Five Ways to Disrupt White Supremacy in the Mainstream Art World

Racist imagery in tchotchke form. Photo courtesy of Eddy Milfort via Flickr
Racist imagery in tchotchke form (photo by Eddy Milfort/Flickr)

Recently I was invited to take part in an event and conversation on the work of the conceptual poet Vanessa Place organized by the National Coalition Against Censorship. I sought information on her from a friend who is also a poet, Farid Matuk, whose contribution is printed below, and ended up agreeing with him that her work in general and particularly the tweets appropriating Gone with the Wind failed to meaningfully challenge white supremacy, while it nevertheless gestured toward doing so in attempting to interpose itself in an ongoing wider debate around systemic racism.

Our discussion led to deeper consideration of what might be done to challenge what is widely recognized as an institutionally facilitated, historically formed, systemic power relationship that defends and maintains the wealth and privilege of people of the European continent (understood to be white) while exploiting, demeaning or ignoring people of color. As I am using it here, the term “white supremacy” indicates systematized efforts to preserve the dominant group position of those identified as white over those designated as non-white, through philosophical, economic, scientific, religious and political structures.

In order to more thoroughly confront this circumstance, Hyperallergic invited me to seek out the opinions of colleagues and professionals in the field whose intelligence and insight are formidable, to forthrightly answer the query: “What would you do to disrupt white supremacy in the current system of art production?” They all developed expressive, eloquent and unrestrained responses to this question that have been edited only for length. It may be pertinent to state that they are hail from different subject positions vis-à-vis sexuality, race, national origin, and gender.

Farid Matuk

Farid Matuk is the author of This Isa Nice Neighborhood (Letter Machine) and My Daughter La Chola (Ahsahta).

Photo courtesy the author.
(photo courtesy the author)

In their introduction to The Racial Imaginary Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda note that white folks called out for making racist work worry over their right to imagine people of color or to ignore people of color. Wisely, Rankine and Loffreda urge we shift the conversation away from rights over to desire, inviting everyone to explore why our work seeks or veers from this or that (imagined) body.

But maybe that’s what you say when you’re facing white people. Maybe that’s what you say when you’re facing white students like the ones I teach. Maybe that’s what you say when you love the people you’re facing. What if white folks don’t have the right? What if they just stay with the difficulty of that proposition? What if their task is to earn it, re-order their valuation of the world for it, which is to say re-order the world?

There’s a strain of conceptual poetics that hinges on the proposition that media, social or otherwise, seeks to reproduce itself without concern for the content it spits. Standing in that structural void, certain white conceptual poets prove their point by beating the black body at the walls of the gallery or lecture hall saying, See, no content resists the black body’s flight through this empty air, and btw, what do you call a Muslim who owns a camel and a goat? Such work, we are told, renders white supremacy — and the ugly embrace of neoliberalism and multiculturalism in which it hides — visible. There are worlds beyond that embrace, but if such radicals can’t see them, they might work, instead, to render whiteness itself not visible but evitable.

Dr. Herukhuti

Dr. Herukhuti, is a playwright, essayist, poet, and Chief Erotics Officer of Center for Culture, Sexuality and Spirituality. His new play “My Brother’s a Keeper” will begin a national tour in 2016

Photo courtesy the author.
(photo by Efrain Gonzalez, and courtesy the author)

I would make art that doesn’t rely upon imperialism, white supremacy, capitalism or heteropatriarchy to exist, be received and have impact. I would make art that doesn’t have them as an intended audience or reviewer. I would make art that articulates the realities of living in an unjust society as well as envisions liberatory futures. I would do so in ways that are rooted in maroon tradition, pan-African revolutionary praxis, radical queer politics, Funk aesthetics, and the complexities of Black beauty. I would make art that creates alternative systems of art production that draw upon the resources, magic, and mother’s milk of indigenous communities. I would seek out, identify, and embrace the people, groups, and spirits past, present, and future capable of nurturing such an approach to disruptive, oppositional, and liberatory world shaking and making.

And I know I would do these things because they are what I am doing. But I’m doing so for reasons other than to disrupt white supremacy in the current system of art production. I do these things because I want to be free. I do these things because I am committed to supporting the ongoing effort for the creation of a more socially just and ecologically well world. I do these things because I desire, deep in the marrow of my bones, what if feels like to love, live, and make art in a world without these soul-crunchers.

Dr. Nizan Shaked

Dr. Nizan Shaked is an Associate Professor of Contemporary Art History, Museum and Curatorial Studies at California State University Long Beach and author of the forthcoming The Synthetic Proposition: Conceptualism and the Political Referent in Contemporary Art.

Photo by Nicholas Gaby.
(photo by Nicholas Gaby)

The Black Panther Party leader Huey P. Newton theorized racism as a tool to instill and sustain class oppression and exploitation, a mechanism to ensure the existence of available cheap labor. It follows that in order to eliminate racism everywhere, and that includes the realm of art and aesthetics, we should battle capitalism. However, and this is the however that matters, the argument that political intervention should start with the broadest social underpinning, i.e. class, will eventually resolve all secondary issues (race, gender sexuality, etc.), has done the Left a great disservice. Instead of embracing the abolitionist tendencies of the 1960s social movements, the Left in general, and the art-world Left in particular, busied itself with criticizing identity politics.

Meanwhile, in the court of wealth (in the 1980s), a new set of financial tools allowed the market to grow into the monster it is today, influencing new generations of museum patronage that is imposing its taste on us all. What can we do? Set aside the semantics and correctly identify the battle. Demand that all institutions receiving public funds make their decision-making processes transparent. Museums should be consulting artist boards that reflect the demographics of the social fabric. Members should be individuals respected in the field, not just famous artists. Programming should reflect a wide array of tastes, approaches, and methodologies, and be publically debated in town-hall meetings. Finally, accessions should be made by tiered systems of peer-review and expert opinion, not by the whims of a financial ruling class.

Travis Webb

Travis Webb is a PhD candidate in Religion at Claremont Graduate University in California, and editor of The Abeng, the scholarly journal for the Institute of Signifying Scriptures.

Photo courtesy the author.
(photo courtesy the author)

“White supremacy” in the art world suggests the supremacy of white people. And it seems to me you are asking, how we disrupt the hegemony of these white people. If that’s what you’re asking, then fund the work of non-white artists and suppress their white counterparts, censor white productions, belittle the achievements of white people while celebrating non-white people. We know these tactics work because historically white people have used them very effectively to steal rock n’ roll, dehumanize native “crafts,” and elevate European “art” music above other “colored” musics. The tactics of the bully are well established.

No, ultimately whiteness is not coterminous with the hegemony of white people. I’m not suggesting the supremacy of white people isn’t a historical reality. I’m saying that whiteness — shorthand for an otherworldly contempt for the body — is a habit, a mode, a glamour to conceal these messy, universally non-white bodies. None of us are white. Not one. Whiteness is our mythology, our fixation, the totem around which our politics of identity spin. That totem as police murders black people. That totem as neighborhood watchman stalks skittles-wielding teenagers and scrubs them from the world. If you want to disrupt whiteness in the world of art, I’d open up all the bathroom stalls at the Met, and the Guggenheim, and every other mausoleum built to house man’s magnificence and make everyone piss and shit in the open, in full view of one another. Whiteness would leave that place and never come back.

Oasa DuVerney

Oasa DuVerney is an artist, mother, and native New Yorker. 

Photo courtesy the author.
(photo courtesy the author)


First of all, fuck the art world. It is the most boring self-congratulatory capitalist farce/lifestyle brand there is on the market.


Start telling the truth. White supremacy in art hides behind a protective blanket of self serving theories that work to silence truthsayers, and dismisses anything that calls them out directly as didactic, offensive, “not really art,” and problematic, or just community art.

We often believe that to collapse this establishment we have to work within the parameters they give us so as not to be dismissed. Dismiss these parameters.

There is no point in supporting a system intent on crushing you. Don’t give white supremacy and patriarchy the luxury of believing that there is nothing wrong with it. Everything that is wrong started with it.


Rather than making work about redefining your identity within the confines of the racist tropes you’ve been handed and required to perform; why not redefine whiteness? In particular male whiteness. James Baldwin said: “I have been described by you for hundreds of years. And now, I can describe you. That’s part of the panic.”

Create panic.

By making them think you don’t give a fuck by not giving a fuck. And of course

keep your day job and your head up.


Be a gangsta. Not the kind that abuses the system to give corporate welfare to their billionaire friends. When the time comes help organize your block to rent strike for affordable housing and be an artist that dismantles capitalism.


comments (0)