This weekend social media was abuzz with commentary on Tyler Perry’s latest movie playing on Netflix (A Fall From Grace). I scrolled past most of it because I wasn’t in the mood this weekend for a TP flick. I’ll also admit to being one of many critics of his storytelling. I support him and want him to succeed, but his storytelling is mediocre. He recently boasted of his work ethic and how he writes everything he produces alone; well, it shows. A good writing room and/or a good editor can turn good writing into brilliant writing.
But I digress, this isn’t about TP and his Netflix movie, it’s about the critiques, who’s making them and who’s watching those who are critical.
An old friend recently posted something akin to if you can’t say anything nice, then don’t say anything at all on social media today. I wrote a response that despite all of TP’s contributions, it is still more than appropriate for us to have a critical conversation about his work. His contributions to Black American culture are obvious, noteworthy and meaningful. At the same time, in my opinion, his work is lacking, often recycled and full of misogynoir. She eventually deleted her posted and I slid into her DMs to apologize for blowing up her post and to inquire about how she was really feeling.
Turns out, there was a lot of defensiveness because White folks in her life were yucking it up about how TP’s stuff is so bad that he was being dragged by other Black folks. All of this made it easier to dismiss all of Black creatives. She wished that we could have these critical discussions in private, away from the White Gaze but we can’t so the default position is to say nothing bad, nothing critical. She emphasized that this lesson in “can’t say anything nice, then say nothing at all” is one of her core parenting values.
Ah, I got it.
Again, this isn’t about Tyler Perry at all. It’s about White folks.
Seriously, so much of this life is about White folks that it is seriously a mystery how we get anything done.
In a nutshell, the White Gaze is the world as we know it through white eyes. White folks write the history. White folks teach the history; anything that is not directly connected to them and/or their production of history is easily discounted, dismissed and forgotten. The White Gaze prioritizes white identity and centers white experience in all things. It dictates the way we talk, the way we dress, how we think about presentation, how we engage, how we are paid or not, how we raise our kids, and how we engage socially. It impacts us in countless ways, all day, every day. And it’s not even malicious, it’s just unconscious White supremacy at work.
This notion that we can have a meaningful community debate about the quality of Black art privately…well, we can’t on a large scale. . The same way I consumed the tweets, insta-posts and FB feeds White folks do as well. The fair and meaningful critique, similar to that which they might produce for art created by other White folks, is viewed differently and used to dismiss all.
The White Gaze is crushing because it’s always present.
After our interaction in the DMs, I thought a lot about what it meant and in what ways the White Gaze has shaped my life and my parenting.
When I was younger, my business dress was very conservative. I wanted to be taken “seriously” by all of the White folks where I worked. I remember the first time I cut my hair short and how all of the mostly White men I was around commented that I was so exotic. I grew my hair out. I kept my color schemes muted; didn’t want to be accused of being too loud or looking unprofessional. I worked on my public speaking and disavowed as much of any lingering southern accent as possible. I wanted to fit in, and very specifically, I wanted to fit in with White folks.
I eventually aged, and I began shedding f*cks. I largely wear things that are comfortable, sometimes colorful and I relish speaking in my own authentic voice. I’m matured and feel more free now.
I also know that I have this freedom from the Gaze only because of the capital I amassed from decades of succumbing to it. I’ve earned my freedom, but I also know it has limits. The Gaze always creates limits.
So when Hope came along, I was committed to trying to raise a strong Black woman who was self-assured and confident (we’re still working on this). I think back to my emphasis on manners and certain kinds of interactions. I think about the little weekend classes I sent her to on Saturday afternoons, and how I leveraged every bit of privilege I have amassed to her benefit—usually in rooms where I was the only Black or brown person. When she acted out, it was always uncomfortable, but when she acted out in front of White folks, my cheeks burned hot with embarrassment. I know the tableau we presented could easily be extrapolated to pathologize more Black folks. Suddenly, we were a stereotype, live and in color (pun intended).
Fear of the Gaze lingers just outside my front door. Heck, it’s in the house, and sometimes this blog is influenced by it.
During my afternoon pondering, I considered all the ways I silently conditioned my daughter to survive this Gaze. I considered how she pipes down when we’re in front of White people and it’s always the best of the best manners. I considered how stressed she gets when she has to dress formally; it’s not just that the clothes aren’t always comfortable, but there is a fret about how she will be viewed in the ensembles. I think about some of the clothes I’ve bought her since she left for college. Some of the things that I (and many of us) would consider basics, I know she has no interest in and that I am trying to affect her presentation—when there’s nothing wrong with her presentation. I am hyper aware that my parents conditioned me that in formal situations (read White situations) I need to have on my best clothes, best manners, best diction…best everything, and the pressure was enormous. One wrong move didn’t just ice me out, but might others out as well. I thought about all the ways I have conditioned Hope…not even intentionally (I’ve done that too) but unconsciously conditioned and modeled certain behaviors that help me navigate the Gaze.
And then, because I totally go down rabbit holes, I wondered how transracially adopted kids learn about the White Gaze. I wondered who teaches them about it and how especially immersed they are in it? And if their parents eff with that colorblind foolishness that centers whiteness…what then?
The White Gaze is oppressive without even trying to be.
So while I won’t be checking out of Tyler Perry’s stuff I still want him to win. As much as I think his writing is mediocre, I think that equality means that all folks have successful yet mediocre artists producing successful yet mediocre art. His wins also mean that I am free enough to criticize him publicly without care for the White Gaze and its oppression. A world in which that works is a world where parents like me are also free from having to coach our kids how to survive the Gaze as well.
That’s a world where I want to be.