I Wanna See Your Peacock - On The White Gaze

Since the rise in streaming services, watching TV has become a daunting task. In most cases, when I decide to eat in front of the TV like any other American, I finish my food before I find something to watch. Therefore, my show repertoire is a little empty. Although, I believe I had a breakthrough. A few weeks ago, I stumbled across, #blackAF, a sitcom streaming on Netflix. The show “ uncovers the messy, unfiltered, and often hilarious world of what it means to be a 'new money' black family trying to 'get it right' in a modern world where 'right' is no longer a fixed concept” (Obenson). The story revolves around Kenya Barris, a Black TV producer who is raising his Black family in an environment that is uncommon in the media. The term “new money” refers to people who didn’t grow up in wealthy environments but have recently come up financially. Through comedy, Kenya recognizes Black struggles and experiences that surpass money and status. I finished the season in a span of three days. I saw myself and my own family in the Barris family. In addition to the comradery, I was able to put a name to some of my experiences as a Black person. One experience that caught my attention was in season one, episode one, where Kenya introduces the term “White Gaze.”

According to Forbes Magazine, the term “white gaze” was popularized by author, Toni Morrison. She describes it as the “idea that Black lives have no meaning and no depth without the white gaze,” asking the question, what does being Black mean when only in observation of white people (Asare)? Morrison’s description gets at the heart of how Black people are consciously and unconsciously perceived by white people. In #blackAF, Kenya discusses the term in immediate, everyday examples.

The first example the show highlights is cars. The scene opens with the Barris family loudly eating brunch at a fancy restaurant. After brunch, Kenya and his wife go to valet to pick up their car. While waiting for their car, they run into a renowned white TV producer. After exchanging hello’s, Kenya’s 2022 customized, NSX (a fancy race car I had to look up) is pulled up, while the white producer’s white Prius sits in front of it. The white producer jokes and says, “I could never pull that off” and that “[Kenya] is on Tokyo Drift time.” While talking to his wife the next day about the situation, Kenya states that if he drives a “normal” car, he’s considered broke but if he drives a super fancy car, he’s perpetuating the stereotype of black men with money, either drug dealers or thieves. He makes the point that there is no “normal” for black people. Everything we do is either too much or not enough.

The next example Kenya mentions is clothing. Kenya’s assistant is a white millennial who is playing the “white ally” trope. He is very goofy but ignorant in his ways. He comes in on Kanya’s conversation with his wife and says, “I happen to like your car and fancy suits,” talking about Kenya’s velvet tracksuits. Kenya then says that he “didn’t even mention [his] clothes so why is it relevant?”

“Its just hard for a grown man to pull off” the assistant rebuttals.

Kenya accuses the assistant of dripping in pure judgement, which then prompts the wife to ask if the assistant is the reason why he has to buy race cars and $2,000 tracksuits. Beginning a long  history lesson, Kenya says “they’re turning me into a peacock,” talking about the assistant and white men like him. That’s when my eyebrows raised, and I turned up the volume.

            During slavery, slave owners were required to clothe their slaves. Of course, we know they weren’t buying the same garments that they bought for themselves. They allowed slaves to use the excess materials that were used for their own clothing to make clothing for everyone. With the materials that were left over, slave clothing included raw materials, also known as “Negro Cloth.” These materials and items included cotton dresses, sunbonnets, shorts, and any under garments needed (Wares). On occasion, slave owners would take their slaves to church with them. Wanting to show off their property, slave owners would have their slaves make a nicer outfit so they would look decent in front of their peers. We can assume that some slaves would have their basic garments for work, their undergarments and potentially a church outfit. Many potentially had less.

            When slaves were freed, they walked away with the clothes they had on their backs and whatever extra garments they were able to keep. It is important to understand the conditions that many Black people were living in. They didn’t have any money, any place to live, no way to find a job, disconnected from their blood family, barely able to speak standard English and severely traumatized and probably very confused. After living in a fire for 400 years, one may wonder who or how the fire was finally put out. On top of all of that, Black people were not accepted in “normal” society. Not only were they not accepted, but they were also intentionally treated violently, physically and systemically. The only time Black people were not just accepted, but considered worthy of not receiving violence was when they were funny, talented, sexy or dressed in their Sunday’s Best. This is the part of the show where my jaw dropped, and I hit pause. This is where the white gaze began.

            The white gaze makes Black people feel like “presentation = acceptance”, a term that Kenya calls peacocking. According to Oxford Languages, peacocking means “displaying oneself ostentatiously.” Many people use the term when referring to how men use flashy tactics to gain the attention of women, just as peacocks do. In relation to the white gaze, Black people peacock in order to gain acceptance from peers, whether they know it or not. Everything we do, from how we dress to how we pronounce our names, tells others how to treat and understand us. Therefore, imagine the extent that Black people did and do go to in order to be accepted and treated decently in a white man’s society.

 There weren’t many ways to do this back in the day. This explains the difference in occupations during the time of Jim Crow and segregation. Because Black people had been in servant roles for 400 years, those were the jobs that they easily had access to. For those who couldn’t find these jobs or were in parts of the country that didn’t even want Black people around, they had to get creative. Music, media, sex work, and designing were mediums Black people had to use to be accepted by their white counterparts. But even in those positions there was violence, racism and neglect. To this day, some Black people are still having to work twice as hard to reap the same benefits that white people do. The benefits aren’t just money. Referring to my previous point, Black people believe that presentation = acceptance. That alone calls into question what does acceptance mean? Acceptance in this context is referring to the ability to be seen as an equal human being who deserves respect and equal access to a similar lifestyle. This lifestyle is one where a person has access to resources that assist them in receiving food, shelter, and health care. Black people were denied access to these resources for almost 100 years after slavery ended and we still have to appeal to the white gaze in order to receive these same benefits.

            For example, lets talk about Black hair (something also mentioned in S1E1 of #blackAF). The eldest daughter of Kenya dyes her hair lavender and Kenya freaks out. He thinks its cute, but he knows that she will have to explain it to white people or be perceived a certain way, as she was when Kenya and his wife had dinner with one of the wife’s old law partners. They say that her purple hair is “so hip hop”. I don’t even know what that means – it was clear that she didn’t either. Slaves didn’t have access to beauty salons, so they wore their hair as it grew out of their head or braided up, styles that are seen as “unprofessional” even today. Therefore, to appease the white gaze, Black people began perming their hair or cutting it short. Thanks to the natural hair movement and Esi Eggleston Bracey, Kelli Richardson Lawson, Orlena Nwokah, and Adjoa B. Asmoah for creating the CROWN Act, for making natural hair not only normalized, but legally acceptable in the workplace. CROWN stands for “Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair” (Baker). It is literally taking a LAW for people not to be treated poorly because of the way their natural hair grows naturally out of their head. Personally, I still struggle with letting my natural hair just be. I know people would look at me funny if I left the house the way may hair sits when I wake up. It grows up, something most white people don't have to deal with. A “messy” bun on a white woman looks completely different than a “messy bun on a black woman with nappy hair – nappy being its natural state. Not every state has passed the CROWN act. If we are just now passing laws that protect our natural, God given hair, imagine how much more about our natural features we are peacocking to gain acceptance.

In so many cases, Black people have to dim down our light or in other cases amp it up in order to have access to the same resources as white people. Hair and clothing are just two examples. Language, accessorizing, and even makeup are all ways in which Black people peacock. There is a point in S1E1 when Kenya mentions that he “doesn’t wanna be super duper fly everyday, but this is what [he’s] been forced into.” He jokes that “you don’t just wake up in a Euro size 56 Valentino sweatsuit.” Kenya mentions that the alternative would be to order something from Amazon that arrives to his house in two hours and that as soon as he puts it on and goes outside, he’s going to get shot by the police. This may seem extreme, but this is the way black people think. If we wear certain things, say certain things, or look a certain way, we will be stereotyped or met with violence. Proven with Treyvon Martin. All he did was wear a hoodie.

 Kenya goes on to say that its epigenetic coding. That drip is a part of Black peoples DNA. His example is that if your family lived by a night club for 400 years, it would make sense that their descendants would have smaller ear drums. Adding, “when stressful things happen to you over a long period of time, your DNA will change to protect you.” Of course, I had to fact check him. According to BMC Medical Genetics, “exposure to stress can modify DNA methylation, which may alter gene expression and therefore contribute to disease phenotypes. Early-life stress, such as childhood abuse and stress-related disorders, have lasting effects on methylation that may persist into adulthood.” This DNA is then passed down from generation to generation until someone alters it again. That is why breaking generational curses is such a big thing in the Black community right now. There is a term called “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome (P.T.S.S)” that describes the “etiology of many of the adaptive survival behaviors in African American communities throughout the United States and the Diaspora. It is a condition that exists as a consequence of multigenerational oppression of Africans and their descendants resulting from centuries of chattel slavery–a form of slavery which was predicated on the belief that African Americans were inherently/genetically inferior to white [people]” (Dr. Joy). This term encapsulates what Kenya is truly trying to say in S1E1 with the title being “Because of slavery”: our history affects our present, that’s why we can’t just “forget about slavery.” In order to understand how Black people operate on a mental, everyday level, we must acknowledge the harm that was done and how it is still continuing to affect us today (Dr. Joy). According to Dr. Joy, the violence from slavery is continuing to be perpetuated resulting in M.A.P, Multigenerational trauma together with continued oppression, Absence of opportunity to heal or access the benefits available in the society and P.T.S.S. Because of this, Dr. Joy states that there are several predictable patterns of behavior that Black people exhibit, including vacant esteem, marked propensity for anger and violence and racist socialization/internalized racism. Kenya was not exaggerating when he said, “its genetic coding.” Because of slavery, Black people biologically move through the world differently. Peacocking is a survival technique that Black people have adapted over time to save our lives.

As with any group of people, there are always outliers. There are many Black people who don’t care what they wear or how they’re perceived but in any case, people operate on a subconscious level and understand that people will judge based on what they see. There are many Black people who wear Sketchers (including me) and J. Crew (not including me). Brands don’t define Black people; Black people define the brands. An example of this is how the Black community adores name brand purses. Michael Kors, Telfar and Louis Vuitton are all brands that Black people consume in masses. Chains, tennis shoes, grills and bags are all vehicles in which Black people elevate themselves to peacock. Another way that there are outliers is in the way many Black people are very fashion conscious. Their style may have nothing to do with appealing to the White Gaze but may simply be fashion choices. In addition, people of all ethnicities understand that how they present themselves will dictate how they are perceived. It is the history and baggage that comes with the Black experience that makes peacocking so personal to Black people.

Peacocking occurs in every aspect of life for Black people. From the classroom to the White House, Black people must fluff our feathers constantly to avoid hate and violence. Even then, we are judged by our colors. This is why there are so many outliers when it comes to people appeasing the White Gaze, we know that we will be judged weather we fluff out feathers or not so we’re going to do whatever the hell we want to do, who cares whose watching. That is the conclusion that Kenya and I have both come to.


 My Eyes are Set On: not having to perform all the time.




Asare, Janice Gassam. “Understanding the White Gaze and How It Impacts Your Workplace.” Forbes, 28 Dec. 2021, www.forbes.com/sites/janicegassam/2021/12/28/understanding-the-white-gaze-and-how-it-impacts-your-workplace.

Baker, Damare. “Why Everyone Should Care About the CROWN Act - Washingtonian.” Washingtonian - the Website That Washington Lives By., 21 Mar. 2022, www.washingtonian.com/2022/03/21/why-everyone-should-care-about-the-crown-act.

Barris, Kenya. “Watch #blackAF | Netflix Official Site.” Watch #blackAF | Netflix Official Site, www.netflix.com/title/81056700. Accessed 17 Nov. 2022.

Joy, D. “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome | Dr. Joy DeGruy.” Dr. Joy DeGruy, www.joydegruy.com/post-traumatic-slave-syndrome. Accessed 17 Nov. 2022.

Obenson, Tambay (March 26, 2020). "'#blackAF' Trailer: Kenya Barris and Rashida Jones 'Flip the Script' on the Family Sitcom". IndieWire. Archived from the original on August 14, 2020

Vidrascu, Elena M., et al. “Effects of Early- and Mid-life Stress on DNA Methylation of Genes Associated With Subclinical Cardiovascular Disease and Cognitive Impairment: A Systematic Review - BMC Medical Genetics.” BioMed Central, 12 Mar. 2019, bmcmedgenet.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12881-019-0764-4.

WARES, LYDIA JEAN. “DRESS OF THE AFRICAN AMERICAN WOMAN IN SLAVERY AND FREEDOM: 1500 TO 1935.” Purdue e-Pubs, 30 Nov. 2005, docs.lib.purdue.edu/dissertations/AAI8210269.


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