Harvard Bookstore hosted a conversation between author Rebecca Carroll and film producer Christine Vachon on Feb. 4, during which the two discussed the upcoming TV adaptation of Carroll’s book, “Surviving the White Gaze: A Memoir” (2021). Carroll is the author of several books distilling the complexities of race and Blackness in America.
Her latest memoir recounts the difficulties from her being adopted and growing up in an all-white community, as well as meeting her birth mother. Between discussing the forthcoming miniseries and the origins of Carroll’s narrative, the conversation dovetailed with a larger examination of race and the significance of both embracing and sharing what it means to be Black in America.
In “Surviving the White Gaze,” Carroll recounts the incredibly isolating feeling of growing up without any clues into Black cultural tradition or role models who looked like her. It was not until she had her first Black professor in college that she was able to have her first candid conversations about racial contention. She hopes that providing this look into her journey of gaining access to her identity will resonate with viewers experiencing similar feelings of isolation in their communities.
Beyond the usual acrobatics of publishing a book, Carroll’s memoir challenged her to take her trauma head-on. “You cannot write a memoir until you are wholly in agency of your story,” she said.
When identifying what finally signaled her to begin writing, Carroll shared how the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. exacted that shift. Carroll recalled her son asking if they would be shot too because of the color of their skin. “Something shifted in such an extraordinary, clarifying way … I just started writing these things with rage but clarity,” she said.
Carroll relishes the experience of finally telling her own narrative after long-acting as an “interlocutor” for others’ stories. She credits other Black voices with helping her procure the “solidarity, community and strength and inspiration that [she] needed to really hone [her] own voice.” She likened the publication to writing and directing her own film, calling it “tremendously freeing.” Next to the strong emotions residing in her story, Carroll noted how the story was difficult to write not just for its content, but also for the fact that all of her characters are still alive. To translate her family members and peers to the page, Carroll took the practice of “radical compassion.”
As Carroll and Vachon discussed creative decisions for their upcoming miniseries toward the end of the conversation, Carroll moved to a larger discussion of the pervasive role race has in Hollywood, media and even publishing. She pointed out a particularly frustrating but present idea in Hollywood. “If it’s a white character, then they can do everything, but if it’s a Black character, they can only see the world in this particular way,” she said.
Carroll moved from her personal experience with her rural town’s provincial racism to her discovery of an America that is “open and unashamed” of its racism. Reflective of the country’s pervasive racism, she recalled a harrowing interaction with a teacher who complimented her on being pretty despite the color of her skin. Systemic racism, she said, first fronts one with ideas that feel unfair, but then “burrow[s] into your mind, into your gut, into the way that you navigate the world.”
Speaking from her experience growing up with a feeling of “otherness,” Carroll recommended that white families with Black children take initiative to introduce and cultivate Black culture to “encourage a sense of safety [and] a sense of self.” She noted that these children belong not just to their families, but to Black culture. “In many ways, that’s what ‘Blackness’ is,” she said. “We bring ourselves to each other.”