7 Things You Can Do To Make Your Art Less Racist - A comprehensive How-To-Guide

Serge Alain Nigeketa Black Subjects I: “…And Walk In My Shoes.” 2011 Paint and oil on wood Two panels, 182 x 223cm total Image courtesy STEVENSON Johannesburg and Cape Town

by Sandrine Micossé-Aikins

1) Acknowledge the bitter truth

Most Western contemporary art has grown out of a context shaped by coloniality and white heterosexist supremacy - among other forms of oppression. Many of your renowned poets, philosophers and playwrights etc. were racists/sexists/etc. This is not your fault. But then it becomes your problem, too, if you elect to continue their legacy as if they had not been dehumanising the majority of the people on the planet. Their theories, their ideas of morality, beauty and knowledge have since been challenged by Black/POC (People of Color) poets, philosophers, playwrights etc. Acknowledge this and arrive in the present.  

2) Do a crash course in Critical Whiteness

It is a common misconception that in order to be able to understand the connection between imagery and racism, you would have to first and foremost have professional knowledge about art. What you need is a fundamental understanding of racism which will come in handy in almost every other life situation, too.
Numerous essays and articles on the internet patiently put together by your friendly anti-racist activists explain everything you need to know to begin the process that will ultimately lead to a happier and more respectful interaction with all your fellow humans. At first though, your untrained brain will come up with all kinds of denial strategies to avoid taking in the information offered (this might actually be happening right now as you read this text). But if you are honestly willing, it will sink in and begin to make sense. Eventually something amazing and scary will happen; you slowly start to see the matrix you have been living in for what it really is: a machinery that wants to make you believe that the bubbly dreams injected into your brain are real, when you are actually floating in a tank full of apocalyptic racist sexist etc. mucilage that also seems to be your nutrition. Think about what wonderful things this powerful realization can do to your artistic practice. 
From there you can go deeper into the issue. There are countless books that can be easily obtained through the internet. Find a list of some of them at the end of this article.

3) Communicate with/read/listen to People of Color

Start with one and the rest will follow. I do not mean asking random POC to explain racism to you. They have lots of stuff to do and most likely are already spending a significant amount of their spare time educating white colleagues, friends, teachers etc. about the subject. What I mean is genuinely breaking down the barriers of segregation you most likely live in and seek out information yourself. Become aware that Black people/POC are people and that they are talking and have been talking for a long time. Try to read a book that has not been written by a white (male) person for a change.
For example: You want to put Othello on stage? Go find out what Black people have been writing about that play during the past centuries or how Black directors have staged it. Go to talks and lectures of Black people and find out what they are thinking about art, culture and society. Especially if you want to make anti-racist art, find out what People of Color know about racism. DO NOT go and read books that old white men wrote 50 years ago and then call it a day. Fill your knowledge gaps and diversify your input!

4) Focus on your own social position (and its implications for others)

As you have learnt the basics about what whiteness is, you will understand that it is not a neutral or "objective" position but one of privilege, probably the least "objective" of all. It is therefore very unlikely that you will come up with a non-racist, sensible way of describing the experiences of POC's in any way or medium. So don't try. If you want to make anti-racist art get to grips with the fact that the idea of white supremacy/superiority is at the root and heart of racism. Do NOT use stereotypical images or characters of Black or People of Color to tell a story about racism. Racism does not require the presence of POC to unfold, function and corrode people’s humanity – it works just as well among white people (as you will realise if you remember the last „honest“ collegial and intimately white conversation about „those Turks, Arabs, Africans, Roma (fill in POC category that white experts were complaining about). Another fun fact: There is absolutely no need to reproduce racist language in order to talk about racism.

5) Involve People of Color

If you are a cultural producer with a staff and some influence, try to put together a crew that contains all kinds of people. That also means different kinds of Black People/ POC for being Black/POC is usually not the only quality/identity aspect a person has, so one cannot be enough to truly open up new vistas/perspectives for your entire team/project. Then involve your very diverse crew in the process of conceptualising/realising your concept while carefully considering their various perspectives on the subject. 

6) Represent Black people/POC as normal people

If you stage a play or make a movie, try to involve Black people/POC in their function as people, not in their function as Black people/POC. For most stories told in movies or on stage the skin or hair color of a character is irrelevant. The only reason most of them happen to be white is that white people are often incapable of identifying with POC and to feel empathy as they would for white characters. In most of the cases, it is also absolutely unnecessary to show naked bodies or body parts of Black women/men in art made by white people.

7) Imagine People of Color as potential audience

This probably is one of the most crucial points in making non-racist art. First, become aware that you have been assuming that the default spectator who will see your art is white. Honest introspection will reveal that it was probably even the proverbial white male heterosexual Western-educated degree holder in stable economic conditions. Now think about the times when you have been using racist stereotypes in your art or made a movie/theater play that focused solely on white people's concerns for no particular reason and excluded any kind of POC perspective – despite the fact that past and present of your country, city and even core aspects of your art form have been shaped, inspired, enabled by People of Color. Then imagine your audience would be representative of the actual society you are living in and 1/3 of the people beholding your art would be POC's. Then imagine the room would be full of POC (no white people). What would it mean to them? What would they see in it? How relevant would it be for their lives? Feel the panic?

 

Suggested Literature

English language:

  • Art on my Mind: Visual Politics; bell hooks; New Press 1995
  • Colored Pictures: Race and Visual Representation; Michael D. Harris; The University of North Carolina Press 2006
  • Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination; Toni Morrison; Vintage 1993
  • White: Essays on Race and Culture; Richard Dyer; Routledge 1997
  • Race-ing art History: Critical Readings in Race and Art History; Kimberly N. Pinder; Routledge 2002
  • Re/Positionierung - Critical Whiteness/Perspectives of Color; NGBK 2009
  • The Impact of Race: Theatre and Culture: Woodie King, Jr; Applause Theatre& Cinema Books 2003

German language:

  • Deutschland Schwarz Weiß: Der alltägliche Rassismus; Noah Sow; Goldmann 2009
  • Mythen, Masken und Subjekte: Kritische Weißseinsforschung in Deutschland; Maureen Maisha Eggers, Susan Arndt, Unrast 2006
  • re/visionen: Postkoloniale Perspektiven von People of Color auf Rassismus, Kulturpolitik und Widerstand in Deutschland; Kien Nghi Ha, Nicola Lauré al-Samarai, Sheila Mysorekar; Unrast 2007
  • Weißsein im Widerspruch: Feministische Perspektiven auf Rassismus, Kultur und Religion; Eske Wollrad; Ulrike Helmer Vl. 2005
  • Wie Rassismus aus Wörtern spricht: (K)Erben des Kolonialismus im Wissensarchiv deutscher Sprache; Susan Arndt; Unrast 2012


Sandrine Micossé-Aikins ist Kuratorin der Projekte „prêt-à-partager“ (ifa 2008-2012) und die Veranstaltungsreihe „Re/Positionierung – Critical Whiteness/Perspectives of Color“ (NGBK, 2009). Sie promoviert an der Muthesius-Kunsthochschule Kiel.

 

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