The Witness

Writing Under the White Gaze

Jemar Tisby

Sometimes I don’t know whether I’m writing for a white audience or a black audience. My words are meant for both groups–any groups really–but on a network dedicated to addressing the core concerns of African Americans biblically, the primary recipients of those words should be easy to identify. I sometimes write expressly to my white brothers and sisters. But even when I attempt to write specifically for my bruthas and sistas I struggle to speak openly. I constantly feel the “white gaze” over my shoulder.

The white gaze describes the perceptions of reality held by the racially dominant group. In the U.S. white cultural norms hold sway. Their patterns of speech, style of dress, standards of beauty, and views about race relations are all considered normal. The white gaze might be a new concept to white people because in a society where they are on top, their perspectives have never been questioned.

Writing under the white gaze means repeatedly asking, “How will white people react to this?” It means wondering, “How will they respond?” Some of this is just wisdom. All writers should take care not to needlessly offend. But writing under the white gaze is something else. As one writer puts it, “It is the weight of expectation which bears down unequally on Black Americans. The pressures of respectability and acquiescing to mainstream standards of “perfection” create a minefield for Blacks who just want to live.”

When I write under the white gaze I talk about how people of all races harbor racism in their hearts because “it’s not a sin issue, it’s a skin issue.” I take pains to point out that not all whites are racist, and that they don’t actually “mean” to be insensitive. I have to remind myself to include a “what do we do about it” section for all the white folks who demand answers from black people about how not to be racist.

I’ve been in so many battles with white people about racism and its effects that I cannot write without thinking about the possible attacks. I keep my words guarded and tentative in case a white person might get offended. I temper my emotions so that I don’t get labeled an “angry black man.” I soft-pedal the trauma of living in a racialized context where I am frequently the disdained “other” or at best an object of pity and charity.

When I write with a primarily black audience in mind I sound different. It’s the difference between the way I talk with a group of black friends and the way I talked in a racially mixed setting. I use more colloquialisms. I drop all the caveats and qualifications and I just speak. Most significantly, I am free. Free to be mad. Free to be devastated. Free to be tired. Free to be me.

Just to clarify (and this additional explanation is part of what it means to write under the white gaze), I want white people to read what I write. People of any race who want to learn more about black perspectives (emphasis on the plural) should feel free to access any of our material. At the same time, minorities need spaces where they can openly communicate without concern for offending certain people who do not share their experiences. It cannot be over-emphasized how much black people have to think about how white people will judge us–how we dress, get our hair cut, what music we listen to, which political candidate we support. We just need opportunities to speak the unfiltered truth of our lives. It’s okay when black people write, sing, act, dance, laugh, and live with only other black people in mind. The words and lives of black people don’t always have to be accessible or comforting to whites.

I’m not sure how honest I’m being right now. I can’t always tell when I’m filtering my feelings for fear of offending whites. I resonate with Toni Morrison when she says, “The problem of being free to write the way you wish to without this other racialized gaze is a serious one for an African American writer.” The white gaze is so pervasive that it affects me subconsciously even when I have the opportunity to write apart from it.

I suppose I always write with both blacks and whites in mind because that is how I live. I am always a racial minority in this country which means I’m always grasping to hold and celebrate my cultural heritage while also seeking to follow the norms of white society.

This post will anger some white people. They will ask for more explanations and object to my premises. They will apply more labels to me and subtly or overtly discredit my experience. If that is your response, then it supports my point. All I can do is sigh and keep writing.

I will continue to write as a Christian who is also black. I am aware of the white gaze but endeavoring not to be silenced by it. I write not so much for white people or black people, but for the sake of my own soul and fidelity to my calling. Hopefully some of my words give voice to others, but it is God’s gaze of which I am most conscious.

15 thoughts on “Writing Under the White Gaze


    I like the article

  2. Www.Earthlabfoundation.Org

    I like the article

  3. Florentina

    Thanks, it’s very informative

  4. Roberto Reyes Jr

    Brother, Tisby,

    I really appreciate raanetwork and its insistence on trying to address the issue of racial/ethnic diving within the Body of Christ. I’ve profited much from your podcasts and articles, especially since you give brother (Dr.) Jarvis Williams a platform from which to speak from. Thank you for your work.
    However, I have two concerns. 1) The question of racial/ethnic division within the church is bigger than just the black/white divide. It is a divide that cuts across ethnic lines beyond just black and white. I am a Reformed Baptist, Puerto Rican who has also experienced the ethnic divide in the church and see it play out time and again beyond the white/black line. Moreover, there is also the question of socio-economic divide that also plagues the church, which in many ways is intertwined with the ethnic question in the church. Thus, I think that it would be very profitable to extend the discussion beyond the black/white divide, especially since the Scriptures specifically discuss the fact that people from every tongue tribe, and nation are being called, and the Scriptures also address the socio-economical question that has plagued the church from the very beginning.

    And, 2) Is it useful to use cultural language like “bruthas and sistas” to make distinctions between black Christians your addressing and non-black Christians? I understand the cultural significance of the language, since grew up along side African-Americans in the Bronx. However, considering that there is much that has created divisions within the body of Christ, would it not be more prudent and Biblical to create an environment where union is fostered as much as possible, even in the words that we use? If we are fighting for Gospel union across all lines, then surely I don’t think we should be making synthetic distinctions within the body with our words or deeds, even if it means changing our cultural habits to fit the Gospel.

  5. Mark

    Really appreciate your sharing this. As a Christian who happens to be white, I think all one can really do is speak the truth in love…please don’t leave us in our ignorance my brother, we can never repent from sin we are unaware of. In my case John Perkins spoke the truth in love through his writings and God brought me to my knees in repentance through said writings. You must do the same for this generation. If you believe ours is a ministry of reconciliation you know what you have to do. Have courage young brother, God’s got this.

  6. ariel bovat

    What a great “me” article. Thankful this was written.

  7. Diane

    As a black woman who grew up in a black inner city neighborhood in DC Barry Farms, and becoming a believer at a young age I never experienced the feelings that most of my contemporaries felt. I guess I am very naive to think that God is in control and my battle is not with flesh and blood. I renewed my mind as it says in Romans and began to think on those things that are good and pure. Did I escape bad treatment, no but I did not take it personally, choosing to die daily to the thoughts that would assail my mind. I’ve been blessed. I’ve seen those who chose to dwell on the perceived unfairness in a negative way and have seen their negative effects. Life is unfair. We need to love one another and help each other make it through this hard journey. In Messiah there is neither Jew or Greek, but a new creation.

  8. Ulasa "Trey" Harris

    Brutha, as I used to say back when I was in the charismatic/word faith, “you in the vein!!”

    Real talk, this jawn is one of the best thoughts about the complexity of being black within a majority white context. I’m diggin’ this post fa’real.

  9. g

    from some one who has gotten in lots of trouble for not “soft pedaling” my strong convictions, I’m still watching with the white gaze of hope and respect. You are honest enough and I sense you are holding back. Lead on.

  10. Glenister Franklin

    Wonderful thought provoking article.As a Caribbean born american I have learned a long time ago to be true to God and yourself,not being dismissive,but self assured. I raised three daughters to never be afraid to express their thoughts and argue their perspective view. You my brother was created to be free and equal,therefore write like you are free and equal to the glory of God.

  11. ss

    As a white woman, I am sorry that you feel white gaze while writing here! I am trying to learn different perspectives outside of my own, so this is one of the websites that I visit to learn from. Thank you for your honesty.

  12. Josh

    Very helpful article for the sake of perspective. Grateful for guys on this particular site who do share a unique perspective that I can’t possibly fully grasp as a white male, but must attempt to understand as a brother in Christ. Your background doesn’t change my background or vice versa. BUT…you and I can both attempt to understand where the other comes from and work together doing Gospel work. Perhaps, over time we can bridge racial/cultural gaps, not by watering down culture or pretending there are no differences, but by embracing one another for who we are and where we come from and working together for the glory of God. Keep the honesty coming.

  13. Peterson

    Very helpful post, Jemar. For me this is the most helpful you’ve written so far.

  14. Kara

    Thank you for persevering in this challenge – and today reminding us white readers what a difficult task it is indeed. I appreciate your willingness to let us eavesdrop as you seek to write from your heart.

  15. April

    Thank you so much for sharing, Jemar. As a white woman with two black sons, your words on this site have been my go-to resource for personal education, and for sharing with others. The task my husband and I have of raising our boys in America is an immense privilege, and a daunting challenge. I am so grateful for your voice, and the voices of others who share here.

Leave A Comment