Dec 28, 2021, 07:39pm EST
The white gaze is a term popularized by critically acclaimed writer Toni Morrison. When describing how it operates, Morrison said that it’s this idea that “[Black] lives have no meaning and no depth without the white gaze.” In the simplest terms, the white gaze can be conceptualized as the assumed white reader. When writers craft stories, the assumed white (and often cisgender, heterosexual, male) audience that they are writing for and to is the white gaze in action. The white gaze can be expanded to mean the ways in which whiteness dominates how we think and operate within society. Being encouraged to adhere to white-centered norms and standards is one of the ways that the white gaze operates. To create a world, and more specifically a workplace, that is built on equity, understanding the ways that the white gaze shows up is imperative.
The white gaze is present in innumerable ways in the workplace, with some manifestations being more prevalent than others. Non-white employees sometimes report experiences of the policing of their bodies within the workplace. One of the ways that this is expressed is via standards of professionalism and perfectionism, Aysa Gray elucidates. A quick perusal of corporate policies may reveal discriminatory practices that impact racialized employees. Hair discrimination, for example, affects Black employees because of the notion that Black hair in its most natural state is unprofessional. While some places within the United States are adopting protections for hair discrimination, those who experience this type of discrimination aren’t shielded in every state. Those who work outside of the U.S. may not be protected at all. Corporations often have vague appearance policies, which assumes that there is a one-size-fits-all standard of professionalism. If your workplace, for example, requires hats to be worn as part of a uniform, do the hats fit all hair textures? For employees with thicker and more coarse hair, having a uniform that takes their hair texture into consideration contributes to an inclusive work culture. These subtle nuances are often overlooked since corporate policies and practices are crafted with a white worker in mind.
In a groundbreaking study conducted by Verónica Caridad Rabelo, Kathrina J. Robotham, and Courtney L. McCluney, the researchers examined over 1,000 tweets under the hashtag #BlackWomenAtWork to assess trends about how the white gaze is experienced by Black women in the workplace. One theme that emerged in their research was the experience of “whiteness as venerated,” which results in whiteness being seen as superior. This can equate to Black women employees being viewed as “incompetent,” which results in lower performance evaluations. A study from the NewsGuild of New York found that employees of color were far more likely to receive low performance reviews compared to their white counterparts. One of the most insidious ways that non-white employees experience the white gaze is via performance evaluations.
In the aforementioned Rabelo, Robotham & McCluney study, another theme that emerged from the research was the expectation of Black women’s “time, attention, praise, and ideas.” There is a whole other discussion to be had about the co-opting of Black women’s ideas. There is a common practice of racialized employees being used for their education and labor. Since the murder of George Floyd, the desire to learn more about race and racism has amplified. Employees from racially marginalized backgrounds often bear the burden of educating and enlightening white colleagues. There are not enough conversations being had about the impacts of resharing stories of past racial trauma, and how it can re-traumatize individuals who already experience a great deal of racial harm. There is an expectation, Rabelo, Robotham & McCluney note, that many Black women feel where they must participate in conversations about race, even when they have no interest. An example of this could be having to explain what “white privilege” is to a coworker. For many racialized employees, there is an expectation of “performance” in one way or another.
The white gaze also materializes as stereotypes that are applied to different racial groups in the workplace. The bamboo ceiling impacts Asian employees because of assumptions that Asian workers do not possess the skills and abilities that are typically associated with leaders. The problem lies in the fact that Asians, along with other racialized communities, are being measured based on a white and Eurocentric scale. Brianna Holt wrote a compelling piece about how Black women are not allowed to be introverted at work. Women from racialized groups experience tone policing and get ascribed to negative stereotypes based on this white measuring stick. The white gaze continues to cripple non-white workers and until leadership a) understands the white gaze and b) recognizes how to mitigate it, racialized employees will continue to suffer.
Companies committed to interrupting the white gaze must focus on a few things. No progress can be made without education, understanding, and awareness of how the white gaze operates. Bring in consultants, speakers, and researchers to educate employees about the white gaze. Have a human resource consultant that specializes in diversity, equity, and inclusion review workplace policies and practices. You may be surprised to learn that policies that seem benign on the surface are actually exclusionary to different populations of workers. Be intentional about involving more racialized employees in decision-making processes. Also recognize that the white gaze isn’t exclusive to just white people; racialized groups growing up in a white-dominant society often internalize negative stereotypes about their own group (which can lead to colorism, anti-blackness, and white adjacency). Despite this, involving people from different racialized backgrounds into the decision-making process may somewhat mitigate the white gaze, but education is the foundation of all other interventions. Lastly, workplaces striving to disrupt the white gaze should encourage education about different racialized groups. This is not only done through books, but via movies, shows, podcasts, and YouTube videos. Instead of having anti-racist book clubs, which some argue may not be effective, saturate employees in alternative forms of education to better their understanding of groups outside of their own.
I help create strategies for more diversity, equity, and inclusion.
I founded an award-winning consultancy, BWG Business Solutions, where I provide guidance and education for companies and institutions looking to foster anti-racist and anti-oppressive environments. In 2022, I was named a LinkedIn Top Voice in Racial Equity and I curate a weekly newsletter on LinkedIn called “The Pink Elephant”, which has amassed over 20,000 subscribers. I am the author of two best-selling books Dirty Diversity and The Pink Elephant. In 2017, I was selected to give a TEDx talk on emotional intelligence and how it is impacted by technology. I host the Dirty Diversity podcast, which is focused on all things DEI. I have a Ph.D. in Organizational Psychology and I am a professor, teaching courses in human resource management and workplace equity.