A Syllabus for Making Work About Race as a White Artist in America

Ryan Wong, Hyper Allergic, April 6, 2017

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This course offers a starting point: assignments for the white artist to understand their own racial position. This is a subject that I’ve rarely seen addressed, perhaps because keeping the silence around it is in fact instrumental to whiteness. Your ability to do this work, inside or outside of the studio, could not only help alleviate the suffering of people of color, but also repair your own mental and emotional lives.

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Week One, Drawing: Sketch a psychological portrait of white shame.

What is the psychological life of a white person in America?

How might you visualize the guilt, power imbalances, doubts, and fear that constitute the white imaginary, i.e., the idea that you are entitled to everything? How might you depict these feelings without portraying them as either normal or heroic?

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Week Two, Performance: Mark the whiteness of your social circles.

Three-quarters of white people don’t have any non-white friends. Mark whiteness the way you mark difference. If you refer to a white friend, always specify that they’re white (the way you would if they were Black, Latino, Native, or Asian).

Don’t normalize. Think about the long history of racial terror and segregation that made your hometown all white. If you enter a big room of white people, feel, for a moment, how creepy that is. Draw attention to this fact.

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If you’re invited to a panel or group exhibition, ask for the racial makeup of the participants. If the majority are white, ask why. If there’s not a good reason (e.g. the exhibition is critically investigating whiteness), decline. Encourage other invited white artists to do the same.

Week 3, Research Question: When did you discover you were white? (Can be completed in any medium)

Thandeka, in Learning to Be White, theorizes that the Euro-American child “is a racial victim of its own white community of parents, caretakers, and peers, who attack it because it does not yet have a white racial identity. Rather than continue to suffer such attacks, the Euro-American child defends itself by creating a white racial identity for itself.”

When did you learn you were white?

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Was it election night 2016?

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Week 4, Conceptual: Find, document, and archive your family’s relationship to the three root traumas of American history — slavery, genocide, and warfare.

Consider the fact that your insurance company, alma mater, housing deed, bank, hospital, etc. probably all have direct ties to segregation and slavery. Think about that uncle who served in Korea or Vietnam and how he processes the millions of civilian murders that happened “over there.” Remember that, in this moment, you are sitting on land violently stolen from indigenous people.

How do you recreate the archive of that intentionally erased history?

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Bonus Assignment: Sell the work and use the proceeds to pay reparations.

Evaluation

Although completion of all the above assignments is encouraged, congratulating yourself will lead to an automatic fail. This is, after all, the basic work of accessing your own humanity.

In fact, there are no As in this course. You don’t have to exhibit your art or solicit collectors and curators. You don’t even have to show it to me. Just do the work.

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