Monday, October 5, 2009

The Gaze Or "On Becoming Something The Natives Must 'Get Used To'"

I am trying to formulate some thoughts on something. Some intelligent way to put this.

Some days I don't want to go out at all because I don't want to be looked at. No, well, some days I don't want to go out because I don't want to be gawked at, glared at, so obviously and disrespectfully remarked upon.

When people say they are not racist, I wonder if they know what that means and how they can be so certain of what their gaze says. What it means for their face to turn towards mine, for their eyes to run over my face and my being, with a look of curiosity, annoyance, even disinterest. Those things mean something, those things can sometimes mean the difference between going to the supermarket today or putting it off until tomorrow.

I am amazed how people here will stare, intently like children. When I stare back they just carry on staring, utterly shamelessly, until their eye is finally distracted by some other concern. My eye contact has gotten immeasurably better, steadier, because of this.

The other day my friend, a gorgeous young African girl, told me she went to the doctor's office here, and the doctor walked into the examining room and exclaimed "My God!You are SO DARK!"

Those things, the big and little things, that little line, that mark in the sand, where on one side lies ease, and on the other side sits troubling discomfort.


alcessa said...

I have a question about this... I hope it is OK if I am honest.
I find it aesthetically very pleasing to look at black persons. I do try not to stare or anything similar, but I am not sure a person only quickly looked at by me wouldn't have noticed my deep interest.

Also, I find you really beautiful.

Would it bother you to be looked at in this way?

Camille Acey said...

Short answer - yes.

Mid-length/ educated/ linky answer - Please read about the horrific story of Saartije Baartman -

Long answer - If you admired a sweater I was wearing or even my new hairstyle that would be one thing, but my color of skin and the type of hair i have is not something I chose or something i chose to develop over time. it is something that is part of who I am, but not in a way that should be open for comment or oggling. the feeling of white people looking at me is really something tough to describe. it's like being placed behind bars as an animal in a zoo. It is not a pleasant thing, and i wouldn't wish it on anyone.

alcessa said...

OK, short answer: I understand. Your feelings that is. Which is why I never do stare but always fear it shows on my face when I find someone beautiful.

Long answer: I don't understand the concept, really. Most probably I would admire the way your new sweater is underlined by the color of your hair/skin - BTW, the same way I will notice my pink sweatshirt (I have one) will look good on me in summer, when I am darker, and like the effect. Or red hair with green or blue eyes - they can be wonderful, too. You know, now I am moving towards the well known phenomenon that women tend to "check out" other people as to their appearance and clothes. That's what I basically meant with "aesthetically pleasing" and "beautiful". It also means I am personally not very interested in looking at blondes and people with fair skin (of either sex) because they are not "my taste".

So, it's not about your being black, really (I tend to be dark enough myself and find nothing special about it, though I get stared at, too, even in Slovenia), it's about my idea of beauty.
I also find men with long legs very attractive.

Of course you are absolutely right not to want to feel like an animal in a zoo (!) but I do wonder whether we are not, all of us, exposed to gazes as soon as there's at least one person around and it is simply a human condition, up to a certain point.

And I do understand you hate people gawking a you and not stopping, it is simply terrible.

Camille Acey said...

checking someone out that you find attractive is one thing. we all have people we find attractive. also glancing at someone interesting looking is normal. i am very into style and fashion and love checking out a great outfit. glancing or "checking out" someone is a clandestine thing, something personal and private to you, in as much as you can keep it so (by being modest, guarded, looking quickly, and looking away). if you are trying to catch the other person's attention and achieve it, then that moment can "belong" to the two of you (of course, it doesn't negate any power play that is at work, by race, gender, sexual preference, etc).

however, STARING, OGGLING, GAWKING, are all different than that. those things are about isolating the "other". that behaviour is about a power play, establishing that the domain of that gazed-upon "other's" body is the free romping place of the gazer. it is the violence, it is the precursor of violence to come , it is the reminder of violence past.

Tina said...

Hey Camille,

I can't possibly imagine how that feels like!! I can only assure you that these people are not racist (at least 90 % of them) but it seems that they lack some basic education on how to treat others with respect. I actually think they are not aware of how their actions can affect you (people here tend to be quite egocentric). When I see a black person, I find them interesting and I'm happy that some live in Slovenia or even in my hometown Radovljica, but I don't stare at them (as much as I would love to) because I also don't like being stared at – it's a lack of respect!! As you can see, this is a matter of low social and emotional IQ of the Slovenian people and I'm ashamed of that! It will certainly change for the better when more foreigners come to Slovenia and Slovenian society stops being so homogeneous.

alcessa said...

Camille, thank you for answering, that's exactly what I wanted to find out!
I do know about establishing power relations by means of gaze, yes, it is a kind of violence.

Unfortunately, it also belongs to those kinds of violence a common person in some parts of the world considers non-offensive, at least as long as it is them doing it. I consider the urge to describe people often belongs to this same category and there's a lot of that, too. Things get especially shitty when describers apply their (mostly limited or perverted) description systems that have nothing to do with you.

I don't think such concepts and kinds of behaviour are going to disappear any time soon, though.

Camille Acey said...

@Tina - Thanks for writing. You've hit the nail on the head. It is an utter lack of respect!
I do have a few questions based on what you wrote though --

First question, what is your definition of racist? I think we are operating of vastly different understandings. My definition of racism is "judging people based on the lie that is the concept of race".

Secondly, why would any more non-white foreigners want to come here and go through this for the sake of a social integration that the Slovenian government and Slovenian people do not even seem to be interested in? I strongly discourage non-white people to come live in Slovenia. Most of the non-white people I know here would really like to leave.

Tina said...

Yes, maybe I didn't use the word racist correctly. What I meant is that these gazing people most probably don't have anything against you & black people in general – they don't hate you, don't want to harm you, or send you back to where you come from. They stare at you because normally they don't see many people like you and find you interesting… They are just socially dumb and don't see that it is a lack of respect.

However, I agree that the Slovenian government&people are not interested in foreigners coming to our country. I can assure you that non-white people are not the only ones that would like to leave – my husband is a foreigner (EU citizen) so I know what I'm talking about. He has to deal with all sorts of stereotypes about lazy Latinos coming to work late etc. (this happened to him in other European countries, too) – it is very subtle, not straightforward: everything is fine until one day you arrive late (when another person arrives late they CERTAINLY have a good reason), or you earn more than your Slovenian colleague. And the immigration laws are very strict and even do not comply with the European directives on this matter (we handed our case over to the European authorities and complained in Slovenia to see if anything improves).

So, all in all, I have a feeling that on the one hand, Slovenians don't have anything against foreigners and may even have foreigners as friends, while on the other hand, the government is anything but in favour of them – they make it hard even for scientistist who could benefit the country A LOT. And yes, a foreigner is OK until they don't live better than a native person!! No one thinks that maybe you earn more because you are more qualified and work better – Slovenians are jealouse and won't tolerate that.

I can't understand this duality – pure hypocrisy and jealousy!

Camille Acey said...

@Tina- Thanks again for sharing your thoughts and opinions. I don't want anyone reading to think that I dislike Slovenians or that I have a vendetta against this country. I think this could be a really good place, but if no one speaks up, things won't get better.

Very cool to hear you are taking the immigrant issue to the next level. It's the only way things will possibly change.

Disablez said...

"My God!You are SO DARK!"
"... but don't worry, we can cure you!"

Other than that, amen to Tina

Poulette said...

I had a blonde friend who lived in Afrika (Burkina Faso, I think)for a while and she constantly had local peopel stare at her, come up to touch her hair, etc - goes without saying that this made her life very uncomfortable at times. I would think this is exactly thesame phenomenon in reverse - people are always curious about thoes who are different, particularly when this difference is one they are rarely confronted with. Obviously this doesn't make it any easier for the subject of fascination, but I wouldn't necessarily put it down to racism or any other type of hostility (at least not most of the time). Ill concealed human curiosity, yes.

Poulette said...

Ugh, posted in a hurry and left so many typos, sorry about that!

Camille Acey said...

@Poulette- My mother's family is from Africa (Ghana to be exact) but I stick out like a sore thumb when I am there. People yell things at me and come up to talk to me, but it never feels hostile or malicious the way it does here. In fact, it helps me feel more welcome when people approach me. Here in Slovenia, people gawk but rarely approach. And of course, I don't want to get into the particulars of "the approach".

The other thing is the power dynamic between me here in Slovenia and your friend in Burkina Faso is TOTALLY DIFFERENT. Burkina was a French colony. The lives that they live are directly structured by the fact that white people came there already and partitioned things up and left them worse for wear. The very fact that your friend CAN feel free to just go there on vacation or whatever, is built on the pretext of that colonial past. While I don't deny that she felt uncomfortable, I don't think her discomfort was structured in quite the same way that I am speaking about.

A_Gallivant said...

Hey Camille,

Been following your blog for awhile, don't believe I've posted before but thought I would now. I travelled to China two years ago and experienced the same staring. I can understand you not wanting to deal with it some days, because it does get annoying and exhausting to feel as if you are a specimen, not a human being with feelings and a desire for connection. I had an older lady actually try to rub my color off!

Still I wonder if you aren’t layering the situation with a lot of ideas inherited from American racism. We understand that being looked at for our color in the US (and abroad, but I can't make speak intelligently on it) has often been associated with harsh and negative judgments, but maybe we shouldn't extrapolate that notion to people in other places. When I was a kid in Jamaica, we used to trail after white folks, partly ‘cause we assumed they had money but also because they looked different from everyone in our immediate environment. I clearly didn’t intend it to be offensive, should I assume that the Chinese intended it to be offensive to stare?

You are right that you can't control your skin or hair but just because you can't control it, doesn't mean that it can't be admired. I mean nature made a rose and it is admired entirely elements that are beyond its control. Obviously on a socio-political level race and color are nuanced and complicated but I don’t if you want or need to bring that into every interaction with folks who stare.

Camille Acey said...

A_Galivant - Thanks for reading! As I mentioned above, I don't mean to say that Slovenians are malicious in intent, but....the road to hell is paid with good intentions, isn't it?

Anonymous said...

hihi, i actually remember being in situations similar to those poulette and gallivant describe: a white woman in a predominantly non-white environment. (never mind all those red-haired, green-eyed egyptians.) i was followed daily by scores of school kids yelling whatever english or french word they knew to see whether i would respond. i usually did. i would sometimes have kids dance around me singing 'foreigner, foreigner'. most of the time, i found it funny. but then, sometimes i didn't and told them to go play in traffic. (and before someone goes all PC on me, this was downtown cairo, where else would they play?)i didn't really mind women staring at me on the metro, but that could be because i am a 'starer' myself. i find people fascinating and have to keep myself in check so as to not appear rude. i was, in fact, repeatedly told i was 'soooo white' by my very dear friends and complete strangers. I had my cheeks pinched by well meaning unknown old women, telling me that i looked like a moon. and yes, i had men proposition to me, because in their mind, the colour of my skin meant i was available. especially if they learnt i was slovenian, which in their mind meant russian which in turn meant etc. i never thought of any of it being racist, although in retrospect the last case could possibly qualify, at least partly.

but just because most of the time i didn't give it a second thought, or may have even found it endearing -- say, when perfect strangers would talk to me just because they could, with no agenda -- doesn't mean that sometimes i didn't hate it.

and on a bad day here's how i felt: like a train wreck. i didn't think people who stared at me were racist or bad or flawed in some way. they just couldn't stop watching. it felt rotten -- because i was the wreck.

take care,

A_Gallivant said...

Hey Camille,

You make a good point. It's hard to know where good intentions begin and end. Nonetheless, I sympathize, you describe a painful and frustrating situation, which can totally mess with the travel the world vibe!

Lola said...


abritta.bjorklund said...

being in russia i do get tons of stares but no disrespect, if anything men often tell me they find me beautiful for my 'exotic-ness' haha (i hope that didn't sounds vain)

but I guess I have been used to it my whole life, even in America, being bir-racial people would often gawk at my family
especially my younger sister Aria who was slightly darker than the rest of us children but had bright blue eyes. I guess we got used to the obvious gawking

Anonymous said...

Well I have been reading this blog for a very long while now and never thought to comment but I think I should now. I have lived in many different kinds of places. I am black and from the Caribbean (St. Lucia). Now I have to qualify this last statement because many black people from the Caribbean have multi generation mixing and so can have features that those outside our society associate with other races. The reason I am saying this is that I was in England as a student for 5 years and as a result met many Nigerians. The same staring that you described in Slovenia is the same staring I experienced from them.... they could not figure me out...dark skin and long jet black hair....I had one girl come up to me and literally grab a hand full of my hair and yank hard to see if it would come off...this was another black person....when it didn't come off she stared at me blankly and scampered off...I had a random african lady in a bus sneakily grab my hair from the back....and then felt it ok to start talking to me about how I get my hair to grow... not sure how you do that...I had a Ghanaian girl shouting at me loudly I (and this was supposed to be a friend from my class) that I was not black and mix raced...the up shot being that Afro Caribbean people are not black and therefore inferior to 'real Africans'.
The most staring that I have received, the most inappropriate comments and behaviour have been from people who are black like me....the most comments about my hair complexion and generally what I look like.... it was the most frustrating experience of my life to have a group of people constantly staring at me and trying to strip me of my identity because of thier strange definition of blackness ......the constant stares...the need I felt to run everytime I saw a bunch of nigerian girls walk into the bathroom where women primp and fix their hair and make up...I began to dread encounters as it would often end in my hair being pulled or countless other questions...this was not funny ......And this was in England so it wasn't like there weren't other afro caribbean women around!

Now I have had the same experience with white people because I went to college in Denmark. Me and my jet black hair and dark skin among all those blondes....most of it was well meaning especially when it was from the women...but with the men its was clearly a fascination with the 'exotic' and it felt very menacing. It was threatening.....I had two stalkers and one man tried to ask me out at a water park...I was only eighteen and looked much younger...the people I lived with luckily we were on a family trip and they kept watch and they video taped one point I could not take the bus....had to be driven to and from because men followed me now this was not racism it was staring and fascination with difference gone arwy...that is staring to the Camille this is a phenomenon among alot of people who don't deal with differences in appearances very well. Although ofcourse the staring and behaviour of the men was definitely more menacing in Denmark. As a result I am very suspicisous of the intentions of European males. The women just seemed to think I was pretty and would steal their boyfriends ...although I was quite young and was educated at a girls school run by nuns and from a very tight knit family so consequently very clueless about how men of any kind viewed me...far less stealing of boyfriends. I know this is long but I just felt I needed to contribute ...I have experienced it from people of my 'own race' whatever that means and people from an entirely different race and culture. I am a much stronger person as a result. But also have little tolerance for ignorant people too.

I currently live in swizterland where there are lots of black people (Geneva). Any staring is usually men being lecherous and trying to establish eye contact nothing else....that is easier to deal with.

Anonymous said...

You're trying to get a Slovene to admit to racism within their society. That the terms they use to describe black people or Roma or Albanians or Slovenes of Serbian descent are anything other than offensive. The most you'll get is someone saying they find black people more beautiful. It's like talking to a brick wall.

Carlitos said...

I just wanted to add that THE STARE in Slovenia gets worse in inverse proportion to the size of the town you're in.

I look Slovenian enough (German Jewish and Italian blood run in my veins), and now that I've moved to Lokavec pri Ajdovščini (population 1000), I can tell you a thing or two about starting, ogling & gawking.

On the other hand, people stare at you here because they want to make sure if they must wave or not. You know, everybody's almost a neighbour, so...

Hang on in there, Camille! :-)

Camille Acey said...

@Carlitos - I find I get MORE staring in Ljubljana actually. People in Radovljica usually know who I am so they are over it. In Ljubljana, there is always someone who is "discovering" me. Ha ha. Hang in there too Carlitos!

Layla said...

lol As a teenager I was very much afraid of people staring, and I'm Slovenian!! lol!

In a small village, EVERYONE is a 'suspect' if they don't know you (and what is Ljubljana but a big village really?) They want to quiz and interview you, from what your parents do to what you do and how many children you have, etc etc.

You are exotic, you are interesting.. Maybe they want to make contact but don't dare to or feel it would be rude.. It probably depends on circumstances and individual people too..

Racist? Some people, yes, probably. Unfortunately. (Like the skinheads etc) Most people just find you interesting.. Or can't believe their eyes, and have to look twice..

My sister was in China and experienced much worse than 'just' gawking (a lot of that too), they kept introducing themselves to her and translating her answers to everyone on the train, someone even stole her glasses!

Sorry to hear about your bad experiences and feeling uncomfortable.. Hope things get better, as people get more accustomed to having you around!

Just a question, does it happen when you are alone or also if you are with Slovenian friends?

Anonymous said...

Sorry - you are wrong. The staring has nothing to do with racism.

Im 23 now, Slovene, and in my whole life I haven't seen a black person live more than 30 times (much less I guess).

In Slovenia we actually like black people. You have some issues with yourself. Just be proud of who you are and be glad that people in sLOVEnia stare at you. Cos - believe me - it has NOTHING to do with racism.

You cannot blaim people for not being colorblind. Sorry.

Camille Acey said...

@ Anonymous - nov 3 2009 who said "In Slovenia we actually like black people. "

Please tell that to the car full of teenage boys who pulled up alongside me and stopped so one could yell "Blowjob!" at me today. Is that Slovenian for "welcome to our country, we're happy you're here"? No? I didn't think so.

Or how about the Slovenian woman who walked past my African friend and her child a few months ago. When the Slovene child asked his mother why my friend and her child were dark, the mother replied, "Because they are dirty."

I don't need that kind of "like" in my life.

Anonymous said...

@Nov 11, 2009 12:46:00 PM Camille

well some people are just mean. in slovenia they notice that you are black, somewhere else they'd have noticed something else - they would, because they have to find something to insult you with. it just wouldn't be the tone of your skin.

i doubt you'd feel any better because of that. that's why - it's nothing to do with racism. some people are just mean.

slovenes are rasists only when someone tries to take something away from them - actually when they think, that someone does.

trio said...

I find I get stared at here also and I am a white english guy! It's right about the smaller the village. Unfortunately for you stand out more than most foreigners to this country, so encounter this more often. Even I find myself looking at any person from a different race when I see them here just because they are so rare in this country, and I am from the UK.