The core function of tween- and teen-hood is the lofty job of figuring out who we are, as if puberty isn’t harrowing enough. Human nature forces us to make sense of our childhood experiences, how we feel about the way others perceive us, and to chart the topography of our own voice.
But for Black and brown kids, there’s the added hurdle of the white gaze. Foundational to the centering and elevation of whiteness in America, the white gaze sees Blackness only within the context of comparison and alterity. It’s the shallow lens of privilege, ingrained bias, and misrepresentation that creates both violent acts and micro-aggressive behaviors. It’s the white police officer brutalizing Black citizens without cause or provocation, the white educator who instinctively adjusts their expectations for a Black student, and in Rebecca Carroll’s unflinching memoir “Surviving the White Gaze,” it’s the fifth grade teacher who tells her she’s “pretty for a Black girl,” and the heritage her family never talks about.
Carroll, a writer, cultural critic, podcaster and formerly a producer for WNYC in New York, was born to a white teen mom and her absent Black boyfriend. She was given up to nearby family friends at 3 weeks old and spent her formative years with white adoptive parents and their two biological children in rural New Hampshire. Life on Pumpkin Hill Road was as bucolic as the name suggests: a farmhouse set against sprawling fields of wildflowers, apple trees, roaming kittens, and not a neighbor in sight. Family meals sprouted from an abundant vegetable and herb garden, and in summer’s golden hours they’d dine in the yard, thankful for their good fortune. Carroll’s hippy-leaning parents renounced the mores of the status quo to cultivate a home steeped in art and nature, free of religion and rules, where each family member could be, as Carroll writes, “an individual of their own making.” But they never discussed her father or encouraged learning about Black culture, for Carroll or for themselves. They loved her unconditionally, but they’d vision-boarded their bubble without carefully considering how it would affect their biracial daughter — the sole Black person in their pastoral town. It was as though she was a secret everyone knew about. Erasure by default, assimilation by fire.
Carroll was vibrant and precocious, but nebulous messages about her Blackness swarmed her most impressionable years. It wasn’t until Carroll was 6 years old that she set eyes on another Black person, a ballet teacher in a town 15 miles away. “I wanted to be, or believed I was, Black,” Carroll writes, “but it also seemed as though I would have to give something up in order for that to remain true.”
Like most growing girls regardless of race or ethnicity, she wanted in with the popular crowd at her all-white school and obsessed over whether boys liked her or liked her liked her. But her date’s father forbade his son to go to the sophomore prom with the Black girl, and an especially disturbing scene confirmed Carroll’s fears; she was dismissed as girlfriend material, seen as a curiosity with which to experiment, a foreign brown body to violate.
A seismic shift occurred when Carroll met her biological mom, Tess, around her 11th birthday. The bone deep approval Carroll sought from the woman who gave her up blurred her view of a relationship that became alarmingly toxic. Meanwhile, Carroll’s parents grew increasingly hands off and Tess’s maternal instincts seemed limited to narcissistic forms of misguidance, an odd appropriation of Black culture, and a steady undermining of Carroll’s emotional development. That’s when she began writing. What emerged on the page, from grade school through college to adulthood in New York, was a crescendo of this constant push/pull, both a yearning for and rejection of the embodiment of Blackness. Carroll experienced a disorienting grief, a phantom limb gesturing wildly into the atmosphere of her daily life in an isolated struggle to root out her racial identity.
Carroll unearths complex, uncomfortable truths about legacy and parenthood in her memoir’s short chapters, re-creating a child’s rich worldview with penetrative grown-up perspective. Her voice is generous, intimate, searching, and formidable, her story excavated from her core and delivered with fervor and clarity. As the book progresses, Carroll’s innermost reflections about her Black biological father feel almost as absent as he is, but her narrative raises crucial questions of self-representation, the intricacies of transracial adoption, and the nuances of group membership. She crystallizes well-founded resentments and deeply painful revelations without saddling the reader with self-pity or melodrama. She weaves in with exquisite resonance a sense of beauty, gratitude, and, ultimately, hard-won self-reconciliation and unbound joy.
It feels as though “Surviving the White Gaze” couldn’t have come to life until now, like it’s been coursing through Carroll’s veins, waiting for the right time to emerge holistic and true. Identity formation starts in childhood, but sometimes it takes years to see for ourselves what it means to be Black and biracial — to hear what it is we’ve come to say, what we’ve wanted to assert all along: This is wholly me, this is where I come from, this is who I am in this world.
SURVIVING THE WHITE GAZE: A Memoir
By Rebecca Carroll
Simon & Schuster, 320 pp., $26
Blaise Allysen Kearsley is a Brooklyn-based writer.