The Violence of the American Gaze

Digital Collage by Shreya Sharma

To attempt to define the American Gaze in its entirety is to provide a full history of American

imperialism, white supremacy, and institutional discrimination. This task, while seemingly a

mammoth one, is also remarkably easy to begin with, for the American State itself provides us

with the basics. For example, a quick look at its presidential history will tell us how the blatant

promotion of “American Values” i.e individualism, equality, freedom, etc has been used to

decimate communities, make fake promises of justice to people of color, and destroy other

nations in selfish pursuit. Of course, the official history of the United States is lacking in many

aspects and should be by no means the only source of any inquiry. The point in suggesting a

look at the official history is instead to shine a light on the fact that the American state is not

unaware of its crimes, it’s that it deems them justifiable.

There are no doubts that the propaganda machine of the American Governments work

unbelievably well. In fact, there is no dearth of literature on how a nexus of corporate media,

government programs, and multi-national companies co-operate to justify America’s military

pursuits in Asia and elsewhere. Chomsky and Herman, in their work on the topic, wrote about

this very phenomenon and how ‘consent’ of the American public for these wars and invasions is

‘manufactured’ through constant yet covert brainwashing. It is also this very brainwashing, this

constant feeding of American ideals and visuals as the prime, that constructs the American

gaze. And as far as definitions are concerned it can be understood as the view of the world that

stems from and operates within American ideas of living, nationhood, and development. To view

something from the American gaze is to assume that the U.S.A is the greatest nation on earth,

the pinnacle of all development, and whiteness the most desirable quality.

The American gaze permeates all imaginable aspects of life: American white feminists come to

believe the Hijab is oppressive, that Muslim women need saving from their own communities,

and that it would be in their best interest if the U.S were to intervene and establish a

“democracy” as per American ideals in the middle east. So when America finally does take up

arms, even the most liberal of feminists who otherwise condone violence, will cheer and

encourage the destruction of nations. Similarly, American movies cast a yellow filter over

scenes shot in the supposed third world to exemplify the “dirtiness” and “poverty” of the place.

And it’s not a coincidence that it’s mostly crime scenes that take place in these shots, for the

next time America imposes sanctions on any such country, the average American will simply

nod and go “they deserve it for sponsoring all those criminals”. This is how the gaze creates

space for violence while simultaneously legitimizing it.

Moving forward, it is also necessary to realize that the American gaze is violent not only

because of the terror it sanctions and justifies but also because of the assimilation it demands.

To be a true American is to exterminate the individual that lives in the community, celebrates

diverse cultures including its own, and partakes in society with an acknowledgment of their

heritage and instead take on the role of an individual who pledges sole allegiance to the

American state, it’s institutions, and operates in manners which resemble their white

counterparts. This means that the price of being a “true American” for people of color is the loss

of one’s own cultural identity and a rather forceful undertaking of a white one devoid of

community and tradition. Writers like Ocean Vuong and Kaveh Akhbar have written and spoken

on numerous occasions about how this idea of Americanness visualizes a nation that is only

available to white and abled bodies. And this availability is not coincidental, it’s deliberate. A

nation built on the oppression of people of color will not give them the means to break their

chains, for its interest lies in keeping them suppressed. The American gaze therefore

dehumanizes and humiliates people of color. It teaches them to view their own selves with

contempt and distaste. Those who migrate to America do their best to shed their “otherness”

and those who’ve been born and raised in America are forced to distance themselves from their

cultures to become Americans and fit the requirements of the gaze. In this sense, we can

consider the “American gaze” synonymous with the “White Gaze”.

Even when the gaze attempts to address diverse cultures and entities, it does so in a way that

reduces them to mere fetishes and stereotypes. The over-sexualization of women of color,

which is central to American/White narratives about their lives, is violent enough in itself that it

leads not only to a decreased level of agency but also to an increased level of crimes against

them. Similarly, Black people are racially profiled as criminals which makes them the targets of

police brutality, and Muslims are seen as terrorists which makes them the public enemy number

one. There are, of course, people from within these oppressed communities who too are guilty

of perpetuating the American gaze. One can hardly deny, for example, Obama’s role in

worsening the war in the Middle East or Kamala Harris’s in placing innocent black people in

prisons- both actions that destroyed the perception and sense of identity of the members of the

communities concerned. This is precisely what makes abolishing the American gaze such a

complex task.

Our understanding of the American gaze as a form of violence is thus necessary to put an end

to it. This is because doing so not only acknowledges the harm it has caused until now but also

helps us shape its public perception. The terminology of “ American gaze” suggests, at best, a

sort of restriction which prevents us from seeing things as a whole because of the ideas of

American supremacy that we’re fed with. And while this should be enough to alarm the public,

the discussion often remains limited to academic discourse. Attaching or associating violence

with it, however, brings into focus the actual trauma that the American gaze has caused and the

alterations in self-perception it continues to enforce. After all, one of the most popular

understandings of violence includes acts that destroy and diminish, and the American gaze

does all of that and more.

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