I just finished reading Rebecca Carroll’s diary-esque gem of a memoir, Surviving the White Gaze. It is 313 pages of fearlessness in presenting people as they are, and not as one would like them to be, especially when it comes to parents and parent figures. Like with so many books I’ve read in the past six years, I laughed, I cried, I got angry at Carroll, I got angry for her as well. If you want to learn all the ways not to parent an adopted Black/biracial child in lily-white New Hampshire during Generation X’s growing-up years, then Surviving the White Gaze is definitely for you.
As someone born at the end of 1969, the fact that Carroll is only seven months older than me immediately stood out. And because I often think through time in music, her occasional name-dropping made me think of the eclectic music I grew up around. A Steely Dan reference here, a David Bowie reference there for her. But because of her almost hermetically-sealed experience in everyday proximity to White folk, there weren’t any references to Alice Coltrane or Al Green, Earth, Wind & Fire or Marvin Gaye or Aretha Franklin. My three years of fractured relations to pop culture as a result of the Hebrew-Israelite years (abuse aside) have nothing on Carroll’s growing-up years in endless, toxic whiteness, musically and otherwise.
Still, there are layers to Carroll’s life and book that I do understand because of my own proximity to whiteness growing up, and my proximity to two people who may and may not have benefited from such proximity. One was Wendy, my first true crush, my first real and unrequited love. I commented on this in Boy @ The Window, partly because Wendy brought it up during my interviews with her over two days in 2006, and partly because I observed this behavior first hand over our years in middle school and high school.
A couple of crazy rumors emerged. None of which I could believe in their entirety. One was that she was part White and Black – or ‘mixed’ or ‘Oreo’ as the rumors about Wendy’s background were worded – especially from ___. It was based mostly on sightings of her eventual stepfather, who was White. I thought it was part of the reason some of my affluent White classmates found Wendy interesting. There were times I thought Wendy took advantage of the assumptions made about her at the same time. She was invited to their homes, occasional parties, and was a part of a circle that I called ‘the Benetton Group,’ the true cool of Humanities…
I do not think that either Wendy or Carroll were completely conscious of their desire to take advantage of the exoticism that their white classmates ascribed to them. I think that every child has a desire to be liked, and if the reason is embedded in lighter skin, or othering, or proximity to whiteness, then so be it. Even if there’s a great price to pay in one’s understanding of their identity (or lack thereof), especially later on in life.
Carroll is extremely clear about how fractured her mirror became as she transitioned from child to teenager to young woman, courtesy of her biological white mother Tess. The kindest way to describe Tess is that she’s a piece of work. Really, I can think of few parents more emotionally and psychologically abusive than Carroll’s biological mother. It’s not like I don’t speak from the experience of having a mom hell-bent to make me and my siblings hypermasculine foot-soldiers for an anti-queer patriarchy and misogyny. Having an alcoholic father and a stepfather that beat me up a few times? I’d still take that over Carroll’s bio-mom Tess, who only saw Carroll as a sexual being or a potential one, at 10 years old, because that’s how Carroll’s bio-mom saw Black men and Latinx men, possibly even Carroll’s half siblings, too.
Carroll’s adoptive parents weren’t much better, taking a “you’ll figure it out” approach to parenting that fell below the already low bar of GenXers being “latch-key kids” as a result of parents adulting their children at ages 6, 7, 8, and 9. None of them protected Carroll from sexual abuse, or prepared her to understand her Blackness. As Carroll wrote, they tried to “erase” her Blackness. I’d go a step further, though. The three of them attempted to make Carroll raceless, white without being white, an exotic extension of their white-bred lives.