Learning to Share Equally: Cross-Racial Interactions and Racial Voyeurism

by Dr. Chaddrick D. James-Gallaway / Aug 13, 2020

This blog is a stream-of-consciousness piece, a reflection for me. It is meant to engage, to challenge, and for some, to frustrate. My hope is to convey how we, as a society, might one day have productive conversations about race among privileged and marginalized groups, conversations that are devoid of racial voyeurism and filled with equal sharing about the presence and impact of race and racism in our lives—an idea I explore here.

This summer, and really the last seven months, have been heavy for me, and I am sure many have also felt this heaviness. The year 2020 will go down in history as being one riddled with strife and suffering. It is a year that folks near and dear to me lost their mothers, fathers, aunties, uncles, and grandparents to COVID-19. While we all have been adjusting to life during the pandemic, another pandemic, one that has existed within this country since at least 1619, started to receive media attention once again. Because of this renewed focus, a resurgence in conversations about race took off due to the high numbers of Black and Brown folks within the U.S. who were and are dying due to the system of racism embedded within our health care and occupational systems.

This other, much older pandemic has also killed mothers, fathers, aunties, uncles, and grandparents; it has also claimed the lives of innocent children. This pandemic of racism within the U.S. uniquely and extensively harms people of color, and it is part of every system and institution within this country. Its roots lie in the enslavement of Black Africans and the genocide and displacement of Native Americans and the dispossession of their land (Bell, 1992; Harris, 1993). And while enslavement for Black Africans was some time ago, the pandemic of anti-Black racism has simply evolved into different forms that we learned to call Black codes and Jim Crow, and they have extended the oppression of Black people in this country during the last 400 years.  

The recent murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and the resurgence of Elijah McClain’s case remind me of Aiyanna Stanley-Jones, Sandra Bland, and Trayvon Martin. These and so many other killings of Black folks—of the Black body within the U.S.—at the hands of White people—of White supremacists—has reminded those who lived through the civil rights era of Emmett Till and the four Black girls, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carol Denise McNair, whom white supremacists murdered in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. This pandemic of racism within the U.S. emboldens the White folks with unquestionable racial privilege who seek out opportunities to lynch Black people in too many ways to name, in ways that mar their physical, mental, cultural, economic, and spiritual wherewithal.

During all of this recent turmoil and the Black Lives Matter protest of 2020, I have seen calls for racial inclusivity; race-based conversations; race dialogues; and reading, movie, and television watchlists that help people who benefit from this system of anti-Black racism to finally learn about the specific plight of Black people and their oppression. While I am happy that folks are paying attention to these issues and seeking out resources to help them do so, I wonder how much folks think to explore whiteness and White supremacy. I also question whether Black folks will be treated better as a result. The calls to increase race-based conversations are ironic to me, as it feels like yesterday that I was hearing conversations about a “post-racial” society following the elections of Barack Obama.

To be clear, I am excited about and agree with calls for cross-racial dialogues; however, I am not sure that society overall is truly ready to engage cross-racial interactions in meaningful ways that are free of harm for people of color. My reservation does not mean that we should not strive to have cross-racial dialogues, but just as a teacher must learn how to teach, participants—most notably, white participants—in cross-racial conversations also have to learn how to talk and share their race-based experiences. 

During the past decade, I have felt exhausted after having conversations about race with racially privileged groups. In my work as a dialogue facilitator and community college research associate, I’ve had conversations with White folks who either did not want to talk with me—a visibly Black man—about race, remained silent when whiteness was a topic of discussion, felt obligated to attend a session to prove they were not racist, or went out of their way to let me know that they were a “good” White person. Within these numerous conversations about race, I began to notice a dynamic: The people of color in the room would almost always speak first and share a truth-filled experience of endless racial strife. Over and over I watched these individuals name racism in their own life—racism they have experienced at their current or former campus—with coworkers, classmates, or students. People of color would unabashedly explain how they experienced racism in covert and overt ways.

During these same conversations, most White participants would sit in silence, refusing to share their own encounters with race or racism; on the best day, a handful of them might contribute. This dynamic was very frustrating to me, and it has made having conversations about race with White folks incredibly taxing and virtually impossible. After all, the point of cross-racial conversations is not just to hear people of color talk about their experiences involving racism. One of the main goals is for White people to openly reflect on how race and racism have impacted their lives—on how it has awarded them unearned privileges. If people of color experience racism, and White people are beneficiaries of racism, then it is crucial for White people to openly reflect on and detail their experiences regarding how they benefit from the system of racism. This step is vital for racial redress and progress. White people’s contributions, or lack thereof, indicate to people of color whether they are in the room to racially voyeur or to grow and learn through meaningful engagement.  

This dynamic of White silence pervades cross-racial conversations and is vexing for people of color because in many ways it feels intentional. Watching White folks’ strategic silence play out repeatedly has taught me that I cannot make them talk, and it has made me question why White people listen, watch, and read stories about people of color only to remain silent—only to consume our pain. One possible explanation for this dynamic is racial voyeurism. Moss and Roberts (2019) explain that racial voyeurism is “the surveillance and display of racialized bodies, especially black bodies” (p. 4). To further Moss and Roberts’ definition, I understand the concept as racially privileged people’s consumption of the racial realities of people of color. An example of this practice would be White people who show up to conversations about race that require all groups to contribute; yet white folks regularly withhold their comments, taking a backseat to these conversations. Previously, in conversations about race with White people, I have felt like I was giving; in return, I was met with awkward silences and stares from White folks who had agreed to sit in a room to talk about race but refused to share their experiences; instead, many communicated racial microaggressions that indicated how they felt about issues related to race and racism.

We are in a moment where conversations about race are not going away. The harsh reality is that much of White America has not been ready and open to the truth and reconciliation necessary. So, for the White folks reading this blog who may seek to engage in cross-racial conversations about race, I suggest you engage with yourself beforehand and reflect deeply. What racial experiences do you have to share? When have you used your unearned racial privilege? How did your use of unearned privilege oppress a person of color? When did you witness someone being racially oppressed? Were you silent in that moment? Did you grow up around people of color? Do you live in a diverse community now? Have you ever committed a racist act? How many friends of color do you have? How many of those people of color also claim you as a friend?  

Beginning to consider answers to these questions starts one on a path toward effectively preparing to engage in cross-racial conversations. And this start is the beginning to a better future in which we more honestly discuss racism and all of the damage it has done. Doing so is an integral first step to improving cross-racial interactions—because our future is one that will require these skills.


Bell, D. (1992). Racial realism. Connecticut Law Review, 24(2), 363–380.

Harris, C. I. (1993). Whiteness as property. Harvard Law Review106(8), 1707–1791. doi:10.2307/1341787

Moss, S. R., & Roberts, D. E. (2019). “It Is Likely a White Gene”: Racial voyeurism and consumption of Black mothers and “White” babies in online news media. Humanity & Society. doi:10.1177/0160597619832628

Dr. Gallaway is an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Administration & Human Development at Texas A&M University.