White Like Me: Encountering Divya Mehra’s “You have to tell Them, i’m not a Racist”

Enhanced promotional installation image, courtesy of Georgia Scherman Projects.
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It doesn’t matter what you think you know about Divya Mehra’s You have to tell Them, i’m not a Racist, currently at Georgia Scherman Projects in Toronto: the immediate impact of entering the gallery dismantles your preparations.

Rather than the usual pot lights, the ceiling is ringed with extra-bright florescent bulbs. Under this blaze of cold light, it’s difficult at first to make out anything on the walls; the space feels stripped and scrubbed, like some heavenly interrogation room. As you enter this atmosphere of pressure-washer minimalism, Mehra’s texts slowly come into focus, like ghosts emerging from a fog. The white vinyl lettering unfurls across the bleached white walls and only really becomes legible in the reflected glare of the lights, so visitors must scrutinize the works by walking back and forth and craning in different directions. Finally, after much squinting and staring, the first sentence materializes: I want a white doctor who doesn’t have brown teeth.

Most Canadians will know the quote. It comes from Nikki Samuel, the white woman from Mississauga who, in a viral video this past summer, was caught pleading vociferously for a white doctor. (Mainstream media outlets chose not to publish her name, ostensibly to protect her son.) White Canadians like to look aghast at the public displays of racism in the United States, because we’re smug about our fabled politeness, which we tend to believe immunizes our white power structures from any underlying nastiness. So it came as a harsh and disconcerting blow that one of us would give utterance to such overt racism. Still, that very overtness made it easy to dismiss. Just a bad apple. But Mehra won’t let us off so easily.

Mehra titled this work The browning of America and the colour of crime (Finally, an intelligent conversation about race). The entire exhibition bristles with similarly poignant provocations, both in the texts on the walls and in her works’ titling. I believe the bracketed part of The browning of America refers to the vocal interventions of the other people in the clinic that day, none of whom – none of those who stood up to Samuel, that is – appear to be white. While Samuel cycles through the tropes of white entitlement and victimhood (“You’re attacking me because I’m white”), they rebut her one by one, each in their own way, with cogent, straightforward statements. Samuel’s rant aside, it really is an intelligent conversation. For white viewers, the heated discussion also offers a heart-breaking snapshot of the kind of hard labor that falls to the targets of racism rather than their allies.

If you can bring yourself to pay attention to the willful white supremacists out there – the self-conscious ones who mean it and say so – you will find them hollering dolefully about their white woundedness. Mehra has a wonderful track record of poking fun at this white aggrievement. Her last show at Georgia Scherman Projects was titled Pouring Water on a Drowning Man. The phrase conjures the image of a white man thrashing around in a puddle of his own exculpatory explanations, while Mehra tips a jug of tap-water straight into his sputtering mouth. It’s a delightful image of needless aggression – that is, what white people often think is happening to them when there is talk of whiteness and colonialism and systemic racism – and at the same time a succinct metaphor for the real situation, which is that we white people, woke or otherwise, are born into white supremacy. We automatically inherit what Ta-Nehisi Coates recently termed “the bloody heirloom” (even if, like white letters on a white wall, it’s sometimes hard for us to recognize). Our hurt and our defensiveness – “You’re attacking me” – supposes that without accusation there would be no guilt, or without redress there would be no wrong. Mehra isn’t having it.

You have to tell Them, i’m not a Racist doesn’t simply arrange works in a gallery; by expanding the texts to cover the walls and meticulously tuning all aspects of the show, from the loud lighting to the epigrammatic titles, Mehra immerses viewers in a totalizing atmosphere of refracted racial othering, from micro-aggressions on up. In this way, she reproduces the systemic problems of white power, particularly those of the white-box environment of the artworld, with its mostly white gatekeepers and string-pullers. Mehra doesn’t try to resolve these problems into a strict thesis or a call-to-action. She allows herself to be implicated, but she does so with a grin, the way her Currently Fashionable work arranges the confounding phrase PEOPLE OF COLOR to line up the vertical LOL.

But Mehra’s humor cuts too deep for laugh-out-loud amusement. One of the most arresting pieces is titled This is really expensive for Indian food (what does it mean to posses invisibility?). It shows the words “You, people” in English, French, and Hindi. The words are arrayed in a corner, so You, Vous, and Tum run down one wall and people, gens, and log run down the other. Mehra applies this three-fold translation – arrived at via the faulty mechanism of Google translate – to all the works, reminding us of the difficulties of transmission and the multiplicity of interpretation. This screen of dispersed inscrutability serves an intellectual purpose, but most importantly, it leaves us disoriented and therefore vulnerable to receive the hit when it comes. With Mehra, the hit always comes.

Divya Mehra, “You have to tell Them, i’m not a Racist,” (installation), 2017. Image courtesy of the artist and Georgia Scherman Projects.

In a recent Canadian Art review of You have to tell Them, i’m not a Racist, Vidal Wu writes, “Enlarging these cynical-comical instances of casual and institutional racism to art-sized proportions somehow reinforces their near-invisibility,” and then wonders whether for a white audience “the sensation is akin to having a shit pie thrown in your face.” I read that before seeing the show, and so arrived with my mouth closed. However, the work didn’t feel adversarial to me. Mehra certainly isn’t reassuring anyone, but I believe there’s an authentic invitation, even just to shut up and listen.

I agree with Wu that the work divides its viewers, so that white audiences are made to feel very aware of their whiteness. But it’s a genuine gift for white people to be identified, because white privilege makes us oblivious to ourselves. It’s easy for us to forget our implication in racist power structures. We habitually view identity politics through a lens of jealousy or distaste, like a toy we want to steal or a trinket we can do without, but either way as an alien thing. Very rarely do we feel that whiteness is pinned on us the way we pin racial categories on others. In You have to tell Them, i’m not a Racist, the lights are bright and there’s no getting away.

I’ll admit that part of me wanted to escape from Mehra’s spotlight. I wouldn’t peg the attitude of the works in the show to any one word: mordant, angry, mischievous, candid, grim, droll, sad – they all apply. But through these aspects, the exhibition definitely confronts its white audience directly. Seeing my whiteness reflected in You have to tell Them, i’m not a Racist, I watched as my thoughts lunged for different exits, like the door that leads to self-rationalization, or the one that leads to self-defence, or self-pity, or self-excuse, and so on. But Mehra has rigged all the knobs with buzzers. It’s hard to extricate yourself from this show without realizing that’s what you’re doing.

When You have to tell Them, i’m not a Racist first showed in St. Boniface, Manitoba in 2012, it received only one review, from a now-defunct Winnipeg alt-weekly called Uptown Magazine. The review was titled “Playing the race card (and winning).” This alone makes clear that the reviewer, Steven Leyden Cochrane, believed the purpose of making art about racism is to turn white people into losers. The frustration is unmistakable: how annoying that Mehra gets a trump card. Isn’t that cheating?

But this review, too, has been preoccupied with white feelings. You could almost believe that the work was made for white people. It wasn’t. My sense is that we’re just starting farther back in our ignorance, and though Mehra layers in some helpful jabs to get us going, she addresses other audiences across more dimensions of wit, understanding, and recognition. Mehra’s white-on-white texts may seem like a whisper, but once we silence our demands for comfort and reassurance, they speak clearly and loudly. We just need to shut up and listen.

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