We're so excited to announce cultural critic Rebecca Carroll's memoir Surviving the White Gaze as BuzzFeed Book Club's March selection. Carroll describes growing up in rural New Hampshire as the sole Black person, not only in her family (she was adopted by white parents at birth) but also in her small town. When she meets her birth mother, also a white woman, the vague tensions of her youth are pushed into the light as she’s forced to reckon with her alienation as a child, her complicated relationship with her parents, and her understanding of her racial identity. It's a poignant, intimate, and revelatory memoir.
Check out an excerpt below — and sign up for a chance to win a signed copy.
We had neighbors for the first time after we moved to our new house when I was six, and Nicole, a girl my age with freckled cheeks and caramel-colored hair, lived right next door. We sat together at the giant table in the dining room of her house one afternoon, surrounded by fancy lamps of varying sizes and styles, some attached to the wall, others resting on smooth side tables, crystal goblets behind glass in a stand-alone cupboard, and upholstered chairs set against the walls without purpose.
Nan, Nicole’s mom, served us chicken noodle soup in delicate, unchipped bowls along with perfectly shaped spoons, silver and shiny. Apple juice hit just above the halfway mark in thick, squat ornamental glasses, and I felt hesitant to take a sip, worried I might spill on the neatly embroidered placemats under our soup bowls.
Nicole, all cheeks and pink lips, both free-spirited and polite, ate her soup with abandon, but used her napkin carefully, dabbing at her mouth after a spoonful of noodles. “You should come!” she said, before lifting her glass of juice and gulping it down so fast I thought maybe she hadn’t had anything to drink in months.
“Come where?” I asked.
“To ballet!” Nicole said, as if it were talking about something magical.
“I’ll tell your mother about it,” said Nan, who appeared out of nowhere in tennis whites, her crisp blonde hair short, and shaped close around her tanned face. “Now, Nic,” Nan said, directing her attention at Nicole, “Daddy has an auction and I’m going to go play tennis with Ann. But first we need to pick up your little brother from soccer, so let’s finish up your lunch and we’ll drive Becky home, OK?”
“OK, Mom. But remember to tell Becky’s mom about ballet, OK?” Nicole said, seeming very pleased with herself.
“I will,” Nan said, suddenly rushing around behind us, gathering up sweatshirts and a change of sneakers, putting sandwiches with cut crust in plastic bags and packing everything inside two separate canvas totes. “I think Mrs. Rowland would be great for Becky to learn from,” Nan’s voice sounded different when she said this, tense and hurried, and I wondered if it was because she was out of breath from all her sudden movement.
“Is Mrs. Rowland your ballet teacher?” I asked Nicole.
“Yep, and she’s really nice,” Nicole answered, pushing back from the table, leaving her empty bowl and juice glass on her placemat. “You can leave your bowl and stuff there, our cleaning lady will do it.”
“Come on, girls,” Nan said, starting to grow impatient, even though we’d only just finished eating.
We piled into Nan’s Volvo and drove the short distance to my house. I hopped out of the car, and Nan rolled down her window to talk to Mom, who greeted us in the driveway.
“I was telling Becky about Nicole’s ballet class,” Nan said.
“No, Mommy, I was telling Becky about my ballet class,” Nicole chimed in from the back seat.
“OK, Nic, let me talk to Becky’s mom now.” Nan’s lips were naturally pursed, but seemed more so now, as if sharing this information was an inelegant chore. “Mrs. Rowland teaches out of her studio in New London. You know where New London is, right?” Nan said this as if we’d just moved to Warner from outer space, instead of the three miles from our house on Pumpkin Hill.
“Yes,” Mom said, clearly still trying to negotiate the reality of having neighbors. She looked almost as if she’d been ambushed.
“My Nicole really likes the teacher,” Nan said. “OK! We’ve got to be off, let me know if you’d like more information about the classes, Laurette. I think you’ll want to send her.” Nan gave Mom a tight smile before backing out of the driveway while Nicole waved at me through the window.
“Would you like to go to a ballet class, Beck?” Mom said, looking down at me, her arm around my shoulder as I leaned into her hip.
“Yes!” I said, breaking from her to spin and cartwheel across the driveway, while Mom watched and smiled, her laser-focused love like a spotlight on my impromptu performance.
Later that afternoon, I overheard Mom on the phone. “Oh, I see,” Mom said. “Thanks, Nan, I can see why you think this ballet class would be so good for Becky. Mm-hmm, right. And thank you for offering to give her a ride.”
I started to imagine being a ballerina, not fully understanding how ballet was different from other kinds of dancing, but eager to participate in another form of creative expression. I had already written plays and stories and created elaborate worlds, both material and imagined, and now I was going to be a ballerina!
Mom didn’t get her driver’s license until she was 36, four years later, and Dad was busy working, so I got a ride to my first ballet class with Nan and Nicole.
On the 15-mile car ride to New London, where the dance school was, I sat with Nicole in the back seat of Nan’s Volvo, squirming with excitement as it purred along the highway. A stiff, clean canvas tote like I’d seen Nan pack after lunch the week before, but this one with red handles and the L.L.Bean label, sat between us, with Nicole’s pink ballet slippers, a small Holly Hobbie thermos, and Hunt’s Snack Pack chocolate pudding inside. I didn’t have a snack, but even more than the pudding, I envied Nicole’s Holly Hobbie thermos. Holly Hobbie with her little blonde braids, peachy skin, and patchwork dress, single thread of a smile and big brown eyes. Nan occasionally looked back at us in the rearview mirror, her eyebrows almost as white as her teeth.
The studio was spacious, with a linoleum floor, ceiling lights, wall-to-wall mirrors, and bars running the length of one side of the room. It felt somehow glamorous, stagelike, and important. Girls gathered in a room off the main studio to change out of their shoes and into their slippers, while I just stood in the doorway of the studio taking it all in, eager and fluttery, immediately dreaming about performing in front of giant audiences, taking numerous bows and returning for encores, flowers pouring onto the stage from fans.
She appeared suddenly, like a stencil cutout in the left corner of my eye. A one-dimensional, dark silhouette bending and arching without a face. An abstract image, gradually taking the shape of a head, attached to a long, giraffe-like neck and body. This inkycolored figure from afar didn’t look like anything or anyone in the books I read, the dolls I played with, the people in my school, or the people in my family. And yet there was something familiar about her. It felt momentarily like being in a fog, but soon I could make out the tight curls of her afro, like tiny black jewels embedded in an even blacker crown.
When she turned toward me, the white of her eyes was dazzling, almost fluorescent set against the bare, brown-skinned beauty of her face. Her smile seemed as wide as my 6-year-old wingspan, the full vision of her now walking across the studio floor.
“And who is this?” she said, extending her large, graceful hand.
“I’m Becky,” I said, giving her a good shake.
“What a firm grip! Welcome to class, Becky,” she said. “I’m Dede Rowland.”
My ballet teacher was black. The first black person I had ever seen in real life. Was she real? Did she know Easy Reader from The Electric Company? Did she go home at night to live inside the TV with him and the words and letters he carried around with him in the pockets of his jacket?
Mrs. Rowland turned to get the attention of the rest of the other girls, all white, as were all the students in my elementary school. I had only known being the only black kid or person anywhere until this moment, when Mrs. Rowland made me one of two. “Girls! Let’s get started at the bar. First position!” Mrs. Rowland demonstrated in the center of the room, her toes pointing straight through from her heels to form a V shape.
We practiced first through fifth of feet and arm positions, then pliés and a round of relevés. About halfway through class, we’d already finished one series of grand jetés when I stepped up to take my turn again to fly across the room.
“You already had a turn,” one girl said, with her slender cap-sleeved arms crossed tightly over her flat, preadolescent chest, sleek brown hair pulled into a neat, high ponytail. “You can’t just go again, you have to stand in line.”
I was standing in line, I told her.
“You haven’t even been here before. You can’t just come in and take over the class and go first every time.” How was I taking over the class? I wondered. Was I taking over the class? “Girls!” Mrs. Rowland said, her voice slightly raised. “Everybody quiet now. Let’s go back to the bar for some rond de jambes.” I turned back toward the bar and saw the girl who told me I was skipping the line lean in, whispering something to one of the other girls. They looked at me and laughed. I tried to make eye contact with Nicole, who turned away.
“Come on, girls! Let’s go!” The music came back on, and we each assumed first position, then extended one leg forward, toe set to mark the beginning point before circling outward to the side, and back through first position to complete a rond de jambe.
“Very nice, girls,” Mrs. Rowland said.
After class when I got home, I was telling Mom about how much fun I’d had, and she gently interrupted me. “And isn’t it nice that Mrs. Rowland is black?” I paused for a minute.
“Oh, yeah,” I said. Somehow hearing Mom say the word “black” took me off guard, and I got lost in a sudden reverie of questions. Why did Mom bring it up? Could I be related to Mrs. Rowland? Had I ever even heard Mom use the word “black” to refer to a person before? Did Mom like black people? Would I go live with Mrs. Rowland now?
Over the course of my lessons, I would learn that Mrs. Rowland had three children of her own — two boys in high school and a girl, Everly, who was two or three years ahead of me and in her mother’s class for older girls, where she was also the only black student. We would occasionally cross paths in the studio, which was across the driveway from their house, or I might see the two boys in the front yard after class. Everly wore her hair long and straightened, styled with barrettes or bows, in ponytails and buns, like the white girls did. The boys wore big afros like Easy Reader, and gave off the same kind of coolness that felt both confusing and alluring. The Rowlands were a black family, and mine was not.
I could somewhat grasp that my ballet classes with Mrs. Rowland were a way to expose me to another black person, but without any further explanation or context, I still felt other, even if it was a very case-specific kind of othering. In my world my blackness made me feel special and treasured, but it didn’t seem that was the case for Mrs. Rowland.
White mothers often dropped off their girls for class without making eye contact with her, and sometimes spoke to her in a dismissive manner. The Rowland family existed outside the realm of Mom and Dad’s life and lens, and after Mom’s initial comment about Mrs. Rowland being black, the issue never came up again. As if a box had been checked and Mom’s work had been done. Every Thursday afternoon after I left class, I came home to a family and a world of whiteness, a world where no other black people ever entered besides me.
I studied ballet with Mrs. Rowland for five years, and often in her company, I felt small pangs of fragile awareness regarding who I might be, what my skin color might mean. There were days when I wanted to be, or believed I was, black just like Mrs. Rowland, but it also seemed as though I would have to give something up in order for that to remain true. Cocooned within a whiteness where my brown skin was mocha-colored, I spoke with an inflection similar to that of my white brother and sister, and my adult guardians were welcomed and centered wherever we went. I was being ushered through my life via the powerful passport of white privilege.
It didn’t appear that Mrs. Rowland had that same access, and although she never seemed lonely or bitter, I at six and seven and eight years old simply could not imagine being out in the world as a black girl or black woman, as Mrs. Rowland was, without the benefits afforded by white stewardship—without my family. But I also couldn’t deny how it felt when Mrs. Rowland saw me in ways that my parents could not, or did not.
Mrs. Rowland often made cameos in our seasonal recitals, which were always my favorite moments in the show, even more so than my own turn to perform. I loved to watch her dance. She commanded the stage and the audience, whether she was dancing to Rhapsody in Blue or something from the Nutcracker Suite, her torso an anchor of moving parts, waving and jutting and looping. There was so much power and love in her movement, so much dedication and range. And she absolutely exuded joy. When I could, I’d watch her perform from the curtain wings and wait for her to finish, when she’d exit the stage and rush off to a costume change or some other recital demand, but not before giving me a quick, tight hug, looking me squarely in the eyes, her face agleam with a thin layer of sweat, lucent eyes and full lips, backlit by the dim transition lights set in between numbers, and nodding her head assuredly to acknowledge me in a way that defied words.
My relationship with Mrs. Rowland inspired me, in part, to write my very first essay. I had been encouraged by Dad to keep a journal, as he did, but meeting Mrs. Rowland led most pointedly to my discovery that writing could be a way to figure things out, or at least to write them into existence. One afternoon during my first year of ballet lessons, I found a piece of yellow-lined paper and a pencil in the drawing supply closet in our living room, and sat in the kitchen at the dinner table—the same one Mom and Dad used to carry out to the yard behind the house on the hill to eat our suppers outside — and wrote: My name is Rebecca Anne Carroll. I am a black child. ●
Rebecca Carroll is a writer, creative consultant, editor-at-large, and host of the podcast Come Through with Rebecca Carroll: 15 essential conversations about race in a pivotal year for America (WNYC Studios). Most recently, she was a cultural critic at WNYC, where she also developed a broad array of multi-platform content, and a critic-at-large for the Los Angeles Times. Her writing has been published in the New York Times, the Atlantic, Essence, the Guardian and New York Magazine, among numerous other publications, and she is the author of several books about race in America, including the award-winning Sugar in the Raw: Voices of Young Black Girls in America. Her latest book, Surviving the White Gaze: A Memoir, was published in February, and has been optioned by MGM Studios and Killer Films with Rebecca attached to adapt and executive produce for TV. Her new podcast project, an Audible original called Billie Was a Black Woman, which Rebecca created, wrote and hosts, drops on April 8.