In Pursuit of Racial Equity in Arts Education
Exploring Microaggressions in Dialogue with Provocative Posters
On Tuesday, November 14, The Antiracist Classroom convened about forty students, faculty, and locals for dinner, an exhibit and open dialogue to reflect on work submitted to our call for posters. The call invited participants to explore microaggressions through visual art and design. The event was centered around the 37 submitted posters as provocative conversation objects and their 14 creators as leaders in the resulting discourse. We were joined by four guest facilitators: Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle, Maceo Paisley , Sue Bell Yank, and Michelle Ann Mathews . We came together at The Spot in Art Center’s Fine Art & Illustration building: a student-run space first occupied by Joanne Lee and Bryan Ortega in direct response to censorship and silencing of student voices at Art Center. All photos were taken by Johnny Perez (Fine Art).
Visit our website to see all 37 posters.
By the end of the night, many participants expressed enthusiasm and gratitude, each in their own way, for what this event had offered them. For some, it was about simply cultivating a space to hold often-avoided conversations; for others, it gave a relatable voice and language to their own, unspoken experiences with microaggressions; more still appreciated the chance to challenge the prevailing tenor of educational discourse with respect to difference (of race, gender, sexuality, and so on) at Art Center. As organizers, we are infinitely grateful for the validation that this night offered us and others who have helped move forward the Antiracist Classroom’s work so far. We were thrilled to find that this dialogue is one that many students, faculty, and non-Art Center affiliated folks were so willing to contribute to with such candor and openness. We are grateful for our featured artists-of-color who, in carefully redefining how we referred to them throughout the evening — as facilitators, not critics — elevated the nature and tone of the conversation and helped us advance beyond the constraints of a traditional critique.
We discussed the ways artists’ form and composition reinforced their messaging. We examined how work wrenched from places of deep harm and healing might have manifested very differently — but with no less poignance or efficacy — than posters whose content took a subjectively more subtle approach in their representations and language. Kenyatta dove into Kayla Salisbury’s (Illustration) series of posters depicting an internal dialogue made viscerally visual: “Conversations in my Head.” Kenyatta likened Kayla’s own revelations and anguish about having to justify her experiences with microaggressions, existence, pain, and discomfort, to threads from James Baldwin’s I Am Not Your Negro. Both Kayla’s series and the film, for instance, expose the exhaustion associated with having to know and navigate everything about the dominant (white) culture, while members of that culture are never expected to do the same for “others.”
“Oppressed bodies always have to explain their presence,” Kenyatta noted. “Baldwin talks about the need to create an oppressed body, and the burden to be seen.”
The compressed, organic forms of speech bubbles and almost pained, contorted positioning of some characters in Kayla’s pieces help convey this weighted feeling of having to contort oneself in order to thrive — or even just make due — in this context.
We questioned the ways forward and struggled with the balance between, on one hand, calling out or condemning aggressors’ behavior and, on the other, opening up space for an educational moment, acknowledging the labor that heaps upon victim’s’ shoulders. Maceo Paisley investigated Chrystal Li’s “Thanks! Your English is Good” poster. In it, Chrystal borrows the vernacular of a typical office flyer with tear-off tabs. A poetic coincidence, perhaps, is that these types of flyers are often used to advertise services like language tutoring. The content of the poster — which lays out why a condescending compliment about one’s language ability would constitute a microaggression — sends the reader away with a feeling of hope and enlightenment similar to that which a real fortune cookie might impart. Consequently, the tone isn’t too condemning of those who might commit this kind of microaggression: instead, it leaves them with a memento and a friendly reminder to do better next time.
Sue Bell Yank found that Nicci Yin’s (Graduate Media Design Practices) series — about respecting the pronouns and names people ask you to use — resonated with her even though she hadn’t shared a similar experience. One of Nicci’s pieces depicts coffee cups with all the misspelled and mispronounced names she’s been called in a variety of cafes. In these moments, her identity is reinvented or erased, in a way, based on a brief interaction with a stranger. Sue challenged us to consider in this moment and others depicted throughout the exhibit: What’s the call to action for a person who might view this image? To whom is it directed? And, what do you really want people to do in these situations? More importantly, perhaps, how can that intent be made plainly evident through your illustrations and text?
Throughout the discussion, we were reminded of the level of vulnerability displayed by contributors who bared their experiences in such a public way. As Michelle Matthews reflected on Benin Marshall’s (Graphic Design) poster, for instance:
“This broke my heart. How many times have we been in these situations? It’s a courageous and necessary step to show that this happens.”
Some artists retrospectively questioned the efficacy of their own approaches: “What’s the ‘right’ way to depict these experiences?” they wondered. “How can you achieve ‘success’ through a poster?”
There is no one answer.
Just as there’s a need and a place for gentle nudges that inform without condemning; there is a need and a place for offering solidarity and support to people who may not realize their experiences are shared; and there is a need and a place for calling malicious people out. We sometimes need to be reminded that the stinging, unsettling, numbing feeling of experiencing a microaggression is, in fact, a real and credible one: not an imagined or overexaggerated gripe. The same poster that validates one’s experiences might speak to a would-be aggressor, reminding them that language like “that’s so gay!” for instance, is a harmful reinforcement of heteronormative culture that turns a sexual identity into an virulent, damning insult. Each of these modalities and more are valid, and an artist or designer must simply align them with their audiences and intents as they attempt to craft and evaluate an “effective” or “successful” piece. In Kenyatta’s words:
“None of these modalities are foreclosed to you. You may wake up and be Peaches from Nina Simone’s Four Women, or you may wake up and be Saffronia. Either way, you can be all these women at different points in time.”
Through Jaime Polancic’s (Illustration) piece, we examined the dearth of sustained critique in art and design about topics like race, gender and sexuality — issues inextricably connected to our personhood — particularly in the classroom. In Maceo’s words: “[Jaime’s poster] could be a piece that frames how we open classrooms. This should be in the teacher handbook! If we’re not creating an environment that can hold these conversations, we are failing artists who are coming to be educated.”
Many in the room recounted experiences in which they had presented pieces with clear ties to some component of their identity for critique, but the content or experience embedded within was conspicuously overlooked. In art and design spaces, it seems that people don’t know how to respond if they can’t directly relate to a piece. As Kayla noted, “people [at Art Center] are scared of that vulnerability required to respond to conversations about race.” Michelle noted that students may find support outside the classroom when the people in the room lack the language to respond appropriately to their work. The reality, though, is that this deafening silence represents a weak point in educational infrastructure to support critically constructive conversations.
From Kenyatta’s standpoint, this is nothing new. She recounted heartbreaking experiences from her own time as a student. “You’re too talented to be making Black art,” she was told, after showing a white professor her work. “The only thing black in the painting was me,” she said. “It was self portraiture. How can I be too talented to depict myself?” What this person was really saying, was that “…my [Kenyatta’s] presence doesn’t have to do with them; that it isn’t an issue that involves them, so they don’t want to have to deal with it. I know what it’s like to turn in something you’re really passionate about and have people act like they don’t understand what you’re talking about or don’t think it relates to them…I’ve been in studios where people say ‘I hear about that on the news and I just want to come to the gallery and see something other than that. I want to escape.’” But, for her, art has never been a purely aesthetic or escapist endeavor:
“I’ve been trained to think that art is just about beautiful things,” she said, “But, because of my background, I was always more interested in what art can do.”
In an institution like Art Center with predominantly white faculty and a heavily international, multiracial student body, there are inevitable imbalances between the experiences of faculty and students and the accompanying “relatability” of those experiences. Maceo offered an example of how one might navigate situations in which a facilitator — in his case, as curator of an exhibit — can engage with work to which they may not experientially relate, but whose significance or relevance they can appreciate. He was approached about curating a show at his own gallery featuring works on sexual assault: “I have no personal experience to contribute to this,” he said, “and I don’t think I should be the curator for this exhibit.” So, he recused himself, invited a guest curator, listened, learned, and gave his feedback after a certain point. This is to say, even if existing faculty aren’t equipped to directly contribute to these types of critical dialogues through lived experience, there are still ways for them to cultivate that space for students.
More importantly, our facilitators challenged faculty to find ways to create that space by making themselves vulnerable. How can openly acknowledging their own biases in the classroom open up space for conversations about identity in students’ work? How can faculty teaching highly technical studios incorporate these kinds of considerations into their curriculum? How can evidencing one’s own identity encourage students to do the same or reconsider their preconceived notions about what meaning that identity might carry? How can more faculty begin to grasp that “giving students their money’s worth” at a top tier design institution doesn’t stop at teaching them the technical skills required to satisfy a commercial aim like making a product, designing a car, or setting type? These skills and their outputs don’t exist in a vacuum. Rather, designers who can critically engage with the ways their designs are informed by and situated in the world are better equipped to do that technical work.
Thanks to all the supporters who helped make the event come together by offering time, money, energy, and expertise to hang posters, design materials, acquire food and paper, bind books, arrange the space and clean up afterward. Special thanks to Esther Pearl Watson for beginning to institutionalize conversations like these by introducing the call for posters as an assignment in her Smart Image + Social Impact class. Most importantly, thanks to all the artists who contributed work.