The white gaze if you don’t know, is basically, at least in terms of being a writer and creating art, is producing work for a mainly white audience.
For example, if I write a short story about South Asian Americans living in New Jersey, and I mention phrases like “Desi” since I am trying to appeal to a wider audience a.k.a. white folks, I should also include some sort of context clue, or in someway explain what Desi means.
Now, someone might interject and say, “Wait, Sudip. Don’t you have to do that anyways? Regardless if the person is white a reader? After all, there are POC outside South Asian categories.”
That is a correct assessment. Even for someone who is black American, or Hispanic, or frankly, Asian American who isn’t South Asian, I would also have to find someway to explain what “desi” means in order for that scene or dialogue to work the way I intended.
Still, when it comes to writing on themes of racial angst, or feeling like the Other, then, considerations of how the white reader would feel reading something truly honest from a POC perspective takes precedent. This is where the dividing lines are more clear. Yes, not all people, even those are POC, will understand what Desi means. But I’d trust that many in the POC community would more or less appreciate a more raw view of how the U.S. can be towards them. So, even if I am talking about a Desi character who experienced racial profiling based on Islamophobia, even someone who is black reading the story can connect to the sense of humiliation that boils inside, and the fear that accompanies it.
Unfortunately, the white gaze, as mentioned, remains the one that’s most important to reach and have understand what the character is going through in order for the story to get recognized.
Again, if a white audience is shown to be the ones who own the literary journals, who head the top publishing companies, and are agents and reviewers, etc., then it is very crucial for writers, intellectuals, and thinkers, to convey our world to them in order for us to get a decent pay check.
The pro’s if any from this process is that perhaps more white Americans do understand a bit more about the experiences a particular POC group goes through. After all, we need allies in powerful positions and if one major CEO can connect to a character in a book, maybe there’s a chance he or she will change and see the light. Maybe.
But at what cost?
Because in the end, writing and reading stories about yourself is a validating experience.
I still remember as a kid going to the library and having trouble finding stories written for and about people like me. I could find stories about kids in India but here I was, born and raised in Queens. Already my world was different. And growing up, I noticed that some Indian writers had a habit of focusing on this “mystic” side of India, appealing to what probably many white Americans thought of about this country in the east, as this place where Allen Ginsberg would go so he could find his “zen” and feed monkeys, ignoring the fact there are cities and actual shit going on. In many ways, some writers, black, and brown, are willing to write stereotypes. I used to be angry about that. But I can’t blame anyone who needs to pay the bills.
That being said, the emptiness I felt from not finding stories that spoke to my life or had people who look like as the main protagonists did make me feel alien from the space around me. Fortunately, I had parents and friends who never abide by such logic, and always encouraged me to write my own narratives, to produce my own work instead, which I do till this day.
But there are countless examples of how black and brown kids can view themselves as being “ugly” or different. And that can be connected how we are socialized vis-a-vis TV shows, movies, and the books we read while growing up.
Even as a journalist, I remember instances where telling a story about a person of color would make that individual feel like they mattered, like they knew for the first time, their voice, their life and being was at the center of our concern.
In the end, the white gaze is powerful, and unfortunately, many of us are tied down by it.
But there are ways, as POC, to steer the ship away from the older white audience that dominates the scene.
First off, start reading books by POC authors.
This includes folks like Junot Diaz, Octavia Butler, and from way back in the day, Du Bois.
There is a whole host of people waiting for us to read and comprehend and appreciate. And not just on stories that deal with race, but also, on matters of love, heartbreak, and everyday struggles.
Here is an article detailing some of those who are doing a good enough job against the white gaze as the sole voyeur. Click here to read.
Finally, start writing your own stories. Publishing your own blogs.
It is true that those who are most privileged are able to focus 100% on art. That shouldn’t be a surprise. But guess what? Octavia Butler worked odd jobs while her career as a writer was in its infancy. She would work and work and work and then come back home and sleep a bit before waking up extra early so she could go back to writing until starting a new shift. That’s dedication. The odds are stacked but you have to try. Otherwise, get ready for more books from Jonathan Franzen.
And no. I won’t explain what Desi is.
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