Racial and Cultural

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.
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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.
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Calling all white people, part 9: Seeing and respecting race

Calling All White People, Part 9

(A periodic attempt to mobilize white people for something other than supporting just other melanin-deficient folks and maintaining a status quo of a nation geared toward whiteness as the baseline and the norm)

By An Average White Guy

TODAY’S EPISODE: Don’t be the “color-blind” numbskull nor the “race fetishist” weirdo

Speaking on behalf of my fellow white people, I’m going to say that (on the whole) we are pretty awkward about how we deal with racial, ethnic and cultural difference. We tend to fade into the woodwork and not address such things when we should, or we go overboard. It’s not dramatic in either direction all the time (or maybe even most of the time) but it does tend toward the useless and/or counterproductive more than it does true inclusiveness and acceptance of non-whiteness as a perfectly normal thing.

More to the point: We need people to stop saying stupid crap like “I’m color-blind when it comes to race” and we need people to also stop treating people of color (especially folks like Black people and Native American/American Indian people) like zoo exhibits or merely as educational opportunities.

Now, those are pretty much opposite ends of the spectrum. On one end, trying to pretend like race and ethnicity don’t matter and on the other end sort of fetishizing it. But what they share in common is that they often lead to white people committing microaggressions against non-white folks (or other people of difference or marginalization). And as most of us realize when we really think about it, it’s the multitude of “little shit” like mircoaggressions that really wear people down day to day, hour after hour, and often more so than the big crap like being called the N-word. Big stuff can be startling and scary, but it’s probably not what’s gonna contribute to anxiety, high blood pressure and the other things that have often shortened the live of people of color or at least led to them having overall unhealthier lives compared to white people of similar socioeconomic status. Microaggressions matter on a social and societal basis

So, let’s take a few examples of these extremes of white people dealing with (or not dealing with) racial stuff and thinking (wrongly) that they’re doing good.

I don’t see color! – This is perhaps one of the most annoying statements people of color hear from white people who think they’re being all open-minded and progressive. To say that you don’t see color when you deal with people is ignorant unless you actually have a visual or neurological impairment that literally makes you see in black and white or to not be able to somehow differentiate pale skin from darker skin. To be honest, this is a form of erasure. It’s like saying a person’s very identity and background doesn’t matter. But it does. We are many of us defined by our cultural, racial and/or ethnic backgrounds. That doesn’t mean people of color are stereotypes, but it does mean they tend to have various (and varied from person to person) distinct character traits (good, bad or neutral) that come from their racial background and racial experience. Black people, overall, often have different cultural behaviors and language compared to white people, for example. It’s a fact. Someone who is part of an immigrant family or only a generation or two removed from immigration probably has all kinds of cultural differences compared to the average white person. Ignoring that is being purposefully ignorant. When a white person from the North meets a white person from the Deep South, you can best believe that Northern white person is gonna notice differences in the way the other person speaks, reacts to situations, eats, etc. (and vice-versa). So don’t act like you didn’t notice the person in front of you was Black, brown or whatever. Acknowledge and respect differences; don’t pretend they don’t exist or don’t matter. Acceptance is better than mere inclusion.

Oh my gosh, can I touch your hair? – This is a statement that is so often followed by the white person who said it putting their hand into the hair of a Black person without actually waiting for permission. It’s a very specific example, but probably one of the big ones that Black people complain about because it happens to them or to their children, and there are all kinds of variations on this theme. But regardless of whether it’s hair or something else, it’s invasive and creepy. It turns non-white people into something like the human equivalent of zoo animals. It is, in a sense, as fetishistic as the white person who “only dates Black (or Latinx, or whatever) people” (often because they are seen as exotic). People of color and other forms of difference are not interactive exhibits to be handled or ogled at the whim of people in the more mainstream/privileged groups (white, cis-male, hetero, Christian). This is the kind of thing that happens when people think they’re being open-minded and/or progressive, but instead they are making the person’s difference(s) the only interesting or important thing. Turning a person into an object.

You speak so well – This is the example I will finish with. I mean, I could go on and on and on but I just want to give you some starting points to open your own eyes. The previous two examples were on the two ends of the spectrum: “color-blind” vs. “fetishist.” This you speak so well example is often committed by white people not only at both ends of the spectrum but most of them in between. It often comes out in other variations: You write so clearly, you speak so eloquently, you’re a credit to your race, etc. It’s insulting because chances are in the 95% or more range that you would never say the same thing to a white person if you read something they wrote or listened to them speak publicly or argue a point in a discussion. It is insulting because underlying it is the suggestion: “Most of the people who look like you are lesser in skill than us white people but you’re different.” Under the guise (and often the honest intention) of sincere flattery, you’ve just not only insulted most of the person’s fellow race/ethnicity but also “othered” them…set them apart from everyone else and made them out to be something rare and not belonging to any “normal” group. It’s one thing to tell a person of color, for example, after a talk they’ve given, “That really moved me” or “I learned a lot from hearing you speak”…that’s often fine. But that’s because it’s the same kind of thing you would say to a white person who spoke. Don’t give the backhanded compliments, though, spiced up with racism or bigotry, however unintentioned it might be.
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When the work of change becomes a tiresome burden, or Racial justice reality

I have a confession. I am tired. After years of writing about racism in both Maine and America, combined with several years of running an anti-racism organization, I am tired. There is also the pesky fact that racism affects me personally as a Black woman. As a white colleague, author Debby Irving, once pointed out: It’s rare that I get a break from my work.

This work is the work but it is also my life. Which means that I spend a great deal of time pondering how we can move the needle on race in this country and beyond in a positive direction. It means that even when I am “off work,” racism has a habit of rearing its head at the most inopportune time, whether that is when trying to enjoy a meal, take a walk, check out a dating site or just exist. In a country built on white supremacy and the dehumanization of Black people, there is always a situation or person nipping at my existence to remind me that I am a Black woman in a world where whiteness as the ultimate thing is now gasping for air but not fully on life support.

While the narrative is shifting and greater numbers of white people are starting to delve into examining white privilege and tackling what it means in the larger picture, what’s become clear to me is that we need more work. In the past several years as we have seen the mainstream media pay greater attention to Black death at the hands of law enforcement, we have seen organizations like Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) and others spring up in an attempt to educate and activate white folks to fight against racism.

In theory, these organizations are very much needed, but at the human level it gets messy because despite “good” intentions and desires, we are dealing with real humans and, well, as I am fond of saying: Humans are messy. As we all grapple with the reality of a Trump administration and the turning back of the clock on issues related to immigrants and civil rights, now more than ever, white people do need to activate and organize. But the challenge as I see it from my perch is how to do it in a way that is responsible and accountable and doesn’t cause harm.

Despite greater numbers of white folks understanding what is going on, in too many instances whiteness perpetuates itself and causes harm. In too many instances, People of Color are erased and what really happens is a circle jerk of white folks who get to claim the moral high ground compared to, say, a white nationalist. Which in the larger picture isn’t saying much. Being better than a metaphorical Uncle Rusty the Racist or real-world Richard Spencer is not how we are going to dismantle white supremacy and create a racially just and equitable world.

We have multiple uncomfortable realities happening simultaneously, and the very real reality is that many white people who are starting to get it are doing it on the backs on people of color. People of color are too often asked to provide free labor to be a part of white people’s learning which, despite the learning that occurs, creates the very real continued inequities that seem inherent in racial justice spaces. There is also the request by people of color to have white people be accountable to POC [people of color] in their organizing spaces, but no one quite being sure of what that means. Does that mean to follow the orders of POC in the work? Does it mean working in concert? Everyone has a vision of what the work looks like but at this moment, that vision is not shared, in part because despite the language and goals we do share there is too much about the work that is not shared. However, if we are to affect real change, we need a shared language along with a shared vision and mission. We also need to understand that today’s racial justice work stands on the shoulders of those who have been working already and to create inclusive and intergenerational spaces that ultimately will serve us all.

One of the barriers that prevents racial justice work from being as effective as we would like it to be is that too much of our existence is siloed. How can we create a unified mission and vision when rarely do we have true trust amongst ourselves nor are we truly part of the same community? We can’t; instead, we pay lip service and dilute our own work with the type of busy work that keeps us running from protest to meeting where we work in reaction to the moment rather than creating a proactive vision.

As I struggle with doing the work in a climate that is filled with tension, what’s clear is that so much of the progress we think we have been making is performative and not nearly as progressive as would like to believe. And at this moment in time, we need more than the performative. Otherwise, we burn out rather than burning down the walls of white supremacy. Our collective survival in this moment will involve acknowledgement of our collective humanity and in a nation built on divisions, that is easier said than done. Change requires not only a head shift but a heart shift, and that is a harder place to reach. 
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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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