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Surviving the White Gaze

A Memoir



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About The Book

An Esquire Best Book of 2021

A “gorgeous and powerful” (The New York Times Book Review) memoir from cultural critic Rebecca Carroll recounting her painful struggle to overcome a completely white childhood to forge her identity as a Black woman in America.

Rebecca Carroll grew up the only Black person in her rural New Hampshire town. Adopted at birth by artistic parents who believed in peace, love, and zero population growth, her early childhood was loving and idyllic—and yet she couldn’t articulate the deep sense of isolation she increasingly felt as she grew older.

Everything changed when she met her birth mother, a young white woman, who consistently undermined Carroll’s sense of her Blackness and self-esteem. Carroll’s childhood became harrowing, and her memoir explores the tension between the aching desire for her birth mother’s acceptance, the loyalty she feels toward her adoptive parents, and the search for her racial identity. As an adult, Carroll forged a path from city to city, struggling along the way with difficult boyfriends, depression, eating disorders, and excessive drinking. Ultimately, through the support of her chosen Black family, she was able to heal.

“Generous, intimate, searching, and formidable” (The Boston Globe), Surviving the White Gaze is a timely examination of racism and racial identity in America today.


Chapter One One
“I’m gonna put chocolate chips in mine,” I chirped, scrambling to gather up a handful of small dark pebbles to mix into my mud pie. The mucky mound was fast losing its shape inside the long, narrow tire grooves of our dirt driveway, still wet from rain the day before. The sky was a faint azure blue, and the sweet, powdery fragrance of milkweed wafted in the distance. “And some sprinkles,” I said, adding a few strands of freshly tugged grass from the lawn nearby, cool in my hand on a warm summer morning.

Leah, my best friend, barely looked up, so intently absorbed in the creation of her own mud pie, rounding it with her fingers to perfection. Even at four years old, she was detail-oriented and meticulous, a budding artist who took her work very seriously, while I at four had more of a collagist approach to things: the more elements and textures and ingredients, the better. When Leah was finished with her pie, she found a thin twig to outline a pattern on the top—not as simple as a plain lattice like the apple piecrusts Mom made, but tiny squares and triangles and circles interconnected, similar to a design in the pages of one of the thick art books lying around our house, and hers, too.

Leah’s mom, Hannah, was a good friend of Mom and Dad. She had come over with Leah in the morning and visited with Mom for a little while as we played before doing some tai chi in the front yard. After a couple of hours, it was time to go. Leah and I hugged our goodbyes, her soft white wisp of a body fixed inside my bare brown arms, as the sun started to stretch high into the afternoon above the trees and beyond our wide-eyed, handmade world. “Bye!” we simultaneously trilled into each other’s ears. “OK, girls,” Hannah said, smiling at the closeness we’d nurtured from when we were babies lying on a blanket together, reaching for each other’s fingertips. “We’ll get together again soon, OK? Bye, Laurette!” Mom waved goodbye to Hannah and Leah from where she stood, leaning against the worn wooden doorjamb of our country farmhouse.

Warner, the New Hampshire town where we lived, had a population of approximately 1400 when we moved there in 1969, and I became its sole black resident. We rented our farmhouse from longtime Warner residents who owned a lot of land and property in town. The house sat on the top of a dirt road called Pumpkin Hill, which was lined up and down by a dilapidated stone wall of various-sized rocks and stones, leading into different parts of town on either side. There was a shed connected off the right of our house, and a giant freestanding barn to the left, separated from the house by the wide driveway where Leah and I had played that morning. An apple tree with rugged, splayed branches good for climbing stood planted squarely in the front yard. Not another house in sight, nor a neighbor within earshot.

After Leah went home, my sister, Riana, who at seven years old had already developed such a keen love for horses that it was almost all consuming, decided it was time to play her very favorite game, the “horse game.” We made our horses out of chairs and used curtain sashes for reins. The solitary quiet of our house wrapped itself around our make-believe landscape so thoroughly that the damp dirt-and-honey scent of our horses filled the room. We heard the gallop of their hooves, and felt the pace of their gait, posting to the trot, up and down in the smooth, hard dip of our saddles.

Born with two freckles above each nostril of her nose, Riana wore her shoulder-length hair tucked behind her ears as she led us along a winding outdoor trail. Our horses bucked and neighed as we gave their pretend bellies soft little heel kicks. Her posture was straight, almost rigid, as she sat high and proud in her saddle.

“Time to set up camp!” Riana said, her joy palpable as she pushed the walls beyond her old sisterless imagination into a reality with room for me inside.

We pulled the reins to a halt, hopped down and roped the horses to a tree, fed them hay, gave them water, and brushed out their manes.

“Let’s build a fire here,” she said, pointing to a small patch of rug near a standing jade plant tall enough to pose as a short tree, and then began to gather kindling from nearby.

I shadowed her movements and tried to match her focus.

Riana pretended to struggle to open a can of soup because we’d forgotten the can opener, so she had to use her Swiss Army knife instead, and finally managed to cut through the top of the can without hurting herself. She emptied the contents into the pot while I held it over the fire so we could get our dinner started. We ate our canned soup out of mugs, and then rolled out our imaginary sleeping bags. Riana pet the horses one last time before bed. “Good night, horses,” she said, her hand so slight and careful, her voice an aria of innocence.

Our brother, Sean, older than Riana by just two years, had been playing outside all morning with his friend Charlie, building and crafting and exploring and climbing. Charlie was kind and funny, skinny and curious, with buck teeth and brown hair. He rode over on his bike from town, where he lived with his reputable, middle-class family in a decorous house on Main Street. He loved to climb the apple tree in our front yard and sit among the limbs looking out at the world around him, but came down to join Sean in working on his latest invention, a go-cart with coffee-can headlights and a dish-towel cover nailed to four pieces of balsa wood somehow affixed with duct tape to an old Radio Flyer wagon.

“You’re welcome to stay for dinner,” Mom said as Charlie hopped back onto his red ten-speed bike to head home not too long after he’d arrived.

“That’s OK, I’ll be back!” he said, with a wide grin, still high from his time in the apple tree. “The Carrolls’…,” he sang over his shoulder as his bike wheels turned over the dirt and pointed him down the hill toward town, “Where Kids are King!”

At three or four o’clock in the afternoon, we all broke from play to gather at the dining room table, covered with a turquoise-blue-and-white gingham tablecloth, set with four delicate matching teacups and saucers. Riana, Sean, and I waited for Mom to come in from the kitchen with a white ceramic teapot filled with piping-hot mint tea, and a plate of freshly baked hermit cookies, our favorite, with their buttery, chewy molasses-and-clove-sweetened goodness. The smell of them filled the room, and it felt like we were floating in an airy confection. I reached for a second hermit and then a third, my little brown fingers sticky from plucking out the soft, warm raisins and popping them into my mouth. Riana had just one, which she ate slowly and relished, and Sean had four, one right after the other.

“Tell me about your day,” Mom said, sipping her tea, her long black hair pulled into a low ponytail folded up and pinned with a barrette at the back of her head. Slight of frame, modest by nature, Mom was buoyant and tireless when it came to mothering us as young kids. While Dad taught art all day at a nearby private college, Mom stayed home with us, ever present, always with unwavering interest in our stories and questions, packing us into snowsuits in the winter, letting me and Riana run around topless in the summer, one creamy white chest, the other toasty brown.

She looped her fingers through the thin handle of her teacup and set it in its saucer to rest, smiling and ready to hear our stories.

“We made mud pies!” I squawked.

“And we played horses, too,” Riana said, with gentle consternation, like the big sister she was, reminding me of the importance of our shared game, the game that she had herself devised and chose to include me in.

Sean was often quiet, until he wasn’t. He teased me relentlessly starting when I was about six, and he began calling me a “hyper scale cow”—the name he came up with mainly because my skin was constantly dry and scaly. It looked like chalk dust in the winter, and could get silt-like in the summer. Nobody else in the family had need for daily use of moisturizing lotion, so there was never any in the house until I saw a commercial for Vaseline Intensive Care lotion in my early teens and bought myself a giant bottle from Cricenti’s Market in town. When I first started to use it, I couldn’t believe it had taken me so long to discover this magical cream that disappeared the dust and silt. The “hyper” and “cow” parts of the name were added because Sean thought I was too hyperactive and ate too much.

On this day, though, when we were still small and tender, Sean was quiet as we finished our hermits, and a tall standing lamp in the corner of the room carved a tiny patch of light as the day’s natural light began to fade. “Thanks, Mom!” we said, nearly in unison, before leaping from the table to resume our play. Knowing our stations, easy with one another’s company, sewing a fragile thread of siblinghood that we never imagined would fall apart.

At dinnertime, Dad and Mom carried the dining room table out the back door into the yard just outside the house. The table’s four heavy wooden legs dug into the grass as Mom and Dad pushed them down farther into the pliant soil to keep the surface steady. With the vegetable garden at our backs, and the rusty but still functioning swing set off to the far side of the yard, we sat in mismatched chairs much less steady than the table, a family of five, together at the crowning moment of most summer days during our years on Pumpkin Hill, gloriously ravenous after a long day of play.

I had changed out of my play clothes and put on an olive green dress with black trim and white buttons down the front, one of a few frilly dresses that were handed down from friends, and which I alternated with the jumpers and tops that Mom made for me herself. Knees pulled up to my chest, I sat with bare feet, toes curled at the edge of my high chair, afro thick and wild, a coarse bunch of small snarls knotted and mangled like the yarn of a fumbled crochet project.

Riana sat to my left in a regular, grown-up chair, wearing a striped short-sleeve T-shirt and long pants. Shoulders slightly hunched now, not like when she was riding her pretend horse, and elbows on the table. Riana’s facial expressions were always dreamy-eyed, a bit goofy, some mix of wistful and whimsical, as if she and she alone had just seen a monkey wearing diamond-studded sunglasses pull into the driveway behind the wheel of a regular old yellow school bus, and wasn’t that kind of great? Maybe that monkey wanted to come play horses or hopscotch. Or maybe he was lost and didn’t know how to find his way home.

Sean sat opposite Riana, facing the fields, with his straight brown hair in a bowl cut, cream-colored collared shirt from the thrift shop, and high-water corduroy pants. Not as hunched as Riana, but almost as dreamy-eyed, Sean looked beyond all of us into the early night, toward the border of the woods, yearning, I imagine, for the next time when he could pack up his tent, sleeping bag, canteen, and Sterno stove for another solo camping adventure.

Quiet but for our laughter and conversation, the field stretched behind us in a slow incline out and up where it crested to form a steep hill spread over with tall wheat stocks and patches of wild strawberries and wildflowers, a bouquet of which Mom had picked this morning and placed in a vase at the center of the dinner table. Mom served us steamed summer squash, fresh tomatoes with purple basil, and steamed pigweed, also known as lambsquarters, all from the garden, while Dad drank a tall glass mug of amber-colored Ballantine ale at the head of the table. Glints of peach-colored sunset bounced off our silverware, and the air was still enough for the flames of two long taper candles to grow brighter.

Cambrick, Riana’s orange tabby she’d had since he was a kitten, sauntered up to the table from around the other side of the house, rubbed up against her legs dangling under the table, and then moved on. We had started out with two cats, Max and Sophie, and then Sophie had kittens, and her kittens grew up and had kittens, and at one point we had fourteen cats that all lived outside roaming the grounds, monitoring for field mice like slinky little feline sentinels. We gave most of them away, but were allowed to keep four or five, whom we gave names like Ocean Eyes and Butterscotch, Tiger and Teddy. Riana picked Cambrick early on as her own, and the two were constant companions, inasmuch as a cat is willing to be a companion.

Dad, at the head of the table, held up his glass of ale to make a toast, his bare arm pale and fleshy in a worn white cotton T-shirt, thick auburn hair past his ears and parted to one side, like a composer from the German Romantic era, and held down by a red terry cloth headband to keep it out of his eyes. I cupped my glass of milk with two hands; Riana and Sean held their glasses with one. Mom’s skin shone warm in the last slivers of sunlight as she raised her glass, too, and we all clinked and some of my milk spilled, and our chairs wobbled in the grass, and we laughed.

“Look how lucky we all are,” Dad said, his eyes ablaze with satisfaction. He looked at the garden, its tall stocks of corn to one end, neatly lined rows of tomato plants and green beans, thick, sprawling zucchini and summer squash vines, and then out toward the broad fields beyond. “Laurette, can you believe this?” Dad said, as if he couldn’t believe it himself, that he’d really pulled it off and created a life that looked exactly the way he wanted it to look. Mom smiled, her face darling and spare, soft and unweathered.

“I know, Dave,” she said. “It’s beautiful. Just beautiful.”

It was beautiful, and we were lucky. But beauty is subjective, and luck doesn’t care about the choices other people make.

About The Author

Photograph © Laura Fuchs

Rebecca Carroll is a writer, cultural critic, and host of the podcasts Come Through with Rebecca Carroll (WNYC Studios), and Billie Was a Black Woman. Her writing has been published in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Essence, New York magazine, and The Guardian, where she was a regular columnist for two years. A former cultural critic for WNYC, and critic-at-large for the Los Angeles Times, she is an editor-at-large for The Meteor media collective, as well as the author of several interview-based books about race in America, including the award-winning Sugar in the Raw: Voices of Young Black Girls in America. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and son.

Product Details

Raves and Reviews

“Gorgeous and powerful… In nuanced and richly textured scenes, Carroll reminds us how identity, particularly racial identity, is forged in a thousand different moments… Carroll writes with the urgency and persuasiveness of someone whose life is hanging in the balance, and the result is raw and affecting.” The New York Times Book Review

"Carroll unearths complex, uncomfortable truths about legacy and parenthood in her memoir... Her voice is generous, intimate, searching, and formidable, her story excavated from her core and delivered with fervor and clarity." The Boston Globe

"Should be required reading."People

"Searing....In this vulnerable and layered meditation on race, adoption, and family, chosen and otherwise, Carroll unspools a poignant story of becoming." Esquire

"A probing, wise investigation of racial identity... The narrative, which reflects the author’s 'decades-long, self-initiated rite of passage,' is a blunt, urgent study of racial identity. A deeply resonant memoir of hard-won authenticity." Kirkus Review (starred review)

"A moving narrative... Carroll’s memoir is intelligent, melancholic, and searching. She reveals that just past survival, it is possible to find peace, and joy." Roxane Gay, New York Times bestselling author of Bad Feminist and Hunger

"Carroll shows, page after page, how the journey to, and through, survival, necessitates unrelenting interrogation of the nation's cauldron of innocence. Carroll has crafted a book as textured, layered and effective as any memoir penned in the 21st century." — Kiese Laymon, bestselling author of Heavy: An American Memoir

"In this moving and sobering book, Rebecca Carroll has extraordinary retrospective wisdom. It is a profound study of identity published as the world struggles with the nature of justice, a deeply important book for our time." — Andrew Solomon, the bestselling author of Far from the Tree

"Rebecca Carroll has devoted her life to sharing, developing, and amplifying our stories—and our story. And in Surviving the White Gaze she tells us hers with the same rigor, the same verve, and the same radical vulnerability that reminds us why we're lucky to have her." — Damon Young, bestselling author of What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker

"Surviving The White Gaze is an absolute gift to the reader: unputdownable, edifying, deeply moving. Rebecca Carroll gives us a candid and singular memoir, one that is both intimate and universal in its storytelling. It's also a witty and riveting portrait of the youthful emergence of one of our finest critics and thinkers – a highly rewarding journey to share." Jami Attenberg, bestselling author of All Grown Up

"Surviving the White Gaze cuts through all the gauzy platitudes and fragile myths we tell ourselves about family, race and belonging in this country. Heartbreakingly beautiful, full of richly crafted writing, this account is a must for anyone wanting to figure out how to build a better world, and how to survive this one." — Kaitlyn Greenidge, author of award-winning novel We Love You, Charlie Freeman

"Rebecca Carroll’s ability to weave and craft the harshest memories into lush and poignant art is unparalleled. Carroll is a miracle and wonder of a human being— she is a gift to us and this book is another way she keeps giving." — Bassey Ikpi, bestselling author of I'm Telling the Truth, But I'm Lying

"A searing, vibrant testimony to the power of seeing yourself when others can’t— or won’t." — Mira Jacob, author of award-winning graphic memoir Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations

"Not only does Rebecca Carroll survive the white gaze, but she discovers her own black gaze — in all its power, complexity, and transformative brilliance. From start to finish I was enthralled by this book." — Danzy Senna, author of Caucasia and New People

"Surviving the White Gaze is not just about survival, but interrogation: of family, race, power and the lasting impact of intimate harm. Carroll trains her own formidable gaze on her origins, the stories that get told about them, and her drive to wrest some control of her own narrative and identity. She is precise and unsparing as she examines the most delicate of her relationships in this vulnerable and rigorously-considered volume, which is also simply the story of a young woman growing into herself — it is a joy to read." — Rebecca Traister, bestselling author of All the Single Ladies and Good and Mad

"A deeply courageous memoir of race, family, the stories we're given and the stories we have to claim for ourselves. 'Thankful' can be a loaded word for adoptees, but I am and have long been thankful for Rebecca Carroll's bravery and her honest, uncompromising voice." — Nicole Chung, bestselling author of All You Can Ever Know

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