Beware of the White Gaze

The white gaze is omnipresent. White people must hold themselves accountable when consuming Black content.

The white gaze is omnipresent. It occurs when people view Black creations under the scope of white ethnocentrism, which involves the idea of looking at one’s own culture as the highest standard of “good” culture. Popular music critics and old plantation overseers both share this socio-cultural lens. This select outlook relates race in real time and represents the relationship between the Black experience and its context in America. An overseer sees a Black woman as a vehicle to carry out white supremacy. They believe the ability to decide the cultural/political worth of a Black person is warranted by matter of their own white existence. The white music critic treats his opinion on Black content as law. Black people can never escape the scope of white ethnocentrism in America.

Black American culture has always stood below the scrutinizing eyes of white supremacy. Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winner Toni Morrison explains her issues with the white gaze in an interview with Charlie Rose in 1998.

“Bill Moyers, I think, once asked you the question,‘Can you imagine writing a novel that’s not centered about race?’” Rose said, referencing another interview. “And you [Morrison] said, ‘Absolutely.’”

The posturing of the question suggests that Black writers need to neglect their own Black consciousness in favor of white ethnocentric standards. White people viewing their culture as the quintessential culture is a direct symptom of white supremacy.

In response, Morrison said, “Yes, I can write about white people. White people can write about Black people. Anything can happen in art. There are no boundaries there. Having to do it or having to prove that I can do it is what was embarrassing or insulting.”

She later went on to say, “The question was posed as though it were a desirable thing to do — to write about white people or to write not about race. That’s what that means to me.”

Afterwards, Morrison explains her issues with the white gaze questioning her freedom as an artist. Rose asks if Morrison is “importing too much into the question,” thus further gas-lighting her.

Too often, white people tell Black people, especially Black women, that any critical reactions to oppressive actions are not valid. The undermining and trivializing of Black thought occurs when looking at the white gaze. White ethnocentrism involves the idea that everything in existence is for the consumption of the white gaze. The idea that some forms of media and culture are not explicitly produced with white people in mind can sometimes come across as disrespectful and invalid to those white consumers. American media focuses on the white experience and delegates minority groups to something of lesser importance.

“[It is] as though our lives have no meaning and no depth without the white gaze,” Morrison said. “I’ve spent my entire writing life trying to make sure that the white gaze was not the dominant one in any of my books.”

Black people must think about the context of our lives and how the white gaze might perceive us.

Hip hop artist Fatimah Nyeema Warner, better known by the stage name Noname, shares a similar struggle with Morrison, who died in 2019, but has gone as far as announcing that she will no longer perform or make music. In a series of since deleted tweets Noname explained her own issues with the white gaze. On November 28, 2019, she tweeted, “Me consistently creating content that is primarily consumed by a white audience who would rather s—t on me than challenge their liberalism because some how liking Lizzos music absolves them of racist tendencies.” Noname also said, “Whats funny is most black artist(s) are just as uncomfortable performing for majority white crowds but would never publicly say that out of fear and allegiance to (money emoji) Which isn’t a bad thing necessarily cause n—s gotta eat but yall wouldnt be up and arms if I quit workn @McDonalds.”

This is a great example of the damaging effects the white gaze has on Black artists. While the white gaze can materially benefit Black artists with things such as financial support and exposure, it still leaves the Black artist feeling conflicted because depending on white people to make a living is a level of irony fitting for America. In the replies to the deleted tweets, Noname received vitriol for not wanting to perform for white majority audiences once again showing how the gaze controls her existence as an artist.

The idea that a Black creator has to make content with a white audience in mind is an issue of agency. This is the same issue Toni Morrison faced and countless other Black and minority creators still face every day. Prominent YouTube music critic Anthony Fantano, who has over 900,000 subscribers on his main channel and has received millions of views on his various videos, responded to Noname’s series of tweets in a video. Fantano acknowledges that he does not want to “white-xplain” the experience Noname discussed.

“Unfortunately, you can’t really choose your audience — or how your audience chooses to interpret the music that you make,” Fantano said. This is one of the central problems regarding the white gaze.

While there is nothing wrong with a white person appreciating Black works when warranted, an issue arises when white consumers of Black content challenge the wants of the Black creators they consume. In one of Noname’s final tweets about the topic she said, “When I go to work, thousands of white people scream the word n—a at me. And no I’m not changing my art so it is what it is. Catch me @nonamebooks.” Noname has come to terms with the fact that she refuses to change her content to make white people feel more comfortable. Her white fans must understand her wishes and not say the reclaimed slur. It shows how much white fans don’t  respect their favorite Black artists when they argue that the N-word should not be in songs if white people are prohibited to use the word.

Though white people have always consumed hip hop, why does it seem like the white gaze is more negatively affecting the culture now? In “Rap and Race: It’s Got a Nice Beat, but What about the Message?” an article in the Journal of Black Studies, Rachel E. Sullivan, now an associate professor at Montgomery College, writes, “In its early years, rap’s fans were primarily Black and Latino; however, the 1980s saw the popularity of rap music expand dramatically.” She goes on to say, “By the late 1980s, rap was no longer viewed as a fad but as a distinctive musical form.” Sullivan contests that hip hop during the ‘80s was more overtly political which caused potential white fans to feel disconnected from the critical sounds of the time. Sullivan’s study concluded that Black people, more than other races, identified personally with the themes and messages of hip hop. It would be unwise to expect all white people to become well-versed in the history of hip hop in order to listen to it. But when is a good time for white people to understand the implications of their gaze? At what point should the disrespect of a genre be acknowledged?

A video that surfaced in May 2018 of a white woman at a Kendrick Lamar concert uncovers the disconnect that the hip hop genre has from its white consumers. The video shows a white woman being invited on stage to sing “m.A.A.d. City.” The song begins and she sings the intro going into the hook where Kendrick says the N-word many times. She repeats the slur until Kendrick and his DJ stop the music. The crowd immediately understands her fault — the woman herself says, “Am I not cool enough for you? What’s up bro?” Kendrick replies with, “You got to bleep one single word though,” to which she responds, “Oh, I’m sorry. Did I do it? I’m so sorry. I’m used to singing it like you wrote it.”

Kendrick gives her another chance to sing along on stage but it does not work out and security escorts her off the stage. “m.A.A.d. City,” a song with explicit lyrics, tells the rough tale of Kendrick’s upbringing in Compton. Any fan of his would know what his content represents. But what would give her the idea that saying the N-word in front of a critical Black artist would go well? White ethnocentrism. Does being a fan of a Black artist give white people the agency to say slurs included in his songs? I’d argue against it.

Ethnocentricity allows white people the belief that all cultures are for their consumption. The video shows the woman shocked that she was called out for the behavior. There is no doubt that this is the same issue Noname and Toni Morrison have dealt with. Black people too often get ridiculed when we are protective of a culture that was demonized and separated from the ideals of “real American values” since our introduction to the Americas. It is important that both Black and white people are cognizant of the white gaze and its negative effects. The white gaze serves to limit the cultural expression of Blacks by way of white ethnocentricity. It is imperative that white people understand their own white gaze and actively combat it. White people acknowledging their gaze when interacting with Black culture to not impose their ideas of what Black culture should represent is important. This mindfulness will help protect Black cultural sovereignty and identity.

Header image by Jenni Holtz, 14 East