appreciation black ownership McKinney slavery US Virgin Islands white gaze
White Gaze Runs Deep, from U.S. Virgin Islands to McKinney7/02/2015
by Jessica S. Samuel I was only a high school student when I first realized the impact of the white gaze. A high-achieving pupil I, alon...
I was only a high school student when I first realized the impact of the white gaze. A high-achieving pupil I, along with similarly-talented peers, quickly became the idols of white attention. We were anomalies in the eyes of these people who could only see us as far as they could see the next island. Their understanding of our capacity for success was as narrow as the one-third of the island unoccupied by the U.S. National Park. “Small-time” island kids, we quickly became the objects of white attention. In fact, were it not for these condominium-owning, island-trotting, land-thieving white benefactors it would have been largely impossible for me to attend the only (private) high school on island. The quality education afforded to me was a dream come true thanks to my elusive and yet seemingly-omniscient donors. Like clockwork, I was responsible for constantly demonstrating my sincerest gratitude for their generosity by way of “Thank You” cards. The time would come, at least once a semester, when all the good little brown and poor kids, had to make it our business to offer praise and appreciation to the good ol’ white folks. After all, it was important that they see a return on their financial investments.
Evenings spent attending galas and various other upscale events taught me very quickly that my success did not only belong to my family and me, but to the gracious white people who had made it financially possible. It was distinctly degrading to have to be so economically reliant upon another, more powerful force. There was something that felt coon-ish about the ways in which I was schooled to impress these white folks with my productivity—make them feel justified and content with their having invested in me. A part of me grew to resent the economic circumstances around my education. I resented the fact that I had unwillingly owed another, and therefore belonged to them in a way. I resented the fact that a great part my future so greatly depended on others I barely even knew. I resented the idea that I could not wholly belong to myself—and not in the kind of sacredly empowering way that I humbly ascribe to—but in a way that made me feel truly powerless.
In a time not too long after my graduating high school, I had begun to realize more and more the many ways in which ownership over my young black female body (had) profited white people. And while it would be unfair for me to claim that some of the white benefactors in my life had solely self-indulgent motives for taking stake in my future, I cannot ignore the historicity of our bodies’ interactions throughout time. I cannot ignore the mass attack on native rights, the terroristic gentrification, and the denial of first-class citizenship to my fellow Virgin Islanders. These conditions at home make the white body culpable, for it is this very body that so successfully commits these infractions. It is this body that so gallantly swoops over time and space to create realities for themselves that are suitable to their individual needs and desires. These “island struggles” are indicative of a more dimly overarching reality: no matter where we are around the world, brown people will forever struggle to maintain control over themselves and their spaces.
As a black woman, my space is constantly under attack. Owning and regulating me is often the cause of someone else’s displeasure. Whether it is against patriarchal or racist institutions, I am always at war for me. Always, I must care not to offend, disrupt, seduce, or upset. I must not challenge constructed notions of what my behavior should look like. I must not attempt self-agency too aggressively—not self-determine too boldly. And if I dare, the ramifications could literally cost me my life like it did for Rekia Boyd, Tanisha Anderson, Shereese Francis, and many others. Constantly patrolled, I am object of the white gaze. We are continuously the objects of the white gaze.
On June 5, 2015, another young Black female simultaneously became the object of white gaze and physical assault. Often times these two coincide. Once I had finally mustered enough courage to watch the video of McKinney, Texas Officer Eric Casebolt snatching the young 15-year old girl by her faultless poetic justice locks, my face was hot with rage—so much so, that all it could do at that point was generate an unyielding stream of tears. Beside the catastrophic shit show of officers attempting to “rescue” local white residents from the attack of the blacks-who-dare-to-swim, was the extraordinarily repulsive presence of the polo-wearing, pot-belly-having white body guard, who so righteously defended the scene as the officer body-slammed and rodeo-rid the back of this young, black unarmed swimsuit-clad empress.
The indulgent look on that white man’s face as this girl was owned stirred up so much collective and personal trauma. His grisly voyeuristic presence mimicked that of 1950s white lynchers. Standing over her humiliated body seemed greatly arousing. This vicarious abuse of that young black girl was just as visceral as the officer’s physical attack. He seemed to relish every second of her being owned. How glorious it must have been for him to see this nigger-child to be put in check. To witness her be brutally reminded of her place. To be rightfully reprimanded for her talking back to and challenging all of their whiteness and “rightness.” This guardian of the white galaxies did a splendid job protecting the scene from being tampered or tainted by the onslaught of peers attempting to rescue this poor girl. Proud defender of this process of white-male-ego-tripping redemption, he too shares its glory, if even but for a while. The black girl, face-pummeled into the grass, is no longer a girl. She no longer is human. She is an object, ready to be gazed, regulated, and reclaimed. As far as they were concerned, she was there’s and they were ready to cash out.
All other Black people—adults and children alike—fearful of being subjected to similar degradation run for their literal lives. They refuse this historically symbolic reinstatement of white ownership of their bodies. They save themselves. All the while, the rest of world stares in disbelief as this black girl is caught. White people don’t quite know how to rejoice, Black people struggle with exactly how they should lend her a helping hand. All I know is, owning myself has never been harder.
Jessica S. Samuel graduated from Wesleyan University where she received the Erness Brody Prize for excellence in written expression and completed an undergraduate honors thesis entitled “‘Unalterably Opposed’: Constituting Decolonization in the U.S. Virgin Islands.” She has two published poems, “Call It By Its Name” and “Unforgotten”, for ProudFlesh Journal. Born on the island of St. Croix and raised on all three U.S. Virgin Islands, Jessica is a Caribbean feminist/womanist and educator-activist. Currently, she lives in St. Louis, Missouri where she teaches high school English.