Image by Jenni Holt, 14 East

The words and legacies of literary giants like Toni Morrison, Franz Fanon, and bell hooks serve as a roadmap towards unpacking what the white gaze is, how it shows up in our lives, and how to resist it.

“All ‘round me the white man, above the sky tears at its navel, the earth rasps under my feet, and there is a white song, a white song. All this whiteness that burns me… “

Franz Fanon

Lately, I have been thinking about how I would like to live an unobserved life. As in, I don’t want anyone to think anything when they look at me anymore. Not bad, not good, just nothing. I want to present myself to you first. 

If you have been online at all within the last few months, it is likely that you have encountered the phrase “the male gaze” on some social media platform. Despite the memeification of the term, it is rooted in a deeply significant recognition among a young digital community that women are looked at by men in ways that are sexualized and dehumanizing. Further, as a result of patriarchy, women have internalized “the male gaze.” As in, we watch ourselves – police ourselves – in order to appeal to a heterosexual, ‘masculine’ voyeur. The male gaze asserts through patriarchy, where women are defined primarily in relation to men.   

This recognition is important, but I would like us to think a bit more critically about the ways in which we are perceived. For those of us with intersecting identities, the “male gaze” is far too limited a term to capture how we have been surveilled. So, I put to you: the white gaze. 

Defining the White Gaze

By definition, the white gaze is the notion that the default spectatorship of the work (and lives) of people of colour is a white person. This spectatorship is often critical, with expectations of being accommodated. 

More frequently, the white gaze has been discussed among Black authors recounting their struggles with reconciling a white readership and demands to center a white audience in their work. Toni Morrison, a revolutionary Black storyteller and literary icon, expressed in her documentary “ The Pieces I Am” that “[she] has spent her entire writing life trying to make sure that the white gaze was not the dominant one in any of [her] books.” She says “what I am interested in is writing without the white gaze.” The centrality of blackness in her work as a conscious effort to reject the idea writers of colour must engage with white characters for their writing to be legitimate underpins her writing legacy. 

Other artists of colour have also recognized and defined the white gaze for us. 

In his 1967 essay “The Fact of Blackness,” Franz Fanon says: “And already I am being dissected under white eyes, the only real eyes. I am fixed” (325). In her 1992 text The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators, bell hooks tells us “the ‘gaze’ has always been political in [her] life […] there is power in looking.” In a 1981 keynote presentation at the National Women’s Studies Association Conference in Connecticut, Audre Lorde responds to the “eyes of white women who see in [her] experience and the experience of [her] people only new reasons for fear or guilt.”  

These definitions call into question how we might (differently or similarly) experience the white gaze in our lives today. 

Experiencing the White Gaze 

The white gaze is intimately familiar to women of colour now. Our necessary hyper-awareness of how we are seen by white people is felt in many different ways: 

  • The white gaze is your teachers lowering expectations for your academic performance in grade school at the outset.
  • The white gaze is film tropes like the white saviour narrative or The Angry Black Woman or the dangerous Black criminal or the exoticized Asian foreigner being recycled in popular media. 
  • The white gaze is the expectation that communities of colour will and should perform the labour of explaining themselves to you.  
  • And more. 

Increasingly, there is research being done on contemporary examples of how people of colour experience the white gaze in the workplace. Notably, the #BlackWomenAtWork went viral in 2017 with over 200,000 women sharing their experiences of being subjected to race-based criticism and assumptions of incompetency in their majority-white workspaces. 

We experience the white gaze everywhere.

Resisting the White Gaze 

bell hooks said it best: “not only will I stare [back]. I want my look to change my reality […] one learns to look a certain way in order to resist.” We resist the expectations of the white gaze by creating a counter perspective. But forming an “oppositional gaze” – by looking at each other. 

Let us ask ourselves: what would I say if I released the need to be seen as “respectable?” As desirable? How have those terms been defined for me? How can I do justice to my story? 

hooks continues: “spaces of agency exist [for people of colour] wherein we can both interrogate the gaze of the Other [white folks] but also look back, and at one another, naming what we see.” The sense of mutual and equal recognition among marginalized folks – particularly women of colour – builds necessary solidarity in our communities that we can use as a foundation for seeing ourselves as complex and nuanced and beautiful as we are. 

Michaela Coel, a young Black British woman and brilliant show writer/actor/creative, wrote something on this kind of mutual recognition in the pilot of her show “I May Destroy You” that has stuck with me for months. 

While the white gaze sometimes renders us invisible, she says: 

[…] if you won’t look at us, we’ll look at ourselves. 

To reject the constraints and distortions of the white gaze, I say we look at ourselves.