I’ll never forget a conversation I had with two Black female Oak Park and River Forest High School students back in 2019. I was interviewing them for a story about a networking event they were hosting that year.
The students dubbed the event “Black and Brown Faces in White Spaces,” which they created to “allow young minority women [the space] to safely discuss the challenges of, and learn tools for coping in, white (particularly professional) environments,” I reported at the time.
“I think OPRF and the Oak Park community kind of have a way of trying to slowly suck the Blackness out of you,” one of the young women told me during an interview back then.
“While I don’t have to code-switch as much as other Black people do, because I grew up in Oak Park, I do feel like I code-switch nonetheless; just differently,” she said. “I feminize my voice and try to talk higher. I try to make myself seem more girly and less threatening. I smile more … I need to stop doing that.”
She added that the “whole premise” of the networking event “is centered on assimilation, on this theory that Black and Latina women need to change themselves to fit into this white norm.”
I didn’t realize it then, but the experience this Black student was articulating isn’t exclusive to non-whites, even though most of us — white and non-white alike — are used to thinking about it only as something affecting non-white people, particularly Blacks.
The awareness that my humanity, my culture, my community is being scrutinized, judged, appraised as worthy or unworthy of dignity by a will to power that supersedes my own — to be under the spell of a normalizing gaze — is a universal and ancient experience.
Consider the etymology of the word subject, which in our modern parlance can mean a visual element in a photograph or video or within another person’s field of view. The word’s roots, however, reach back to the early 14th century. As in a “person under control or dominion of another,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.
Even earlier, in the 12th century, the French had the word sujet, from the Latin subiectus, “lying under, below, near bordering on,” figuratively “subjected, subdued.”
Throughout history, to be subject to a normative gaze has meant to be outside of the dominant power structure, to be on the periphery — on the outside looking in and being looked upon.
“Rulers and administrators representing a strong center tended to view the periphery as an unattractive or less than admirable segment of society,” writes Islamic studies scholar Akbar Ahmed. “The periphery, in turn, saw the center as predatory, corrupt, and dishonorable, an entity to be kept at arm’s length.”
Ahmed adds that “history shows a direct correlation between waning power at the center and increasing independence at the periphery.
“When strong, the center attempted to create pliable leadership and eliminate those elements on the periphery that resisted it,” he writes. “When weak, it withdrew to attend to its own affairs, leaving the communities on the periphery to their own devices.”
This is precisely what we see in our current moment, as the white Western gaze gradually loses its ability to hypnotize.
Toni Morrison deconstructed this gaze in “The Bluest Eye,” her novel about Pecola Breedlove, a Black girl who prays for blue eyes. In one passage, Morrison uses a doll to symbolize the white standard of beauty that had been rendered universal.
“Adults, older girls, shops, magazines, newspapers, windows’ signs — all the world had agreed that a blue-eyed, yellow-haired, pink-skinned doll was what every girl child treasured,” Morrison writes.
This passage brilliantly illustrates how the mass consumption inherent in Western liberalism, which is supposed to facilitate free and fair competition as a way of purging the world of prejudice, works to solidify the advantages of whiteness through so many self-reinforcing and often unseen social cues that we’ve been conditioned to think are value neutral (i.e., the subtle psychology of advertising, the hidden biases of newspaper articles, etc.).
In this way, the white gaze in our liberal democratic society operates more like a disciplining mechanism, a constant feedback loop reinforcing whiteness and the power of the West without us knowing that this is what is happening.
“All the world agreed” might be a stand-in for “the Washington Consensus,” the package of liberal democratic reforms promoted by Washington, D.C. policy- and opinion-makers after the fall of Communism in 1989.
The reforms were supposed to guide “backward” countries like Hungary, Russia and Czechoslovakia into the enlightened 21st century — one marked by ever-increasing economic growth, globalization and democracy. In other words, the freedom to shop (as George W. Bush put it after 9/11).
As globalization opened up borders and tore down competitive barriers across the world, the ancient tension between the center and the periphery was thought to be vanquished, once and for all, by technology and free trade.
One scholar famously announced “the end of History,” meaning the end of mankind’s political evolution and his search for the best form of government. And after this pronouncement, the conventional wisdom was, for a few years after Obama’s election, that we were finally becoming “post-racial.”
And yet, here we are. Liberal democracy is in retreat, anti-immigrant and autocratic governments are being installed around the world, racial tensions are simmering, and half of the U.S. governing system is authoritarian. Whiteness and the West have lost both their luster and their all-powerful invisibility (or, more precisely, their seeming omniscience).
This is problematic, particularly for whites who sense themselves on the periphery of power. As Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes show in “The Light That Failed: Why the West is Losing the Fight for Democracy,” white people can also feel themselves subject to the white Western gaze, particularly when it is under threat.
For instance, white ethnics in the old Soviet satellite countries like Hungary and Czechoslovakia have tried modeling themselves after the U.S. and other liberal democratic countries in the West only to be told that they aren’t truly Western, after all.
And after these whites at the periphery have put themselves through contortions (some of you may remember the Velvet Revolution) and changed their cultures and ways of living only to be met with condescension, they’ve discovered that behind the Western gaze is really a moral and cultural emptiness — an abandoned mall, figuratively speaking.
Since these peripheral European countries have tried democratizing, there have been two major economic collapses, two major wars and historically high income inequality that is threatening to turn parts of some Western countries into the Third World countries they used to look down upon.
“At issue is the kind of comprehensive political makeover that, partly because it is orchestrated not at the West’s command but ‘under Western eyes,’ evokes feelings of shame and resentment and stokes fears of cultural erasure,” Krastev and Holmes writes. The italics are mine.
This is how Hungary’s Orbán, the white ethnic autocrat, can shrug at law and order, saying with his beefy shoulders, ‘What will it pay me to mimic the pluralistic liberal democracy of the West? My whiteness, being on the periphery of hegemony, pays me no premium. And besides, Trump, the former leader of the free world, looks up to me.’ For Orbán, what pays is not the ideology of liberal democratic openness, but of naked nationalism.
And just as leaders of white ethnic countries like Orbán are experiencing diminishing returns from the white Western gaze, young people of color nowadays are feeling less and less restricted by the politics of respectability that was their parents’ and grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ preferred method of navigating life as subjects under the spell of the gaze.
Young people like that OPRF student I interviewed a few years ago don’t feel the need to signal their goodness or competence to the white world (“I need to stop to doing that”), in large part because the return on the investment, the emotional tax, the tribute paid to “fit in” is dwindling with every economic quarter. And also, like Orbán, they can see the gaze for what it is — essentially hollow.
What happens when whiteness and Western dominance become fractured and threatened? When the illusion of their universality and omniscience get stripped away? It pains me to write this, but I fear we’re returning to a past that wasn’t that long ago.
“Three things seem to me necessary to explain the extreme violence of the twentieth century,” writes historian Niall Ferguson in “The War of the World: Twentieth Century Conflict and the Descent of the West.”
“These may be summarized as ethnic conflict, economic volatility and empires in decline.”