebrate the liturgy from the same life that our black friends have lived for the past week. We are conscious and respectful of the fact that we are accepted as white people in what is a safe space for the prayer and socializing and community-building of our fellow Roman Catholics who are black.
That Sunday morning with Whitehead's book fresh in my mind, I wondered - How did our racist world treat my friends last week? Last year? Their whole lives? Not a new thought of course, but more sharply present in my mind juxtaposed with the images of the unimaginable cruelty of the slavery that was inflicted upon most of their fore-bearers. It is painful to know that a similar grief hits families, parents, wives or husbands every day in our world, when their loved one suffers or dies because of racism in our society.
As I looked around, I became conscious of my gaze. I caught the eyes of a woman visiting that Sunday, not someone I knew, in the pew behind me. As I smiled and reached out my hand, I registered that her eyes were veiled and her face calmly neutral as she extended her hand. I believe she was taking my measure, and why not? In that moment of self-awareness, it caught me up short.
I realized that I am used to looking directly into the eyes of another, including a person to whom I haven't yet been introduced, and making myself present to them, perhaps also with a nod, or an extended hand if it is a meet-and-greet situation. I move forward to connection. I assume they would like to meet me, just as I would like to meet them. And importantly, I make no assumption that they are any threat to me. (Granted, as a woman, I may unconsciously feel a bit intimidated when meeting some men, but that happens less and less -- thank goodness for age. I'm also an introvert, so my readiness to meet strangers has required work over the years.)
That morning, I thought to myself, "What makes me think I don't look like a threat to someone else, someone I haven't met, who doesn't know me, who sees me first as a white person? What makes me think I am entitled to cross into this person's space with a self-introduction?"
Well, being at Church together does offer a reason, but... "What makes me assume I will be welcomed to, or that I belong in, "the inside" of their relational world, an automatic new friend? Why would I be so forward?"
I know the answer to that. It's my unconscious sense of self-authorization, a birthright to most white people, a feeling of having the right to do what I am doing. It also may be a product of my upbringing in a progressive liberal white household, with the legacy feelings of guilt/desire-to-atone that can leak out, if not consciously attended, into a form of "helpfulness" that is precisely more of the same patronizing dominance and lack of mutuality.
A white friend from out West who trains people in outdoor leadership skills told me about something similar. She said her colleagues and trainees discuss what it means to approach people of color in outdoor spaces -- they talk about the white assumption that asking questions or making introductions is OK if there is positive intent -- without realizing that it may be more important in some cases to give someone peace or let them feel safe.
On the other hand, another white friend challenges my notion of threat versus safety; he suggests that it is indeed patronizing if I assume that a person of color can't handle such encounters. I agree with his question, although that isn't exactly what I am struggling to express. I certainly don't think persons of color are going to fall apart in face of vigor and enthusiasm when they meet someone; much more likely is that, depending on context, meeting an unfamiliar white person simply triggers a wearily-normal defensive alertness. Knowing my world as I do, I can have no doubt that this happens all the time.
Meanwhile, a black friend observes that this kind of self-awareness and self-checking has always been his own experience; from him I realize that this experience of connecting across the differences of race or ethnicity or gender probably is -- or should be -- an arena of sensitivity for all of us, not just white people. Each of us has to take responsibility for whom we approach, how we do so, whom we welcome in and when we keep our distance.
What is an appropriate way to be, if all of this represents our reality? The underlying condition of generalized threat from racism for my friends of color isn't going away anytime soon; nor is my preference for being friendly, warm, and connected something I want to withhold. What shall I do?
My exercise class instructor always says "The tiny movements make the muscles work the hardest".
So I've decided to try a small and subtle thing. That is, to be intentional about my gaze when I meet people that I don't know, especially persons who may have reason to wonder if I am a safe person or not. It doesn't have anything to do with withholding warmth or friendliness. I continue to be frank and open when I meet the eyes of another, but I do try to keep myself in a place of availability to their response, rather than imposing myself regardless. I'm trying to maintain an unspoken sensitivity to how invited I may be, rather than assuming I belong on the "inside". Maybe no one will notice at all; but at least I, in my own head, am paying attention -- which is where I need to do the work, anyway.
This desire to express respect for the other accompanies a similar resolve I made in the last year, which is to make eye contact with the persons I pass on the street. It just seemed like a small, humanizing thing to do in these times of fear and intolerance. So I look into the eyes of those I pass with what I hope is acknowledgement and respect, be they a homeless drug addict, a busy office worker, a slow-moving elder, a young black man, a girl in her hijab, an officer of the law, a visiting tourist or immigrant. To my surprise, doing this helps me feel better, feel safer, feel like I belong.
It's my intention to be neighbor, and to be ally. I live in the city -- I'm not naive, and I have well-practiced ways of staying safe. But I can try to do my part to help make my community a better place to live. It will help if I can stay awake to the realities of my unconscious entitlement, even something so taken for granted as my gaze.