Watching the Watcher: Observing the Ever-Consuming White Gaze, a workshop at the White Privilege Conference, was intense, powerful, transformational. It began with the conversation, via Frantz Fanon (Black Skin, White Masks) and Sherene Razack (Looking White People in the Eye), that both the colonizer and colonized are created through the “gaze” of the colonizer. The colonizer has the power to define the “other” and thereby constructs the body of the colonized. The colonizer feels pleasure in his superiority to the “other” while the “other” feels diminished and dismembered. The dominant group gets to define itself as moral and righteous and civilized in contrast to the deficits of the inferior group. Both groups internalize and normalize these attributes. The work is to disrupt these historical relationships of power. We then talked about the meaning of “whiteness” and looked at a variety of commercial media where the disparate power message was paradoxically obvious and almost invisible. And, of course, some contemporary blatant examples, as well.
This notion of the “gaze” haunted me all day.
I had some time at the end of the conference and went to the Seattle Art Museum where I saw a beautiful collection of Northwest Coast Indian art. I know that native peoples have made great strides in releasing from museum possession many items of dubious provenance, but still I was reminded of my white gaze here. How was I meant to view these sacred items, in the glassed display cases, with the detailed labels, and the dramatic lighting. Many of these items were “gifted” to the museum by a John H. Hauberg, the provenance therefore, perhaps, unclear. I was “gazing” at the cultural treasure of yet another marginalized people who weren’t allowed to potlatch and practice their traditions for most of the 20th century.
On the way back to the hotel I stopped in the International District/Chinatown and went to the The Wing, an Asian-American Museum, which has documented the Asian immigrant experience in Seattle through artifacts, oral histories, and the renovation of an early hotel and store in the area. Though the Chinatown has now become a tourist attraction, Chinatowns all over this country came into existence precisely because of the white gaze. The personal stories of Seattle residents who were in Japanese internment camps, documented in one of the many exhibits, were disturbing and distressing.
The white gaze can only be entertained by the visuals, the stories, the artifacts, the tourist attractions of the “other.” The power differential remains. Equity can only be achieved as we become more personally aware of the insidious and systemic nature of the white gaze. We need to consciously and intentionally open our eyes.