White Artists Need to Start Addressing White Supremacy in Their Work
Those Who Benefit From Racism Should Be on the Front Lines Fighting It
Lately, I’ve been thinking about ownership. I’ve been considering it within the context of writing and art making, wondering who has the right and responsibility to explore the problem of white supremacy, and how, or even if it can be done by white artists without furthering the trauma of marginalized people. I’ve been swimming through these ideas in one way or another for years now, but they all snapped into focus a few days ago when I was in conversation with another writer friend, commiserating over what he called “self-celebrating liberals”—those people who imagine themselves allies to people of color but refuse to address their own complicity in white supremacy. Specifically, we were discussing a growing trend we’ve noticed in the publishing world: that only people of color should make art about racism.
“What should white people be writing about if not racism?” he said. “I feel like half the work that means anything is trying to place and understand the destructiveness of my whiteness.”
This conversation came up, in part, because I am a white woman writing about the toxic inheritance of white supremacy. It is, admittedly, a fraught position to write from with no shortage of examples of seemingly well-intentioned white women (and men) doing their damnedest to address racism while contributing to it instead. There’ve been some epic disasters of late with Anders Carlson-Wee’s poem published in The Nation and quickly called out for its blackface performance of language, director Kathryn Bigelow’s 2017 gratuitously violent movie Detroit, based on the 1967 race protests and the Algiers Motel murders when three teenagers were beaten and killed by the Detroit police during the protests; there’s Dana Schutz’s sorrow-stealing painting, Open Casket, of Emmitt Till at the Whitney Biennial and her later defense of her right to paint it since she, too, is a mother; and then there’s Minneapolis’s Walker incident with Sam Durant’s traumatizing Scaffold sculpture that referenced, among other historical executions, the 38 Dakota men hung by the state in 1862 after the federal government broke their treaty agreements and the starving Dakota rose up in protest.
White artists and writers have done such a poor job of addressing white supremacy in their work that it’s practically its own sub-genre. I’m not interested in shaming them further here, but these instances, in conjunction with the conversation with my friend, have made me question why we have so few examples of white artists who do this work well, and what that lack might point to.
When white art that is meant to address white supremacy fails, the reason most often given for that failure is that the white artist hasn’t taken the time to listen to the groups they imagined they were advocating for. In an interview in the Los Angels Times, Durant addressed his failure to engage with his subjects in a non-traumatizing way by saying that, “The museum—and I’m sharing the blame —didn’t reach out to the community. We didn’t think of it, to start a dialogue before we started building it. There was no information.”
This is, no doubt, a large part of the issue. But it doesn’t get at what seems to me to be the underlying problem at hand: white artists often fail at this work because they haven’t centered themselves within the violence of their own whiteness. Had any of them placed themselves in the position of the aggressor instead of the victim, and then asked themselves what it means to inherit the violent history of being born white, I imagine some different kinds of art might have been made.“If there’s anything that good art has in common across the spectrum of forms, it’s that good art is always, at heart, in some deep and profound way, honest about being human.”
Last summer, in a public conversation on Facebook that I watched from a distance about white artists and their art making across a spectrum of forms, Christopher Harris, the chair of the prestigious MFA film program at the University of Iowa, wrote that he wished white people would start making art about being white and stop trying to embody the stories of black people. When I heard that, I thought, yes. Absolutely. This is what we need to learn how to do better: investigate our own whiteness. Ask ourselves why we are so committed to it, and why we become afraid and violent when we imagine someone taking it from us.
Why white people try to embody stories of marginalized people instead of the ones of white oppression isn’t really a mystery—it’s much easier and more comfortable for a white person to position themselves within the body of the wronged instead of within the body of the aggressor. Few people want to be seen as that asshole—or worse, that murderer or thief—in life or in art.
But beyond avoiding asshole status, speaking from the mouths of marginalized people can seem to white artists like access into the experience of oppression, and an imagined kind of “honorary membership” to that community, one in which the burden of having to work through the inheritance of white supremacy is no longer necessary. In a distorted way, I imagine that this can seem reasonable to white artists—art making is usually about transgression and traversing spaces in one form or another—breaking the rules, pushing at boundaries, imagining experience that you haven’t had and making connections where there are none—so this borrowed pain feels similar to other art making choices, like a work of imagination instead of the appropriation or ventriloquism that it is—ventriloquism being less about exploring another body’s reality and more about using that body to emphasize your own voice.
This is especially problematic because it ignores the fact that the pain can be returned like a pair of too large shoes when the white artist has finished with it. But it’s also an enormous problem because it denies white artists the opportunity to address the fact that being born white means they’ve already been the aggressor at some point, whether through ignorance, unequal opportunities given them, insensitivity, cruelty, a sense of superiority or through the generalized benefit of living in a world that bends itself to the pleasure of whiteness. To imagine otherwise is to be dishonest, and if there’s anything that good art has in common across the spectrum of forms, it’s that good art is always, at heart, in some deep and profound way, honest about being human. To bypass that truth in favor of speaking from a less culpable position is to make art that doesn’t engage with the difficult truth at hand.
It seems important to acknowledge here that I, too, have been dishonest in the interrogation of my whiteness in my own work at times. In the five years this new book has taken me to write, I’ve read countless stories of what it means to be a person of color in the United States; I’ve spent hours upon hours in archives reading old diaries, newspapers and journals; I’ve toured museums, read history books, gone to lectures, talked to friends, watched movies, asked for feedback, done everything I can to try to recognize the place where my whiteness pushes through and alters my understanding of reality.
And yet, I’m still white, living in a white-centered world. I will never be able to be completely aware of the way that shifts my understanding because that work is a lifetime commitment, I know, and not a one-stop-shop where I learn a single lesson and move on.
What I’ve also noticed since I began to write about whiteness, is that a lot of white people don’t like it. Surprising, I know, and this is also what brought me to that conversation with my friend. White artists and gatekeepers have told me often, and in a variety of ways, that my writing inserts me into places I don’t belong, and that it also puts them on the defensive—that I should take a more “side-winding” gentler approach to such a “touchy” subject as race. Since I began this book, I’ve learned that to feel the emotions of defensiveness rise up within me is to wake to the violence of my absorbed white supremacy. What’s also disturbing to me though, is how I’ve seen too many liberal, white “ally” artist/gatekeepers transform that defensiveness into distance between themselves and that feeling, and then hear their proselytizing that to be white and to address racism is to insert yourself into a conversation that you don’t have the right to be a part of.
In his essay Why I’m Done Talking About Diversity Marlon James says, “It’s not for the black person to be more open-minded. It’s for the white person to be less racist.” White supremacy is a white problem that white people need to fix, and it’s a further imbalance of justice to sit around expecting people of color to do the work of addressing it for us. There is nothing noble or generous in stepping aside and playing the observer in this work. Not only is that a gross misunderstanding of actual justice, it’s not going to do a thing to move this country towards real and true equality.
I also want to acknowledge that white people have a history of taking things over—countries, industries, cultures, movements. We get excited about something, even a good thing like ending racism, and pretty soon we’re pushing marginalized people off platforms in order to take center stage ourselves. We’re not very good at following someone else’s lead (and following the lead of people of color in this is absolutely necessary), because we are used to power and used to leading everything ourselves. We’ve had centuries of standing in the spotlight with no intention of widening the circle to include other people. We’ve taken up all the publishing spots, lecture spots, teaching spots, student spots, governing spots, but have taken only the smallest pains to show we have any intention of really changing things in a meaningful way.
But just because we have a history of needing to control everything for our own benefit, doesn’t mean that it’s not our responsibility to learn how to collaborate better now. In my mind, this is one of the trickiest parts of the conversation, because the answer isn’t an either/or solution. It’s necessary to acknowledge that people of color have been silenced through exclusion, violence, diminishment of ability and opportunity, and to address that through equalizing access to historically white spaces (which is another way of saying all spaces); but it’s also possible for white people to use this as an excuse to step so far to the side that we step out of the conversation altogether and place that burden solely on the shoulders of people of color. It’s easy to pass this side-stepping off as an attempt at increasing diversity, when it’s actually disinterest in the work, or a desire to maintain power, or based on a fear so strong, of getting things wrong, that stepping aside becomes more like running away. And none of this even touches on the fact that artists and writers of color are often expected to live out some kind of eternal recurrence on a theme of only addressing racism in their work when the entire universe of ideas is at their feet, same as any other artist.“White supremacy is a white problem that white people need to fix, and it’s a further imbalance of justice to sit around expecting people of color to do the work of addressing it for us.”
This increasing social fear of white writers and artists at the possibility of getting this work wrong and causing harm when they intended good, is a reasonable fear for anyone who is actually paying attention, but not for the decrease in social status that’s driving it. A corrected white person can be devastating in their embarrassed and terrified thrashing when confronted. And when it comes to absorbing the effects of white supremacy, it isn’t just the matter of increased amounts of stress that people of color have to deal with—though those are substantial and destructive in their own right—but actual bodily harm: we’ve ruined and taken lives while we turn inside our fear, and so the risk of addressing white supremacy is never equal. What a white person stands to lose in these attempts gone wrong is not the same as what a person of color stands to lose: their very lives.
Put within that context, the possible embarrassment of getting the work of addressing white supremacy wrong is a gross imbalance, and yet, it’s a hurdle that white artists and writers stumble over repeatedly. I’ve often heard them defend their criticized art or actions or language with the words “but that’s not what I meant,” as if not meaning to cause harm excuses you from doing so. But intention is only a part of the puzzle, not the entire picture, and it works in conjunction with history and culture and power.
The fact that these elements sometimes merge in ways that reveal a white lack of understanding the still traumatizing effects of history, was made manifest in Daniel Handler’s “ill-advised” joke about Jacqueline Woodson being allergic to watermelon at the National Book Awards in 2014. His comments left her devastated on a night when she should have only felt celebrated, and exposed the flabbergasted nature of seemingly well-intentioned white people who function as though there is a silly secret rulebook for people of color, illegible to white people, instead of an historical context for pain that they haven’t bothered to understand. And this feels like a good place to acknowledge, again, that I’ve done this also—that I am still learning how to do this work in ways that do not harm.
All of this brings to mind the artists and writers of the future, or, at least the ones represented in my mostly liberal, white undergraduate writing students, and the growing unease I’ve seen building within them. I teach at an institution that works hard to make its students aware of white supremacy and how they are a part of that structure—either in upholding it or dismantling it. There was a time when most of them would have felt emboldened to drone on for entire class periods if I didn’t stop them, to proclaim how horrified they were about their racist uncle, and can you believe some people still say that kind of stuff? But now, most of them know better. Kind of. They know that it’s not all right to talk over people of color, or to speak on their behalf, or from within their bodies, and they feel the social danger of messing that up, but most of them don’t exactly know why they shouldn’t, and they don’t know how to do it in a way that’s not taking over. And so they, like many of us, choose silence instead of engagement, and back out of the conversation completely.
I will admit, there are ways that this makes my teaching life seem easier. I worry about my students of color becoming the training ground for these white students to practice on, and the furthered trauma of students of color becoming the cost of the white students’ awakening is obviously not the solution either. But to follow all this side-stepping and silence through to its logical endpoint, means that my students of color are left feeling forced into only making art that addresses white supremacy, and my white students are excused from having to learn to be a part of the conversation and get to sit like sulky teenagers at the table, judging and rolling their eyes without contributing anything meaningful to the difficult and painful conversation that the adults are having.
Like any good conversation, the work of undoing white supremacy as a white person means learning to take your turn, putting in the effort to understand where the other person is coming from, apologizing when you get it wrong, knowing when to shut-up and just listen, and how to notice that someone else is being crushed under its burden, in need of another body to step up and take on that devastating weight themselves.
How to simultaneously protect people of color from further trauma without excusing the white ones from participating altogether is a conversation that I think white artists should be working to be a part of in all the spaces they find themselves in throughout this country. It’s the work that terrifies me and draws me on the most, all of which is to say it’s the work that I’m committed to learning how to do better, alongside anyone interested in walking that path with me.