Jennifer Kelly, Under the Gaze: Learning to Be Black in White Society. Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 1998, 144 pp. paper. $15.95

Though not named as such, this book is a declaration on the death of “race” as a biological question. The ever-growing sociological and cultural literature on race as a social construct that is historically specific renders Jennifer Kelly’s work recastingly innovative. Instead of the Humian notion of race as hereditary, we are offered “racialization” and “identification” as two explanatory frameworks that might account for the experiential knowledge of what it means to be Black, i.e. visible, in a society where Whiteness is the normative and normalizing “gaze.”

“Racialization” is named as a racial categorization project which encompasses not only the ideological, but also the concrete impact of racism. It is a project where “meanings are attributed to certain patterns of physical variation” (p. 28). By obscuring their own oppressive mechanisms, these socially attributed meanings then become the primary bases for treating groups differently. That is, being a performative schema of power, differences (race, for instance) assign more privilege and validation to certain power blocs than to others. On the other hand, within this racialization project, “identification” is put forth as an inclusive identity formation signifier. De facto, Kelly shows, identity is relational, certainly not given, and an on-going process that is never complete. “If identity is recognized as a learned rather than a biological part of one’s being,” the author argues (p. 10), “it is analytically more useful to think of a process of “identification” rather than identity”.

Building on these two juxtaposed frameworks, Kelly then conducts and delineates her research. The research asks five questions (p. 6). In a White-dominated society, 1) how do Black students view and perceive themselves, 2) how do they relate to their peers, 3) how and what significance do they attach to being “Black”, 4) how do they receive and perceive predominantly Western popular cultural forms, and 5) how do they relate to teachers and school? In two urban high schools in Edmonton, Alberta, twenty-six female and twenty male students were interviewed, as well as thirteen teachers. In addition to interviews, observation and notes-taking were also used.

The book is divided into six chapters. The first lays out the foundation for researching the process of racialization. This process is as much about present social conditions as it is about history: where history is not a passé but rather an embodiment performed through the body (especially the Black body). Both historical and present social conditions, the research shows, impacted the identity formation of this group of Black youths. Clearly, given its political and dialectic nature, the signifier “Black” was/is a multi-dimensional category based on class, sexuality and gender. Once “under the gaze”, especially the (White) gaze of power and authority, however, it was/is perceived in stereotypical uniformity. This oeuvre is in general a re-narration of how students learn to and negotiate tobe under the gaze. It is not without costs, of course, and submitting to the surveillance and control of the gaze was not everyone’s choice. Indeed, some chose to overtly “glare back” by making a semiological statement through “a combination of dress, walk and attitude that is reinforced by moving into groups” (p. 20).

In chapter two, Kelly traces the history of the project of racialization in Canada, a nation which imagined itself, precisely, through a suppression of the very existence of “race”. Education, immigration and employment practice, and Black settlements and representation in Canada are discussed to uncover the fallacy of this imagined nation that ‘did not know’ discrimination, racism and prejudice as they were practiced south of its border. This is further explored in chapter three, which marks the different sites of “identification”. For African Canadian youths, Kelly shows, Black popular cultural forms emerge as the primary sources for the identities they translate and practice in their everyday interaction in and outside the school. These sites include films, television, style, and especially music, as well as community sources (e.g., the church).

These sites of identification, Kelly demonstrates in chapters four and five, were directly implicated in how Black students imagined and interacted with their White peers and among themselves. Here, the stereotypical images of Black males and females prove to be important and problematic in how Black males and females interact with each other. Also, the experience of being othered during their early days of schooling, in addition to factors such as speaking patois, style, taste in music, gossip, and frequenting certain sites (e.g. night clubs) were significant elements in maintaining racial boundaries. In her concluding chapter, Kelly revisits the interplay between the different sites of “identification” and the “racialization” process and shows how they were connected to classroom pedagogies, and how students in turn related to these pedagogies. Feeding into colour-blindness and into the official multiculturalism, teachers refused to see their students as racial(ized) bodies. By doing so, teachers unwittingly disengaged, perhaps, the most dynamic element of their students’ identity, self, and being. While all through the book the idea of being has been taken for granted and never problematized as an unremitting process of becoming, the project of “racialization” is an encompassing, engulfing category.

Awad El Karim M. Ibrahim
Faculty of Education
University of Ottawa

October 1998
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