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A Syllabus for Making Work About Race as a White Artist in America

This course offers a starting point: assignments for the white artist to understand their own racial position.

Objectives

Why do white artists think the only way you can discuss race is through the suffering of people of color?

Dana Schutz’s paintingOpen Casket in the 2017 Whitney Biennial highlights this phenomenon: Schutz, a white woman, attempted to stir our collective empathy by painting the disfigured body of Emmett Till. But her identity — and, likely, her experience — is actually closer to that of Carolyn Bryant, the white woman whose lies led to Till’s murder.

Everyone, including the artist, agrees that Schutz doesn’t know what it means to be Black in America. What’s more disturbing is that Schutz doesn’t seem to know what it means to be white in America. If she did, she might have examined her relationship to the very present social, political, and economic structures — call them white supremacy, for short — which killed that 14-year-old boy in 1955 and so many Black people before and after him.

Since the Joe Scanlan controversy of the last Whitney Biennial, I’ve listened to a number of white-identified students, artists, and art workers who feel stuck in that racial construct. You are nervous to tread into any conversation about race. Many of you avoid the question altogether by retreating into an increasingly esoteric conversation about small abstract gestures, art world jokes, and conceptualism.

But what about those of you who identify as white and still want to make works rich with social and historical narrative, who want to wrestle with institutionalized American violence? I believe there is a vast terrain of secreted and shamed experiences waiting for you to unpack. Accessing them might be the hardest work of your life.

This course offers a starting point: assignments for the white artist to understand their own racial position. This is a subject that I’ve rarely seen addressed, perhaps because keeping the silence around it is in fact instrumental to whiteness. Your ability to do this work, inside or outside of the studio, could not only help alleviate the suffering of people of color, but also repair your own mental and emotional lives.

Requirements

Introduce constructive discomfort both within yourself and among your white-identified peers, social circles, and families. Be prepared to release long-held assumptions.

This course asks for intensive emotional labor. If you ask people of color for advice or inclusion, emotional, mental or research support for any of the assignments below, you must compensate us generously for that work.

Nayland Blake, “Equipment for a Shameful Epic” (1993), mixed mediums (photo by Courtney “Coco” Mault/Flickr)

Week One, Drawing: Sketch a psychological portrait of white shame.

What is the psychological life of a white person in America?

How might you visualize the guilt, power imbalances, doubts, and fear that constitute the white imaginary, i.e., the idea that you are entitled to everything? How might you depict these feelings without portraying them as either normal or heroic? Can you demonstrate the ways that this imaginary plays out in your daily life and your interactions with others?

Week Two, Performance: Mark the whiteness of your social circles.

Three-quarters of white people don’t have any non-white friends. Mark whiteness the way you mark difference. If you refer to a white friend, always specify that they’re white (the way you would if they were Black, Latino, Native, or Asian).

Don’t normalize. Think about the long history of racial terror and segregation that made your hometown all white. If you enter a big room of white people, feel, for a moment, how creepy that is. Draw attention to this fact.

Take it a step further: choose a gesture to perform any time you enter a white space. This can be funny, absurd, or quiet — e.g. leave the room, hold up a jar of mayonnaise, shout “53%! Never forget!,” etc. You’re the artist: use your imagination.

Bonus Assignment: Desegregate your art circle.

If you’re invited to a panel or group exhibition, ask for the racial makeup of the participants. If the majority are white, ask why. If there’s not a good reason (e.g. the exhibition is critically investigating whiteness), decline. Encourage other invited white artists to do the same.

Week 3, Research Question: When did you discover you were white? (Can be completed in any medium)

Thandeka, in Learning to Be White, theorizes that the Euro-American child “is a racial victim of its own white community of parents, caretakers, and peers, who attack it because it does not yet have a white racial identity. Rather than continue to suffer such attacks, the Euro-American child defends itself by creating a white racial identity for itself.”

When did you learn you were white? Was it when you were walking down the street and your mom pulled you closer to avoid that person coming the other way? Was it when your white teacher got all awkward around those students when you read Huckleberry Finn out loud in class? Was it election night 2016?

Investigate the moment you were taught to choose your family/social circle’s approval over an innate connection to all people. Next, figure out how to speak to this defining experience in your work.

Week 4, Conceptual: Find, document, and archive your family’s relationship to the three root traumas of American history — slavery, genocide, and warfare.

Consider the fact that your insurance company, alma mater, housing deed, bank, hospital, etc. probably all have direct ties to segregation and slavery. Think about that uncle who served in Korea or Vietnam and how he processes the millions of civilian murders that happened “over there.” Remember that, in this moment, you are sitting on land violently stolen from indigenous people.

How do you recreate the archive of that intentionally erased history? Maybe there were people in your family who were abolitionists, pacifists, or organizers. There were definitely people who weren’t. Interview the family members on both sides of the issue. Find the records of their participation or disavowal of those systems of violence.

Bonus Assignment: Sell the work and use the proceeds to pay reparations.

Evaluation

Although completion of all the above assignments is encouraged, congratulating yourself will lead to an automatic fail. This is, after all, the basic work of accessing your own humanity.

In fact, there are no As in this course. You don’t have to exhibit your art or solicit collectors and curators. You don’t even have to show it to me. Just do the work.

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