The White Gaze

In a column for the New York Times about a year ago, Salamishah Tillet wrote this:

“What I deemed with my own eyes to be truth or fact would always be unequal to the power of the white gaze that dominates most aspects of American life.”

There you go: the sentence I’ve been waiting for, the one that summarizes my experience in ways I’m frequently unable to explain, ways that my white comrades simply refuse to accept.

I’m writing now about a sentence written a year ago but it’s relevant, in part, because Tillet, a movement organizer, professor and writer on culture (with a strong emphasis on art these days) just won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism. It’s deserved. She is a stunningly brilliant writer. And we need to celebrate when one of ours wins something like that. I remember when I was in daily journalism in the 80s and noticed that few black people win Pulitzers. I asked one of my editors about that and he told me that the Pulitzer was seldom given for “features and sports stuff” but for “for more serious journalism”. The Tillet Pulitzer reflects a trend: many more black people are winning them. That’s progress and we need to celebrate that as well.

My dwelling on her sentence, however, is more about the period we’re in and my own reflections as an organizer.

She was writing about Rodney King in this passage in a year-old column about George Floyd and police killing black people. She mainly does criticism for the Times and so the column focused on art (mainly cinematic) that seeks to reflect black reality but she book-ended it with reflections on her own life. Those reflections sure did reflect mine.

Those book-ends are pregnant for powerful posed questions. Can I look at that tape of George Floyd being killed slowly over several minutes even if it’s my job to do so? Where do my professional responsibilities intersect with my personal obligations (as a black woman and a mother) and where do they separate?

I, Alfredo, have it easy because my responsibilities in terms of racism — as a writer, activist, life-partner and father — don’t demand much restraint. I confront racism vigorously every moment of my life because all of these pursuits afford me that freedom. Dr. Tillet walks some of the same roads but writing for the New York Times is a different kind of writing that requires considerable restraint. It’s mainstream journalism after all. In a sense, teaching also requires restraints. She’s one of those people, more numerous these days, that can surf all those colliding waves with one surf-board and remain standing proud and principled. I truly admire those people and wish I could be that good.

Still, she was writing about my experience. Not only the vast experience of clear inferiority in the greater society but that same experience in a place that “should know better”: the U.S. Left.

The message is relentless. No matter what you are discussing or what you say. No matter what happens. No matter the trigger for your response. That white man is going to correct you or shake his head and say you’re exaggerating. Or they look at each other with a very slight smirk. Or, when it’s time for a decision, your thinking is not included in it.

This may be my personal limitation but the only way I’ve ever had an impact on anything in this movement is to get into its leadership. That way I’m heard. But that presents other problems because leaders are up in front and very visible and when you’re visible people are evaluating you. This means that being a leader of color is a guarantee you’re going to be attacked.

They criticize the way you speak or how long you spoke for or what you spoke about or what you didn’t speak of. They criticize how you stand or your accent or you attitude (whatever that is). They criticize the fact that, in the deepest places no one speaks of, the left is still a plantation and you have no right to be leading in it.

If you’re a man, you’re criticized for your sexism. If you’re a woman, for your aggressiveness. You are hit with criticisms that could be legitimate and usually couched in legitimacy but are almost never leveled at white people. Criticism can be very constructive; it’s very necessary to improving yourself. In fact, that’s the only reason for criticism: to support someone in their continuing quest for self-improvement. But when only men of color are criticism, the subtle message is that white men don’t have to improve and that drains the process of its benefits.

In the big picture, this is only a manifestation of racism, a symptomatic glimpse of it. To be sure, I’ve experience more pointed racism: being bullied by white people on elevators or kicked out of stores or having cops’ guns pointed at me for no reason — the “you fit the description of a guy we’re looking for” line we have all heard. I was sure that cop was going to shoot me, by the way and, since you might want to know, it took place three years ago when I had just turned 70.

My experiences are still hardly the worst. When men stop a jogger and kill him because he’s black or when a cop kills a black man by kneeling on his neck for a long time or when some cop walks into a brother’s living room and shoots him to death because she thought it was her house or when another restrains a man face down and then puts a gun to his head and pulls the trigger. Now *that* is racism at a much more damaging level.

I talk about these other “white lens” problems, however, because of their impact on our movement’s politics, thinking and interactions. I do believe this racism is part of the reason we have yet to win what we really seek. I also believe, with greater and stronger certainty, that white men have an enormous problem accepting that racism is present in every situation…or, for some, any situation. Dealing with this daily is excruciatingly painful and it’s distorted me as a human being.

So, given that pain, why in the world do I do it? Because, in the end, these discomforts are products of the very social order I want to replace and combating them is part of the replacement process. It’s partly a question of hitting this social system at its most vulnerable points, the places where its restrictions are so clearly wrong and unfounded. But the main thing is to support white people.

The people who do these things to me are, for the most part, wonderful human beings…the best humanity has to offer. They are victims of this same racism and they try to combat it but, when they stumble, they become its perpetuators. That’s the way racism works, as does sexism, a social disease I’ve combated my whole life and sometimes perpetuate.

That doesn’t make them enemies; they are victims. But the “cure” is to combat the racism when it arises. It’s a disease that is affecting someone in your family; you can’t ignore it.

So I fight for them by confronting their racism and that is very very difficult in the Left. White men of my generation are taught to be bullies and anytime you say something that causes them discomfort they will attack you. Always. I have come to expect, as part of my work, being attacked by white men viciously and with trembling anger, contorted faces and raised voices, confident that movement etiquette protects them against the physical beating they deserve, protected by the bizarre idea that verbal aggression is somehow okay.

You can’t ever ignore them even though it may seem they want you to. To do so would be a harsh betrayal of our relationship, an abandonment. I won’t do that. I’ve seen white men after they have gone through a tough patch of struggling with racism, and sometimes with me, and can tell you without question that they are changed people.

So there’s the challenge we face as revolutionaries seeking to organize all kinds of people: what do you do about that “gaze”?