Image & Text
When We Were White: ON SILENCE
When We Were White: ON SILENCE is the first sculpture in a body of work on whiteness. Over the course of its creation, like whiteness, it has taken many forms–a pile of bones, a pyre, a burial. But whiteness is not a grief we attend to, it is the house–the church–we build personally, culturally, and systematically to insulate ourselves at the expense of others.
I grew up in the John Hughes-like suburbs of Chicago in the 80’s and 90’s where, to white people, race was a thing of the past. Possibly perceived as being ‘solved’ in the decade or two that followed the civil rights movement. Cary, Illinois was a town of 90% white, 6% Latino, 2% Asian, 1% Black, 1% Native, where discussing diversity, race, or the role that the white person in America had played and was continuing to play out, was unthinkable. Although race surrounded us in the everyday news and in pop culture, we didn’t speak about it. We were the observers of race and felt we had nothing to do with it because we were “race-less.”
We didn’t have to have “the race talk” as families of color are forced to for their survival and so we learned that whatever being white meant in the world, it wasn’t something we’d ever be expected to confront or articulate. There would be no personal events, no hurtful interactions to prod us into a family meeting about how our skin color affected our life, livelihood, personal survival, or identity. Our identity was a non-identity. It made us safe, impenetrable.
Our predominantly white suburb was surrounded by other predominantly white suburbs, all of them likely created by white flight – the big city of Chicago, with segregation problems of its own (though still more diverse than the suburbs), was just far enough away to not make any impact. With a historical whiteness in our stories, in our actions, and in our assumptions of society, our ignorance had their own ignorance. But ignorance was not a word I or anyone I knew was taught to associate with whiteness.
For all white families, whiteness is the silent narrator to every story we tell. Over time, the silence forms itself into a habit, a catch all of being able to talk around a thing. In whiteness, we become like trees trying to deny their root.
This is the trouble with silence – it becomes a place of comfort for the difficult things to be tucked away. My silence has been my privilege–and too, the slow way, as a white person, I have been able to come to my understanding of race in privacy, is my privilege and my inheritance.
An avid letter writer, I had a 15-year history of letter correspondence with my maternal grandmother. Between us there were generational lifetimes of silence around so much, including whiteness. When We Were White: ON SILENCE, is comprised of more than 800 pieces of alginate cast into the bottom of envelopes, dried and individually sanded down. The process was tedious, repetitive, difficult, but also quiet enough for me to begin to think and speak out loud the silence and secrets around the history of my own whiteness–each piece cast in an envelope, like a message in a bottle, a conversation I am having with the ghost of my grandmother. ON SILENCE is an attempt to investigate the complicity of whiteness, and a call to action to investigate the white self, family, and structure. To understand, that as a white person in America, whiteness is a part of everything we do, from the cultural spaces we’re allowed into, to the relative safety with which we walk down the street, to the conversations our families didn’t and still don’t have to have.