I’m light-skinned, not thin-skinned

Today’s post is from return contributor Veronica A. Perez (b. 1983). She is an artist and educator who works mostly in the mediums of sculpture and photography. Usually utilizing construction and kitschy materials in her pieces, Perez creates intense personal moments by means of hybridization, ideals of beauty, nostalgia, while fragility echoes sentiments of a lost self, and at the same time paralleling contemporary feminist tensions.
—————————————————-
I was shopping at the local grocery store last week, in the aptly named “Hispanic” section. As I was looking at the Goya goodness, a man and woman came up behind me and the wife asked the husband if he maybe wanted some tacos for dinner. The husband curtly replied, “I don’t want none of that Spic Mexican shit!” and let out a hearty laugh. My jaw dropped as I mustered up a small and tiny “Excuse me” to which he angrily replied “You got somethin’ to say?”’ I at this point just walked away to the fading sounds of his laughter.

I bring up this story because it has a lot to do with being a white passing POC within the state of Maine. There is usually disbelief when I tell someone I am Latinx (Puerto Rican on my father’s’ side; additionally, Latinx is indeed a word, it is a gender-neutral alternative used to move beyond the gender binary and the more commonly used masculine form of the word). I am most definitely white-passing and I am also half Italian on my mother’s’ side. I was recently asked if I sometimes I use my Puerto Rican-ness to be more ethnic and othered, by a very ignorant white male.

Light-skinned privilege is exactly what it sounds like; it means POC with lighter complexions usually get a pass because they are not as dark as their peers. Colorism is a major driving force behind racism in America. Big Bill Broonzy’s 1947 song Black, Brown and White explains colorism perfectly:

“If you was white,
You’s alright,
If you was brown,
Stick around,
But if you’s black, oh, brother,
Get back, get back, get back.”

Basically, what Broonzy is saying is “If you’re darker than a white tan girl, something’s not right.”

Now, I obviously pass for white. I have not faced the contemptuous discriminations or systemic oppressions that my darker brothers and sisters face everyday. I grew up in a lower-middle-class family that lived on an army base in New Jersey. My father, Miguel, was much darker than I and I would pick up on small cues when we would go out together; specifically, the way people would act around him and change their tones when talking to him. I clearly remember one time when we went to the florist to pick up flowers for my mother and the woman behind the counter, once realizing that this was the man she spoke to on the phone, said, “Oh, I didn’t realize you were Black, you sounded white on the phone.” My father always had this way of subtly disarming people, while at the same time putting them in their place. He smiled and kindly asked this woman, “Well, what have you done differently if I was white?”

However, I have had my share of bias; specifically speaking, while I was in grad school in Maine. I was making a lot of work related to feminism, my interpretation of feminism, Latinx feminism. And it wasn’t taken seriously.  Well, let me stop there, I am not sure if it wasn’t taken seriously or if the type of work I do isn’t accepted here. Maine, artistically, is a very traditional place with traditional craft values (It is taking steps to right this; I am seeing more and more diversity. But it’s moving at a glacial pace). I work with very untraditional materials and kitschy ideas. The work is messy and loud. I was told more than once that I am “too emotional, too passionate” (like being passionate is a bad thing) within the discourse that I am working in.

I’m sure if I was white, or having a white conversation, others would have been able to glom onto my ideas and identify with the experiences I was having. When POC share their knowledge and experience within a room of white peers, the POC is interrupted, corrected, and explained to, instead of giving POC the space to speak their truth and lead. In these conversations, POC are “allowed in” and their work becomes a footnote within the privileged white discourse. The frame of reference always returns to white cultural norms. And since I am a white looking woman, who am I to be talking about Latinx experiences? What do I know about it? My work shifted to become more traditional sculptural forms, devoid of meaning and passion. They were just forms. The identity had been ripped away and all that was left was dust. Boring, white dust.

I’ve learned, living in this state, and with the recent sitting president, that bias and discrimination is real. I’ve always lived and grown up in very diverse areas along the eastern seaboard: New Jersey, New York, Philadelphia. And always knew that racism and biases were real. However, it was not until I moved here that I realized that it was still vibrantly, actively alive. Some Mainers believe that there isn’t a race problem, when the problem is that there is nobody to be racist to most of the time; there are mostly just white people. Portland and surrounding areas are the most diverse of the state, and even then not really so. And even when a light-skinned POC like myself attempts to speak upon the matter, I am shut down for not being ethnic enough because of my light skinned-ness. No matter though, I won’t stop.

Recognizing the privilege you have as a light-skinned person is imperative. Light-skinned POC need to recognize this privilege and use it to be an advocate for those whose voices people decide to drown out because of the color of their skin. Light-skinned POC have a responsibility to defend and use their light-skinned-ness to voice equality.  Just like that jerk in the grocery store, he thought I was just another white woman living in Maine, but what he didn’t realize is I have a voice and I will continuously use it to fight, even though I didn’t use it in that moment at the grocery store. I still have this burning passion to be an advocate to others.
————————————————————
If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

Comments will close on this post in 60-90 days; earlier if there are spam attacks or other nonsense

Challenge the narrative don’t co-opt it…thoughts on Black pain and art

Today’s post is from return contributor Veronica A. Perez (b. 1983). She is an artist and educator who works mostly in the mediums of sculpture and photography. Usually utilizing construction and kitschy materials in her pieces, Perez creates intense personal moments by means of hybridization, ideals of beauty, nostalgia, while fragility echoes sentiments of a lost self, and at the same time paralleling contemporary feminist tensions.
—————————————————-

The debate surrounding Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket (2016) is continually drawing controversy since the opening of the 2017 Whitney Biennial earlier in March. The central argument becomes about “a white artist depicting black suffering and potentially profiting from it.” (ArtNet) But it becomes about more than that.

Recap:

Dana Schutz, b. 1976, created a painting called Open Casket (above), depicting Emmett Till, a 14 year-old boy who was tortured and lynched in 1955 by two white men. Till’s mother, Maime, decided to have an open casket funeral, exposing the ongoing racism in American society.

Schutz created this piece in summer of 2016, a volatile year in American society (Philando Castile and Alton Sterling had just become the 135th and 136th Black people killed in the U.S. by police officers under questionable circumstances), with the hopes to expose the ongoing injustices and murders of unarmed Black Men. Schultz says in an interview with ArtNet, “what was hidden was now revealed,” with regards to injustices enacted upon Black people.

Injustices enacted on Black people have been happening since and before this country was founded. This has not been a “hidden” thing. There is nothing hidden about how Black people have and are continually treated in this country. And a white woman cannot fathom to know (and neither can I) how it feels to be Black in America.

I teach at a Community College and one of my students was late to class the other day. During break, she pulled me aside and said, “Sorry I was late; I got pulled over by a cop.” I joked with her about making the story up to get out of me giving her a tardy; then she said to me, “The cop asked me about my nationality; is that weird?” “Yes, that’s totally unacceptable for a cop that pulled you over to ask about your nationality,” I said (from this conversation you can garner that the student in question is not white). She asked me what, if anything, she should do. Before I could answer, a passing student told her to get over it and forget about it. She shrugged it off and I was again mobbed by students needing help.

What that vignette is here for is to shine a light on a few (already known) things. First, there are still injustices against Black people today and second, the comment from my other student showed me how far some of us have to go as a society to just begin to understand how Black people feel and are affected daily by social injustices.

(Don’t worry, I didn’t ignore the student. We ended up having a conversation outside of class-time about how this affected her).

Schutz could and can not possibly know the feeling of losing a child to a terrible violence such as this. Yes, Schutz is a mother and has that connection with Maime Till, but this isn’t a picture of the first day of school. This is a morbid reminder of what faced and still faces Black people today. Schutz gets to go home and be white. Sandra Bland, for example, didn’t have that privilege. Schutz can make a painting depicting one of the darkest times in American history; Bland is laying in a coffin, all over a “routine” traffic stop.

Schutz and the curators of the 2017 Whitney Biennial feel that this piece is important for taking the conversation of racial injustices forward, but it sets the conversation back. These curators and white artists need to let POC [people of color] speak about their own struggles within society. How does it actually feel to be Black in America from a POC POV?

Beginning to become an advocate for POC is what is needed in society today instead of attempting to feel the same pain POC have felt for centuries. This may sound counterintuitive but it’s about showing up. It’s about challenging structural racism; showing up when there are racist attacks and murders of POC. It’s about supporting and loving all of our Black, Latinx, Muslim, etc. brothers and sisters. It’s about supporting and struggling together for racial justice, harmony and human dignity.


If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

 

Whose art world is it anyways?

Welcome our newest contributor to the BGIM family, Veronica A. Perez (b. 1983). She is an artist and educator who works mostly in the mediums of sculpture and photography. Usually utilizing construction and kitschy materials in her pieces, Perez creates intense personal moments by means of hybridization, ideals of beauty, nostalgia, while fragility echoes sentiments of a lost self, and at the same time paralleling contemporary feminist tensions.
—————————————————-
Maine is a place where the arts are looked upon as a way of life; much like the state motto. The arts here stretch from galleries and museums in Portland, Rockland and others scattered along the coastline. The scene is old, but becoming more contemporary with the passing years.

I lived in Philadelphia/New Jersey and the surrounding areas for all my life, and when I encountered the arts scene here, I was questioning the lack of diversity and medium. Coming from communities where there was a vibrancy of diversity, styles, and mediums to a place where these things are limited stifled my creativity and thinking.

This is not to say that the scene here isn’t changing; it’s just taking a little longer than expected because of the amount of white people explaining what the art scene should be and how POC [people of color] should navigate it. This is the worst kind of silencing: when one is refusing–especially white liberals–to check their own privileges.

“When POC make work from their own experiences and for their own people, it often becomes very misunderstood and even receives a hostile response,” says Elizabeth Jabar, artist and educator. This led me to think about when Beyoncé released Formation upon us in all its glory. Black people were (and still are) praising this song; it kept hope alive in Black communities even while many whites condemned it. One such person was Rep. Pete King (R-NY), when he said:

“Beyoncé may be a gifted entertainer but no one should really care what she thinks about any serious issue confronting our nation. But the mainstream media’s acceptance of her pro-Black Panther and anti-cop video “Formation” and her Super Bowl appearance is just one more example of how acceptable it has become to be anti-police when it is the men and women in blue who put their lives on the line for all of us and deserve our strong support.”

To say that Beyoncé cannot comment on “any serious issue confronting our nation” is pure bullshit. To say that she cannot have a voice and a message on her own terms for Black people, by a white man, is racism at its worst.

There is always a white person behind POC saying that their work is validated and accepted and “we don’t have a problem with racism” here as long as it doesn’t transform or upset the white narrative. Once you hit that nerve within the white community, then it becomes about correcting and explaining the proper historical narrative to the POC without letting that artist speak from his/her own experiences. It almost always circles back to white cultural norms.

The arts community here is Maine is vibrant, but it could be even more so with the inclusion of POC who dictate their own work and lives as artists; I know many who do so successfully. This community feels the need to “help” others who are “less fortunate.” They feel as they are doing something and pat themselves on the back for giving “the less fortunate a voice.” What they have forgotten is that we have voices of our own that can be used. They feel the need to build a platform for us to stand on when we’re capable of building one ourselves. But the narrative seems to be that we aren’t able to tell our own stories without “help” from them. If we don’t get help, then we’re doing it wrong and must be corrected.

Being Latina, I’ve never felt white enough to be with the white girls or Black enough to be with the Black girls (I should say that I could pass as white if that were my inclination, so I often get the privilege of that even though I don’t seek it). I’ve always been in this nebulous area where I have seen and heard the conversations about race, but have never had a place where I could feel I belong in the conversation. Even as we are all coming together at this time to fight and resist the powers in Washington, it still feels like we’re only doing this for white feminism. We’re all (White, Black, Latina, Asian) not coming together and still becoming more and more marginalized throughout this trying time.

Art is our way of inserting our experiences into history. We are placing ourselves in history. Not White history, all history. Eurocentric/white narratives are still privileged and representations that challenge are still marginalized. We still too often look to white experts to “explain” POC experiences and positions. Even as I write this, I think back to a time when I said to myself as a grad student that I would only be studying WOC artists to better get a sense of my own personal narrative as a Latina/Italian woman. But I was told that this was a terrible idea because I am leaving out so many other histories. What? The Eurocentric, white-privileged male history? The narrative that I, and many others, have been force fed all our lives? I just wanted a different lens to view my work through. One that I had never seen or experienced before.

One effective way of stopping the normal, Eurocentric conversations is to stick to the rule of “don’t talk, listen” which is something that doesn’t often happen. What’s not realized is that support and dialogue is help enough. Discussing our work, and coming to an understanding that all stories are different and beautiful and that there are more narratives than the whitewashed ones we’ve been fed all of our lives.

I’ve been in situations before that have opened my eyes to how often people here do not want to be invested in others’ lives, especially when they outshine their own. The crossover culturally and artistically does not compute with individuals. I don’t want to sound bitter, but I want to explain that before you dismiss these notions as an artist’s ramblings that there is an important point here:

I don’t think it’s the people in Maine, it’s the rhetoric we were fed when we were young.

Artist Emma Sulkowicz, said “The people with the most power in the art world tend to be the most privileged.”

Sulkowicz talks about transparency and how we can fix the art world by not just talking about “one art world” but about many art worlds that all look different. These different worlds aren’t just run by the privileged who in turn decide who gets the shows and who doesn’t, but negotiated by individuals who have been hidden in the shadows for so long.

This gets into dicey territory because those in power begin to give a “voice to the voiceless” or who they perceive as not having a voice. They feel that at this time this is the most impactful work that will also make money at the art fairs and galleries. It should be the artists using their own voices but instead it gets run through the gamut of the privileged and never seen by the viewers who the work is meant for.

This has turned into a conversation from working and struggling as POC within the Maine arts scene to the art world at large and how it becomes about privilege (Maine is just a small dichotomy but representative of a larger scene) which is the backbone of the conversation here. It’s not about togetherness but about competition and the privileged get to make all the decisions. It needs to become about supporting others, empowering others, learning about each other. But how? How can we, within the smaller dichotomies that create the art world, make the line disappear?

Wendy Ewald, photographer and educator says, “What is wrong with the art world is that it doesn’t include the rest of the world.” Ewald has a huge point here. There is such an exclusion within the “inclusive” art world. Artists, who are supposedly the most open and accepting, are sometimes the most rigid and closed off. They draw those lines between themselves and others. Privileged artists are empowered enough to tell a POC that what they are doing is cultural appropriation without even understanding that this is their culture. Much like saying painting and sculpture can’t mix or that one is better than the other, privileged artists draw lines between things like art and race and appropriate and appropriateness. They begin to divide within themselves.

Maine isn’t the only place (as I said, this is a part of a larger issue) so before you pull out the pitchforks, hear me out: Let others speak about their own experiences. How you and I experience something is going to be completely different. Art is a place to let each of our narratives have a place. We need to begin to come together, to an understanding that we all can work together, while listening to different voices. It’s simple gestures–acceptance and understanding–that are becoming misconstrued as appropriation and misinformation.

These new narratives in art (or at least narratives that are getting more attention) can be the impetus to begin talking (and sometimes more importantly, as I noted earlier, listening) and to start tearing down the walls. The path to letting art be art, on the artist’s terms, and not pigeonholed by white privileges and assumptions.
—————————————————————-
If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.