In “Biking Englewood: An Essay on the White Gaze” from Issue IV of The Blackstone Review, Benjamin Goluboff used biking through the South Side of Chicago to investigate what white eyes see in a historically black neighborhood. In the following written interview, Goluboff explains the challenges of thinking about and discussing race in the contemporary American context.
The Blackstone Review: The essay reads in places like a difficult dialogue with the self. Did you find it challenging to write? If so, was the difficulty social, personal, political?
Benjamin Goluboff: It is difficult for me to write about race, which in this country is so tragically problematical that even the language we use to discuss it has become slippery and false. And there is a special difficulty in setting myself up—privileged white academic—as an authority on the subject. What made the essay possible was narrowing the focus to exclude everything on which I couldn’t write with authority. That left only what I saw in Englewood and what I thought about what I saw there.
BSR: From the opening scene in Maine’s Rangeley Lakes through the description of trees in Englewood, the essay is interested in tracing how the backdrop of the natural world reveals something about the human world. Besides Ruskin, whom you reference in the essay, are there other forerunners to your excursion?
Goluboff: I teach a course on American Environmental Literature and so those texts in the Thoreau tradition are never far from the front of my mind. To apply those texts uncritically in this case—Englewood as wilderness and me as rugged frontiersman—would take us into some nasty territory, and I have tried to resist the trope.
BSR: Your conclusion that the white gaze is “ignorant” problematizes the historical way in which whiteness has been made synonymous with rationality. Accordingly, do you believe there is a nonwhite gaze, and if so, is the ignorance of the white gaze matched by the knowingness of the nonwhite gaze?
Goluboff: There is very certainly a nonwhite gaze, and those occasions when a white person knows himself to be its object are revealing and uncomfortable. But for a white speaker to endow that gaze with meaning—to call it intuitive, or wise, or knowing—is to invite a noble-savage-style racist essentialism that, again, I wish to resist.
BSR: What is the white gaze’s relationship to whiteness? In other words, is whiteness reaffirmed or challenged when it cannot gaze at the thing it is not?
Goluboff: My sense is that the white gaze is always self-affirming, even when it is deployed unconsciously and directed at others just like the subject doing the gazing. But in that case, I think, the gaze focuses on class distinctions among white people. I look at working-class white people and I think, There but for the grace of God, etc. I look at the aristocrats and I think, Yeah, sure. But are they really happy? I look at my fraternity brothers in the middle class and I think, What sheep, what slaves to convention; glad I’m not that way. So yes, the white gaze is always self-affirmative, even when directed at other white people.
BSR: Given the historical malleability of racial categories, do you believe a world without the white gaze is possible?
Goluboff: I’m a terrible pessimist about this, sorry. Yes, the categories are historically malleable, but the impulse to categorize is not. I think othering the other to define yourself is a fundamental component of human nature, and if that’s another essentialist position, so be it. I talk to a lot of young people (white more than black, but some black people, too) who believe that the long American history of racial hatreds is all safely in the past—who (apparently without meaning to be funny) describe our moment as postracial. They are, of course, very wrong. I would call the belief in a postracial America a self-serving fiction if it were not so patently a dangerous one.
BSR: This essay was conceived and written prior to Donald Trump being elected president. Has the presidency of Trump and the resistance to it affected your view of the sociopolitical issues the article addresses?
Goluboff: Say this for the Trump presidency: it makes it harder to believe in that postracial America nonsense. At the same time, I want to be careful not to chime in with the “now more than ever” rhetoric that prevails on the left since the election. Of course things are worse for our country, our culture, our environment since the Trump administration came to power, and I believe that is especially true for neighborhoods like Englewood across this country. And the left is correct to feel a special urgency to resist right now. The problem with the “now more than ever” argument, however, is that like so many other forces in American culture, it promotes unhistorical thinking, presents a narrative of the present that is disassociated from an informing past. Englewood got to be Englewood, the white gaze got to be what it is through long histories of exclusion and arrogation. “Now more than ever” can distract us from those histories, and maybe there is help in knowing the histories. So I suppose this is a long and fancy way of saying that my view of the subject has not been changed by very recent history, because that subject is the product of a much older history.
BSR: Following up on your point that Englewood became Englewood through “long histories of exclusion and arrogation,” how did the research you undertook on Englewood before or after your ride inform your thoughts about the neighborhood and its residents?
Goluboff: It would be dignifying the work I did for this essay to call it research. I read in Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns. I read in Yancy’s Black Bodies, White Gazes. I read a string of entries about the South Side in the mighty Encyclopedia of Chicago (available full-text online at http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org), and I played around a bit on Google Maps. But let’s not dress this up as research; it was more like tourism. And of course, as every traveler knows, the books leave you fundamentally unprepared for the place where you arrive. The thing that surprised me most about Englewood—and this was both the germ and the point of the essay—was its opacity, its resistance to my seeing it with any true comprehension.
BSR: Your mentioning the white gaze being “deployed unconsciously” is reminiscent of the passage in the essay in which you say you were “exercising the white gaze,” which connects to your thoughts on the Trump presidency. Do you argue that the character of the white gaze changes when it is aware of its operation? Moreover, is there a social benefit to exercising the white gaze, and could exercising the white gaze result in the white gaze being exorcised?
Goluboff: I’m going to say yes and yes. Yes, the white gaze is different when it is practiced self-consciously, as all of our behaviors may be defamiliarized by self-consciousness. And maybe not exorcized, but yes, I wish to believe that by becoming more self-conscious the white gaze may be made more questioning, more reciprocal, more a basis for dialogue.