I am a white artist. I am a female white artist. I am a female white artist with inherited wealth. I am an oppressor by default. My entire life is based on taking what is not mine. I can barely see outside of this reality. In fact sometimes I think a whole section of my brain has been blocked out and numbed. My current theory is that this blindness happened the moment my Pilgrim ancestors stepped off the boat onto the beaches of Cape Cod in December 1620, freezing, starving enough to steal stored seed corn from the inhabitants. Or maybe it was before that, when they and the majority of immigrants were removed from their land back in England, homeless, and threatened with debtors prison. In any case, they were lost, terrified, cold, and grieving from leaving their homeland and overwhelmed by the place they had landed by accident. I don’t have images of what my 17th century ancestors looked like but I imagine they looked worse and more desperate than the thousands of people who arrived at Ellis Island 200 years later.
Back to making art as a white person. I am sympathetic to artists Sam Durant (“Scaffold,” The Walker Center) and Dana Schutz (“Open Casket,” Whitney Biennial), whose recent work received pushback from the groups their work references. They are doing their best to use their artwork to understand our oppressive world. But these artworks speak to the oppression from an outsiders’ perspective packed with centuries of cruelty and ignorance.
What is ours to use? How can we respectfully reference other people’s stories? Do we need to? Should we? Is there an alternative? At the recent 18th Annual White Privilege Conference in Kansas City, journalist and keynote speaker Jacqueline Keeler (Navajo/Yankton, Dakota Sioux) posed the question “What would ethical colonization look like?” The audience laughed at this impossible concept but it has stuck with me. What would it have been like if Europeans had arrived as visitors, not bent on colonization?
Imagine European envoys in boats landing on the shores of Virginia, asking permission to land their boats, bringing gifts and curiosity about this new civilization. As peer sovereign nations with much to learn from each other, the envoys would follow local protocols and customs. As time went on, they might become trading partners, allow Europeans to buy land, and exchange knowledge and technologies. In my utopian vision, we would have blended the best of our cultures and climate change would have been averted.
But that is not what happened. The Europeans came from a continent where people and rulers assumed that war and invasion was the default relationship between nations and cultures. It was unfathomable for them not to take advantage of their advanced weaponry or see the entire continent as a pile of resources to be exploited for profit. Consider, for example, the Hundred Years War, fought between France and England from 1337 to 1453. So of course the practice of co-option and appropriation became second nature to white people. We can’t see past the urge to use the experience, skills, wisdom, and trauma of others for our own benefit and bristle when a person from a marginalized or oppressed group tells us we can’t.
I invite and dare white artists to turn to our own experience, history and trauma instead. Ask yourself the hard questions. Look deeply and be brave. If that means showing our mistakes and crimes alongside our gifts, so be it. But it can also pave the way to an equal relationship with the rest of humanity and living things that will give back much more.