I Am My White Ancestors Pop ups

This past month of September we have been taking I Am My White Ancestors to the streets! Actually to street fairs, parks, and farmers markets. Here’s the scenario. At each Portland area location we set up a single portrait on a moveable stand and hang out for about two hours. Ideally we have four people: Two to keep the fabric panel from blowing over from the wind and two to wear signs and try to engage people. The signs ask in large type “Want to end racism?” Under that is the name of the project. Our goal was to talk and listen to people about white history and ending racism.

Me, Desire, and Jane Keating at Belmont Street Fair

Me, Desire, and Jane Keating at Belmont Street Fair

So what was it like? It was performance, sales, and an attempt to make connections. In other words it was exciting and terrifying. There we were, standing in front of a huge image of a white person with the word racism hanging around our necks. There was no doubt that we were going public as white people. Of course that was the point, to publicly claim my family history warts and all and take responsibility for how that has affected me now. The pop ups just made this more real since I was not protected by a gallery or institutional environment. My helpers and I were on the same level as panhandlers, buskers, preachers, or the Jehovah’s Witness women that seemed to be at every corner. We were all competing for the attention of the street.

The locations varied in how open people were. The first one at the Belmont Street Fair went well because it was warm and sunny and people were there for fun and entertainment. The second pop up we planned at Portland Saturday Market was rained out. Denny and I got kicked out of the third location, Director Park in downtown Portland, because we didn’t have a permit. The fourth was at my local farmers markets in Cully, a small community based market where people hang out, eat and listen to music. Not only did we have a prime spot on the main aisle, Doug was my helper that day. As a former salesperson he modeled reaching out to people walking by and not just waiting for them to express interest. The fifth was at Portland Farmers market downtown and the vibe was a mix of people set on buying their food and leaving, and sketchy street people. It was also windy and we only had two people so my poor ancestor Ragnhilde kept being pushed over.  We only lasted an hour. The sixth was back at Cully Market. It was their last market for the season so it was packed with neighbors and shoppers. For the seventh I was rained out at Portland Farmers Market again.

Doug Deaton and I talking to people at Cully Farmers Market in NE Portland.

Doug Deaton and I talking to people at Cully Farmers Market in NE Portland.

People’s reactions varied. Some glanced at us and scurried past, their shopping bags banging around their knees. Many slowed their step and looked longer, then smiled and waved. If they appeared curious, I smiled wider and called out “it’s a pop up art project.” Often that was enough for them to stop and talk. If they were interested in knowing more I gave them a postcard with info.

Many people didn’t know how to respond and I would ask them to share who their people were. It could be a challenge for people. One women started to describe how her family came from Scandinavia but abruptly stopped saying she was not able to talk right now because she just came from an acupuncture appointment. People of color tended to avoid us. This was as it should be since our target audience was white people and our goal was helping them do their work to end racism.

Since the project is based on my vulnerability and openness about my family, it gave people permission to wonder and share about their families. One man revealed that he was born in Romania and his family fled the country in the 1970s because Jews were being lynched. That was the day I displayed my ancestor Magdalen Stroman, my Swiss ancestor who supported the Basel massacre of Jews during the Black Death in 1349.

Doug and Magdalen handing out postcards.

Doug and Magdalen handing out postcards.

This week the rains have returned so I am considering packing the ancestors away for the winter. But come next spring and summer I’ll be out again. I am recruiting helpers who want to learn to listen to white people and talk about ending racism. Please contact me if you want to be involved. Thanks to Jane Keating, Denny Karas, Doug Deaton, and Susan Bennett for helping out.

Appreciations, The Racial Imaginary Institute, and more

Thanks to all of you who sent responses to my last newsletter in which I shared about coming up against my white supremacist patterns. I just reread them and wanted to cry all over again. Here's an edited collection:

You are so awesome. This newsletter is awesome. What a treat to read it and to know you . . . . Your words touched my heart. I am melting and grieving and growing right beside you . . . . You’re fantastic! Keep up all the good work. . . .Great insights. Great sharing . . . . The last paragraph about community vs. isolation is so profound and important. Blessings on your project . . . . I appreciated your vulnerability here . . . . Lovely letter. Thanks for sharing your own thinking and vulnerability. . . .Thanks for your story, Anne and most of all your bold honesty. Proud to call you my friend. . .
When I wrote it I had to trust that if I feel something, others, especially my fellow white people, would resonate with it. And it was true. The comments cut through that isolation and reminded me that I am not alone in my efforts. Someday I will remember that.
The concept of whiteness is in the air. On June 30, 2018, The Racial Imaginary Institute, founded by poet and MacArthur fellow Claudia Rankine, put on “On Whiteness: A symposium at The Kitchen.” This organization is choosing to focus first on whiteness. From their website: “We begin here in order to make visible that which has been intentionally presented as inevitable so that we can move forward into more revelatory conversations about race. Our first project questions what can be made when we investigate, evade, beset and call out bloc-whiteness.”
I didn’t attend since it was in New York City, but watched the entire day long event on videos posted on their website. The speakers were scholars who spend their time thinking, researching, and writing deeply about race and whiteness. The primary perspective was non-white which was revelatory to me. To follow their theses I had to rewatch segments and also frequently look up words I had never heard before. I had to remind myself repeatedly that they were speaking about the concept and system of whiteness, not about me, Anne. Yet they were also speaking to me and calling out my blindness. So I flipped back and forth. The audience was also majority people of color.  Whenever a white person asked a question, which was not often, I was embarrassed by their earnest ignorance and confusion that reminded me of myself. The speakers graciously answered their “questions”, which were really attempts to be reassured and taken care of. It was clear that this event was a place for white people to just listen.
So where can white people express confusion and fear rather than letting it spill out at POC? Together with artist Jane Keating, I have been developing a project we hope to implement next year in Portland: a workshop for white artists to explore how their white identity affects them as artists. My theory is that our obliviousness limits our view of the world and thus our work. I am curious to see what might change if we could see outside of our oppressor blinders. Personally, I want to have a cohort of fellow artists who want to actively use the transformative power of art to help end white supremacy and be better allies to POC and artists of color. Yes, it's ambitious but I don't see a reason not to try.

Taking art everywhere

Back in fall 2013, when the idea for I Am My White Ancestors first came to me, I envisioned the project appealing to all kinds of groups: high school English classes, genealogy clubs, college religious history courses, diversity and inclusion trainings, psychology courses, and so on. In particular I wanted to bring it to groups and communities that might not voluntarily examine their beliefs about oppression or white identity.

So I was pleased to meet Sara Anderson, librarian and genealogy teacher at Lawrence Academy in Groton, MA. last January at the reception of the project at Northfield Mount Hermon. She was on fire and wanted me to address her class via remote technology.
So last week I sat at my computer in Portland, OR with my face projected into a remote technology classroom all the way across the continent in Massachusetts. I could see the students and teachers sitting on chairs and desks and talk directly to them. It was almost like standing in the front of the room giving a presentation. I know this is nothing new but it was my first time. I was struck by the possibilities. How many other ways could I think of to share the project?
Sara teaches a two-week intensive genealogy class at Lawrence Academy each year with history teacher Natasha Huggins. During the course, students are exposed to all sorts of technology and methods for finding their ancestors. So I proposed to Sara and Natasha a presentation where students could think about the emotional and historical aspects of their family using my project as an example.
In order to bridge the distance and keep them engaged I divided the talk into three sections interspersed with a simple listening process. For the listening process I asked them to pair up and take two minutes each to answer specific questions that related to the short talk I had just given. This allowed them follow their thinking without being interrupted or criticized. For example, after the section on whiteness and what I learned as a white person the students answered this question: What are some values or beliefs you learned from your family? After the section on specific oppressions my ancestors acted out the question was: What systems of oppression were your ancestors affected by or acted out on others? How does that affect you now?
I appreciate Sara and Natasha for being able to see how the project related their class. I also thank the students for being so brave and honest. I began the class with the hardest question, say your name and one thing you like about yourself. About halfway though the class, Natasha's 8 year old daughter Zinnia piped up. She wanted to tell us what she liked about herself just like the high school students did. Her answer? "I like that I am creative." Natasha said she had never heard Zinnia say this before.