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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.

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