Casey Llewellyn

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Position: White Ignorance in the Arts [1]

 

I’ve been thinking about “position” lately in relationship to the controversy surrounding the Whitney Biennial curators’ recent decision to include a white artist, Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till—a fourteen-year-old Black boy murdered by white supremacists in Mississippi—in the open casket where his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, requested his body be displayed to show the world—specifically Black people—the horrifying reality of white violence enacted on Black bodies in the United States.[2] Many artists took positions in relationship to this controversy. Each of our positions were necessarily informed by our places and experiences within society and the art world, but no matter our positions, we were all navigating the white ignorance present in the artist’s creation of the painting and the lack of thought and awareness around its curation. The artist’s ignorance was visible in her assertion that her painting was an appropriate way to show empathy with Till and his mother, and in her choice of subject through which to reckon with American racism.[3] The white ignorance of the piece’s curation, curated by Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks who are both Asian American, lay in the seeming lack of awareness of anyone at or related to the museum—a historically and majority white and culturally white-defined institution—of the pain that the curation of this painting would cause Black people, to say nothing of the critique that many Black artists and others would have of its inclusion. So we all had, and are still having, a conversation with much rigor stemming from, at its root, ignorance and a lack of the rigor that the artist, curators, and institution are responsible for, whether or not they choose to take responsibility.

 

Ignorance both results from and perpetuates privilege and dominance. People with dominance or privilege in certain respects must work to understand the realities that people who are subject to that dominance and don’t have that privilege are constantly navigating. A decision either to purposefully seek out these narratives or to gloss over them is made by those in positions of dominance—white people, men, straight people, cisgendered people, able-bodied people, middle and owning-class people—each day in their lives and work. But no matter what choice we (they) make, we all must navigate this ignorance interpersonally and institutionally as we move through the world, because power and resources are consolidated around these positions.

 

No matter what position one occupies, the farther from straight, able-bodied, white man one is—especially in respect to whiteness given the number of white women and white gay men with power in the arts—the farther one is generally from the positions of people who control opportunities given to artists and the discourse around their work. (Though there are notable exceptions.) A 2016 study found that 62% of staff at arts organizations in New York City funded by the Department of Cultural Affairs identified as “non-Hispanic white,” 17 percentage points higher than New York City’s “non-Hispanic white” population. (The study found that representation in terms of gender is was pretty even, with women employed at slightly over 50%.) Eighty-two organizations in the survey of over 1000 organizations were entirely white, while 73 were entirely people of color, but it was noted that many of these have “a specific ethnic focus.” As one might expect, “a specific ethnic focus” was not a noted dynamic of the institutions that were all white.[4] Another study of staff at museums nationally found that “non-Hispanic white” people make up 72% of the staff at member organizations of American Alliance of Museums and occupy 80% of higher level, administrative positions such as: exhibition designers, curators, executive leadership, conservators, publications, and registrars.[5] Artists of all races, backgrounds, and identities in the institutionalized world of arts and culture are navigating a world created and perpetuated by white ignorance. Many cultural institutions continue to actively prioritize the dominance of white and/or male ignorance in our lives, as exemplified by The New York Times recently replacing Charles Isherwood—a white man who dominated the discourse about current theater with dubious taste—with Jesse Green, continuing their tradition of staffing their full-time theatre editorial department entirely with white men.

 

Of all the responses shared to the curation Schutz’s painting, Christina Sharpe’s words, read aloud by Claudia Rankine at a forum at The Whitney, have stuck with me.[7] Pointing out in the beginning of the essay that part of how white supremacy works is to continually draw conversations about the lives of Black people back around itself and to distract from the intellectual contributions of Black people “around questions of art and representation and looking that might actually move us to another place” with questions formed by “the legitimizing structure of white supremacy.”[8] She reminds us that a neutral position does not exist and can only be “a position of power that refuses to recognize itself as such.” She reminds us also that art can “produce and reproduce” pain. Within this context she asks, “What if we proceed as if we know that? What if we proceed as if all the knowledge that Black people and others have produced about the representations of Black bodies and Black people in Euro-America’s imagination actually mattered? What if this work [the intellectual work of Black people and others] actually shifted how one talks about that work [representations of Black bodies and Black people in Euro-America’s imagination]?”[9] Put another way, what if white institutions and white artists, especially those who profess to want racism to end, learned from the work of Black thinkers, artists and others that critique and offer insight into the circular stream of painful representations and discourse that reify white supremacy in art spaces?[10] What if the people who bear the brunt of the impacts of these representations were listened to and their knowledge was heeded in white institutions? What might be possible if, more often than not, white-led and mainstream institutions and white artists learned and changed rather than publicly doubling down on their ignorance? Then we might be in “another place.”

 

Institutions led by white people receive the vast majority of resources nationally for their work. The public and private money that funds the arts, like much of the wealth in this country, is inextricable from European colonization, genocide and enslavement of Black and Indigenous people that created opportunities for the rise of capitalism and creation of wealth for a few, wealth maintained subsequently through exploitation of unpaid domestic labor of women and underpaid labor of poor and working class people of all races and nationalities. Relationships between Indigenous people and Europeans in the Americas began necessarily as a navigation of white ignorance with life-or-death stakes for both groups in which Europeans were dependent on Native Americans to teach them how to survive in an unfamiliar land before they killed, enslaved and colonized them to amass wealth for themselves.[11] Despite being taught in a few classes about Native American history (only as it relates to U.S. history), my own ignorance of the history of Native people here endures despite the fact that my ancestors’ survival depended on Native people’s knowledge—one could argue it still does.[12] My ignorance endures in spite of, or perhaps because of, the fact that the land my family and ancestors call “theirs”—rendered theirs by the American legal system—would never be “theirs” without the slavery, genocide, displacement and war (despite ongoing resistance by Native people) waged by European-descended people on Native people. My and many other white people’s ignorance endures despite the fact that over five million Indigenous people living in this country know this history intimately, and it continues each day to define all of our lives.

 

As a white artist, navigating my own ignorance during the process of making is a part of the work I do. My collaborators, friends, and colleagues, including Black and trans actors that I work with, give me feedback to help me make Black and trans characters in my plays more nuanced, full, and truthful, and re-position them, and white and cis characters, in dynamics that do not inscribe racist and transphobic portrayals. Their feedback is often sorely needed. While I have a made a decision to do the work as an artist to posit positionalities that are liberating instead of ones that reinscribe structural oppression, my ability to do this work well is often dependent on the strength of my collaborations with people who occupy different and less privileged positions in the world because of my ignorance of those positions. In my experience, this is labor that Black and trans artists do on most of the projects they work on that are led by white and cis lead artists; and this is the labor that I would most likely be confronted with, whether I choose to engage it or not, were I collaborating with straight and/or male lead artists.

 

In the theater world and community that I travel in—one of rehearsal rooms and shows of mostly white-led theaters and play development and producing companies in New York—I have never heard public acknowledgement of this specific labor done by Black, trans, Latinx, Asian, Indigenous, other people of color, and/or queer artists, even though it is labor that by nature can only be done by artists with these life experiences. Often their labor will make or break an experience of the work for audience members who share those identities. None of the white-led theaters at which I go to see work want to be thought racist or transphobic (though these ideologies are so ingrained in our culture it would be almost impossible for them not to be reproduced in our institutions), so the labor of Black, trans, Latinx, Asian, queer and Indigenous artists factors largely into the extent with which they can maintain cultural credentials as liberal and/or relevant arts organizations. At most white-led theaters in which they are employed, Black and trans artists especially are asked to bring their knowledge, expertise, and familiarity with culture, history, dynamics, etc. into the rehearsal room on projects led by white artists. As one actor I worked with shared with me mid-process on a play, this expectation of labor is often coupled with vagueness of the characters Black actors are asked to play. A vagueness that, in my own experience, originates from ignorance, and, around the issue of race especially, is coupled with a deep fear of risk taking.

 

I have heard many conversations about valuing diversity in casting, and more recently valuing diversity and inclusivity in designers and lead artists. But I only hear this discussion in relation to work being made that is already “diverse”—meaning it is part of the project’s conception that the cast, crew, and possibly lead artist team be made up of people with racial, gender, sexuality identities that are not only white, cis and straight, or the work is being self-consciously aimed at an audience who is not that. This overwhelmingly means that, at white-led institutions, white and cis artists and producers are involved in creative development of work in part or entirely about or by Black, Latinx, Asian, Indigenous, trans, and queer people, but that Black, Latinx, Asian, Indigenous, trans, and queer people are frequently not involved behind the scenes when a work mostly deals with white and/or cis characters and is by white and/or cis artists (as the majority of the work programmed at these institutions is). In this way, our ignorance creates a bubble around how we can possibly create and see ourselves.

 

The way fees were accounted for in a project I worked on with a theatre that commissioned my work, as a white, cis, class privileged queer woman encapsulates much of this quandary. My fee along with the fees for my collaborators, most of whom were also white and cis, were in the budget for a project in which it was expected that I would write characters who were people of color and trans. Our ignorance, however, was not accounted for in the suggested budget. At my request, we ended up hiring five script consultants who were Black and Latinx trans women for fees and contracts that were much smaller and shorter lived than ours. The theater provided further compensation to some of the consultants to organize their communities to come to the shows. I appreciated the theater meeting my request to pay these consultants for the knowledge they provided the production, which I sorely needed to write the play I wanted to write. But afterward, I regretted that we did not anticipate and budget for their roles from the beginning of our work, so that they could have played a deeper role in responding to the script throughout the process and received more compensation for their contributions. (I also regret not providing metrocards and food at auditions as it later seemed a problematic assumption to think of the auditions as “opportunities” that themselves did not require some form of compensation.)

 

The degree to which the piece was met with positive feedback by many who saw the show was a direct result of the work of these women as well as the actors in the cast who gave me feedback on the writing. In one case, an actress told me what I needed to write to make a moment work. Though all were credited in the program and are now credited in the script I send out to theaters, I continue to feel the weight of the wrongness of this dynamic—which touches so much, including the fiction of a singular author perpetuated by our hierarchal and rampantly individualistic culture—in which I go on pursuing a career in theater seeking opportunities among institutions that are mostly led and staffed by cis white, class privileged people like myself while there are zero (that I know of) trans people of color or trans feminine people in leadership positions at theaters in the whole country. What does that reality mean for the trans and queer artists, for Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian and other artists of color navigating this same field? What might be possible if the artistic leadership in a majority of institutions was not ignorant of the lived realities informing these artists’ work?

 

Ignorance as policy

 

Our country’s position, now more than ever, is one of white ignorance—although this ignorance has been willfully cultivated over centuries through propaganda resulting in the present day liberal belief that the U.S. was founded on principles of equality and inclusion and not patriarchal white supremacy. The 45th U.S. President can accidentally refer to Syria as Iraq when he is talking about bombing it. He can be elected without any experience in the field, and where his ignorance of government and public service actually become a selling point of his campaign. His lies supported by ignorance about the lives of Black people, women, Mexicans, and the environment now drive national policy. He can speak of Frederick Douglass as if he is still alive and doing an “amazing job.” The time we exist on this planet may be severely decreased as a result of his ignorance and its empowerment by the U.S. political system. And as we know, people have died and will continue to die in this country and all over the world as a direct consequence of the empowerment of 45’s ignorance, while his team works hard to position his wrongness (ignorant as well as deliberate) as the corrective alternative to our shared reality: “alternate facts.” The people who voted for him (including some of my family members) did so for a variety of reasons, but their positions are upheld by ignorance.[13] White ignorance enacted and enforced by our government is something everyone in our society (and all over the world) is required to navigate to get what they need to live, thrive, and achieve.

 

We make culture in a time in which the U.S. President and his allies in congress are rewriting our history and institutionalizing ignorance of reality to benefit rich, white men. The President has referred to human trafficking happening now as “a problem that’s probably worse than any time in the history of this world,” effectively ignoring European and American slavery—the most defining institution in our country’s history.[14] His administration re-characterizes Historically Black Colleges and Universities as an example of school choice, intentionally omitting the legalized white supremacy that made them necessary.[15] Our President’s allies say that “nobody dies because they don’t have access to healthcare,” which the person physically closest to you right now could probably disprove in the next five minutes with a story from personal experience.[16] He asks why the civil war could “not have been worked out” and praises Andrew Jackson—a U.S. President that used genocide as a main tenant of his leadership—as someone who could have solved that problem if only he had lived a little longer.[17]

 

In fact, Andrew Jackson has been having a comeback for a while. I remember a few years back being in the mostly white audience of a fictionalized satirical musical about Andrew Jackson at one of our city’s most respected theaters. American populism was the subject of the first song and included the line, “we’re gonna take this country back.”[18] I watched the exaltation of our genocides sung as power ballads by a young white male lead with a love story. Slavery was reduced to a laugh line. I read later that the play had been protested by members of the theater’s own Native Theater Initiative. One concern (of many) was that history was fictionalized in the script. An invented back-story for Andrew Jackson’s character told that his family was killed by “Indians,” when in fact they died of accidents, war and illness over the course of years. The invention of their murder by “Indians” functions dramaturgically as psychological justification for Jackson’s genocide and creates sympathy for his character while masking the real context and reality of those policies. (8,500 Native people died during the Trail of Tears and forced displacement initiated by Jackson).[19] When asked about the controversy surrounding the production, the theater’s artistic director stated, “I should have seen that, although I may completely believe the point that this production is making, that it is ultimately pro-native, there are an awful lot of ways in which it may not be perceived that way.”[20]

 

I wonder where our national culture would be in 2017 if, seven years ago, young white men from New York City had not been romanticizing populism driven by unexamined white supremacy, collapsing past and present with cool cowboy costumes in a show that would tour all over the country. How might things be different if the “pro-native” play I was watching at a fancy New York theater was written by Native American artists instead of a team of almost all white lead creatives? Or even if artistic directors asked people from the communities that would be impacted by representations and storylines in the work of their theaters how they felt about the work before they produced it, or during rehearsals, or ever. What would it have been like if white people were not in the far majority in that audience because the play that we were watching about American history resonated with Native and Black people and other people of color? What if a musical playing in 2010 by two white guys who went to Ivy League schools was about a racist and genocidal white man in 2010 instead of the 1800s? What if white, straight, cis male artists thought about the impact of their work on others? What if white women artists thought about that too? As artists, we literally make culture. In whose interest is it for us to create and keep a culture of ignorance?

 

The impact of ignorance

 

When people who have been experiencing racism all their and their ancestors’ lives say that something is harming them, and in response people who have not experienced racism—, cannot possibly, and yet feel comfortable speaking about it, curating, and making work about it—say they believe it does no harm, what else can that be called but ignorance? If we did not know it before, we should know by now that that ignorance is deadly. To defend it is to defend an absence in ourselves. I go to theater to get full—bottom to a new experience, open wide and let embodiment, ritual and speaking fill me up.

 

Our ignorance leads to frequently occurring dynamics in many white-led arts institutions in which Black, queer, trans, Latinx, Asian and/or Native artists who are commissioned, cast or otherwise employed experience racism, transphobia and micro-aggressions. When and if they bring these experiences to the attention of the white and/or cis and/or straight leadership of the organization, they are not believed or are asked to justify or prove their experience to people who have the power to hire and fire and potentially speak about them to powerful industry colleagues. When someone brings this damage to our attention, instead of admitting and redressing our glaring ignorance—ignorance so familiar that we defend it as if it is us—we allow the power of white dominance that has been used to hurt and separate us from ourselves and people we care about to flow through us. If we acknowledge the clear, lived reality of white and cis ignorance that we all experience (whichever side of it we may find ourselves on), it becomes clear how the disbelief and devaluing of the lived experiences of our colleagues is not only a hurtful and destructive result of this ignorance, but that it also maintains this ignorance at the expense of Black, queer, trans, Latinx, Asian and/or Native colleagues.

 

Speaking truth to ignorance

 

Given these realities, and assuming that we want to be part of creating a future in which our field is not defined and dominated by ignorance, it is our mandate to prioritize the artistry, viewpoints, expertise and ideas of people with knowledge of realities that are consistently deprioritized in white defined art spaces because they are far less visible to people with privilege. If my knowledge of the lived experience of racial inequity and injustice as a white person depends on learning from Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian people, and other people of color (as it has and does) then deprioritizing their viewpoints empties me as a person and artist. Listening to people of color and supporting their leadership in tangible ways is the only way out of ignorance for myself and for white institutions. Our ignorance is also clearly harmful to Black, trans, Asian, Indigenous, Latinx and other people of color. We know this We have known this for a long time because it has been expressed repeatedly, and still we have not successfully addressed the hold that white supremacy, transphobia, homophobia, imperialism, ableism, misogyny, capitalism, classism, and xenophobia have on our fields. Perhaps this is because we have not yet understood or articulated to ourselves why, for us too, it is imperative to address these harmful ideologies in our practices and institutions. And it is clear that much will be required of us.[21] As a result, our ignorance thrives in culture and is deployed, with or without our knowledge or consent, against all of humanity and the earth.

 

NOW IS THE TIME! Remaining the same will kill us all

 

To fight the white supremacist, xenophobic, transphobic, homophobic, ableist, patriarchal, world-killing fascism that is taking hold of our country, we must become less ignorant, so we can understand how the systems being deployed against us to separate and oppress also work through us.

 

The stakes are too high to abandon each other for our own ignorance. I fear for our future if we continue to prioritize and privilege the voices of white ignorance, excusing them as we have with the curation of white artist’s painting of Emmett Till. If we addressed her decision and the decisions of the curators and others at the museum as ignorance created by a strategically-engendered lack of understanding of the reality of American history, then her ignorance would have been addressed before it was curated into a prestigious show. Instead, less ignorant voices would be prioritized, to all of our benefit.

 

Until we prioritize the decolonization of our art spaces from white ignorance, our institutions will be neither liberatory or sanctuaries, and will solely continue to be traumatizing and harmful to Black, Native American, and trans artists (among many others).[22] Failure to talk about race in our art and our institutions keeps us ignorant. This failure also feels profoundly hollow in these times, as the drama that we play out is a story of deadly racism, deadly transphobia (if we are paying attention), and the rise of white supremacist, xenophobic, patriarchal, transmisogynist, earth killing, homophobic power. Work that fails to meaningfully address these conditions can only ring empty. Protecting our ignorance from rupture cannot will not save our humanity, change our country, or allow for the survival of our species. If our work and our arts institutions are not helping us do what we most need for our own survival and the survival of our communities, they will quickly be irrelevant in a time in which survival is becoming an art. We are nothing without each other.

 


 

[1] This piece written for The Kitchen L.A.B. Conference and Publication in response to the theme: “position.” 2017.

[2] A story about the lynching ran in the September 15, 1955 issue of JET, which included a photograph of Till’s body bloated, mutilated and unrecognizable in the casket.

[3] Gibson, Caitlin. “A white artist responds to outcry over her controversial Emmett Till painting,” The Washington Post 23 March 2017.

[4] Voon, Claire. “Staff at NYC Arts Organizations Is 62% White, City Report Shows,” hyperallergic.com. January 29, 2016.

[5] Voon, Claire. “The Diversity Problem at American Museums Gets a Report,” Hyperallergic.com. August 3, 2015.

[6] A recent example of the Times’s prioritization of white ignorant voices is co-chief theater critic Ben Brantley’s review of Suzan-Lori Parks’s brilliant Venus produced by The Signature Theatre in May 2017. That a review of a breathtaking and devastating piece by one of the best U.S. playwrights of the 20th and 21st centuries (if not all time)—about an African woman, Saartjie Baartman, who existed and was subject to racist and sexist exploitation, hyper-sexualized and objectifying to the extreme, by a slew of European supporting characters—should begin by further objectifying the character and comparing the actress in her costume’s body to Kim Kardashian’s without a whiff of sense of the piece or context should make The New York Times laughable as a reader of culture and a source of intelligent cultural discourse. This review was published after The Times’s Culture Editor Danielle Mattoon claimed in her memo sent to staff announcing the hiring of Jesse Green that he and Ben Brantley in “powerful partnership” would “deliver the most authoritative, thoughtful and pointed insights about Broadway, Off Broadway, and theater around the country and the globe,” a claim which in itself illustrates white supremacy’s circular logic in which the sole origin of its authority is its own authorization. We might be laughing if this was not our real lives, our income, our health, our world and writing like this was not so ubiquitous and typical of the way white institutions throw the weight of their ignorance around to all of our detriment.

[7] The forum was “Perspectives on Race and Representation: An Evening with the Racial Imaginary Institute” co-organized by The Whitney and The Racial Imaginary Institute at The Whitney Museum of American Art. April 9, 2017.

[8] Transcribed from video of Rankine reading from Sharpe’s essay at The Whitney. April 9, 2017. https://www.facebook.com/whitneymuseum/videos/10154262121821433/?hc_location=ufiat The Whitney Museum of American Art. April 9, 2017.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Writing this, it’s strikes me that I have not heard very many mainstream or white-led arts institutions outwardly talk about wanting to end racism or white supremacy. Rather, it is implied, usually through the language of diversity and equality, that there have been efforts to lessen their hold on some institutional practices. Is it any wonder then that there is mistrust of mainstream and white-led institutions in communities whose freedom and survival depends on the end of white supremacy? Given, as Sharpe writes, that “anti-Blackness is the weather” it seems to me that expressing the desire for white supremacy to end and working toward that as a goal might be an important first step to actually ending its hold on our practices.

[11] Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee. (New York: Bantam Books, 1971), 1.

[12] Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass. (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2013).

[13] Perhaps most telling, one family member made clear to me in a conversation that he thinks that race is real biological difference rather than what it has been proven to be, an anti-science concept developed by Europeans to consolidate power and excuse genocide and theft to their benefit.

[14] Lemire, Jonathan. “Trump: Why Couldn’t the Civil War Have Been Avoided?nbcwashington.com. May 1, 2017.

[15] Douglas-Gabriel, Danielle. “DeVos called HBCUs ‘pioneers’ in ‘school choice.’ It didn’t go over well.” The Washington Post. February 28, 2017.

[16] Phillips, Kristine. “‘Nobody dies because they don’t have access to health care,’ GOP lawmaker says. He got booed.The Washington Post. May 7, 2017.

[17] Lemire, Jonathan. “Trump: Why Couldn’t the Civil War Have Been Avoided?nbcwashington.com. May 1, 2017.

[18] Friedman, Michael. “Populism Yea Yea,” Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. Directed by Alex Timbers. Produced at The Public Theater. March-June, 2010.

[19] “Trail of Tears,” History.com.

[20] Levine, D.M. “Native Americans protest ‘Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.’” Politico.com. June 24, 2010.

[21] These ideologies cut deep, all the way down to our senses of ourselves and our understanding of what our institutions can and should offer.

[22] For another recent example of the impact of white ignorance on Native Americans, see the May 28th, 2017 article, “After outcry and protests, Walker Art Center will remove ‘Scaffold’ sculpture” in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.