Current Events

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.


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.

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Taking off my mask…nope I am not like you at all: Updated for a Trump World

This original post ran in June 2011 on the blog; it’s the type of deeply personal piece I hesitate to share anymore in this space. Yet, as I heard about Trump’s proposed budget plan, I was reminded of my own childhood. Working-class in a good year and downright poor in a bad year. The availability of arts programming in the schools and community are what made the difference in my life and opened up a world where I could dare to dream and do more. For many years, I was ashamed of my upbringing but I also know that my parents did the best that they could and I now understand that for my father, as one of 16 kids born in rural Arkansas, he was fighting a losing a battle. However, my parents managed to raise two kids with a little help who have both gone on to give back far more than we took (to use the language of the GOP). Poverty has a face and as someone who was able to move out of poverty, I have never forgotten where I came from. And now that I have a voice, I will use it to help anyone that I can. In this case, my thoughts are with our truly vulnerable who will truly suffer under the Trump regime.
I have a secret to share with you. Of course, the fact that I am putting it on this very public blog means it will no longer be a secret, but that is okay. I go through most of my days feeling like a fraud, a fake, an impostor. Oh, on the surface I look like your average college-educated middle-class person (do they really even exist anymore? Or is that the lie we tell ourselves because we can’t stand the idea that we are no longer in the middle but we didn’t rise to the top?). I have a job where to a large degree I have total autonomy, I live in a reasonable-sized home, have access to a car that is not a jalopy. That’s the sort of shit we see and assume that means folks are fine. Really, that is quite silly. In this economy there are people driving nice cars, hoping and praying the repo man doesn’t show up and who are crossing fingers and toes they can get their home loans modified. Yet, when we see these folks, we have no idea and again assume they are like us.

In the past week or so, there have been several instances both in my day-to-day offline life as well as my online life where it was assumed I was just like everyone else. In one instance, I actually had someone try to explain to me the lives of the poor; I nearly laughed but instead wore my mask of the middle class all the time feeling my guts churning and temper rising.

See, I may not emphasize it a great deal on this blog though I have shared this in the past, but I grew up poor. If it was a good year we were working class but really we were poor. Oh, my parents being young turned it into a fun game, but looking back, there is no mistaking the fact that we were poor. I am talking getting vittles at the food pantry poor; shit, I have only fairly recently started eating English muffins. Why? Because there was a period of time when I was a kid we ate a lot of them because that is what the pantry gave us. There was also the time the pantry gave us chocolate syrup and my folks scraped up enough cash to buy some ice cream so we could have a treat, only to discover that the chocolate syrup had expired (chocolate syrup gone bad has a smell you never forget). I can assure you in the 25 years since that incident I still remember it clear as day.

I also remember when we lost our apartment and moved into a homeless shelter for six months. It was transitional shelter run by Catholic Charities and two nuns who I imagine are long gone. I remember group meals with a host of characters and “shopping” for clothes from the donations that came in. Yeah, I am a card-carrying member of the Grew Up Poor Club and those lessons don’t ever leave you. I know another fellow blogger and Maine resident who had a similar upbringing and believe me, no matter how far away you are from that grinding poverty, it colors your life. Hell, I only recently stopped hoarding food though I will always buy toilet paper in bulk as I never ever want to have to wipe my ass with newspaper or scraps again.

That said, I must admit the level of classicism and assumptions that I see in my day-to-day life sometimes make me want to scream. I recently read this piece and it’s funny because while on paper I am squarely middle class. Never mind I am going bankrupt and my personal net worth is like negative two hundred thousand dollars plus but, because I present as a middle-class person, that is what I am treated like. The fact is in my personal financial life I am very much like the Cracked piece in part because when you do grow up and break free from the poverty it travels with you and you never quite leave it behind.

In my case I did finally make it to college, but I graduated with a shitload of debt and not nearly as much social capital as I really needed to advance my career. Turns out moving to Maine despite the low-paying gigs did a lot more for me professionally than I would have expected. It’s a lot easier to connect with folks when you live in a state with a small population. I truly doubt I would have landed my first Executive Director position at 31 had I stayed in Chicago since I didn’t have social capital. Yet in Maine, to some degree I got a do-over, and its been helpful yet most of us don’t get a do-over in this highly rigged game called life.

Here let me do a quick bit more updating than I did at the start. Like I said, the piece above appeared in 2011 and what appears above has pretty much only been updated for punctuation and grammar. But in the time it was written and the years before and shortly after, I worked with kids from poor (mostly white) families and I worked with old people (mostly white and with few or no family assistance or personal resources). As Trump plans to cut things like Meals On Wheels (which feeds the poor and housebound elderly) and as his cronies talk about how school meal programs don’t help kids (I know different from providing snacks in an afterschool program where kids sometimes missed many…or most meals at home due to poverty)…what he and his people say are lies. These kinds of programs aren’t dragging the country down. Maybe corporate subsidies and wars and the Defense Department play a role…not to mention huge tax breaks for the rich…but programs that feel the needy aren’t our problem. And if you think they are, YOU’RE the problem.
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Failure to name the truth, or White people are rarely named terrorists

On Wednesday, Feb. 22, at a bar in Olathe, Kansas, 51-year-old Adam Purinton shot two engineers from India, killing 32-year-old Srinivas Kuchibhotla and wounding 32-year-old Alok Madasani. He also wounded two other bar patrons who tried to intervene. One of them, 24-year-old Ian Grillot, who is white, was seriously wounded.

After Purinton had been kicked out of the bar for being disruptive, he later came back with a weapon, shouted racial slurs at the two Indian men, and began shooting, also shouting “Get out of my country.”

Whether he presumed them to be Muslims (and assumed them to be terrorists-in-waiting or terrorist sympathizers) or whether he simply hated them because of the furious hatred so many white people have toward immigrants right now, legal or otherwise, this was an act of terrorism.

And yet, authorities, and notably the Trump regime, have been reluctant to call this domestic terrorism. They say they don’t know enough about Purinton’s motivations. They say it’s too soon to name it terrorism.

It’s always too soon when the attackers are white. They are almost always called lone wolves, while brown-skinned and/or Muslim attackers are quickly assumed to be tied to terrorist groups. It’s never too early to call a Muslim or a Black person a terrorist. Even when non-white shooters are found to be acting on their own, somehow they aren’t “lone wolves” like the white people are. At the very least, they are assumed to have been radicalized by extremist Muslim groups or philosophies. And then Muslims in general are viewed as terrorists, despite the fact the overwhelming percentage of them are anything but, and groups like Black Lives Matter are labeled terrorists by many white people just because a handful of people act out violently every once in a while at a BLM protest or the like.

How quickly we forget that the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City, which killed not only adults but children in a daycare facility there, was committed by two white men, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols (and two white accomplices, Michael and Lori Fortier). It was one of the worst acts of terrorism on our soil, motivated by the perpetrators’ hatred of the U.S. federal government and its handling of the 1993 Waco siege and the Ruby Ridge incident in 1992 (both of which involved actions against dangerous white extremists).

How quickly we focus on the 9/11 terrorist attack, which killed many more people but also is also the kind of thing that happens much less often…almost never, in fact, by comparison. Violence by white extremists…domestic white terrorists…is far more frequent and poses a much greater danger overall, especially to non-white people, Jews, LGBTQ people, Muslims and other groups that are marginalized by the government, society and/or large numbers of white, straight, supposedly “Christian” people in most cases. Shootings. Burnings of mosques or synagogues or Black Christian churches. Intimidation and beatings. And more.

Last year, for example, you were more likely to be shot by a toddler than harmed by a foreign terrorist. The fact is the 9/11 was a “lucky shot” by foreign terrorists. They killed so many but there’s never been anything like that before or since, nor much chance of something so dramatic happening again any time soon. Since 9/11, more people have been killed by white terrorists here in the United States than by Muslim terrorists.

Since Trump’s campaign to become president really heated up and since his election, terrorist violence against people in America based on racism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia is up sharply. To claim that has nothing to do with Trump’s rhetoric against Muslims, immigrants and non-white people is beyond ridiculous. The cause and effect is clear. Trump and his cronies are happy to rile up the radical right white people, and they don’t care whom they harm, as long as they continue to divide us along lines of race and religion. As long as they continued to sow chaos that helps right-wing power-brokers seize more control and gain more support from white people who can only see the terrorist evil when it wears brown skin or a twisted version of the religion of Islam draped over it. And so many white people are so willing to buy into the lies that foreign terrorists or that innocent and socially conscious movements like Black Lives Matter are the real threats.

Terrorism is awful no matter who commits it. But we are long past the time when we need to name white terrorists as such. Terrorism hurts us all. But in this country, the people it hurts the most are the non-white people, because they get the brunt of overreaching police actions, increased levels of suspicion toward them, and more radicalized white people targeting them when violence is committed by a Muslim or an angry Black person. These victims are all too visible, they are often unprotected by the government compared to white people, and they are fewer in number. Easily targeted. Easily demonized. Easily made the scapegoats. Easily killed, jailed or deported when they’ve done no harm.

Overwhelmingly, white people have little to fear overall from Muslim or Black terrorism, because it is such a small part of the picture of violence in America. But Black and Muslim people, and so many other marginalized groups, have much more to fear from white terrorists.

Name them for what they are. Punish them for what they are. In the land of supposed equality and justice, let them pay the same kinds of prices that Muslim terrorists do. Stop letting them get away with murder.
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.

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