Book Review: Surviving the White Gaze: A Memoir by Rebecca Carroll
We asked a transracial adoptee and a white adoptive parent to write reviews of Rebecca Carroll’s new memoir, “Surviving the White Gaze.” We think it’s important to always elevate the voice of adoptees and welcome their reviews, feedback and input. With this searing book, we also felt it was useful to hear from a white adoptive parent — read her review HERE.
Review by Ari Schill
Ari is a Black, queer and gender expansive, transracial adpotee. They are a multi-genre writer and facilitator who lives in Portland, Oregon. Ari graduated with a degree in Psychology and Human Sexuality Studies from San Francisco State University and in their free time they love dancing, going to the beach, writing and reading fiction and sci-fi.
It is often difficult to find books about adoption, specifically transracial adoption, written by adoptees. The market seems saturated with idealized and romanticized stories from the perspective of white adoptive parents who are often blinded by white savior mentality. Fortunately, Rebecca Carroll delivers the truth about transracial adoption in her new memoir, “Surviving the White Gaze.” Carroll, a writer, podcast host and culture critic, gives an honest and race-conscious insight to her experiences as a transracial adoptee. With “Surviving,” Carroll takes the reader through the painful, confusing and frustrating experiences of racism and misogynoir experienced throughout her life as a Black child raised by white parents in an overwhelmingly white community.
Carroll’s story starts off simple and tender with two young girls making mud pies in the yard. The reader quickly learns that the author, a biracial Black girl, lives in Warner, New Hampshire, with her adoptive, white-savior parents and their two biological kids, Sean and Riana. From the outside looking in, her parents appear to be attentive and caring. However, they’ve chosen to raise their children in a rural area with access to nature because their father is a “naturalist” who needs to be close to nature and has “an intimate connection to Native Americans,” though he is not Native American. Carroll’s white adoptive parents prioritized their comfort of living in racially isolated locations over the needs of their Black child. Their apparent inability to think critically about how raising a Black child in rural conservative towns would be damaging to her wellbeing is infuriating. It is a parent’s responsibility to prioritize the needs and wellbeing of their children.
At the impressionable age of 11, Carroll is reunited with her biological mother, Tess, a former student of Carroll’s father. (When Tess, who is white, got pregnant in high school, Carroll’s father saw it as the perfect opportunity to expand his family without betraying his belief in zero population growth.) Tess is an abusive, toxic and racist woman who consistently gaslights, manipulates and uses Carroll from the early stages of their reunification and well into Carroll’s adult years. Their relationship is incredibly inappropriate from the start, with Tess taking Carroll to night clubs and interacting with her as if she were an adult when Carroll was just a young girl who had long dreamed of connecting to and being close with the woman who had given birth to her.
As Carroll is reunified with Tess, her adoptive parents become less engaged with her and their parenting responsibilities. They begin focusing on their open, swinger relationship — something the author’s father often confided about to his adopted daughter — seeming to consider Carroll’s reunification with Tess as a time for them to pass the torch, so to speak. And so, Carroll began regularly spending weekends with Tess.
Though Tess is white, she switches in and out of African American Vernacular (while belittling her daughter for doing the same), refers to Carroll’s biological father and other Black men as “dogs,” constantly tells Carroll that she’s not special, and shames her daughter for exploring her Blackness. In addition to the constant verbal and emotional abuse, Tess exploits Carrol’s eagerness to have a happy relationship with her by having Carroll take care of her two young sons. Throughout the author’s childhood, whenever Tess feels overwhelmed with the responsibilities of parenting, she calls on Carroll to come handle the situation. And she does.
Though the relationship is confusing and at times painful for Carroll, she is nevertheless consumed by the feeling of closeness she is having with Tess, and the two of them subsequently develop a toxic, codependent relationship that spans decades.
On top of trying to navigate the dysfunctional relationship with Tess and the neglectful relationship with her parents, Carroll experiences racism, objectification and multiple instances of sexual assault from her white classmates, including from boys she considers to be her friends. In one heartbreaking scene, the father of the boy taking the author to the school dance attempts to forbid him from going with her, insisting that his son “won’t want to look back on his photos and see he took a Black girl to the dance.” The boy’s father also happens to be the history teacher at the school Carroll attends. As the only Black person at home and throughout middle and high school, it is understandable that Carroll would struggle with her racial identity, self-esteem and self-worth in her youth and throughout her life. Being unable to spend time with other Black children or adults caused Carroll to be out of touch with her Black identity. Since she had no examples and was unable to create any health associations to her racial identity, she spent much of her youth desiring to look and act more like her white classmates, creating deep-seated internalized anti-blackness and confusion about herself.
It’s not surprising that Carroll is eager to leave for college, to get out on her own. And at college, she has her first Black teacher who is essential to her identity exploration. But Tess is unrelenting and continues to interfere in Carroll’s life in deeply harmful ways, including obstructing the author’s ability to learn the identity of her birth father.
As is clear by the author’s career, Carroll managed to survive the white gaze and found her way to adulthood in one piece. But it wasn’t before Tess released her own memoir that included personal information the author had never known. Carroll was understandably crushed.
“Surviving the White Gaze” is illuminating, honest and at moments, heartbreaking. As a Black, transracial adoptee who was similarly raised in a predominantly white town, I related to the sting of pining for anti-Black white boys with green eyes, the desire to be friends with the cool white kids and the confusing yet necessary steps to discover our Blackness. The beautiful thing is that once you’ve found it, you will never lose it again.