WAGES OF WHITENESS
Words by David J. Leonard | Artwork by Suzanne Broughel and Elizabeth Sturges Llerena
The election of Barack Obama led to predictions of a new racial tomorrow. Longing to fulfill the dreams of the Civil Rights Movement, many speculated about America’s continued racial progress, wondering if 2008 would be the start of a post-racial epoch in the U.S. While they expressed hope for a world where race no longer determines opportunities, fantasies of a raceless America often reflect a desire to stop talking about race.
But a group of scholars, activists, and artists viewed the 2008 election not as a moment for celebration but a time for conversation and confrontation. In an art world long defined by Whiteness, these EuroAmerican artists tackle the issue of White privilege and White supremacy. Seizing upon the complacency and satisfaction surrounding the election of America’s first Black president to challenge widespread denial, these artists continue to critically challenge society’s refusal and reluctance to talk about race.
From Hank Willis Thomas, to Michael Paul Britto, from Lester Merriwether to Kara Walker, artists of color are confronting racism and racial stereotypes. But they are joined by a group of White artists wielding the privileges of Whiteness to create change.
Scholar Peggy McIntosh compares White privilege to “an invisible knapsack.”
“I have come to see (it) as a package of assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant‘ to remain oblivious,” she has said. Inside are “special provi- sions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks.’’
Suzanne Broughel, Rory Golden, and Elizabeth Sturges Llerena are three artists using the tools of that knapsack to explore racism, segregation and privilege. Llerena, a member of the DeWolf family (the most well-known slave traders in U.S. history) explores her relatives’ collective silence in “What’s Hidden Underneath,’‘ in which the legacy of slavery is made visible only by pulling back the panels of an antebellum toile de jouy skirt.
Golden’s pieces, such as the disturbing “Your One Black "Friend,” and “Chicken Film Sets,” which “traces a morphing character’s escape from slavery in the 19th Century South to putative freedom in the 21st Century, ” according to Golden, also confound the expectations of art goers who seek affirma- tion and pleasure in consumption. He, like several other White artists, refuses the right to remain silent.
Suzanne Broughel uses art to launch uncomfortable conver- sations about race, exploring how it can dismantle long-held assumptions when viewers have their guards down. Whiteness within an American landscape functions as the normal, as the invisible, and as the point of comparison. Broughel not only highlights the realities of racism past and present, but also invites White viewers to see themselves and confront the privileges of Whiteness.
Broughel’s art is her way of overcoming the fear and discomfort that many Whites face when addressing race and the “wages of Whiteness.” But she also pushes back against the didacticism of some anti-racist art.
Her wall sculpture “Forty Acres of Bandaids,” was made with 23 different shades of Band-Aids, all purchased within 40 acres of Manhattan’s African Burial Ground. Twenty- two shades are geared toward Whites, with one for “people of color” (the now discontinued Ebon-Aide). Arranging them together from darkest to lightest, Broughel shows how White privilege can be entrenched in everyday situations, like shopping. From its incorporation of the African Burial Ground, to its deployment of the never fulfilled promise of 40 acres; from its resistance to the whitewashing of history (and the erasure of slavery) and the normalization of Whiteness as “skin color,” Broughel demonstrates the power of art that forces one to feel, confront, and look inward.
Her “Dream Catchers” series uses basketballs and a giant lacrosse net (titled “Wigga Catcher”) to spotlight racist stereo- types and the White appropriation of indigenous and African art forms. These works demand that viewers examine the leg- acy of cultural theft and tourism. They are also emblematic,
sometimes using white sheets to evoke associations with the Klan, domesticity and purity.
Broughel and others continue to use art to shatter the silence, and insist that White viewers and the art world as a whole actively participate in the movement toward racial justice. The challenge for any White anti-racist is to simultaneously recognize and account for their own Whiteness, while using it in opposition to White privilege.
Deploying it often proves to be a difficult task, but these artists have found ways to cash out the wages of Whiteness. Their art allows for conversations that find power in discomfort and confusion.
David J. Leonard is Associate Professor and chair in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. He is the author of “After Artest: Race and the Assault on Blackness” (SUNY Press) as well as several other works. He blogs @No Tsuris. Follow him on Twitter @drdavidjleonard.