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Left to right:  NADI, Cindy Sherman (photos), Rodrigo Valenzuela (video), Titus Kaphar (sculpture), Toyin Ojih Odutola (drawings), Ken Gonzales-Day (photo), Sandeep Mukherjee (sculpture), Anicka Yi, in On Whiteness at the Kitchen (© Jason Mandella)

The scholar Sara Ahmed opens her essay “A phenomenology of whiteness” with a series of questions on the project of examining whiteness: “If whiteness gains currency by being unnoticed, then what does it mean to notice whiteness? … Could whiteness studies produce an attachment to whiteness by holding it in place as an object?” In other words, how do we talk about whiteness without solidifying, even strengthening it?

Ahmed’s text is one of the groundings for the exhibition On Whiteness on view at the Kitchen — the latest iteration of a project exploring this topic by the Racial Imaginary Institute, a project founded by Claudia Rankine with her MacArthur grant in 2016. The Racial Imaginary Institute decided to focus on whiteness as their first major initiative, in order to “make visible that which has been intentionally presented as inevitable,” to disrupt the “bloc” of whiteness. In addition to the exhibition, several other organizations in New York are hosting partner events, and the Institute published an online “Whiteness Issue.”

Though the exhibition’s curatorial statement claims that the exhibition works by “disorienting the particularly habituated space of the white cube gallery,” it is, more or less, a group exhibition on a theme. The main gallery is still an even, white square; the works are arranged and displayed traditionally, creating formal echoes between pairings. The artists are racially diverse, and present an array of media, content, subject, and conceptual concerns — some directly parody whiteness, others address it obliquely, some seem to have just woken up to it.

These are not failures of the exhibition’s curators as much as demonstrations of how early we are in the conversation. How does one, through the already-slippery languages and modes of contemporary visual art, attempt to disrupt a phenomenon as pervasive as whiteness? Perhaps in order to account for this tricky task, the exhibition’s curators asked each artist: “How does your artistic practice disrupt perceptual or phenomenological habits of whiteness?” The answers reveal as much about the subject’s relation to whiteness as the works themselves.

Installation view of On Whiteness, with Mel Chin’s “Aileen” (2015) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Cindy Sherman doesn’t answer, allowing her two photographic self-portraits from her 2000 “headshot” series to speak for themselves. It’s not clear that the pieces interrogate whiteness, so much as they presume the neutrality of whiteness in order to focus on different iterations of white femininity — makeup, dress, gesture, class. Especially considering her resurfaced blackface works, it would be nice if she said more. Titus Kaphar’s lack of response for his sculpture “A Pillow for Fragile Fictions” reads differently. A clear, glass sculpture of George Washington’s head lays on its side, filled with rum, tamarind, lime, and molasses. Kaphar’s anti-monument to the founding father, connecting his legacy to the violent transatlantic trades that produced him, speaks directly to the question on its own.

Several works use archival techniques to excavate the construction of the white bloc. Ken Gonzales-Day’s well-known series takes an archival image of a lynching, but removes the body of the slain person, leaving us with the over-exposed images of the white audience against a tree and dark sky. The audience is left to contemplate the expressions and mentalities of those onlookers, who ushered in the modern spectacle of black suffering. Ja’Tovia Gary, in “On Punishment,” draws on and scratches the faces of two white men in a public service television short from the 1970s. The film shows two rats being electrocuted on a wire cage, while one man blandly pronounces the benefits of physical punishment, and the surprising violence that results. One senses that Gary’s physical marks both disrupt and highlight the horrific scene, de-naturalizing what the two men present as necessity.

Charlotte Lagarde’s “Colonial White” also goes back to the roots of American myth. She asks a group of participants (as well as visitors to the exhibition) to take a ‘colonial white’ paint chip, photograph it in a situation or place that embodies the colonial, and write why. One participant compares colonial white to the trendy gray omnipresent in gentrifying buildings in San Francisco. Another takes a picture with the Capitol Building, noting that the relationship is self-explanatory.

Native Art Department International (screen), Mel Chin (sculpture on pedestal), Anicka Yi (sculpture on floor), Ja’Tovia Gary (projection). Behind NADI screen, you can see Ken Gonzales-Day (photo) and Titus Kaphar (sculpture) (© Jason Mandella)

Parody is another tactic in the exhibition. Mores McWreath contributes several of his Spots — weekly shorts he produces which use his subjectivity as a white man to examine those fears and ideologies to an extreme. In one, he sits on a couch, the disgruntled gamer, discussing his violent fantasies and desire for simulated sex. Next to those videos, Seung-Min Lee set up a water cooler filled with milk, which visitors are free to drink. A video sits atop the cooler — part documentary on the decline of the dairy industry alongside the adoption of milk as a symbol of the alt-right, and part performance piece in which Lee, dressed in a cow outfit, passes out milk in Brooklyn’s Chinatown. The piece is named “Intolerable Whiteness,” a nod to lactose intolerance which, according to the artist’s statement, affects most African Americans and Latinx people, and the vast majority of Asians.

Paul Chan contributed his Madonna with Childs to the exhibition — a series of ghostly, conical Klan-like figures made of white nylon atop fans that billow and wave in the style of those inflatable roadside attractions. The figures, hollow and comical, suggest the emptiness of the Klan’s terror. In his response to the curators’ question, he says, “I’m not aware that it does,” but that he edited and published Aruna D’Souza’s Whitewalling. It’s unclear if Chan is offering an honest realization, or a glib evasion. And his opaque answer points to larger questions — are the curators reading a critique onto the work that was never intended? Do the billowing figures only appear to skewer the Klan within the context of this exhibition?

Ken Gonzalez-Day’s “The Wonder Gaze (St. James Park)” (2006–2013) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Here, Ahmed’s conclusion is useful. She writes: “If we want to know how things can be different too quickly, then we might not hear anything at all.” That is, she encourages us to keep critique and possibility open while wrangling with the “ongoing and unfinished history” of racism. Whiteness is so embedded into our political, social, and artistic lives, it might not be clear what the most effective forms of dismantling it are.

Whiteness, if we don’t know it already, is a slippery, shifting set of markers, actions, and institutions. If, during the Obama years, whiteness was characterized by dog-whistling, evasion, and liberal blindness, it is having a resurgence today as open pride, supremacy, and terrorism — as the Institute’s online statement puts it, “the volume on whiteness has been turned up.” Amid the noise, this exhibition, and hopefully others like it to come, might be a place to start listening.

The Racial Imaginary Institute: On Whiteness continues at the Kitchen (512 West 19th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through August 3. 

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Ryan Wong

Ryan Lee Wong is an arts writer based in Brooklyn. He has worked at the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Chinese in America, where he was assistant curator.

13 replies on “How to Talk About Whiteness”

  1. I think the construction of Whiteness may be somewhat passé as a hot intellectual subject in that it has been talked about a great deal for the last 20 or so years, to the point where it has descended to the level of Internet trolls (see above or below). Maybe the conversation hasn’t reached the hinterland, neither will an exhibition at a gallery in a big city. I concede that the curious affection of small gallery owners for the white cube model is suspect, but I don’t think much is constructed thereby. Indeed, some galleries have moved on to light gray! And there are a couple on the verges of Chinatown that have gone in for crap pseudocomic Bastiatish décor. Maybe it’s all Trump’s fault. And Putin’s.

    1. I don’t think discussion of Whiteness has descended into the level of trolls. There has always been “trolling” of conversations about race and racism in this settler colonial society; it just didn’t have that Internet moniker. Trolling is meant to disrupt, deflect and/or demean; to remove the topic of discussion from serious consideration. I see that intention around many conversational topics and at any point in that discussion, 20 seconds or 20 years in. Trolling, if you want to call it that, plagued early 20th Century artists from M. Duchamp to others. Trolls dismiss not by critique, but by sheer emotional vehemence and verbal attack. I would argue that Whiteness might be passé as a chic intellectual commodity, but among the masses, it is a subject very much at the center of currency. That’s why trolls wish to devalue it (see comment below). Trolls say much about the society in which they operate, although the activity has become transnational. And it certainly isn’t Trump’s fault. Trump appeals to the base instincts of a segment in this settler colony, one that has always been here, and continues to thrive unabated, the famous pushback that has resisted progressive social change since the founding of this colony, with anti-blackness at the center of and central to it and U.S. political culture. Whiteness is the subject position of the latter. If it is true that whiteness gains currency by being unnoticed, which I believe it does, then racist trolling services as a vehicle to that end by disrupting and dislocating attention to whiteness itself.

  2. There is a troll in every backyard it seems these days. Makes no difference the subject, but the subject of race in America is particularly prone to trolling. Trolls such as yourself mean to tire people out, deflect, turn meaningful conversation into mush. I say, troll, you and your ilk have eaten enough pixels. Time to move past you. Time for you to move past yourself. As ever Black as Resistance!

    1. Are you all seeing the comment? I deleted it yesterday and not sure why some of you are still seeing it. I can’t see it on my screen. Apologies to everyone who is forced to see this.

      1. I don’t know what comment you’re talking about? I see comments by Anarcisse and Snr. With your comment and mine, I see at this moment four commenters.

      2. If you meant to delete this comment “Blacks are inferior to White people” then at 8:50 CT, it still exists. I haven’t refreshed my browser since that time. Apology accepted.

  3. There is a telling silence in America and the Western World concerning the ongoing colonialism of all culture by white skinned people. It’s business as usual – even with the occasional uproar by groups defending minority rights and the fury against Trump’s Administration and its stated and unstated goals of making America more white. Of course it’s a fantasy but the effort has already killed or hurt quite a lot of people, including that young student in Charlottesville, Virginia. Why are whites so silent on this subject? Largely, I believe, because they benefit from it all. The term is commonly known as white privilege. Bring this up to an elderly white person with money and they could possibly take your head off. But it’s true – try it. I just finished and posted simple art piece on my instagram about this very subject. Take a look. @mistahcoughdrop … Cheers and carry on.

    1. Well, I’m an elderly White person (by appearance) with some money and I’ve certainly led a relatively privileged life. But I think things have changed somewhat. Of course, I’m going by my local experience, which is of New York City, so maybe atypical for an American. But first of all, the structure of Whiteness has changed, and secondly, White is no longer the normal or default assumption, hence it is visible. For instance, because color codes for class, and class codes for gentrification behaviors, the incursion of (mostly) White, better-off people into a formerly (mostly) not White, not so well-off neighborhood is quite noticeable and remarked upon, usually not in a positive way — not because people think White people are inferior but because the local culture is inevitably lost as the existing residents get kicked out. Of course sometimes the people who get kicked out are White, poorer White people. I don’t know what happens to them, they do seem to vanish.

      The ability of the (mostly) White, better-off people to colonialize culture now has to do more with class than with the old social layering of the American social order, which involved not only color and ethnicity, but religion, region, accent, familial ancestry and other such attributes as well. Three or four generations back, my male ancestors in the paternal line anyway were guaranteed desk jobs and white collars at least after a stint at an Ivy-league college. That sort of thing went away during the last half of the 20th century. I think the way the social order is trying to preserve itself now is by bourgeoisifying select individuals of a variety of categories including race. Trump & Co.’s infantile nihilism is not going to avert that process (unless he blows everything up). But is this news? Maybe in the hinterland? Don’t know, I’m not out there.

  4. Nicely dissected. I would like to know more about what a show that focuses on the anthesis of whiteness would look like, or could discuss. Not just a “Black Power” sort of motif, more like “Living Color.”

    The Resignifications series does a good job of this from the perspective of the African Diaspora- so I wonder about other notable exhibitions that combine different racial designations (like what On Whiteness is trying to do), or focuses on one (e.g. Latinx on whiteness, Asian on whiteness.)

  5. What this article and presumably this exhibition are making the mistake of doing is conflating two separate issues; being white/being identified as white and far right/white suprematist groups. These are not synonymous and should never be so, as it makes exactly the mistake that the white suprematists do, that of painting a group with a broad brush and accusing it of something. The assertion that ‘whiteness was characterized by dog-whistling, evasion, and liberal blindness’ backed up by nothing but dogma is quite frankly arrogant, that a group as non-homogenous as ‘white people’ can be conflated with issues of class, economics, politics etc. I am not remotaly politically alligned with these groups as a liberal myself, but am concerned that statements such as this just muddy the water without contributing anything positive.
    At least not as ridiculous as this article from a year ago https://hyperallergic-launch.newspackstaging.com/369762/a-syllabus-for-making-work-about-race-as-a-white-artist-in-america/

  6. What this article and presumably this exhibition are making the mistake of doing is conflating two separate issues; being white/being identified as white and far right/white suprematist groups. These are not synonymous and should never be so, as it makes exactly the mistake that the white suprematists do, that of painting a group with a broad brush and accusing it of something. The assertion that ‘whiteness was characterized by dog-whistling, evasion, and liberal blindness’ backed up by nothing but dogma is quite frankly arrogant, that a group as non-homogenous as ‘white people’ can be conflated with issues of class, economics, politics etc. I am not remotaly politically alligned with these groups as a liberal myself, but am concerned that statements such as this just muddy the water without contributing anything positive.
    At least not as ridiculous as this article from a year ago https://hyperallergic-launch.newspackstaging.com/369762/a-syllabus-for-making-work-about-race-as-a-white-artist-in-america/

  7. What this article and presumably this exhibition are making the mistake of doing is conflating two separate issues; being white/being identified as white and far right/white suprematist groups. These are not synonymous and should never be so, as it makes exactly the mistake that the white suprematists do, that of painting a group with a broad brush and accusing it of something. The assertion that ‘whiteness was characterized by dog-whistling, evasion, and liberal blindness’ backed up by nothing but dogma is quite frankly arrogant, that a group as non-homogenous as ‘white people’ can be conflated with issues of class, economics, politics etc. I am not remotaly politically alligned with these groups as a liberal myself, but am concerned that statements such as this just muddy the water without contributing anything positive.
    At least not as ridiculous as this article from a year ago https://hyperallergic-launch.newspackstaging.com/369762/a-syllabus-for-making-work-about-race-as-a-white-artist-in-america/

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