In the film “Toni Morrison: The Pieces That I Am,” Toni Morrison speaks about writing outside the dominance of the white gaze:
“I have had reviews in the past that have accused me of not writing about white people. I remember a review of Sula in which the reviewer said, one day, she, meaning me, will have to face up to real responsibilities and get mature, and write about the real confrontation for Black people, which is white people. As though our lives have no meaning and no depth without the white gaze. And I have spent my entire writing life to make sure that the white gaze was not the dominant one in any of my books.”
As a white person, I recognize the white gaze — familiar as my skeleton, and as often unnoticed. As with my skeleton, through the white gaze I learned to recognize alignment and coherence — how things hold together and make sense. The white gaze is a tacit framework for perception, description, and interpretation that bolsters white supremacy by making it both appear and be justified as an unquestionable reality. This framework normalizes and universalizes the expectations, desires, and justifications of white people, particularly where power and entitlement are concerned. Through the white gaze, everything confirms the assumption or insistence (often violent) that white people’s experiences are the measure of what matters and of what must be protected. This is wrong, harmful, destructive — and ignorant.
As though our lives have no meaning and no depth without the white gaze.
Refusing these terms of engagement as a writer, Morrison centers the meaning and depth of Black lives as “the real confrontation,” real and complete, not made so via recognition or ratification by white readers. For me as a white person, to refuse these terms of engagement means that I must unlearn the white gaze by involving myself with learning and changing. I also must recognize that understanding co-exists with a measure of unknowability. To understand something, then, isn’t to “get it” once and for all. To understand is incomplete and dynamic.
But our educational systems are not usually centered in this understanding of understanding.
In school, I learned — did you? — to think about understanding as getting it all, getting it quickly, and, most importantly, getting it right. This also meant, essentially, getting it white. As a “good student” and later a teacher and professor, I learned to define learning, and academic “achievement,” largely through the white gaze. This meant to center learning in ignorance, and often contempt, of Black people’s experiences — including history, creation, resistance, and vision.
Even when white people are working to move out of the white gaze, it has a tight hold. Eight years ago, I started co-leading a collaborative, Lagin Tehi Tuma (LTT), through which undergraduates from institutions in the US and Ghana work with a grassroots collective of community leaders in Dalun, Ghana — a rural community in the Northern Region. The mission of Lagim Tehi Tuma (“Thinking Together” in Dagbani, the local language) is to re-think and co-create education in the context of Black study and Black studies through community-based partnerships and internships, collaborative inquiry, and cultural exchange recognizing colonial pasts and moving towards just futures. Operating each summer, to date, 47 from Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges (including international students from 5 African countries, including Ghana) and 24 students from the University for Development Studies have participated.
LTT has evolved from a program oriented to and by the white gaze to one oriented to and by Black study and Black studies. By this I mean that the program’s initial theory of change arose as moving against what Cole called the white industrial savior complex, and against, as Adichie says, the “dangers of single story” of Africa — but in a way that remained centered by whiteness, by its frames, even in seeking to undermine them. With the vision of students and collaborators taking the program up and forward, away from the presumption of the white gaze so common in American global learning programs, LTT now moves by way of Black study and Black studies. Black study, inspired by the work of Harney and Moten, and also of Robin Kelley, bell hooks, and Angela Davis, among others, is, in Davis’s terms, “the convergence of academic knowledge and knowledge generated in the course of actively struggling for radical change in the world.” Black studies means engagement with and by the histories, epistemologies and traditions of creativity, joy, and resistance inherent in the experiences, creation, and memory of Black people.
Now as part of the interview of applicants, whatever their background, to participate in the LTT summer program, we state that the program centralizes Black study and Black study and ask what this means to them and where they are in their learning, life, studies, experience, curiosity, with respect to it. The responses are powerful. Here is one: “It means understanding that knowledge comes from Blackness, and that this knowledge, this Blackness, are worthy in themselves.”