From Antiracism & whiteness

Artistic responsibility

I wrote this originally for the Race & Fiction Writing member page, but I’m moving it here since it’s something I really care about. Emoji smiley face.

A few of us discussed the matter of Dana Schutz’s painting at the April meeting. For me, the issue comes down to artistic freedom versus artistic responsibility. (One of our values being “both/and,” I’ll note that these are not necessarily in opposition.) Something I realized after the meeting was that while I had taken pains to present both points of view in the handout posted here, in fact the artistic freedom (“for the painting”) argument is amply represented in our white-dominated culture. What’s lacking, I feel, is a broadly understood argument for artistic responsibility. Therefore, I recommend that interested folks check out “The Case Against Dana Schutz” by Josephine Livingstone and Lovia Gyarkye at The New Republic. Speaking personally, the great effort it took to open my mind to the idea that I should, need and ought not to write on whatever subject inspires me—to take on board that I might not have a right to do that, and, perhaps more to the point, that I can lovingly and thoughtfully choose not to—the very difficulty of taking that step reminds me how powerful white supremacy is.

Edit: A letter from L.M. Williams in the April 24 issue of The New Yorker makes the point with clarity.

Much has been said in Schutz’s defense about art as empathy and the importance of resisting self-censorship. These are fail-safe points in discussions of artistic freedom, and they sidestep a foundational problem: the decision to make art without regard for the lives involved, and no matter the consequences. Even well-intentioned artistic empathy can become a form of trespass when it comes uninvited and replays the damage done to the people with whom the artist seeks to stand. The kind of racist violence depicted in “Open Casket” still happens, and still goes unpunished. Protesters, in asking, “Where are the images of Till’s murderers?,” are asking why America memorializes hate crimes against its black citizens by gazing at the victims instead of by holding the perpetrators accountable.

School of white-supremacy magic

It must be said, in the current political climate, that I don’t use “white supremacy” on this blog to mean explicit racism as espoused by the white nationalists who’ve rechristened themselves the alt-right. I use it in the accepted academic sense of

a historically based, institutionally perpetuated system of exploitation and oppression of continents, nations and peoples of color by white peoples and nations of the European continent; for the purpose of maintaining and defending a system of wealth, power and privilege

(Sharon Martinas). This is also the definition we use in the Race and Fiction-Writing group. Anyway, I watched a few episodes of “The Magicians,” which is okay. It’s about a school for magic, and speaking of school, I am forced to conclude that there is some sort of Hollywood class which most TV creators have to take called How Not To Be Racist On TV (While Still Being Racist). Once you pass this course, you are qualified to put out into the world all sorts of interesting, entertaining and even intelligent TV shows that are super-racist. Here are the three tentpoles of the course. Read more

Five years in

It’s coming up on five years since I gamed my way into the “Undoing Racism” training offered by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond (I traded on my affiliation with a community development organization to get in for free). Around the same time, I was also becoming involved with an anti-oppression group within Occupy Boston, where I met some people whose friendship and guidance I still treasure today. In the time that followed, I passed through what you might call the first fire of a white person’s race consciousness. I recorded perhaps too much of that experience on this blog, about which a journalist on Twitter once said to me, not unkindly, “I think what you are doing on your blog is called Working Shit Out.”

I wanted to write something brief to address where my thoughts are today and why I now blog about race much less frequently. (I blog less frequently overall, but that’s more about the evolution of my views on self-promotion since I published The One-Way Rain, as well as my dissatisfaction with my nonfiction voice.) Well, if I had to condense my journey since 2011 into a few sentences, I would say that my mind has moved towards complexity and away from the laborious naming, typologizing, explication, and apology that characterize many of my earlier blog posts. I hope I am moving away from dogma and towards greater understanding. Thank you to everyone who has given me love and hours of conversation and shown me what living consciously and self-questioningly can look like. And thanks for reading.

Overheard on Visiting Day at The City School

“White people are like, oh, I had a good day. They think that’s it, they had a good day. They don’t understand they had a prescribed good day. You had a prescribed good day and we had a prescribed bad day. We wake up and we know we’re going to have a bad day. We know somebody’s going to yell at us, somebody’s going to call us a name or look at us funny.”

Learn more about The City School and its Summer Leadership Program here.

“The Leftovers,” part deux

After fulminating against the failure of “The Leftovers” to represent 38.6% of the population of Texas, I watched the second half of Season 2 last night. I remain impressed by the ease with which this show passes both the Shukla and Bechdel Tests. There are many scenes in which people of color, especially the Murphy family, talk to each other without mentioning their race (the former), and a lengthy, wonderful two-hander between Nora and Erika in which they are definitely not talking about a man (the latter). But Damon Lindelof and his crack crew of writers still need to step up their game. Read more

The backpack incident

Ever been smacked in the head by your own whiteness, assuming you are white?

I’m in the supermarket waiting to buy a pound of salmon when I realize someone is trying to get my attention. “Ma’am? Ma’am?” she says to me. She is a brown-skinned woman with her hair in a ponytail. “I was just admiring your”—here I assume she’s going to say “coat,” as I am wearing a truly awesome garnet-colored vintage bouclé coat—“backpack.”

The thing about my backpack is until recently it said “Black Lives Matter,” discreetly, in Sharpied letters on gray canvas. Last week I got a paint pen and operated on the letters until they were much more noticeable. Aha! I think. “Oh, thanks!” I say. Read more

The Trojan horse of Ice Cream Star

Last weekend I had the strange and wonderful experience of reading The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman. I had put off starting it because the whole thing is written in an invented post-apocalyptic dialect and sometimes you just don’t feel like doing all that work. Well, it was work, in the best possible sense—immersive, rewarding and exhilarating, the best kind of reading there is. In fact, you can get a feel for Ice Cream’s language and grammar within a few pages; what’s really dangerous about the book is the way it gets a feel for you. My truest life is reading and writing fiction. I read a new novel every few days, but this one reached me in a place where books don’t usually go. I think that’s in part because the half-alien language is a Trojan horse that carries the book’s beauty and despair straight into your heart. Read more

This author gets it

Tomorrow in Race and Fiction Writing we will discuss the question: How Do We Write Characters Whose Race Is Different Than Ours? Meanwhile, I struck gold on the reading-copy shelf a few weeks back. I got fourteen books! Plus Charles Bukowski, On Cats, which I gave to a friend.

One you can’t see in the picture is The New and Improved Romie Futch, by Julia Elliott. Romie is a South Carolina taxidermist who undergoes a sort of flowers-for-Algernon experiment and emerges with greatly enhanced mental capacity. He throws himself into creating avant-garde animal dioramas that illustrate “the trans-human ecology,” hunting down a mutant monster known as Hogzilla, and the odd drunken funk. The writing is great. I was going along enjoying the book well enough, and then I came across something I’ve never seen before. Read more

Racial justice is not a zero-sum game

On Friday I took a pleasant walk down Garden Street in Cambridge to the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. I was there to facilitate a discussion about whiteness with students and professors at the Banneker Institute, a summer research program for students of color led by Professor John Johnson. I arrived ready to lay down knowledge. But, of course, I was the one in the room who learned the most. Read more