Cate White

What does this white girl think she’s doing? What does this white girl think she’s doing? is a question that comes up in the art world regarding my paintings that include black figures. I’ve been asking myself that question for the last five years and will do my best to answer it here.

My primary aim in doing my art is to break down and through my own conditioning as a product of “imperialist, capitalist, white supremacist patriarchy.”1 I do this for my own psychic survival. Painting and drawing seem to be somewhat effective tools for this in a possibly mystical way that I won’t get into here. In making my work, I find glimpses of freedom, truth, love and my untrammeled humanity. This process of expanding awareness continues in the public dialog about my work—for me and for others.

Since my work became public in the art world five years ago, questions regarding race and representation have arisen. The general stated concern is that the historical power dynamic of white people representing black people in inaccurate, exploitative or inhumane ways could be happening in my work. It seems a simple question to answer. Look at the work itself and decide for yourself. This is how my work is evaluated outside of the art world, and the response to inclusion of black figures has been the assumption that here is an ally. I don’t report this as a defense of my work, but as a point of discussion. Why such a starkly contrasting response in the art world, where my inclusion of black figures creates discomfort among some viewers?

I’ve been grappling for the last five years with this gap in the meaning of representation: through reading, writing, introspection, rumination and ongoing, in-depth conversations with people of color from the street to academia. What I’ve come to know is that there are multiple perspectives and voices that need to be listened to if we want to have a clear grasp on reality as it’s experienced by the collective. We don’t listen to outside perspectives to be nice. We do it because we need them:

“...the margin is more than a site of is also the site of radical possibility, a space of resistance...a site one stays in, clings to even, because it nourishes one's capacity to resist. It offers to one the possibility of radical perspective from which to see and create, to imagine alternatives, new worlds."2

Here is an example of a perspective from outside the art world that feels radical within the art world:
I make my work in a mostly black neighborhood and my social life is racially integrated, so a lot of black people—friends, neighbors, etc.—see my work before anyone else and are part of the conversation before it goes public. People like to give me suggestions for paintings they think I should make, such as, “Hey, you should paint a tribute to Nia Wilson” (the black girl who was murdered on Bart by a white man in July of 2018). When I tell them how badly their idea would go over in the art world, I see confusion and hurt in their eyes. I have to tell people that within the art world, they are seen as different from me. When I asked Rory what he would like people in the art world to know about people in the streets, he said, “I would like them to know that we are no different than they are.”

Seven years ago, before my consciousness had made the full perceptual shift into integration, it didn’t occur to me to include black figures in my paintings. I remember asking Rory what he thought of what I had made that day and he said, “It looks like a bunch of white people.” That’s when I first realized how my perception was skewed by racial conditioning and suddenly my work looked like a bunch of white people to me as well. Within the art world, the inclusion of black people in my paintings arouses suspicion rather than indicating an integrated life.

These marginalized perspectives are sometimes dismissed as uneducated, uninformed or unenlightened. So, I’ve made a practice of finding links between street wisdom and more “credible” cultural production. Here, Hilton Als, writing about Alice Neel, repeats and expands Rory’s perspective:

“What struck me about her vast oeuvre… was all the people of color she painted. This was unusual, and is still. The truth of the matter is that many—most—contemporary artists of non-color are interested in reflecting themselves, their creamy whiteness and hair untroubled by thought. On the flip side, many artists of color who make a buck nowadays do it by equating blackness with oppression and selling the result to white people without feeling a thing for their subjects’ lives. Neel’s work smashes both of those categories, showing us the humanness embedded in subjects that people might classify as ‘different.’”3

Als boldly names a reason why Rory’s perspective on my art differs so vastly from that of some art world viewers: Identity is capital within the art world. If a black artist can capitalize on black identity, this will inevitably extend into a white artist getting in the game and taking power from the black artist. In a conversation with an artist friend of color, he voiced this fear and made the analogy of Elvis capitalizing on black music. His courageous honesty immediately shifted the conversation to our mutual goal of resisting the commodification of black oppression while seeing more artists of color rise up the art world ranks. In the broader cultural dialog, I suspect that the fear he named is operating as an unspoken subtext surrounding my art. All indicators point that way.

For people of all races with no skin in the art game, my work has been seen as some much-needed representation of black folks, as normalizing blackness, as depicting what an integrated life looks like, as an opportunity to see black people not as symbols for something else but as individual, beautiful human beings. In the art world, where racial identity is charged with power, the neo-colonial pattern of white people exploiting and dehumanizing black people is brought back to the table.

For all their stated intentions to be sites of radical critique, art world institutions are inescapably centers of power. The higher up a power hierarchy we go, the more there is to be lost and gained in terms of social and economic capital. We are inside what Audre Lorde calls the master’s house. In the words of my academic artist friend Butterfly Williams, “The master’s house will never be dismantled by the master’s tools—and the master’s primary tool is your identity.”4

The discomfort that comes up around my work in the art world pulls at a thread that leads us right to the center of the knot of identity, class and neo-colonial power. We know that racial identity was created and legislated to serve economic power and is, to this day, wielded politically to maintain economic power. This racialized system has infected not only our societal structures but our psyches as well. Here is Butterfly Williams again:

“Postmodernism is Neo-Colonialism: Postmodernity is the cultural condition that results from the history of colonialism. What contemporary people think of as “identity” is a result of colonialism: the poor worked for the rich, people of color served whites, women obeyed men, and homosexuals and transgenders were pathologized by heterosexuals and cisgenders because these cultural habits made imperial expansion under capitalism more efficient. The dynamics within these binaries have been changed — somewhat — by cultural and political activism, but the binaries themselves remain firmly entrenched. Similarly, what contemporary people think of as “power” is also the result of colonialism: a social hierarchy of cultural privileges that determines who issues orders and who obeys them.”5

So what do we do in the art world and in our own conditioned psyches with the relationship between identity and power? I certainly don’t suggest that identity be ignored in some kind of color-blind fantasy. But, we should be aware of how we are using it—for liberation? or for domination? Without awareness, we can unwittingly recreate the power dynamics we want to resist. If we recognize that we ARE the art world, we have the power to shape it—most practically perhaps in the narratives we initiate around specific works of art.

I saw a missed opportunity to disrupt the dominant power paradigm in the discourse around Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till, “Open Casket” in the 2017 Whitney Biennial. First, the critique that she is using black suffering for career points doesn’t go far enough. Are we going to address the fact that we’ve created a system where black suffering is a commodity? Second, where was the conversation about Henry Taylor’s painting of Philando Castile’s murder, “The Times They Ain’t A Changing, Fast Enough!” An in-depth compare and contrast between those two approaches to the same subject seems to me to be an obvious and enlightening approach. We could have given at least equal attention to Henry Taylor and shed light on the difference between knowing about racism and knowing racism, among many more rigorous analyses. In my own analysis of those two works, Dana Schutz’s painting takes the back seat it deserves. (I’ll be writing that after I’m done writing this.) In the resistance to Dana Schutz’s work, she became the focal point of the whole show, once again centering whiteness.

While the quality of our public discourse is important for freeing our art world from destructive patterns, perhaps even more transformative is the willingness to talk openly one-on-one. Intimate, vulnerable conversations about racial dynamics that dismantle conditioned identity concepts are revolutionary political acts. Division between social identities prevents us from building coalitions powerful enough to fight back against our economic overlords. The Black Panther Party was a serious threat to power not because they had guns—power has bigger guns—but because they understood who the real enemy is. Stokely Carmichael breaks it down:

“If a white man wants to lynch me, that's his problem. If he's got the power to lynch me, that's my problem. Racism is not a question of attitude; it's a question of power. Racism gets its power from capitalism. Thus, if you're anti-racist, whether you know it or not, you must be anti-capitalist. The power for racism, the power for sexism, comes from capitalism, not an attitude.”

I know how hard it is, however, to have these intimate vulnerable conversations about race and power. When people experience the identity dynamics between my black figures and me as hurtful or threatening, I understand this reaction and am sympathetic to it. I know I would feel the same way. I do feel the same way when challenged. In my fight-or-flight drive to defend myself against suspicions of exploitation, I can feel my own desire to grab for control (over my “good name” mainly, since my art is more economic burden than boon.) Under capitalism, our value as human beings is not secure. We use the tools at hand to feel safe, unless we are willing to risk safety for freedom.

I’ve considered not including black figures in my work to avoid causing this stress in others and in myself. But what I’ve come to, for the time being, is that to walk away from this stress would be a cowardly move. This is the feeling you get when you approach the edges of deep wounds. And in America, I don’t think there is any deeper wound than race. I remember when I first moved to West Oakland and started hanging out with black people, a guy from the street was telling me about how racism had limited his life. I said, “Ugh, I can’t imagine living in a world like that.” His reply, “You don’t?” The wound of racism affects us all whether we are aware of it or not.

I paint to address suffering. Particularly the suffering of the tension between power and love as it plays out in culture and in our psyches. And we can’t talk about power in America without talking about race. And I’d suggest that we can’t talk about love in America without talking about race. I sense a deep heartbreak over our separation. And there is a particular quality of boundless love that gets released when we transcend racial conditioning together.This transcendence is political power. As Cornell West says, “Justice is what love looks like in public.”

The commodification of our artistic expression to serve power is not a newly identified problem. I’m offering that currently, the commodification of identity to serve power is a problem we should talk about. Do we operate on the terms set by colonization, or do we do the difficult work of psychic deconstruction in public?

In our collectively created art world, we have what amounts to a crucible of our collective consciousness, if we choose to use it this way. Here we can try out untested ways of thinking, perceiving and representing. We can privilege information from our senses, hearts and guts over familiar ideology. Most importantly, we can talk to each other from our hearts. We have the opportunity to expose unconscious forces personally and interpersonally within the low-stakes, symbolic realm of art. No one’s life is at risk here. A painting is not a gun. Opinions only hurt egos.

If we value our collective freedom, we can address the uncomfortable subtexts of competition, distrust and fear that keep us divided and playing out the master’s plan. It’s on us. As James Baldwin says, “Freedom is not something that anybody can be given. Freedom is something people take, and people are as free as they want to be.”6

1 bell hooks’ phrase
2bell hooks, Marginality as Site of Resistance
3 Hilton Als, The Inclusive Humanity of Alice Neel’s Paintings, The New Yorker, February 4, 2017
4 Butterfly Williams, Why is emotional abuse rampant among activist communities?,
5 Ibid
6 James Baldwin, The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948-1985, page 243