The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan used the concept of the gaze as a way to describe the psychological effects of an individual becoming aware that they have an external that is created from a perspective that is not one’s own. In discussions of oppression and disenfranchised groups, the gaze comes into the conversation to express the thoughts and beliefs of the perspective which – despite having no direct understanding of them as a group- shapes their oppression.
What The Gaze Has Taught
If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained, you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.
– Sun Tzo, The Art of War
In the battle against oppression there is only one way to guarantee victory: know yourself and your enemy. Often there can be found texts that deal with Black identity and the effects of of oppression on the Black identity. Conversely; there are texa that deal with the systems of oppression under which Black people suffer. It is most important to the struggle that always information from both are presented parallel – if not simultaneously- to ensure a wholistic view of the situation.
There was a time when Black people understood the gaze that oppressed them. They knew that it was imperialistic, white supremacist, and capitalistic. They were able to understand that a gaze grounded in those ideologies would frame them as barbaric, inferior, and poor. From that understanding Black people were able to understand that in order to navigate American society that they would have to combat such notions. That is how it came to be important to Black people to own land, get an education, and to be articulate.
Often in contemporary Black culture we have forgotten the necessity and the significance of these coping strategies. We have developed a level of pride for the progress that we have made as a culture. That pride has made us arrogant and ignorant about the history behind these coping strategies (even those now deemed counter productive).
A few months ago I engaged in a debate with several HBCU students. These students were incited when I suggested that Black could benefit from learning to codeswitch. That thought, to them, spelled giving in to oppression. As I listened to their points of view I realized that philosophically they were on point. Their passion and ideals were in the right place. However the problem was that they were making no attempt to reconcile those ideals with the opposing reality they were living in. They felt that because what they believed was right that their work stopped at believing in those ideals and arguing with anyone who didn’t. But what good is that argument without a platform that offers an audience to affect and influence? And what a dangerous thing it is for a Black person in America to forget their Blackness and disassociate from the truth of what that means for their experience in this country. Because inevitably that moment will come when America will remind them of their Blackness and what the imperialistic, white-supremacist, capitalist thinking of this country has framed that to mean. The psychic trauma that will be caused by having that reality forced upon them- than coming into the realization willingly- can be devastating.
I have seen a number of Black people that I went to school graduate and fall into a stasis of consciousness that paralyzed them from going forward with the dreams and ambitions of their undergraduate years. They eventually settle for the peace and comfort of flying under the radar, which amounts to nothing more than mediocrity.
Those Black people who would engage the struggle today often begin with a judgment of the strategies of our forefathers. We somehow assert that since these strategies did not yield the desired results or because they did not progress the struggle, that they are useless or support the systems of oppression. Nothing could be farther from the truth. These strategies are significant simply because they reflect an understanding of the gaze which created the framework for the systems that now bind us. When examining these strategies we cannot simply look at the results in order to judge their merit. We have to examine how and why they were created. On this angle we will find the most critical information for shaping our own resistance strategies.
In contemporary Black culture, however, the understanding of the gaze has become neglected. Many young Black people have grown up without the experience of Jim Crow and blatant discrimination. So they lack a conceptual understanding of that experience. It is easy from the vantage point of post civil rights era privilege to declare that we would have all been freedom fighters had we lived during that time. In truth, some of us -just like some of them- would have sought survival first and would adopt practices that did not support the movement but did save their lives and their lineage (which may include some of us). In war every battle cannot be won through a charging assault. Sometimes you have to be covert. Sometimes you have to lie low and gather intel. Sometimes you have to just save yourself and live to fight another day.
Now that prejudice has become more insidious it has become harder to identify the gaze. The truth is the gaze has not changed. It is the same imperialistic, white supremacist, capitalist gaze that it has always been. The problem is that we have lost touch with our understanding of the gaze. This leaves us powerless to invent and innovate the ways in which to combat the oppression it causes. We would do well to not forget that which our forefathers knew-as uttered by James Baldwin-“The world has more than one way of keeping you a nigger.”
I’m not sayin; I’m just sayin,
An Angry Black Man