Under the Gaze: Learning to be Black in White Society – KELLY (CSS)

KELLY, Jennifer. Under the Gaze: Learning to be Black in White Society. Fernwood Publishing, 1998. 144p. Resenha de: BROWN, Yvonne. Canadian Social Studies, v.36, n.2, 2002.

Jennifer Kelly has produced another fine ethnography of African-Canadian high school students. She defines herself to be simultaneously an insider and an outsider. She shares a Black identity born out of a common history of enslavement and colonization but recognizes that the location of her birth and family background makes her an outsider. Another relevant aspect of her identity is that she is a teacher and mother. Employing a male interviewer enabled her to obtain richly textured data about the Black male identity constructs. There were twenty-six females and twenty-three males as well as thirteen teachers in her sample.

The purpose of the study was to investigate how a sample of Black students constructed their identities within a White-dominated society. The location is the City of Edmonton, Alberta. Kelly investigated six topics as follows: how Black students view and perceive themselves; how they relate to their peers; the significance they attach to being Black in a White-dominated environment; how they receive and perceive predominantly Western popular cultural forms; and how they relate to teachers and schools.

Her methodology employed multiple methods for obtaining data. There was
historical data from both primary and secondary sources. These data established the background for the conceptual framework, which she used to frame and interpret the other data collected. Out of this framework she defined the main terms Black, White, racialization and identity. Focus groups with boys only, girls only, and boys and girls together, were carried out. Individual interviews were done with the students and teachers. She drew on her research journal as well.

Discussion and data interpretation revolve around the trope of the racialized gaze, as explicated by Frantz Fanon (1967), in his very influential book Black Skins White Masks. It is from this work that the title of the book comes. The gaze is defined in many ways: 1) dominant as in the white gaze; 2) oppositional as in the black child returning the gaze; 3) perceptual as in signifying ascribed identities. One quotation will illustrate the complex meanings attached to the gaze:

The importance of the gaze is that it allows a dominant group to control the social spaces and social interaction of all groups. Blacks are made visible and invisible at the same time under the gaze. For example, when Black youth are seen it is often with a specific gaze that sees the troublemaker the school skipper or the criminal. Thus they are seen and constrained by a gaze that is intended to control physical and social movements. The purpose of the gaze is that it should subdue those who receive it and make them wish to be invisible (p.19).

In six short chapters, I believe that Kelly has fulfilled the five goals of her research. There are a few weaknesses. The reader would benefit from seeing the research protocols as well as an index. The prose is choppy; this is no doubt a function of including so many quotations. This said I would like to tell the reader about a few of the admirable qualities. The historical overview accompanied by the photographs of Black settlers in Alberta was a reminder that though they were deemed unsuitable they came and they made their contribution. Social Studies teachers could benefit from reading this short ethnography. The chapter on gender relations explains racialized patriarchy well. The pedagogical insights from this study could help teachers understand the construction of racialized identities.

Yvonne Brown – The University of British Columbia.

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