MAY/JUNE 2003

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Meteorite and Monument
by Evan Levy

I CAME FOR THE ART

Exposing Whiteness and Imagining Nonwhite Spaces

by David Roediger

The following article is an abridgment of David Roediger‚s contribution to the catalogue for the exhibition „Whiteness, A Wayward Construction,š which is on view at the Laguna Art Museum until July 6, 2003. Divided into three sectionsųšWhite Out,š „Mirror, Mirror∑š and „Graying of Whitenessšųthe exhibit brings together contemporary artists who explore the identity politics and cultural study of whiteness. Professor Roediger‚s essay introduces the second of these sections. The editors wish to thank the show‚s curator, Tyler Stallings, and Stuart Byer of Laguna Art Museum and David Roediger for their assistance in realizing this feature. This article appears courtesy of Laguna Art Museum (www.lagunaartmuseum.org).

During my last venture into the art world, a preteen girl had far and away the best line, on an evening that taught much about how whiteness does and does not yield. I was speaking in a small gallery on Saint Louis‚s south side, at an event honoring the publication of Ron Sakolsky‚s new anthology, Surrealist Subversions. The short talk I prepared described a 1929 surrealist attempt to imagine a world beyond whiteness. One of the surrealists‚ first major projects, probably rendered largely by Yves Tanguy, was a new world map centered on the Pacific rather than the Atlanticųwhich reorientation caused one of our children to call it „backwards.š Tanguy diminished the U.S. and Britain greatly and wildly expanded Oceania. I intended to argue that, if this work didn‚t change the world it redrew, it at least created a space to reflect on how automatically we focus on the overdeveloped white world.

John Feodorov, Office Shaman, 2001, mixed media, variable dimensions (courtesy the artist).

In any case, the event turning into something of a homecoming and the need to speak more personally made me scrap my prepared talk. The gallery sat in an area I had known well growing up, and the neighborhood‚s sameness and dramatic change made me expansive. The oppressive summer heat and near-the-Mississippi-River humidity were wholly familiar, as was the practice of poor people sitting outside their baking red-brick flats. The odor of grilling meat still vied with the ripe-to-fetid smells of a huge brewery. Once all white and loudly segregationist, the area had become very mixed. The shopping district just to the west had generated one of Saint Louis‚s most vibrant Latino enclaves. The Black presence on the neighborhood‚s front porches and in its small yards made cooling off and barbecuing integrated activities. The city, so long rigidly segregated on a north/south axis, now included mixed blocks even in the formerly most unyielding south side neighborhoods.

As impressively, there was mixing inside the gallery. Lavishly dressed art lovers and youngsters from the block sweltered alongside one another, as fans were turned off so that the speakers could be heard. My talk fumbled to extemporize on how real life mocked the stupidities and brutalities of race and created nonwhite spaces in which some whites lived. After the talks, the gallery owner and I headed for the sidewalk in search of a breeze, and discussed how the neighborhood had changed. I was inspired and enchanted by his stories of multiracial residents‚ initiatives, which culminated in us walking to a small, crumbling brick structure that amateur historians had demonstrated was a former Underground Railroad site. Local activists now use the resulting historic preservation designations to challenge developers‚ attempts to raze the area. The sacred nonwhite space of the slave era thus helped nurture such space in the twenty-first century.

But the evening‚s climax still awaited. As we drifted back toward the gallery door, an African American girl, perhaps eleven years old, approached. She‚d been at the opening, checked in at home, and now wanted to know if the event was continuing. I assured her that it was and, remembering the chewy cookies inside, encouraged her to help herself to the food. „I don‚t care about the cookies,š she replied decisively. „I came for the art.š The gallery doubled as a community arts center, and it was clearly doing its jobs. One of Saint Louis‚s whitest spaces was no longer that, and art had mattered in its transformation.

The thrill of this realization diminished as the gallery owner kept talking. City officials seemed more than willing to defy preservation efforts, Underground Railroad or no. Ironically, the success of an interracial coalition in routing drug dealers, pimps and prostitutes had proven costly. Having enhanced property values, but not owning the property, tenants faced threefold increases in rent. Realtors now referred to the neighborhood as part of a nearby gentrified area. Sales to rehabbers loomed. Hearing this, people from Wisconsin, Illinois and Missouri discussed how artists looking for cheap space sometimes initiate „whitefyingš gentrification. Some speculated on the merits of integrated neighborhoods taking their chances with thugs rather than facing condo developers. Others wondered if conscious strategies to keep property values low (for example, encouraging graffiti) could coexist with community-building. The night evoked the possibility and the fragility of nonwhite spaces.

A few years back, reporters asked me a pair of good questions that I couldn‚t answer then and haven‚t stopped pondering since. The first came from a BBC World Service reporter during a live interview. Attempting sympathetically to introduce a very heterogeneous audience to the essentials of the critical study of whiteness in the United States, he asked me to name the whitest person in America. I unhesitatingly answered, „Rush Limbaugh,š and explained how he reprised minstrel stereotypes regarding African American speech. It was not an uninteresting choice, since Limbaugh‚s performances oddly combine the ostensibly colorless with the overtly racist.1 However, I immediately regretted so firmly identifying whiteness with conservatism, maleness and open bigotry. The stealth whiteness of Bill Clinton, Bill Gates or Madonna might have better suggested how white identity functions beneath the cultural radar, as a norm and a power that need not announce itself racially.

The Wall Street Journal reporter who posed the second question was so friendly and smart that we joked about how his article almost certainly would ridicule academic studies of whiteness no matter what my responses. Despite his hatchet job, one of his questions retains useful challenges, especially in thinking about whiteness and art: „Can you identify a white space in the U.S.?š Tempted as I was to answer with the state of Minnesota, where we then lived, I settled instead on a site within it, the Mall of America. Although gesturing toward broad connections among whiteness, suburbia and consumer culture, my choice of the mall was mostly literal, and my elaboration of the answer told of efforts to use security guards to keep groups of Black kids away from the mall at night. My second response, offhand and undeveloped, more innovatively named the Internetųoften misperceived as a raceless technotopia in which all boundaries dissolveųas quintessentially white space. (An Internet search for „interracialš calls up thousands of porn sites recycling the hoariest of U.S. race/sex stereotypes.)

After years of thinking about the BBC and Wall Street Journal questions, my responses would now be rapid fire. Whitest person: Martha Stewart (whose complicating white ethnic past is now being scrutinized along with her alleged insider stock deals) and Eminem; Colin Powell (who no audience I‚ve asked this question has failed to name) and Laura Bush; almost any building trades union official and Donald Trump; Tom Brokaw and any tennis announcer prattling about matches between a Williams sister and Martina Hingis as pitting athleticism against intellect. White spaces: Wall Street and a NASCAR event; the country club from which people of color are excluded and the barrio in which they are confined; academia and mainstream churches; the White House and (its ads notwithstanding) a Benetton store; a National Football League stadium and the space between the ears of that guy hosting The O‚Reilly Factor.

The variety in such lists shows that exposing whiteness must proceed circumspectly. If, as the writer and activist Amoja Three Rivers argues, whiteness developed historically as a „political alliance,š it brings together people who otherwise diverge in terms of power, ethnicity, sexuality, style, religion, age and gender.2 When the legal scholar Cheryl Harris holds that whiteness became a form of property uniting its holders, she also demonstrates how that property was cherished by those owning vast amounts of other property and, tragically, by those clinging to whiteness because they had nothing else.3 Since the (white) papering-over of inequality and difference within the white race creates both surface unities and new tensions, any outing of whiteness as simple and singular cannot get us far. „Nobody,š as Edward Said once put it, „is only one thing.š4 As the pieces by Kavin Buck and John Feodorov show, art can illuminate well what Black feminist theorists have aptly called the „simultaneityš of identities.5

Emilio Cueto, Gone, 2002, oil on canvas, 84 by 60 inches (courtesy of the artist and Newspace Gallery, Los Angeles).

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Further complicating the exposure of whiteness by artists and writers is the fact that whiteness signifies so much that is commonly seen as apart from race. On this score, Emilio Cueto‚s angular and almost solely white Gone (2002) plays tellingly across layers of meaning. While it surely addresses race, it also resonates with works such as those by Piet Mondrian, which used the color white in other contexts and have been seen as scarcely about race at all. Cueto‚s contribution lets us think about the connections of whiteness-as-race with blankness, blandness, emptiness, frigidity, death, purity, enlightenment and other white things, and helps us ponder the direction of those links. Like the challenges Herman Melville posed a century and a half ago in describing the „whiteness of the whaleš in Moby Dick and the whiteness of frigid, slowly dying women factory workers in „The Tartarus of Maids,š Cueto allows color to connote much beyond race, without draining it of racial meanings.

Perhaps most importantly for our purposes, Gone (note the title!) asks whether the canvas is always white space, unless, until and perhaps even after it otherwise announces itself. Does the canvasųfor reasons born of social relations and not just physicsųremain at bottom white even after taking on all sorts of colors and images? Does it, like Hollywood‚s silver screen, remain white in the end?

Richard Lou and Robert Sanchez‚s Los Anthropolocos (1992) and Mark Greenfield‚s meditations on blackface minstrelsy add a vexing further twist to the task of exposing whiteness, at least for white artists, and I think for everyone navigating in U.S. culture. Their works reinforce Susan Gubar‚s fine study of „racechangeš in reminding us that white supremacy has long determined the broad boundaries not only of dominant racial ideologies but also of acceptable racial crossings and transgressions.6 Lou and Sanchez, as „Ch.D.sš („Doctors of Chicanismoš), mount a postcolonial alternative to such control of who can cross over to observe and represent whom. But Los Anthropolocos also speaks to the power of fixed perceptions and structures. The minstrel performers on whom Greenfield riffs, after all, sometimes put on or removed makeup before their audiences (or took off a glove to show a white hand), fully revealing their whiteness while aptly emphasizing that controlling racial transgression was part of their act.

Peter Edlund, State Birds of the Slave States (After J. J. Audubon), 2001, oil on canvas, 40 by 28 inches (courtesy the artist).

Reimagining history holds equal importanceųand great political salience, given ripening debates over reparations for slavery and Jim Crowųin any exposure of whiteness. Peter Edlund‚s beautiful rendering of the „slave stateš birds painted and charted in the nineteenth century by John James Audubon brings together art, cataloguing, science, nature and (in Audubon) a mixed-race genius passing as white. The juxtapositions further worry distinctions between realms of life commonly seen as „racialš and those otherwise seen, making us wonder again about the reach of whiteness and about the knots in which it is imbricated. Like The Coup, whose hip-hop rhymes insist that „Every slave story‚s present tense,š7 Edlund scrutinizes distinctions between past and present.

Kelsey Fernkopf, La Brea Faberge, 1999, mixed media,17 by 5 by 7 inches (courtesy the artist and Howard House, Seattle).

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Other piecesųespecially those of John Feodorov, Erika Rothenberg and Kelsey Fernkopfųsituate whiteness playfully and dead seriously among the commodities and quick fixes it routinely consumes. Fernkopf provokes with particular effect by giving us all of the shit that makes up white identity. Plumbing the connections of whiteness with the false promises of buying happiness, utter safety and a sanitized life even as the world spins out of control, Fernkopf‚s contributions resonate with the indispensable essays on whiteness, everyday life and morality that James Baldwin collected in The Price of the Ticket or with the best of psychoanalytic writings on race, anality and capitalism.8 Kavin Buck‚s associations of whiteness, straightness and progress with ruins meanwhile well embody the surrealist Franklin Rosemont‚s recent insistence that one task of the artist is to „disillusionš whites.9
If there is reticence in the „White Outš section of the exhibition, it lies in two areas. First, it does not explore how possessing dominant racial status has empowered white women while leaving them exalted and „protectedš in second-class positions. That written commentaries on white women and raceųespecially those by Ruth Frankenberg, bell hooks, Lewis Gordon, Ida B. Wells, Audre Lorde, Kate Manning, Vron Ware, Louise Newman and Cheryl Harrisųare so rich makes the absence of similar inquiries in the art particularly worth remarking.

Similarly, literature and social science set high standards for exposing whiteness as a species of terror. Writers from Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin to Leslie Marmon Silko, Paul Gilroy and Cherrie Moraga tease out how white power has presented itself as brutalityųthe lash, the Ku Klux Klan, the occupying army, the lynching party, the slave patrol, the prison, the dumping of industrial poisons in „minorityš neighborhoods and on reservationsųto people of color. As importantly, these writers remind us that the committing and witnessing of acts of terror mattered greatly in the twisted formations of white consciousness. Lynching parties celebrated, picnicked and took family photographs at the scene. Today‚s TV nation endlessly watches slow-motion video footage of white cops beating young African American men. Many African Americans experience these attacks as terror and teach their kids how to reach for car registration papers in such a way as to avoid ending up unconscious or dead. White talk-radio callers are apt to see these brutalities as minor incidents in which police make salutary attitude adjustments to recalcitrant kids „of whatever color.š

Howeverųwith Andres Serrano‚s Klansman series as one enigmatic exceptionųwhite terror does not loom large in the show, though James Casebere‚s striking contributions do much to mitigate this absence. He crosses continents to imagine, construct and contest white spaces, including among those spaces ones in which people of color are confined. Casebere‚s exposure of historical and transnational relationships between terror and whiteness could not be more timely. The exhibition‚s trajectory takes us from a section bringing whiteness into the open to ones implying a possible emergence from that identity, once it is exposed, to something broader and better. Casebere‚s haunting images, and the relationships of whiteness to terror and to property more generally, intersect critically with the question of whether and how we can imagine such an emergence.

Kavin Buck, Collapsed Staircase, 2001, rubber on wood, floor installation, 48 by 120 by 72 inches (photo by Antony Photography courtesy the artist and South La Brea Gallery, Inglewood, California).

If the whiteness we expose is only a personal shortcoming, a misunderstanding or a bad habit, we might almost be lulled into thinking that it can be recast through eye-opening individual experiences alone. But we also can expose a whiteness that operates as a category believed in and valued by developers, managers, polluters, police, union apprenticeship program directors and teachers. As such a category, whiteness underpins a structure in which young African American men are seven times as likely as young white men to spend time in prison, while Black families hold a dollar of wealth for every six owned by white families. Such a structure undermines individual emergences from whiteness. It reinforces ideas of racial difference, and of the desirability of whiteness, even as science and art demolish racist myths.

The collective brilliance of an exposition such as this one cannot itself undo the structures of white supremacy. It can and does, however, allow audiences better to see and name the dynamics of whiteness and to weigh the costs of living in a white-unless-marked-otherwise society. It can nurture a tough-minded appreciation of the changes that must emerge if we hope not only to expose whiteness but also to move beyond it. It can embolden us to refuse the pessimism that might lead us to embrace the idea that the canvas, the gallery or the nation must always be white. These works force us to expand the Wall Street Journal reporter‚s question and to ask also how we can find and foster nonwhite spaces, even as structural inequalities threaten to shut them down.

Notes
1.
David R. Roediger, „White Looks and Limbaugh‚s Laugh,š in Colored White: Transcending the Racial Past (University of California, 2002): 44Ų54. See also the important recent collection edited by Kymberly N. Pinder, Race-ing Art History: Critical Readings in Race and Art History (Routledge, 2002).
2. Amoja Three Rivers, Cultural Etiquette: A Guide for the Well-Intentioned (Market Wimmin, 1991): 8.
3. Cheryl Harris, „Whiteness as Property,š Harvard Law Review 106 (June 1993): 1709Ų91.
4. Edward Said in a question-and-answer session at Macalester College, Saint Paul in 1999.
5. See, for example, Rose Brewer, „Theorizing Race, Class and Gender,š in Theorizing Black Feminisms: The Visionary Pragmatism of Black Women, ed. Abena Busia and Stanlie James (Routledge, 1993): 16.
6. Susan Gubar, Racechanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture (Oxford University, 1997).
7. Boots Riley, „Everythang,š from The Coup‚s CD Party Music (Tommy Boy, 2001).
8. Richard Dyer, White (Routledge, 1997): 75Ų76, speaks succinctly to the psychoanalytical literature.
9. Franklin Rosemont, „Notes on Surrealism as a Revolution against Whiteness,š Race Traitor 9 (summer 1998): 29.

DAVID ROEDIGER is Babcock Professor of History at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. His most recent book is Colored White: Transcending the Racial Past (University of California, 2002).

 

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