Art spurs talks on race relations
|“You Can Cure Yourself of Racism!” by Erika
Rothenberg, is one of the works in the University Art Museum’s exhibition, “Whiteness: A Wayward Construction,” which runs through Dec. 23. The
exhibition includes 61 works of paintings, drawings, photography and installations by 24 artists. Originally installed in 2003 at the Laguna Art
Museum in California, the U.Va. Art Museum’s show, curated by Andrea Douglas, is the only one
on the East Coast.
|Just as the exhibit on Whiteness presents images of whiteness and power, the workshop on localizing privilege, led by Curry graduate student Lisa Speidel, looked at advantages of being white in this community. Speidel said the group of students and local residents opened up to honestly discuss what whiteness and systematic racism mean.
By Anne Bromley
Do the following statements apply to you?
• “I can go shopping alone most of the time,
pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.”
• “When I am told about our national heritage or civilization, I am shown people of my color made it what it is.”
• “I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.”
• “I can think over many options — social, political, imaginative or professional — without asking whether a person of my race would be
accepted or allowed to do what I want to do.”
Each of these activities might easily be taken for granted — if you’re white. But members of minority groups often don’t enjoy these simple freedoms and others similar to them, according to panelists at a Nov. 20 U.Va. conference. Charlottesville may have been named the nicest U.S. city to live in, but for some residents, another Charlottesville exists — a town stuck in time, with the Civil Rights Era far from finished and segregation still an option for white people.
Whites can choose to avoid diverse groups and minority cultures, but minorities don’t have that choice, agreed the panelists, who participated in a five-week workshop. Billed as “a community exercise in localizing privilege,” the workshop and conference were held in conjunction with the U.Va. art museum’s exhibit, “Whiteness: A Wayward Construction.”
From the diverse group of 24 U.Va. students and local residents in the free workshop, six participated on the conference panel. Other panels focused on scholars defining whiteness and artists discussing depicting concepts of whiteness and racial identity.
For the white participants in the workshop, an in-class exercise called “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” served as a powerful illustration of
advantages whites have, even if they don’t realize they have them.
During the exercise, participants stand as 50 conditions are read aloud. When any situation, including the ones listed above, applies to them, participants sit. By the end, minorities have long ago taken their seats while some whites remain standing with their “knapsacks of privilege.”
Graduate assistant Lisa Speidel, who led the workshop, said the group members opened up to honestly discuss and examine what whiteness and systemic racism mean, especially related to their own experiences.
On the panel, Charlottesville native Charlotte Ray, who served in the military for 26 years before returning to the area, commented that several conditions, such as skin color, wealth and gender, among others, determine how one moves up and down the “ladder of privilege.” Race may be hard to isolate because other factors tie into it, she said.
David Finkel, another white resident, replied: “Yes, but when the workshop did the ‘unpacking the knapsack’ exercise, it was clear white privilege cuts across all the categories and has more negative impact.”
For Carol Ross, an African-American woman who moved from Los Angeles two years ago, intending to raise her son in a better commun-
ity, Charlottesville feels more oppressive to her than many big cities. It seems about 20 years behind the times, she said, but she tries to look at things from a larger perspective.
“I don’t think of myself as a minority. I live on the globe, and there I’m part of the majority.”
Three U.Va. students on the panel, who come from more urban backgrounds, decried the lack of interest in diversity among white people at the University, but said they learned something from community members in the workshop. Ray told them how much the town has improved since she went to its segregated high school.
“I got a sense of history I hadn’t known,” said Peter Bruton, a white first-year student from Pittsburgh who grew up in an interracial
The panel also talked about whom should be responsible for dealing with racism.
“Frankly, I’m amazed at how ignorant the Caucasians in the workshop were about their privilege and what it’s like for minorities,” said Patrick Lee, a first-year Asian-American student.
“Often the onus to keep the conversation going [about diversity] is put on minorities, and I don’t think that’s right,” he said.
Third-year student Anna Williams, an African American, added: “Even if white people are ignorant, I still have to deal with it.” The responsibility extends to minorities whether they like it or not, she said.
Group members are discussing the possibility of continuing to meet, even though the formal workshop ended Nov. 10.
The workshop fulfilled what exhibit curator Andrea Douglas hoped would happen, she said. Since the museum serves both the University and the surrounding communities, she was hoping the workshop would localize the issues and create connections.
Added Speidel: “This kind of small-group discussion makes a difference. Even the small steps are helpful — a form of social action.”