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No more racists: is that like whistling in the wind?

in Arts/Opinion by

There is an uproar in the art world this week at the Whitney Biennial. Dana Schutz’s painting, “Open Casket,” is her interpretation of a mother’s pain. This is not just any mother’s pain. It’s a black mother’s pain.

Mamie Till Mobley’s son, Emmett Till, was beaten to a pulp, his head axed in two, his penis cut off, and he was shot through the head. Then his body was thrown in the river, weighted down with a 35 kilo cotton gin fan that had been tied around his neck with barbed wire.

His crime? Carolyn Bryant said he had flirted with her. She said he had grabbed her. Just recently she admitted to lying. He had cat called her.

His real crime? Being black in 1955 Mississippi.

His mother made the heroic decision to have an open casket. “Let people see what I’ve seen,” she said. At last America was moved to take action. Seeing what had happened to her son sparked the civil rights movement.

Why the controversy over the painting? 

The artist is white. Some are saying it is part of black history and that this a cultural misappropriation. The artist said she was reacting to a rash of racially motivated shootings when she painted it in August 2016 and that, as a mother, she wanted to show that perspective.

Berlin-based artist Hannah Black posted an open letter on Facebook to the Whitney Museum curators and staff. “It is not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun, though the practice has been normalized for a long time,” Black wrote. “Contemporary art is a fundamentally white supremacist institution.”

Personally, I think if only blacks are allowed to discuss the problem, the problem will never be resolved.

Racists will not listen to those they are being racist against.

I am not sure how I feel about the painting itself. FYI: the painting is not for sale. I already knew about Emmet Till. I had seen the photos and was sick to my stomach. I think her stylised version is not gruesome enough. The colours are too bright and cheery for me. However, as a fellow artist, I stand by her right as an artist to draw from anything that moves her.

Emmett Till’s mother made sure that he had an open casket despite the governor ordering it be closed.

I grew up in the American south. It wasn’t the deep south. The only KKK I saw was on Geraldo. I grew up thinking people who were racist were idiots. I don’t know if I was in the minority or not. I didn’t surround myself with people I didn’t respect.

Last week was the UN International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. The players may change from country to country, but the problem is worldwide.

I remember landing in London and seeing black and white mixing with no barriers. I thought, “This is where I belong.” I moved to the UK within two years of that first visit.

I’ll never forget a conversation I had with an old man in Wales. He told me of his experience with US soldiers in WW2.

He just didn’t understand how they treated the Native American soldiers. “It’s not like they are Pakis or anything.” I was dumbfounded. How could he be so blind? He was doing the exact same thing he was complaining about others doing. That’s when I found out that racism wasn’t just about blacks and whites.

I assume he felt a kinship with the Native American soldiers since the English had punished the Welsh for speaking Welsh just like the US government had done with the Native Americans speaking their own languages. I am still confused as to why he thought people of colour were so bad. I’m fairly confident he had never seen one. We were in mid Wales, after all. It is pretty white.

But isn’t that the origin of many racist viewpoints: vilification based on fear of the unknown “other”?

Saturday, April 23, 2016 photo, members of the Ku Klux Klan participate in cross burnings after a “white pride” rally in rural Paulding County near Cedar Town, Ga. www.sfgate.com

I have a very vivid memory of my one and only KKK encounter. It was here.

My ex and I were invited to a cook out with guys from a nearby village. I knew them. They knew me. They were always very nice and friendly. While around the bonfire, one came to me with a CD and asked if I wanted to listen to it. It was a KKK CD he had bought on a trip to Texas.

My heart sank. I told him “NO,” and explained that this was the America that I am ashamed of. As the evening progressed, I learned that I was a “good Ausländer.” The “bad Ausländer” were the Russians and the Poles who came in to steal their jobs.

The Neo Nazi movement continues to thrive in rural areas where they have never seen foreigners. Well, they hadn’t. Now there are lots of refugees being sent there. Many people welcome them, but others are not so welcoming.

For some, the new “bad Ausländer” are the Muslims. We have seen the Alt-Right AFD gain position on a platform against what they refer to as “the Islamisation of the West.” Much of their new found success is due to people switching from the Neo Nazi party, the NPD. Both are trying to modernise and draw a new crowd, but not matter how they spin it, they are still promoting hate.

On Saturday 18 March, in honor of Global or International White Pride Day, Nazis organised marches in various cities around the world, including Leipzig. Like in every city, demonstrators were met with counter demonstrators.

Sometimes I wonder if thinking we can rid the world of racism is just me whistling in the wind. When I thought it was only ignorant Americans that did it, I had a foe that somehow seemed manageable. Now that I know it’s worldwide, it seems like bullying is human nature. It is bullying that is at the heart of it, right?

Race is not biological. It is a social construct. There is no gene or cluster of genes common to all blacks or all whites. Were race “real” in the genetic sense, racial classifications for individuals would remain constant across boundaries.”  Angela Onwuachi-WilligNew York Times 

In the end, is saying that Dana Schutz can’t paint a black mother’s pain any different from saying a black boy can’t whistle at a white woman?

Dana Shutz, Open Casket 2016

I left my hometown so long ago. I asked myself if I was wrong about there being no KKK there. I wondered if this new rise in populism had changed what I remember the landscape to be. I discovered the KKK is recruiting.  I also discovered a March for Love to combat the hate.

I can only continue to do my part and hope others will do the same.


Writer’s note: While preparing for this piece I became aware of the racist origins of the term “whistling Dixie” and have therefore removed it from the title and the text. In a post Civil War USA, the song “Dixie” was a staple in minstrel shows featuring black face. Their practise of poking fun at blacks and portraying them as ignorant and lazy was widespread and continues to this day. I used it in its urban dictionary context. As a southerner it was a common  phrase growing up. That’s how ingrained the problem is. 


Here are some of the many initiatives you can support in Leipzig:

Welcome 2 Stay
Open Afternoon
Inklusives Nachbarschaftszentrum
Cinémathèque Leipzig e.V.

Here’s a Facebook group where you can find or post resources or events for refugees.

Maeshelle West-Davies gleans her varied life experiences to expose a personal perspective through a multitude of mediums. Sound, video, photography, dance, performance and public art are the tools she uses to convey her message. Her work is a response not only to a physical journey, but an emotional one, as with all of us who walk along or beside our individual paths.

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