Why white artists need to listen to people of color

“Dust Up” by painter Margaret Bowland on exhibit at the Contemporary Art Museum in Raleigh, N.C., on Wednesday, April 18, 2018. Bowland’s series of painting in her show “Painting the Roses Red” will be shown through June 17, 2018.
“Dust Up” by painter Margaret Bowland on exhibit at the Contemporary Art Museum in Raleigh, N.C., on Wednesday, April 18, 2018. Bowland’s series of painting in her show “Painting the Roses Red” will be shown through June 17, 2018. rwillett@newsobserver.com

The recent discussion around Margaret Bowland’s exhibition at CAM Raleigh is raising important issues, though unfortunately it is falling short of fully addressing the matter. As with a similar controversy surrounding last year’s Whitney Biennial, everyone here is failing to properly hold responsible the white artists, the curators of color, and the primarily white institutions for the ways in which their decisions allow whiteness to remain invisible while benefiting from the suffering of people of color.

If white artists truly want to work towards equity, then we need to listen to people of color when they respond to our work. Secondly, we must stop trying to speak for people of color. Third, let’s talk about whiteness, about our own history. In the words of James Baldwin, “The problem, which [white people] invented, has made of them criminals and monsters, and it is destroying them.” We, white people, severed our own humanity when we invented racism. We, white artists, need to be making work about how we’re going to deal with this. How are we going to reclaim our full humanity?

Too often, well-meaning white artists fail to properly address our own whiteness in our work. Whiteness is not neutral, and it is not invisible. The challenge for white artists now is to implicate ourselves in our work while also working to de-center ourselves in order to make room for everyone else.

These issues are bigger than CAM Raleigh or the Whitney. While it’s important to hold the folks involved accountable for their decisions, it is vital that we critique and dismantle our country’s white supremacist culture that allows and even encourages these decisions.

Zen priest Angel Kyodo Williams often speaks of how white supremacy wants us to focus on individuals because then the larger cultural mechanism can continue undeterred. She speaks of how no one in our country is responding in ways that haven’t been approved and encouraged by our culture. The United States is a country built on racist foundations. We all, but white folks in particular, need to do the hard work of honestly and courageously investigating how we participate in the allowance and encouragement of such responses.

Ultimately, an artist can paint what she wants, a curator can curate what he wants, and an art institution can exhibit what it wants. But then we all have to face the ways that our decisions affect others, particularly those folks whose life experiences most closely resemble the work being presented.

Art has consequences, and the artist, curator and institution need to be ready to accept those consequences and to actually listen to the responses instead of defending our decisions. When facing criticism, each of us can seize the opportunity to learn from the experiences of others and take the bold step of re-examining our own decisions with honesty, courage, and a true commitment to equity.

As North Carolina artist Monét Noelle Marshall pointed out, we need to be honest about the difference between provocative and problematic work. While artist, curator, and institution want to credit this exhibition for sparking a public conversation that questions race, I want to disabuse them of their self-congratulations. These conversations about “who gets to interpret race and power” have already been happening, and this exhibition is perpetuating the problems it claims to be addressing.

We need to face different questions: Why do white artists and primarily white institutions continue to de-emphasize our own whiteness and complicity in racism? How can white artists make anti-racist art that implicates ourselves and other white viewers while also working to de-center white folks as our nation’s historic protagonists? How can white artists and primarily white institutions get out of the way and make more space for artists, curators and art administrators of color? How can we be accountable to people of color, while listening to them, trusting them and supporting them? How can we create a new legacy?

Meg Stein is a visual artist based in Durham. She runs “Dirty White Matter,” a community-based art collaboration working to de-purify whiteness. More info at megstein.com. You can contact her at meg.stein.artist@gmail.com.