Emma Jo Shatto on Art-Part’heid’s May Meeting

“The white people episode of Art-Part’heid” were the choice words writer Nia Hampton used to describe the last meeting of the Baltimore-based art and civil rights discussion group. I had never attended a meeting before this, and knowing very little about Art-Part’heid beforehand, I don’t disagree with her assessment.

The most recent meeting was focused around recent Facebook activity involving Baltimore artists Stephen Towns and Tyler Farinholt. Towns read his Facebook post out loud at the meeting, describing his own experience of unwelcome appropriation. Although the event featured a surprisingly diverse amount of people, it was ultimately a frustrating experience where nervous white voices seemed to dominate the conversation.

Poet Fire Angelou delivers a powerful performance during Artist Share at Art-Part’heid.

After a powerful performance by poet Fire Angelou, moderator Sheila Gaskin explained how this meeting of Art-Part’heid was going to differ from past meetings. Instead of facilitating a whole group conversation, where members discuss issues and contemplate different objectives and outcomes, this one was organized around controlled but tense conversations held by just a few people at a time.

Four chairs were arranged in the front of a MICA Place classroom. Individuals were invited to participate in a conversation pertaining to their reactions, impressions, and interpretations of events surrounding Towns’ post on Facebook and responses by Farinholt and others. The whole point of this exercise was to generate conversation about structural racism, cultural and artistic appropriation.

It began with artist Valeska Populah sharing author and educator Dr. Robin DiAngelo‘s article, “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard To Talk To White People About Racism”. This document set the mood for the rest of the night.

Stephen Towns reads aloud his Facebook post.

One of the key components to Dr. Robin DiAngelo’s work is that white people, generally, haven’t experienced and do not fully understand racism because it has never been a necessary part of their identity. She addresses this deceptive mode of ignorance in her book, “What Does It Mean To Be White: Developing White Racial Literacy.”

As DiAngelo explains, whiteness seems irrevocable most of the time. It is a cultural identifier that has been carefully constructed. DiAngelo’s work explores how most white people do not really know that their whiteness exists, let alone that it has such an impact on their own lives and on people of color’s lives too.

Valeska Populah sharing Dr. Robin DiAngelo's article "White Fragility: Why It's So Hard To Talk To White People About Racism".Valeska Populah sharing Dr. Robin DiAngelo’s article “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard To Talk To White People About Racism”

Speaking as a white person, singular in this context, I do not often use the term ‘we’. I grew up with ‘you’ and ‘I’ being definitive pronouns to describe my own position in the world. I can only speak for myself, in terms of what I observed and felt.

At this particular meeting I became aware of an acute tension between people in the room, mainly between white people and people of color, especially the black people. Within the format, every 15-20 minutes a new group of people would take the four seats in front and the audience would listen to each person’s 5-10 minute introduction of who they were and where they came from to the crowd. The four chair participants sparked tense and difficult dialogue, but in only a few circumstances did these introductions progress into authentic conversations, where a give and take began to take hold. Kept to snippets, these short bursts of dialogue sparked an uncomfortable atmosphere in the room.

Throughout each group a line came into focus, usually between white people and people of color. While reactions to the controversy between Towns and Farinholt initiated dialogue, several participants used their allotted time to introduce themselves and their relationship to race. Others ranged from an on-going questioning of the purpose of art in a community to pointing out that having the ability to “unpack racism is a privilege.” A consistent commentary made by multiple participants of color is the specific situation between Towns and Farinholt is much larger than these two artists, who are only two individuals surrounded by a community stuck in a racially charged dilemma rooted in historical power dynamics and implicit biases. I cannot emphasize this perspective enough. It is a part of a narrative that is whole-heartedly ignored and underrepresented.

As I observed the meeting, several patterns emerged, and usually contingent upon the person’s skin tone and background.

Four people sit down to have a conversation in front of the group at Art-Part’heid.

First, white people fell into predictable default actions when confronted with race. Some embraced color blindness or interpreted racism as blatant bigotry vs. systemic and structural determinism that degrades and devalues people of color. Second, this type of action or expression is often referred to as the ‘white savior complex’. Third, white participants encouraged POC to work harder or take a stand, supplemented with characteristics of rigid individualism and a ‘pick yourself from your bootstraps’ mentality. I had problems with all of this.

I am white and not from Baltimore. There are so many things for me to learn, mostly from the responses of the POC in the discussion. What I heard: First, black people don’t need white people to save them. Second, white people have the opportunity to implement a “see something, say something” scenario when talking to other white people, which implies an active participation in their own racial identity, involves a variety of trial and error moments, experiences of incriminating self-reflection, and a willingness to learn from alternative/non-white perspectives.

According to several different panelists, when white people do not know how to articulate what they do not know, or aren’t even aware of their ignorance regarding race, there is a problem. That does not mean the uncomfortable conversations that arise from blind spots are not necessary or productive; I believe there is always something to learn from showing up and listening. One of the most interesting takeaways I gained from the Art Part-heid meeting was for white participants to change their tone from authoritative and demanding to open and receptive. This is a subtlety that is challenging for many, and it is a practice that is acquired over time.

A key point emphasized in Dr. Robin DiAngelo’s work is that white people do not have the tools available to them to build a vocabulary to articulately communicate around issues of racism. I think that Art-Part’heid’s May meeting, frustrating as it was being dominated by nervous, white voices, is a step in the right director for communication between white people and people of color to grow.

I know that, as a white woman, I cannot rationalize why my thoughts on racism legitimize a struggle that I merely participate in, and do not experience first hand. I hope it’s enough that I share something, instead of nothing.

Emma Jo Shatto is a Senior at MICA and an Editorial Intern at BmoreArt.