On Whiteness

Ken Gonzales-Day, "The wonder gaze, St. James Park," from the "Erased Lynching" series, 2006. Courtesy of The Kitchen and the artist. © Ken Gonzales-Day.

In 2017, I started working with Claudia Rankine and a collective called the Racial Imaginary Institute (TRII). For their inaugural project they were curating an exhibition, symposium, and biennial called On Whiteness. Sara Ahmed’s 2007 text, “The Phenomenology of Whiteness,” served as a foundation for the project. She asks, “If whiteness gains currency by going unnoticed, what does it mean to notice it?” Noticing whiteness changed my perspective on art, race, and myself, irrevocably.

I had just moved to an apartment in Park Slope. I learned of TRII through an article in The New Yorker, titled “Claudia Rankine’s Home for the Racial Imaginary.” I was struck by the project’s lucid vocabulary. First, how it articulated the relationship between art and race: If race is a product of the imagination that nonetheless has material consequences, what can workers of the imagination do? Second, I had never seen an institution describe itself explicitly around decentering whiteness. It felt like someone had given words to something that I’d known all my life. I emailed the poet and TRII member Monica Youn (who I knew from working together on a diversity initiative at Princeton, ironically) and asked if I could be involved. She responded six months later and invited me to come to a meeting.

Claudia Rankine. Photograph by Elizabeth Weinberg for The New York Times.

The early meetings were informal. There was never enough sushi. It was a group of friends and colleagues convened by Claudia, including poets, writers, art historians, and filmmakers. In the fall of 2017, Trump had festered for nearly a year in office. The Dana Schutz controversy had just unsettled the Whitney. “The volume on whiteness has been turned up,” TRII stated on its website. They wanted to see “what can be made when we investigate, evade, beset, and call out bloc-whiteness.”

We sat in Claudia’s apartment and talked well into Sunday afternoons. Sometimes I was hungover. Those discussions felt urgent, and in a way, we are still having them today, nearly five years later. They shaped (and continue to shape) my worldview as a young person interested in art, and left me with the conviction that decentering whiteness was crucial to contemporary art and its discourses.

In TRII, I saw the possibility of a radical new institution. Rather than building towards a physical space, we treated it as a “moving collaboration,” creating programs at existing institutions that would provoke internal reflection. Every member balanced their work with TRII with work at other institutions (universities, museums, galleries), volunteering what time they had. Anyone in the group could pursue an idea or a collaboration and stake out a “satellite” of TRII. When I started volunteering for them, I worked during the day as a fellow in the education department of the Brooklyn Museum. At night and on weekends I took notes at TRII meetings, brainstormed potential partners, and sent out WhenIsGoods.

Shortly after I joined the effort, TRII was approached by The Kitchen to consider a collaboration. We (mainly Claudia, John Lucas, LeRonn Brooks, Cathy Park Hong, Monica Youn, Casey Llewellyn, and myself) worked with then-Chief Curator Tim Griffin, curator Lumi Tan, and then-assistant curator Katy Dammers to plan a visual art exhibition in their historic second-floor space using Sara Ahmed’s text, and her question about noticing whiteness, as a starting point. The exhibition was slated to open in June 2018, and we started working on it in earnest in November 2017. We had about half a year.

Installation view of “On Whiteness” at The Kitchen, 2018. Photo credit: Jason Mandella.

The earliest meetings were a courtship, as the beginning of most collaborations are. In The Kitchen’s third-floor offices, we pooled our ideas into a spreadsheet called “[USE THIS] WHITENESS / ARTIST PERFORMER LIST.” There was a tab for “TRII Artists” and there was a tab for “Kitchen Artists” for each group to make suggestions separately. Each list had about 50 entries. There was also a tab for “Research / Resources” that listed past exhibitions on whiteness as well as links and PDFs of background texts. As the youngest person in the room, I felt meek and said little. The project was exciting, and I felt almost righteous, but I also remember feeling wary. In an email dated March 11, 2018, I sent a set of questions to The Kitchen group for discussion, after I had worked up the courage. They still feel relevant to me now:

  1. How can we stage a critique of whiteness from a format (the exhibition) that is inextricably tied to the histories of white violence? How is this politic manifested in our curatorial strategy and exhibition format?
  2. Since we have moved away from the idea of whiteness in domestic space, and more towards a concept of “orientation,” can we talk more about this idea of “orientation?” How does this manifest in the works?
  3. In our initial discussions we spoke of making the viewer uncomfortable: does this selection of works / curatorial framing achieve this? In what ways is the presentation of works complacent, even complicit, in the production of white spaces?
  4. Some of the artists that we have selected come from practices that are deeply ingrained in the interrogation of aspects of their own identity (blackness, asian-ness, orientalism, etc.) Obviously whiteness is tied to all of these identities, but are we alienating some identity markers by privileging concepts of whiteness as told from certain viewpoints? For example, a view of whiteness from blackness might differ from a view of whiteness from native american-ness. Is our goal to represent a wide spectrum or a particular subset?
  5. The color white appears frequently in the works we have selected: is this something that we actually want to stress? Do we want to tie whiteness to a color?
  6. Why does it fall to POC to do the emotional, intellectual, and artistic labor to check and give shape to whiteness? Are we doing the work of the oppressor for the oppressor?

Many of these questions didn’t have answers. When I brought them up, the other curators agreed they were interesting, but suggested that we ground our pursuit of them in specific artists and practices. The answers (or better questions) would be found there.

Sara Ahmed’s text defines whiteness as “an ongoing and unfinished history, which orientates bodies in specific directions, affecting how they take up space, and what they can do.” Her text was useful for us because it centered the body, calling whiteness a “habit” and an “orientation.” This affirmed my earliest memories of whiteness, which are more a map of feelings than anything else: squeezing past a large, taut balloon in a tiny room. A tingle of dissociation. Someone tracing my facial features in pen, and watching the ink depart from its substrate. Ahmed’s phenomenology gave me vocabulary to describe a way of being.

I looked for more vocabulary about whiteness in the syllabus that TRII had compiled. Most of those texts came from fields adjacent to art, like poetry, literature, and sociology. I learned that whiteness studies came into prominence in the ’90s with texts like Richard Dyer’s White: Essays on Race and Culture (1997), Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992), and Ruth Frankenberg’s Displacing Whiteness (1997), although it is a concept that has existed in different forms within the creative and social imagination since antiquity. Writing in a 1998 edition of Artforum, cultural critic Homi K. Bhabha described the “blizzard of ‘whiteness’ studies” that emerged in the ’90s as a symptom of an intellectual left somewhat “obsessed” with identity, perhaps at the risk of questions of class and nationalism.

Thirty years later, I found myself in a new moment of identity politics. At The Kitchen and at Claudia’s, we discussed more recent texts on whiteness: Nell Painter’s History of White People (2010), Linda Alcoff’s The Future of Whiteness (2015), and Robin D. Angelo’s White Fragility (2018), all texts by thinkers we would eventually invite for the symposium. Still one of the most useful passages I encountered came from a 1984 essay from James Baldwin, probably the greatest expert on white consciousness of the 20th century. In an essay titled “On Being ‘White’…And Other Lies,” originally published in Essence, he calls whiteness “a lie” that people chose to believe: “America became white—the people who, as they claim, ‘settled’ the country became white—because of the necessity of denying the Black presence, and justifying the Black subjugation. No community can be based on such a principle—or, in other words, no community can be established on so genocidal a lie.” The show felt like an opportunity to apply some of these vocabularies, in addition to Ahmed’s, to the work of contemporary artists.

The process of selecting artworks, as most group exhibitions go, was a mixture of conceptual adherence, availability, and logistics. They could maybe be roughly seen in two categories: an artwork illustrates something about whiteness—its  psychology, the damages it causes; or an artwork should be looked at through the lens of whiteness, for anything latent within the work. For some artists, we identified a sensibility within their work that made it seem like they could speak to the topic, even if they didn’t have an existing body of work about whiteness.

Ken Gonzales-Day’s photographs fell under the first category—illustrating a psychological aspect of whiteness. The wonder gaze (St. James Park) (2006), from the Erased Lynchings series (2006–13), took historical images of lynchings (originally used as postcards) and erased the body of the murdered Black person to leave just the white people watching it, grinning, holding the hands of their children. It emphasized how whiteness turned black subjugation into a spectacle. Ja’Tovia Gary’s video, On Punishment (2017), displayed archival footage of psychological experiments on mice, mapping those dynamics on to those that whiteness creates on non-white people. Titus Kaphar’s Pillow for Fragile Fictions (2016) dramatized the dynamic of white ignorance of colonial violence in sculptural form: it featured a hand-blown glass head of George Washington partially filled with rum, tamarind, lime, and molasses resting on a pillow made of marble, questioning the popular image of Washington as pure and virtuous as an American myth. These works were included, at least from how I see it, because they “noticed” an aspect of whiteness and gave it form.

Other artists allowed us to reference recent and historical traumas caused by whiteness. Anicka Yi’s Immigrant Caucus (2017)—an installation composed of three small cans, the industrial-style metal ones that exterminators carry—silently sprayed a chemical compound into the air. Yi worked with a team of scientists at Columbia University to derive this compound and its aroma from the sweat of Asian American women and the emissions of carpenter ants. In the exhibition, the work seemed to eerily reference the spray cans used on migrants at the border.

Cindy Sherman, “Untitled #353,” 2000. Courtesy of the Artist and Metro Pictures.

Anicka Yi, “Immigrant Caucus,” 2017. Powder-coated steel and powder-coated aluminum expanded mesh, stainless steel insecticide sprayer with brass fittings, ultrasonic diffuser, fragrance. Courtesy of the Artist and 47 Canal.

And then we included other artists not necessarily because their work was about whiteness, but because we sought to cast a lens of whiteness upon their work. This probably most applied to Cindy Sherman’s photographs—Untitled #352 (2000) and Untitled #353 (2000) —both of which depict the artist in garishly white makeup and florid clothing. I remember, talking to viewers at the opening, that they thought it gave her more credit and awareness of the concept of whiteness than was actually animating the creation of that artwork. In the end, her photographs seemed to work both ways: as a presentation of the constructed nature of white performance, and also a provocation to the undertheorized question of race within Cindy Sherman’s work.

Four out of the twenty artists in the show identified as white—Josh Begley, Mores McWreath, Kate Greenstreet, and Cindy Sherman. In retrospect, there was probably a version of the show that was entirely white artists. That was something that lingered with me long after the exhibition closed. Would working with only white artists destabilize existing conventions for exhibiting race more effectively? After all, wasn’t whiteness a construction that white people should be dissecting as well?

Over the course of the summer other institutions followed suit with their own programs on the concept of whiteness, as prompted by TRII. Earlier that year I had reached out to various spaces across the city, including the New Museum, the Studio Museum in Harlem, Recess, the Brooklyn Museum, among others,  with a prompt that encouraged them to produce their own programming to mark whiteness within their institutions. When we envisioned this in Claudia’s apartment, we wanted to instigate programming that could challenge existing racial understandings, not be a diversity consultancy. But this had to be navigated across real social terrain—emails, coffee meetings, and conversations with strangers.

Every interaction was a lesson. Even after I’d met with the programming director twice, one museum misinterpreted the prompt about marking whiteness and planned a program that was about Blackness. That felt like a crucial distinction. As Monica Youn was fond of saying during our planning meetings, we did not want to be the “people of color pony show.” Ours was not an ontological project—to define whiteness—but to reorient our relation to it, to mark its contours and investigate the way it warps our understanding of otherness. In another case, we had only one meeting with the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and they understood the assignment immediately. They created a film series on whiteness and screened works like Ferris Buehler’s Day Off (1986), White Chicks (2004), and Rocky (1986), among others, that explored how whiteness has been “deliberately and subconsciously constructed, ignored, and challenged in the history of American film.” The Whitney organized a walkthrough of their collections that reflected on the latent whiteness of its artists. The Lower East Side gallery Helena Anrather organized a whiteness book club, and the artists Ten Izu and Henry Murphy created a “white noise mixtape” for 47 Canal.

Another key moment: on a panel at The Kitchen with the poetry group Dark Noise Collective, the poet Franny Choi remarked that it was ironic that an event organized around whiteness was the first time her POC collective had been fully compensated for their time. The dig was that we were re-centering our attention on something that already received too much attention. I felt that we were not trying to re-center whiteness, but turning our gaze on it in a different way. But I understood that others weren’t so convinced of the utility of this project. I turned comments like Franny’s around in my head quite a bit. I think this was because it was related to those initial questions about the project, about the wariness I had about solidifying a concept by trying to dissect it.

Ahmed actually begins her paper by reflecting on the anxiety that surrounds the study of whiteness. Various scholars have worried that centering whiteness as an object of study might reify it into a “fixed category of experience,” that it will allow people to treat it as a “monolith, in the singular, as an “‘essential something.” This is anxiety not about whiteness, but about studying whiteness. It comes from the fear that a project of critique will become complicit with its object, that it will make it more real, or whole. Ahmed argues that this “wholeness” is not something that we do to whiteness by studying it, but something that whiteness does. This was not something that was going to be fixed by one program or event.

Installation view (featuring Paul Chan) of “On Whiteness” at The Kitchen, 2018. Photo credit: Jason Mandella.

On Whiteness assured me there is no such thing as the white race—it is a historically constructed demographic made to justify the consolidation of resources, opportunities, and land from the subjugation of non-white people. What emerges from that historical, material reality is the racial imaginary of whiteness, a set of ideologies that centers the lives of white people as the “default” subjectivity. To navigate this “defaultness” as a non-white person in America is to witness how it turns you into an other, how it shapes your perception of yourself through its eyes, how it wraps white supremacy around itself like a stylish cancer.

The perceived “wholeness” of whiteness is one of its most dangerous qualities. As sociologist Linda Alcoff said in her keynote at the whiteness symposium, the ethnic “wholeness” of whiteness is an aspect of its power, even as white people remain demographically very divided. (From “Trump towers to trailer parks, from liberal city snobs to rural militias, from gay and trans to women and children,” Alcoff noted.) As a young art writer, I was thinking about how art could digest and refract these discourses. How could the tools of art—close looking, ekphrasis, and historical contextualization—help dissect this “monolithic lie”?

As the show closed in August 2018 and I moved away from its specific context, I inherited an urge to “mark” whiteness in other art experiences around the city. I began seeing whiteness everywhere. It felt like every show in every city was full of white people. At an Andy Warhol retrospective at the Whitney, I stared at the paleness of his skin. A gallery assistant friend told me she wasn’t allowed to eat smelly foods in the gallery, and we laughed, knowing that was whiteness. I became a little obsessed. It became an aesthetic fascination beyond real practical use; it became personal.

I didn’t write about whiteness in any of those shows. I could never find the right angle, it seemed, or editors weren’t interested. But I thought about it all the time. I remember a friend cautioned me to be careful about invoking whiteness in relation to a show—it couldn’t be just any show by any white artist, it had to be motivated, intrinsic—for fear of pigeonholing myself as a critic, or becoming a critic who brought an agenda to an artwork. Usually whiteness was an insufficiently specific feature of the artwork to write about—Andy Warhol happened to be white, but his work was not about whiteness. Most artworks by white artists were just symptomatic of a cultural field that had been constructed on the tides of whiteness, not particularly instructive or productive about that field. To write about it would have been to write about the frame rather than the artwork.

I tried to put these perceptions into words. I wrote about a collaboration between three artists, Nancy Shaver, Max Goldfarb, and Sterrett Smith, for The Brooklyn Rail. In their homespun  installations, their work reminded me of the living rooms of my white friends in the suburbs. I wrote: “Arts and crafts, Buddha statues (used a-religiously), floral wallpaper, ‘formal’ living rooms rigidly set up but that we never use, art for art’s sake, long necklaces, flowy dresses, NPR, shore houses, lake houses, Connecticut, Easter…in another view, the show is like stumbling into the artfully arranged flotsam on the shore of that cultural milieu.” I was too green to criticism at the time to be confident about my intuitions. So when the magazine sent me a slap on the wrist I was deflated. The editor said that some readers had reached out to her, saying that I had not looked deeply enough into the intentions of the artists and was extrapolating my own interests onto it (“I’m writing to you because we had some readers express concern about your review of the Shaver, Goldfarb, and Smith show. They felt that in your interest in describing the mise en scene, you spent far less time with the artworks themselves…”). I was trying to find the words to describe my experience of noticing whiteness in these works, and in the artworld more generally, but I was struggling.

I felt a breakthrough writing about the relationship between whiteness and the artist Ron Athey earlier this year in Momus. In particular, that piece helped me parse the relationship between whiteness and white people. Sociologically, writing about whiteness and art might feel like a personal, ad-hominem attack on someone’s character. This, I realized, is because of “white fragility,” the term that sociologist Robin Di Angelo gives to describe the apprehension white people feel about discussing the topic of their own racialization. Art historically, writing about whiteness and art can feel like resorting to biographical essentialism––that the work and the artist are the same. I don’t believe that has to be true, but this can be a pitfall of the lens. The Ron Athey piece worked because he himself has had a relationship with those most ostentatious features of white supremacy––Nazi symbols, skinheads, etc. So writing about it felt permissible. I fleshed out a more hard-edged, economic look at whiteness by writing about Cameron Rowland after that, also for Momus, and the inspiration they draw from law professor Cheryl L. Harris’s essay “Whiteness as Property” in his work.

As these discourses began to fill my head, I felt it leaking into my personal life, informing how I thought about white people. It became increasingly important to form a practical, lived, day-to-day experience to whiteness; I don’t believe that the theoretical should overdetermine the realm of the social. As Hannah Black has said: “Individual lives necessarily express, shape, and escape history all at once.” Being against whiteness didn’t mean being against white people. They are in fact the main people who are able to alter it.

In my writing, I’ve come to treat whiteness as one of multiple lenses by which to consider a work of art. There are, of course, other crucial lenses—class, nationalism, gender—that might bear similar critical fruit, but also more idiosyncratic, more personal ways of writing about art and race outside of criticism. But what initially attracted me to whiteness as a concept has stayed with me—its ubiquity and inarticulateness. It is a window into other systems of domination. Writing about whiteness in art is a way to “notice it” and have a better sense of the racialized vision we are working with. To make it visible, put it into words, understand its operations, and reorient ourselves around it—this is to reconstruct a more human version of our world.


This feature was supported by the Momus / Eyebeam Critical Writing Fellowship. Simone Wu was a 2021-22 Shortlisted Fellow.

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