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Who are the stories for: De-centering the white gaze in conversations about art and race

Though a more intentional attempt, including only featuring voices of color, the recent panel conversation “Who Tells the Story” was still about white people. How powerful could our work be if we shifted that focus and centered ourselves?

The panel conversation in the Fountain Street Church fellowship Hall had over 100 people in attendance. Image credit Isabel Garcia of Dreams by Bella Photography & Video.

Last week, the panel discussion “Who Tells The Story: Unpacking Conversations Around Race and Art” at Fountain Street Church featured local artists and previous ArtPrize contestants, including spoken word artist Ericka Thompson (Kyd Kane), photographer Monroe O’Bryant, and Sofía Ramírez Hernández, who won the 2-D Juried category last year. The discussion was moderated by Steffanie Rosalez, curator of Cultura Collective, a collective space for artists of color that has participated in the last two seasons of ArtPrize. The panel, including the moderator, are all people I know. The conversation was a more intentional attempt at having a conversation around art and race by actually having the whole space only feature voices of color.

Rosalez was charming and honest; she and the panelists got along well. They vibed and the discussion flowed easily, listening to one another instead of waiting to just speak next and engaging each other’s thoughts and points, with conversations segueing seamlessly into following questions.

Moderator Steffanie Rosalez (left) and panelists from left to right Sofía Ramírez Hernández, Ericka Thompson (Kyd Kane), and Monroe O’Bryant. Images credit Isabel Garcia of Dreams by Bella Photography & Video.

One question was about what they’re tired of being asked. “What can we do?” was one, and—I kid you not—that was still asked at the end during the Q&A. Other topics included white assumptions, microaggressions and upset they have to face when presenting and discussing their unavoidably political and real work, and a frank discussion about the avoidant, bullying, and covert nature of “West Michigan Nice” racism. The Q&A, always my least favorite part of events like this, despite it opening up with Literally The Worst Question of All Time, was quick, short, and painless. No white person spoke in the space, which was a refreshing change of pace.

While both myself and friends I spoke with appreciated the panel conversation (like the discussion about the avoidant, bullying and covert nature of “West Michigan Nice” racism) and felt the panelists had good things to say, we felt the way that we always had after other panels: it was too simple. It was lacking something.

My friends Tonisha Begay and Nikita Miner who also attended the talk and had great observations about it that we discussed again over sushi the next day. Image credit Briana Ureña-Ravelo.

Still about white people

Here’s what was lacking: both the panelists and the audience were throttled, held back by that very invisible yet ever-present dominant force that was meant to be challenged.

Even while trying to intentionally demystify, name and resist it, they were all kept to a standard focus: the white gaze.

The panelists still mainly talked about experiences with whiteness: white questions, white perception, white consumption, white engagement, and how they floundered or flourished under or despite it.

At one point, when the conversation went to discuss the often talked about point of discomfort, as in “these conversations about race will make you uncomfortable.” Every time that question of the assumed discomfort is asked, I think: Who’s the “you” that’s uncomfortable?

It certainly isn’t me, as this is my daily life and experience. I mean, white supremacy is, beyond uncomfortable, inherently jarring and dehumanizing, but that is why I feel ease in navigating it and urgency to dismantle it. It has been a constant since the time I was born and even before my birth. Given that, who cares if white people are uncomfortable just talking about it? It isn’t about their discomfort as a white person, and if discomfort is all a person are feeling, they should count themselves lucky. The rest of us out here are dealing with much worse in these spaces, and the world at large, than discomfort.

It was there in that focus of the white gaze that I realized that, as an Afro-Latina woman, I wasn’t the intended audience for this conversation. At least, I’m not sure I was meant to be the audience. The stories are about communities of color by artists of color, but they weren’t talking to me for most of the time as opposed to some of shared experiences under white supremacy.

These experiences are of value and always worth naming of course, and still important to talk about and still give you reflections and perspectives on artists of colors and communities of color themselves. Beyond that, I’m always here to really fight and challenge whiteness‚ though saying “you have privilege” is far from challenging.

But it’s all that we ever talk about. Our conversations are always specifically catered to white audiences with the assumption that they are A) New at this and thus aren’t familiar with concepts and experiences we are naming both because the are white and haven’t done any research or scholarship into the matter, or B) Constantly hurt and really sensitive and uncomfortable when it comes to these subjects.

“How hard is to to be a creative or artist of color and only be able to talk about white people?” Just as hard as only even being asked that question and seen and understood through that myopic lens. We are constantly defined by how whiteness misunderstands and falsely defines us, tries to limit us, interrogates us. This is how it has limited us historically and how it continues to limit us now. In trying to name that limitation we are still limited by it.

White people telling our stories

The reason why so many white artists feel entitled to tell our stories is that they don’t really see a barrier or difference between art, artist, and audience or subject, creator, and consumer when it appeals to them. They often just see the art or values/politics/questions/sentiments communicated in them as extension of themselves, only revealed or named by someone else, or something they can don and use to their benefit.

Artists easily superimpose themselves, fetishize our plight, and feel they need to embody the position that we are in, whether for themselves or allegedly for our sake (the artist white savior, also a phenomena discussed on the panel). It is such a colonial imposition needed to take over the entire world, take from others only to turn around and tell everyone they should be grateful for it. It is very unconscious, but in conversations it easily becomes apparent if you know what you’re looking for.

I don’t share these concerns in particular to attack the panelists, but to continue to lay out how I see these situations and spaces structured and reveal the burdens we have. I yet lay full responsibility and charge for these conditions and environments on the racist, dominant society we live in and talk about. Even those from the margins perpetuate and uphold it, especially at the detriment of those with even less power and position than ourselves, and this is still tantamount for us to grapple with and name.

Often we say the issue with the comments artists and creatives of color get regarding their work from white people and audiences is ignorance and lack of exposure, ameliorated by education and proximity to people of color. Like a zoo, if you will. But at the belly of a lot of invasive, disrespectful, defensive, and outright bigoted questions is entitlement and assumption of one’s position as of innate value in a space.

Shifting our intended audience

It ultimately isn’t for me to say or dictate for others how they move or create spaces, and many people are still in different processes as far as really unpacking and seeing the kind of nonsense we constantly go through in white spaces in a white world. However, it is something I always think about in the work I do and create, and find myself choosing to be intentionally antagonistic to those with power and increasingly less willing to translate or dampen my message for them, or even think of them as an audience member or consumer of my work at all, even if I am still going to discuss white supremacy, colonialism, patiarchy, etc.

There needs to be a disturbance in the assumptions made around audience. It’s time to let go of the idea that the target audience is the white audience, regardless if they might be the numerically dominant demographic. You look at spaces differently (as empty or full of color even if teeming with bodies), your art and vision differently as well, when you start thinking that way.

Once we make that shift, we can then also start looking and discussing ourselves and our art as independent of white gaze and audiences as well. We can then ask if the art actually good, is the artist creating good work, does it perpetuate harm or falsehoods especially against other marginalized in groups, like queer folks and women of color (as many spoken word artists in this city absolutely do)? Is the art bad or poorly executed, even if the politics and expression of self are valid (not every piece about police brutality is “powerful” and “good”)?

What responsibilities do we have as storytellers and creators—to our own communities and to ourselves—to rise above the low and limited bar that is whiteness and truly unveil some compelling and powerful stories?

One question that both my friends and I had: What does it mean if more artists, including ones of color not from the community, and especially ones that are not Black, engage and participate in a competition that quickens the economic displacement of African Americans in the city?

Top: Attendees to the panel discussion visiting the art in “African Americans Tell the Story,” an exhibition curated by George Bayard in the Keeler Gallery. Bottom left: Panelists and moderator for the event. Bottom right: George Bayard kicks off the event. All images credit Isabel Garcia of Dreams by Bella Photography & Video.

Who are these stories for, anyway?

For whom are we telling what stories, and where? To challenge who tells the story for whom, we also have to challenge who the story is for and what spaces there are happening in.

There’s power and merit in telling stories or showing art that does not explain itself to white people or folks outside of that racial or cultural group. There’s power in work that is prohibitive for viewers who don’t speak the language or know the culture or make some attempts to go beyond the 101, that just isn’t meant for them to consume and understand on their terms.

An artistic and cultural revival piece that perfectly embodies this ideal of resistant storytelling that I have been returning to in conversations is a performance installation/practice/anti-colonial revival piece by Anishinaabekwe Maani Oak. Oak is an Anishinaabe woman revitalizing traditional hand stitch tattoo methods in occupied Mohawk land T(k)aronto in so-called Canada.

In the video, she explains the multiple meanings and uses of the red willow barrier part of her installation, hung up around her tattoo performance space.

“It’s…meant to form a sort of barrier to the tattooing ceremony because so often a lot of our tattoo knowledge was kept in galleries and museums and academics texts and really barred from our communities, so what we’re trying to do with this is kind of bar it and bar this healing process from you guys, from the viewer and from the audience that is non-Indigenous,“ she says. “That’s really what the process is about as well: trying to reclaim space and reclaim land.”

Oak directly challenges this predisposed Western assumption that the consumer, the viewer, the audience member—very specifically the settler or non-Indigenous—is important, tantamount, sacred, and central to her work. Instead she names that historically they have been a dangerous and colonial force, one that people need healing and protection from as opposed to lending them access to. Her work challenges the idea that to grow from racism we must “share” (again, one that a people historically very prone to helping themselves to other people’s things will be happy to perpetuate no matter how damaging and false) and also challenged the idea that if she is not willing to entertain and uplift that colonial gaze and share with it that she then should not create.

This conversation about autonomy, sovereignty, knowledge (and conversation) stealing, and keeping and the arts and art spaces is one that communities of color, often engaged in different fights to reclaim and repatriate cultural items, works, art, pieces from colonial Western institutions like museums, are constantly embroiled in.

Frankly, the assumption that the arts are this free-for-all space for anyone to do whatever is a false and a dangerous one. Rosalez opened up the panel naming this sentiment, and a sentiment that is rooted in a entitled colonial history. To really uproot and change that trajectory and history, we have to shift who we orient ourselves to. We need to think more creatively about the questions and conversations and work that can be made when we center ourselves.

Briana Urena-Ravelo is an GR-based writer, poet, organizer, activist and lapsed creative. You can find her on Medium and Twitter.

The full video archive of the panel discussion is available here. Move to the 19:45 mark for the start of the discussion. Video courtesy Fountain Street Church.
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Briana L. Urena-Ravelo

Briana L. Urena-Ravelo

Writer. Community organizer. Errant punk. Ne’er do well. Fire starter. Email: Dominicanamalisima@gmail.com

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