We are Ruby T and Latham Zearfoss, two visual and community-oriented artists working and living in Chicago. We are white, and we work together to interrogate our own relationships to white supremacy. We do this most directly through the collective project Make Yourself Useful, which seeks to end apathy and malaise among white people, and move material support toward Black, Brown and Indigenous-led organizations, artists and movements.
To do this work, we need to better understand whiteness and how to move against it. The ubiquitous invisibility of whiteness is one of the first places we must begin, particularly as image makers and communicators. Using a methodology more aligned with community organizing than academic study, we issued a trio of short and open-ended questions alongside a request for a white picture.1 We put these questions out to white artists in our networks as a small-stakes disruption of white complicity:
1. What does the term whiteness mean to you?
2. Where do you locate whiteness within your work? How do you feel it in your work?
3. What is the effect of your white identity on your practice and your presence in the art world/s you are a part of?
The responses we received—far greater in number than we’d anticipated—reveal a phenomenon of rhetorical stillness combined with a sense of mournful, occasionally rageful, self-reflection. We find clarification and purpose in Sara Ahmed’s articulation that “…putting whiteness into speech, as an object to be spoken about, however critically, is not an anti-racist action, and nor does it necessarily commit a state, institution or person to a form of action that we could describe as anti-racist.”2 We therefore invite our survey participants, as well as our readers who are white, to emerge from the shadowy closet of white malaise and put their energies, talents, and resources toward the collective movement against white supremacy.
A NOTE ON HOW TO READ THIS DOCUMENT
The following are the 22 responses we received to the aforementioned questions we posed to about 50 or so white artists. We also requested a “white picture” from each participant.The responses have been edited and color coded for impact and clarity. We wanted to highlight moments of Naming & Defining, Lessons & Emergent Critique, and Tactics & Effective Solidarity. You can enter the text and images at any point.
We include here responses from Willy Smart, Elijah Burgher, Irina Zadov, Rebecca Stevens, Nina Barnett, Svenja Wichmann, Lindsey French, Jenny Kendler, kg, Gwyneth Zeleny Anderson, Mairead Case, Sarah Ross, Greg Ruffing, Jeremy Bolen, Andrew Mausert-Mooney, Christopher Meerdo, Sarah Faux, Bobby Gonzales, K. Abhalter Smith, and Charlie Manion. We responded to the prompts as well, and have included those in the larger sampling, at the end. We received some wonderful editorial support from Mairead and Willy, and Danny Giles was our fearless (cheer)leader and editor throughout.
Each image has a caption below it. Not every artist submitted an image. Some artists submitted two. All information we have on each image is provided in its caption.
We hope this text will inform, heal, nourish, incite, agitate and compel. Please approach the text fully present, and open to the possibilities.
Whiteness is the promise of inheritance.
My artwork and writing often incorporate, mimic, and linger on forms that appear to be neutral, unmarked, default, and without emotion—in short, forms that float the same valences as whiteness. By exaggerating and willfully reading too closely, I attempt in my work to draw attention to the erotic and emotional dimensions of these ‘neutral’ forms—to precisely those dimensions that are not neutral. In doing so I hope to reveal the ground that is underneath whiteness’s neutrality to be shaky, muddy, and anything but natural. I see it as important to make this intervention on whiteness at the level of feeling because whiteness is so often not felt.
It is clear that I have consistently been afforded opportunities, invitations, extensions on deadlines, and generous readings of my intentions that have shaped the ways I have made my work, and the work itself that I have made. I am allowed to take my time, to pursue inchoate ideas, to frequently switch modes, and to prioritize associations over lasting commitments to subjects. These are indications my white identity has determined both the ways I move through and the moves I make within art worlds.
Everybody is “middle class” in the states—unless they are mega-rich, at which point they transcend class and ascend to godhood. This, I think, is the crucial hegemonic American myth that disguises white supremacy and destroys any kind of class solidarity in advance.
I feel whiteness in my longing curiosity about otherness (which I intend to be understood expansively, including the religious sense of the “wholly other”). More specifically, that longing issues from my white homosexuality: a feeling of secretly not belonging, enclosed in belonging and a concomitant longing for belonging elsewhere. Anywhere but here. A longing for a new language to not only describe but create a new self from the ruins of an alienated one. A longing for ecstatic community in the midst of a spiritually bankrupt monoculture. This undoubtedly drives my interest in magick, occultism, ritual, and mythology, which started early for me and now comprises my main subject matter alongside desire and sexuality. That longing has a long and complicated history, though, and that’s where whiteness comes into play. I’m thinking of the so-called “modern-primitives” in the 80s, the radical fairies and leather folk of the gay liberation era, and the beatniks in the 50s. The roots lie even deeper in the past, though, in the sexual politics of colonialism. Homosexual men, especially, have often drawn from indigenous cultures (or a certainly colonialist idea of indigenous culture in general), to conceptualize their otherness and conceive of their communities as forming “tribes” within a wider culture that rejects them. See, for instance, the seminal work of auto-anthropology about the San Francisco leather community, Urban Aboriginals. This questionable identification entails regurgitation of stereotypes, cultural appropriation, and fetishism, but sometimes also leads to consciousness of racist power structures, activism, and solidarity—Jean Genet’s dedication to the causes of the Black Panthers and the PLO, and Harry Hay’s commitment to labor and Native American activism are two examples.
Honestly, one of the effects of my whiteness on my presence in the art world, the one that’s snapping into focus at the moment, is my reluctance to participate in discussions like this, fearing I will say the “wrong” thing and that I have nothing worthwhile to bring to the table, preferring instead to listen in on the conversations of others, all the while knowing I ought to act otherwise.
Prior to my family’s migration, I understood my race, ethnicity, and nationality in the same way my Soviet government did: I was Jewish. It became clear that I was, in fact, white when my family arrived in Los Angeles as refugees in 1991, and I began attending school with mostly Black and Brown classmates. Years passed and my family eventually settled in the suburbs of Denver, where I became immersed in the practices of whiteness. I began to dissociate myself from other Soviet immigrants, to lose my accent, and to straighten my hair. My mom changed the spelling of our last names. To neuter, to dislocate, to disappear into whiteness became our gateway into the middle class. For me, this also meant a loss of cultural rootedness, belonging, and an authentic sense of self. Becoming white was spiritually, morally, and psychologically gutting, while it provided innumerable privileges in every other aspect of my life. Becoming aware of my whiteness has complicated my family’s narrative from that of a people persecuted for centuries to settler colonizers, who benefit from countless forms of structural racism perpetuated by the United States and Israel, in our name. I understand whiteness as an insipid form of violence, both ever-present and invisible, which harms both its perpetrators and victims. I understand that it is my responsibility to resist, heal, and transform these harms.
It is both a motivator to be and do better and a weapon pointed at myself and my people, reminding me to stay small or to magnify and center myself to the detriment of others. Whiteness has manifested in my art practice as a savior complex, as a strategic adjacency to power, as a refractor that blinds, muddles, excuses poor behavior, and at its best, as a motivation for genuine solidarity and accompliceship. Currently I am working with other white-identified Soviet Jewish queers to engage in ancestral healing as a path towards a more rooted foundation from which to practice reparations and collective liberation.
My presence in the art world has been bolstered by my proximity to and co-creation with artists of color, immigrants and refugees, femmes, queers, trans*, and nonbinary artists. My whiteness acts both as a lubricant and poison in the water of these relationships and collaborations.
Whiteness means dominance through erasure. I tend to collapse whiteness and white supremacy—white supremacy may be the term for an active ideology, but whiteness is its omnipresent reality. Whiteness does not require conscious fealty to it in order to function: it has been built over centuries. Whiteness wields power through dominance: politically, economically, and culturally. It erases other modes of being, forms of knowledge, and cultural structures, in order to obtain and maintain that dominance. This erasure manifests through literal violence and destruction against black and brown lives, communities, and property. It also asserts itself more intangibly through what we exclude from our national, institutional, community, and family narratives. And it reinforces its own power through the promise of assimilation, and the repeated history of groups (Italian, Irish, Jewish, etc.) “becoming” white.
I’ve always focused on relational and participatory art. Noticing and naming whiteness and other power structures operating inside acts of participation and acts of relationship within my work (and often in the institutions that house my work) has become a primary site of investigation. White people (including me!) always want to escape the continual discomfort of our complicity in racism, whether by denying that complicity or demanding that we be absolved or believing we have sufficiently addressed it. It takes active work to counter this. I feel like a thing I can do is demand people stay in their discomfort, and sit there with them. That’s labor I’m capable of, that’s work I can take on, that’s making myself of use.
The turn towards explicitly addressing whiteness in my work has come out of my grappling with what space I should take up as a white woman, right now. I don’t mean that in a guilt-fueled way, but to really ask myself where and how can I be of use and where I should be making room for others. So for me, it’s not just a question of locating whiteness inside my work, but to specifically think about the whiteness of my audience. How can my work make whiteness explicit and demand a conversation with the white viewers who make it possible? How can I do this in a way that still rigorously considers where and how I make room for others and actively cede the power that various privileges give me?
Whiteness signifies a false and mundane sense of entitlement. It means carelessness, ignorant insensitivity, a fear of self-criticality, and shame.
For much of my art-making life, I tried to separate myself from my whiteness, to not acknowledge it directly. I think this came from growing up in South Africa. After 1994 and the end of apartheid, many established white artists (William Kentridge, Marlene Dumas, and Penny Siopis, among others) made reflective, difficult work about their own positions and awareness of the horrors of racial, colonial dominance. This was my introduction to contemporary art making and thinking, and while it shaped my understanding of the world, I was eager to step away from the burden of approaching my feelings toward whiteness (or even my feeling towards feeling) in my work. The heavy-handed, unsubtle directness of this work seemed overwhelming and unnegotiable.
I am trying to be more conscious of my white identity and the hierarchy it engenders. It troubles me how the effect of my white identity has affected my thought process: the access I have/don’t have, and the work I am allowed to make/discouraged from making, without my expressed conscious awareness. For a while it felt quite paralyzing. Which is not a bad thing, I think—to be held back, and to listen to others instead of staking claim to an idea or a research area.
Whiteness operates through separation: separating me from my feelings, separating me from others by categorising and stereotyping. Whiteness is also the trauma of not being able to look at myself because of a subconscious, suppressed feeling of guilt that comes with white culture’s violent past and present.
My white identity first of all leads to the privilege of not being perceived as a white artist but only as an artist. Never in the more than ten years I spent in art schools and other art institutions was I asked about my whiteness, let alone expected to make work related to or dealing with whiteness.
Whiteness easily and quietly fades into the background. It creates conditions of scarcity. It is best friends with capitalism. It is an inherited structure that insists on its own preservation.
My work is fundamentally about developing practices of receptivity. These practices involve consenting to risk, loss (of certainty, or power, or privilege), and being changed, altered, or contaminated by another body or force. This is where I feel whiteness most directly—because these kinds of practices are counter to the rules of whiteness (purity, self-preservation, preservation of power, frailty, isolation). In other words, (how) can I reroute the inherent characteristics of whiteness toward undermining white supremacy?
Quietness, passivity, stillness—these are typically tools of white supremacy. These conservative virtues often maintain the status quo and displace, rather than resist, violence. But timed strategically, can quietness be used to make real space for someone else’s truth? Can embracing passivity allow me to (decide to) lose something that I got unfairly—power, position, access—or to not grab at it in the first place? Can stillness be a position from which I remember the historical and present violences I benefit from? I need to practice these things, because whiteness has meant that I wasn’t taught them. I need to practice with others, because it is in these encounters where I find community and accountability—and the possibility of forming new structures for sociality.
My white identity gives me access to institutions and opportunities. Other parts of my experience and identity have led me to feel a suspicion that I do not belong in these spaces. This feeling of unworthiness is part of whiteness too.
Much like the idea of “ideal beauty,” whiteness has shifted dramatically over time—which, importantly, exposes it as a synthetic category—and points us towards thinking on who might stand to benefit from the shifting, reconstitution, and maintenance of this category. I think this understanding of the historical perspective serves as a reminder of what whiteness really is: an invention that enforces and perpetuates hierarchy and dominion of certain individuals over others—and which has been bent over the years to serve the masters of this hierarchy. Also important: Whiteness is a socio-cultural tool made by people. And so that tells us it can be unmade by people.
My work is primarily concerned with human beings’ complex relationships with the natural world, and often focuses on climate change and biodiversity loss. The critique of whiteness may not be explicit, but the critique of human exceptionalism is central to my work. In my understanding of the world, human exceptionalism is the original (and earliest) exceptionalism/hegemony/dominion, and the one which umbrellas all the others, predicating and justifying the general domination of capital over life, and alongside patriarchy, nobility, colonialism, ecocide, genocide, slavery, ageism, ableism, and white supremacy.
I am certain that my whiteness has bought me easier access to spaces of cultural capital: academic institutions, speaking gigs, museum exhibitions, and so on.While I am grateful to see this dynamic shifting in the art world, it is certainly still firmly in place in the top tiers of the art world, where art and capital are synonymous. And these top tiers are still centers of power in terms of what culture gets created, supported and proliferated.
Whiteness is Caroline, not Karolina (kar-oh-lee-nah). Whiteness is being able to fight for Karolina and win. Whiteness is being safe, trusted and belonging, face to face, while someone spits derogatory anti-immigrant sentiments at me, assuming my whiteness means OUR whiteness. Whiteness is promising and makes the forgiving easy. Whiteness is a tool I use, having done nothing to attain it. Whiteness is grotesque and dangerous, and I live there. Whiteness is hobby craft, traditions rendered easy and neat without the history of the people who have invented and grown them. Whiteness is taking and diluting.
Whiteness is weaving in the lineage of modernists, racists, appropriators and never having to say peep about it, and being coddled by mentors when asking how to challenge this. Whiteness is (not) broad, vague, non-aesthetic, normal, everywhere if you can fit it. The idea that my experiences are universal, that my white vagueness is universal is what I work against. My whiteness demands I make in such a deeply specific autobiographical over-sharing detailed AF way. My whiteness has proposed “how do I tell a story, my story” without contributing to the lineage of those modernist, racist, appropriators.
My whiteness has made me distrustful of my own value and the value of my contributions as a weaver/poet. It has made me cynical of institutions that embrace me, knowing very little about me and the work. Whiteness = trust in the art world and it is not a trust I accept and move into.
Gwyneth Zeleny Anderson
Whiteness is a lie with real consequences; a rabid avoidance of discomfort, particularly when it comes to beginning to try to understand the pain of others traumatized by white supremacy; a lack of knowledge about my lineage, and the resulting desire to latch onto different cultures to satisfy this lack; a detachment from the sources and labor of food and objects; dissatisfaction with the present; fearing that my thoughts, my being, are inherently evil. Finding the actual substance of whiteness feels like focusing on one of those grey dots in an optical illusion. When I try to look at it directly, it’s gone, but the page is swarming with dots.
I find whiteness in my perfectionism, especially when leaning on the written word to justify what I’ve made. It’s a way of communicating to the world that I am in control of my ideas, my materials, my picture—and that I’m a “good” artist because of this power. I associate this with whiteness, since whiteness wants us to constantly prove high intelligence and values control. Similarly, the pursuit of more and more opportunities feels like an extension of whiteness. I should always be showing more, applying to opportunities more. Even though whiteness carries the illusion of being capable and entitled, I think with it comes an expectation that no one is worthy of anything unless you have pushed yourself to extremes. I locate whiteness in the times I’ve been driven more by being impressive than by being engaged with the actual artwork.
I locate whiteness in an artwork that involved a poem written by my great grandmother about wanting to flee Baltimore for the countryside. The poem was next to an article from the early 1900s about redlining. I made it after moving to Baltimore, in a temporary relocation made out of wanting to spend time learning about my family’s role in systemic racism. I see whiteness in older performative video work, before perceiving my body as not being neutral. I see it in a video I made at an all-white art residency, where I wanted to make work with other participants, and accidentally created a portrait of only white midwestern urban artists making each other laugh. I also made a video there that involved pressing on people’s sunburnt skin, causing blanching—momentary blotches of paleness where the blood is pushed away, then rushes back.
Carrying the knowledge that my ancestors caused traumas that are still palpable, and that I still benefit from, is something that influences my thoughts and intentions throughout the day, which includes my art practice. How I spend time while making art is a kind of extension of prayer, meditation, spell-casting. I imagine my energy going towards decaying the bedrock of oppression, white supremacy, illusions of separateness, even if the art itself isn’t head-on confronting these topics.
When I was a teaching artist at a museum, there was a pattern of white people, myself included, being offered more work than the people of color. Some of the other artists and I confronted our employers about the lack of transparency on how to get more work. I felt confident that I wouldn’t lose my job over the complaint—every time I’ve raised complaints to employers, I don’t worry over it costing me my job.
Whiteness to me now means leveraging my body and its privileges (and the platforms I have as a writer and teacher) to make others safe in the ways they want. I have a scar on my face from doing this. I count Chicago youth as my heroes and guides.
In my classrooms, I am always an adult (meaning, I try hard not to require emotional labor from students on my account) and there are always multiple paths to success, many of which the students define for themselves. When appropriate, I decentralize myself. I also build pedagogy and classroom practice directly in opposition to the prison industrial complex (which can be tricky when I am actually teaching inside it, as I do 2-3 times a month). Some concrete examples are rejecting three-tier systems and singular definitions of success, using words like “normalization” in art instead of jail, reaching out to traumatized parents, acknowledging the body and how it feels, and telling my students I love them every day.
Building classrooms that make room for art and love and sincerity, and growth in awareness, while also rejecting white power in structural ways, particularly in this country at this time, is a rigorous practice. Sometimes it’s hilarious, and sometimes it breaks your heart into smithereens. It’s like being in an ocean.
Whiteness maintains the monopoly on norms—and punishments that follow, for those who do not fall into those norms. This is the groundwork of white supremacy. Dylan Rodriguez says that white supremacy is a substructure not only maintained or enacted through the bodies of white people, but is also the very ground on which we stand, the foundation of our being. In this way, the logics of whiteness, much like (and bound up in) the logics of colonialism, can be taken up by people of color. For instance, people who work as police, in state foster care systems, in schools can and do enforce normalization and the shaping of behaviors, no matter their race or ethnicity.
One of the first times I saw whiteness in my work was when I was showing my work Body Configurations Testing the Resistance… and Archisuits to some students in a prison. Folks laughed at the work (which is usually seen as pretty funny) that features me, a mid-20s white woman, flopping my body over bus benches and other defensive architecture. I talked about the issues the work was intended to take up: the mundane violence of architecture and urban planning, targeted at poor and unhoused people. The students totally got it, but also plainly said, “If we pushed our bodies through bushes or pressed up against architecture in public, we’d get arrested!” Of course. This is also why when I asked my cohort of friends to model Archisuits, another project that puts bodies in vulnerable positions in public places, all my white women friends volunteered. This was probably fifteen years ago or more, but it got me thinking about how unsettled I was about early performance art, especially that of white women who were able to be naked, be utterly vulnerable. I hated it and was fascinated by it at the same time. Here, the lingering prospect (or imminent prospect, for the students in prison) of violence towards raced and gendered bodies was made invisible in some of those pieces. The work of Adrian Piper and William Pope L. is therefore so radical, as they take that on and make it visible. Today, I am trying to resist the logics of whiteness in my work and life by taking up projects that are collaborative and also reflexive of the figure of white women. That is to say, the figure of the white woman has for so, so, so long been an alibi for violence and death. I want to resist that and expose it as a death-making tool that white women must transform. I’ve had several false starts, but that is one of the things I’m most interested in now.
In my collaborative work, I organize classes and art collaborations in a prison. The prison is a kind of ground zero within which the material impacts of whiteness, white supremacy, and the histories of racial violence are fully present. I’ve been doing this for about thirteen years now, and you can’t go a day without thinking about the structural violences—both the mundane and spectacular—that reproduce the logics of criminality and incarceration. Over the years I know I’ve had feelings of guilt, questioning why I’m there and not someone else, or how and if I might be organizing through white logics, which does affect my practice. Having a collaborative practice makes me even more concerned about this, so for me, the work includes a lot of communication, check-ins, and reflection at all parts of the process. One thing that matters to folks in my community (both in the prison and collaborators outside) is a consistency of showing up with a politics of care and radical change. This does not supersede whiteness, but I hope it is a small way of eroding its logics.
Whiteness channels supremacist notions found in social and religious coding of the virtuousness of “light” against the demonization of “dark.” Whiteness makes the world in its own image, and envisions itself as the (hetero)norm, the default, the universal perspective that speaks for all lives.
Whiteness turns cultures into mascots and plastic costumes, calls that a “tribute” and offers it for sale. Whiteness colonizes a place and builds cocktail lounges/condos/cul-de-sacs/shopping centers named after the forest it destroyed or the people it displaced. Whiteness then surrounds these places with walls and gates and guards, and builds a monument to itself in the town square.
My hometown was founded by white settlers who were also connected to Northern abolitionist communities, and so it was a major stopping point on the Underground Railroad. Yet this context was seldom (if ever) mentioned in our schools, and goes mostly unacknowledged today while the town grows into a politically conservative sprawlscape that is content to commemorate the narrative of westward “pioneers” and let any abolitionist history fade away in cobwebbed farmhouses and rusty plaques.
Whiteness is seductive and violent. Whiteness is wildly irresponsible and unresponsive.
I am often unsure about my place as a privileged white male in the United States making work in areas I often don’t live in, that are experiencing massive environmental injustice. I feel like one productive use of my whiteness is to use this privilege to foster productive connections and collaborations. What resources do I have access to and how can they be shared with others? When I co-founded Deep Time Chicago, we had the idea of creating a public research trajectory—a fully inclusive alternative form of investigation and education focusing on environmental injustice, modes of stewardship, and cultural change in the anthropocene. It’s not fully realized yet, but we are trying. I am in the middle of planning a large project in Johannesburg, which is tricky on countless levels—but one of the reasons for it is to connect various scientific cultural institutions I have access to around the world with artists, scholars, and activists in Johannesburg, as I think and hope it can create a larger dialogue in a place that is suffering in so many ways.
I understand whiteness as a genocidal tool of capitalism that designates certain people as human and certain people as non-human, to the benefit of the increased accumulation of capital.
Understanding whiteness and how it functions, so that it might be dismantled, is an ongoing process for me and has itself been a central theme in my work since I started making films. Initially, out of a vulgar understanding of the task of representation, I addressed whiteness by casting non-white actors in my films. I saw so many white people in experimental movies (despite having the wonderful and world historically important counter example of the work of Kevin Jerome Everson, who I studied under), that I believed it was simply more interesting to have non-white people within a frame. Eventually I began to feel critical towards the limits of representation, especially in the way I was deploying it, and began testing out a desire to make films ABOUT whiteness, where the whiteness of a character had to be read as a prominent part of the film. Those films felt lacking, because without significant analysis they ended up lending the films the same tone of reactionary (white) violence I was trying to eviscerate. Through reading, I began understanding whiteness as a tool of oppression to prevent recognition. As I continue to reflect critically on my work and (especially!!) read more, I now know whiteness is a barrier to global class struggle, and that if we are serious about dismantling whiteness we need to approach it with a class analysis.
I went to grad school for art and currently work as an adjunct in art departments at two universities. You only have to look around at faculty meetings to know that my whiteness is related to why I’m there. I just went to a faculty meeting with about 50 adjunct, full time, and tenured teachers and I think there were maybe two or three people in the room who weren’t white. Of course, the custodial staff at the same university is almost completely people of African and Latin American descent. It’s heinous and typical.
Art worlds that are sanctioned by capital—even ones that pay out artists relatively nothing, as is the case with small adjunct salaries—function to segregate people by their class and relationship towards whiteness. You have to work really hard to not become completely segregated. Especially in Chicago, which is already so segregated outside of “art worlds,” it’s been important to me to develop relationships with other artists that aren’t white. I try to use projects and infrastructures I’ve helped build (like the TV network I co-direct, ACRETV.org) to have something to offer when starting and then developing those relationships. I try to do this because I enjoy the specific artists we’ve gotten to work with, but also so that I’m not silo-ed in my own white art world like the structures will try and do to you. It’s an imperfect strategy.
Whiteness is all about foundational and fundamental systemic racism that was set in motion by colonial imperialism, genocide, and slavery. Whiteness is a shorthand for talking about the residual irreconciliation, the gulf in healing, the lack of reparations, and the harm it continues to perpetuate. Whiteness is an abbreviation, a symbol. At its surface, it is a visual marker, a meme, or a tendency. Strip away those surfaces, and whiteness is the violent legacy of white supremacy rebranded as the police, the border patrol agent, the president. Whiteness is watered down, palatable, room temperature, and omnipresent.
I have made work that directly deals with whiteness and other work that does not. The recognition of whiteness within and around me challenges, negates, and pushes the conversation I am interested in having as an artist. I don’t think the art world is the most important place for this type of objectivity to happen, because ultimately the art world does little to influence the parts of society where white supremacy is most pervasive—the criminal justice system and the financial and political sectors—but it is the tool we have and we should use it nonetheless.
Whiteness is as vague as it is distinct. The shape and form of whiteness is defined by what it denies. Whiteness is the grasping, gasping usurper. Whiteness is a spatiotemporal shape-shifter.
The location and feeling of whiteness in my work lies in my unearned capacity to disregard my race while making work. Whiteness is located in my white body in front of the camera. I feel that my whiteness is generally unevaluated by the white viewer, perceived as being a body without race—a place where race isn’t present as a conceptual underpinning of the work. Alternatively, I worry that my white body is regarded as oppressive to people of color, specifically queer men of color. When I use my body in my work, it is my attempt to objectify myself. I can cut up pictures of my body to make collage, and I am not worried about the violence inherent in this dismemberment. I usually only use photos of myself for this reason.
The most fundamental parts of my white identity are the accumulations of stability, opportunity, and capital provided by it. These are precisely the things that every artist needs to move freely through the art world. If I was even marginally less privileged than I am, I don’t see how I’d be able to pursue a career as an artist.
Whiteness is the unspoken dominance of a white body as a universal body, a powerful body, an unquestioned body.
I’m not asked very often about race in my paintings, partly because of the abstraction in my work, but also because I’m not treated as someone who occupies a racialized body. This permits me to alter how I depict flesh and body parts in my paintings without being asked to justify every color choice based on my own identity. I move between flesh tones and surreal colors (blues, pinks, purples) according to my own emotional and painterly concerns. Being able to de-prioritize external realities of how different bodies are seen and treated feels like a function of whiteness in my paintings, not necessarily a freedom but a space in which I’m performing a white identity.
I’ve moved through art institutions with ease, rarely feeling like those institutions were not built for me. Outside of academia, I’ve heard covert dialogues discussed more openly—art world folks confiding that they feel burdened by the pressure to be “woke,” find it irritating, would rather not feel pressure to include artists of color in a group show, and so on. In a conversation like that I’m seen as a safe white person to confide in, so I try to not remain “safe,” to counter ignorance directly, and not to work with those people. As a professor I teach a more inclusive art history and resist specific white Western notions of “taste.”
K. Abhalter Smith
I observe whiteness as mediocrity bolstered by entitlement creating homogenized culture by milking willful ignorance.
In my practice as an artist and in observance of my white identity, I see myself as complicit with shameful memories of familial racism. I seek to be aware and not repeat the harms of my ancestors. I consider audience as integral to my work and I take advantage of notions of “universal appeal” through appropriating and subverting tools of promotional advertising. I consider joy and delight as meaningful transactions in art experiences. As the founding director of Roman Susan Art Foundation, I seek to share the privileges of my race/class by providing exhibition platforms and opportunities. The best way I can do this is to trust artists.
Whiteness unlocks humanistic political philosophy in the abstract, making it seem like our society is already equitable and accommodating. Abstract formal gestures extend that false neutrality into the aesthetic realm—complicating it, sometimes, but also masking it further.
It’s inescapable, as far as I can tell, that the interplay between my whiteness and our faux meritocracy determines that any gesture towards collective liberation is accompanied by a twin step forward into white domination. My artistic success is always a win for white supremacy, no matter what I believe or choose.
Whiteness is the currency of white supremacy. It is like a skeleton key, in that it unlocks (or locks) value in everything it surrounds or is surrounded by. Whiteness is bossy and whiny and violent and casual. Whiteness is (pretty) (ugly).
I used to rely on black and brown collaborators, figures, and avatars to push against whiteness in my work. More recently, I have reoriented my tactics toward using whiteness and my own relationship to it as both hammer and mirror. In this new more self-aware space, I am asking these questions in and around the work, both in process and end-product: What can we white people learn/teach about moving away from white supremacy and towards liberation for ourselves and others? What does this even look like? How do we push against white supremacy without mimicking its effect? What are the ethics of engaging in a project intended to lessen our (white people’s) unearned privilege and power? Why is it so hard to see/know/feel our whiteness? What separates whiteness from white people? How close can we get to destroying white supremacy? What, if any, unique gifts do white people have beyond their privilege? How can these gifts be put to the task of transformative social and racial justice? Does art help move the needle?
I’ve been organizing with other white folks against white supremacist thinking and behaviors for a few years now. Group work like this lends a super helpful accountability to my own anti-racist values (which I can so easily choose to cast aside) along with a space to process all the messy feelings that come with this work (white fragility is very very real). White supremacy still insists that white people are only accountable to their whiteness when they volunteer to be so. And there is literally no benefit in doing so, beyond the immeasurable—and occasionally ecstatic—benefit of truly living one’s values. Which I cannot recommend enough.
The monster sits here, passively claiming some inocuous european ancestry while secretly gorging on the lifeforce of the earth and the majority of its people in the name of judeo-christian notions of “goodness” or “righteousness” or “correctness,” all codewords for the hetero-patriarchal capitalist paradigm. The monster appears in endless outfits and bodies such as father-knows-best, the non-profit industrial complex, my queer ashkenazi jewish cousin claiming not to be white, prisons; a sludgy malaise similar to seasonal affective disorder, american yoga, a climate death march.
Ever since I was a child I have had day dreams about being straight, suburban, boring, and brainwashed so that I could avoid the work that comes with knowing the truth about my and my ancestors’ complicity in white supremacy. My art is the material evidence of my efforts to proclaim, theorize, and exorcise those avoidant and mediocre fantasies through things like decoration, caricature, dress-up, sex, drawing, reading, writing, and political organizing. All of this so that I can stay closer to truth, which links to freedom. And through so many channels, whiteness has been made synonymous with freedom, even though whiteness is a nihilistic and violent trap that I know has nothing to do with freedom. In this way, my work is also about trying to reach a freedom that opposes but does not lie about whiteness and my relationship to it.
Avoidance (or worse) fueled by scarcity feelings is so clearly indicative of white supremacy and capitalism’s interlocking relationship. I am cultivating a sustained practice of facing this truth and interrogating feelings of scarcity in order to resist collusion with harmful people and structures. When I do have to collude and participate (and everyone does), I speak out against expressions of racism when they arise. Still, these practices are ultimately defensive; harm reduction at best. And as I share above, my art practice has some significance when it comes to processing and exorcising my white bullshit, but this work is more gestural and instructive than material and actionable. So really, grassroots organizing, educating, and fundraising are the only ways to truly be accountable in my book. I used to try collapsing my impulse to organize into my art practice, but I learned that for me it’s more effective to put whatever skills I gain from being an artist, and resources I gain from being white, into direct action.
- From editor Danny Giles: The first definition of a “white picture” is an image that depicts and critiques whiteness as a dominant yet often unmarked and unarticulated racial category. It invites visual artists and critics to deconstruct representations of whiteness as part of the process of dismantling it and revealing how it is structured within our society and culture. The second definition of a “white picture” is an image that is blank, empty, or erased or otherwise deals with notions of voids or fugitivity and how artists use absence or erasure to refuse the often limiting and violent terms of representation.
- Sara Ahmed, “Declarations of Whiteness: The Non-Performativity of Anti-Racism,” Borderlands 3, no. 2 (2004): http://www.borderlands.net.au/vol3no2_2004/ahmed_declarations.htm