20/20 at the Carnegie Museum of Art

20/20: An exhibition at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, PA, July 22nd through December 31st 2017

REkOGNIZE: An installation by Bradford Young at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, PA, June 16th through December 31st, 2017

When you explore the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the sheer number of images on display. That this museum connects to others—scientific and historical—and a grand library—filled with books with images as well—only adds to this effect. One knows as well that there is always more. In this sense of the museum as a collection of horded paints and statues, it is easy to miss the little contexts that ascribe the material place behind the unworldly image in focus. In particular, it is easy to look over the smaller squares of text in small-caps on the identifying tags and museum guides that explain how a particular piece came to the museum. A women’s collective raised the money to place a Greek statue of a naked, male torso in the museum in the early 20th century, a time in which female artists would be denied access to male nude models for life study. Dozens of paintings appeared in Carnegie International shows and were bought for the permanent collection, with a yellow tag to indicate the year they appeared. (Marie Cassatt’s Young Women Picking Fruit [1891] is an interesting example, having been featured in one of these shows but not purchased until several years had passed.) Many pieces offer a history in which the art was an exchange in which the artist was personally involved and had a notion of what was going to happen to the artwork once it was purchased. In a small area of the museum dedicated to African and pre-13th Century art—a deep red, narrow hallway—the identifiers become more elliptic. A large sarcophagus covered in carvings of gods in sensual pleasure scenes offers no information on where exactly it came from, though it is clear that this was removed from a grave site. What has happened to the body? The Asian, Egyptian, and Roman art contains identifiers that tell the story represented in the images, naming the gods and their relationships to each other. The African pieces—several of which are from the 20th century, and are mingled with little to distinguish from older works—often are described only as headdresses, masks, or sculptures. There is only mystery, not mythology. A 20th century mask from the Bamileke culture, Cameroon, is just “Mask,” followed by a list of materials that it’s made of, including human hair and shells which were weaved into the hair to create a beaded cloak. The description of the way it got to the museum is as follows: “Gift of Walter Ogrodnik, Peace Corps Volunteer, 77.16.” There is no volunteering of information.

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Mask. Carnegie Museum (Photograph by the author)

There is an uneasy relationship between Western museums and non-western—or “not-white”—art. The praise brought about for artistic representations from non-white cultures has often focused on the “primitive” or “unrefined” aspects of a piece of statue or a mask, rather than focusing on the merit of the image itself. The primitivist craze of early 20th century modernism had the effect of both creating new space for artists of color within the white gallery space, while at the same time compounding and reinforcing racist and eugenicist ideas about intelligence and development in those who wanted their ideas validated. “Whiteness is a kind of cultural canvas upon which American existence is depicted in myriad artful visions of the possible,” Patricia J. Williams writes in a preface to Maurice Berger’s White: Whiteness and Race in Contemporary Art (2004). “And blackness has been for too many generations whatever was left over” (19). The space allowed does not offer much room for movement, and the tolerance that can proclaim and justify Duchamp’s readymade can, in the same paragraph, damn artworks made from found material by contemporary Brooklyn artists as “not art.”

The 20/20 exhibition at the Carnegie Museum of art, a collaboration with The Studio Museum in Harlem, is a means of addressing the schism between “white art” and “not-white art,” specifically black art. Inspired by a portrait of the young Lincoln by Horace Pippen from 1944, the exhibit attempts a fractal portrait of representations of blackness through the last century. The artworks are varied and travel in subject matter to address centuries of misinterpretation and the voluntary ignorance of assumption. Artworks in this exhibit have a tendency to lean towards the simultaneous depiction of multiple histories, commending on past and present in equal measure, occupying two spaces at one time. As the title implies, one of the aims of the exhibit is the correction of vision: not only the images of the black body in art, or what these images lack, but the black artist—particularly in their previous absence.

The photographs of Gordon Parks are so clear and crisply constructed that his images have the feeling of movement, emotional development, and existential resonance the longer one looks at them. Emerging Man, Harlem, NY, is a 1952 photograph taken to represent a deleted passage from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, a literal representation of the protagonist’s return to the surface after descending into the sewers. Even with the sense of motion in the early day rising behind the subject, his eyes do not blink; nor do they break our gaze. The viewer breaks contact first. This image is contrasted with images taken for the Pittsburgh Courier by Charles “Teenie” Harris, documenting the lives of Pittsburgh’s black community. The subjects of Harris’s photographs look out at the viewer in many cases, looking out at our looking. I was reminded of a passage by bell hooks, from “Representations of Whiteness in the Black Imagination”:

In white supremacist society, white people can “safely” imagine that they are invisible to black people since the power they have historically asserted, and even now collectively assert over black people, accorded them the right to control the black gaze. As fantastic as it may seem, racist white people find it easy to imagine that black people cannot see them if within their desire they do not want to be seen by the dark Other. […] An effective strategy of white supremacist terror and dehumanization during slavery centered around white control of the black gaze. Black slaves, and later manumitted servants, could be brutally punished for looking, for appearing to observe the whites they were serving, as only a subject can observe, or see. To be fully an object then was to lack the capacity to see or recognize reality. These looking relations were reinforced as whites cultivated the practice of denying the subjectivity of blacks (the better to dehumanize and oppress), of relegating them to the realm of the invisible. (168)

In the Harris photographs as well, the range of expressions and “looks” is worth mentioning. A woman looks out from a distance as she mounts a motorcycle. Another woman, looking tomboyish and ambiguous, rests against the front door of Kay’s Valet Shoppe. This pose is mimicked in one of the last images of the exhibition, Untitled (Gallery) by Kerry James Marshall, which features a stylish black woman posed in front of a gallery wall. In both cases, the look is a challenge, demanding attention and asserting the subject’s own attentions directed at the viewer.

Kara Walker is represented by four large images taken from her larger series, The Emancipation Approximation. These shadow pictures revise the myth of Lela and the Swan, placing it in the context of both narratives of enslavement and narratives of reconstruction. These images recontextualize mythical sexual violence within the too-real history of sexual violence in slavery. Walker’s work is exceptionally difficult to address. Working primarily with the high-contrast of black silhouettes against a stern white backdrop, the details of these delicate pieces contrast with the subject matter. By Any Means Necessary, by Tim Rollins and K.O.S., takes pages of the Autobiography of Malcolm X and places the pages side by side on a giant canvas, covers them with a thin layer of white paint, and then creates a new signature across the surface with the M and the X coming together on a downward slope to spell his initials. Once more, the high contrast of black on white addresses the phenomenon of binary existence, in which all other racial identities are subsumed by the dialogue of race relations as a black/white thing. In the same way, this piece also makes a comment on the revising—the whitewashing—of black figures after their deaths by a white narrative.

Ellen Gallagher
Deluxe by Ellen Gallagher (Photograph by the author)

Ellen Gallagher’s 60-print series DeLuxe, presents a collage of images featuring beauty products marketed towards black women, mostly from the 1940s to the 1970s. Gallagher covers the advertisements with paint, clay, even pasta, to heighten surreal undertones of the images, turning these ideas of how beauty should-be into a different kind of beauty, one that questions the audience of the original advertisements. The scale of this work adds to the overwhelming sensation it produces: there are many ways in which one should “do” beauty; the advertisements proclaim that this product will make you look more white, this product will make you look less black, this product will make you look “authentically.” Beauty is beholden, and the contradictory messages about whether or not to embrace a sense of black-as-beautiful create a tension around the receiver.

Meleko Mokgosi’s text installation, Walls of Casbah, is a reflection on the way in which art historians and curators have perpetuated the cultural subjection of non-white cultures in both the gallery space and academic discourse. An exhibition catalog from the 2009 exhibition Walls of Algiers: Narratives of the City becomes the basis of this work of critical theory and artistic engagement, in which the artist’s hand-written notes on the catalog—ranging from questioning word choices and sentence structure to pointing out the demeaning attitude behind particular words—are reproduced and enlarged on several canvases. In one example, Mokgosi’s notes break down and meditate on this sentence:

“Seen from the sea, European Algiers is nothing but crumbling walls and devastated nature, the whole a sullied blot.”

Focusing on “sullied,” Mokgosi’s commentary works from the definition of the word in order to express its impact and the general attitude it conveys:

“defiled or damaged integrity

‘soiled’

Shat on or shat on themselves

Blot (dark stain)

A region “belonging” to Africans (whatever this means) and associated with colonial rule—had been soiled—shat on—made into a dark stain.

Dark stain in the dark continent that only Le Corbusier could fix—bleach out and purify.”

This is a seminar of graduate theory represented in a few pages. It directly addresses issues of appropriation and the frequent missteps white audiences have slipped into when discussing non-white art. The legacy of colonizing attitudes and racist assumptions of superiority are very hard to erase, even when the white writer is attempting to demonstrate how they are “enlightened” to the problems of racism. Mokgosi’s engagement with the exhibition guide is a scene of reassertion not only of the artist’s power over those who write about them, the ability and the need for artists of color to respond to misappropriations of historical narrative, and the necessity of making black art that documents, invents, and cites the lives of the unspoken.

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Walls of Casbah by Meleko Mokgosi (Photograph by the author)

Untitled (Mlle Bourgeoise Noire) [Miss Black Bourgeoise] was a performance artwork by Lorraine O’Grady, documented in this exhibition by four photographs of her in the guise of artist-as-Miss America. These images contrast the notion of glamour in beauty pageants and the frequently racist (or racially-based) ideals of beauty remarked upon in Gallagher’s piece, while also calling attention to the relationship of black artists to the history of art. A successful beauty contestant is, by and large, not expected to be known for their ability to speak, but rather, to become a representation of vague ideals such as “beauty” and “purity.” In appearing as this fictitious representation, the artist is embodying a concept of tokenism as well as questioning the importance of patronage in the art world.

Basquiat is represented by a collaboration with Andy Warhol, a portrait of a dollar sign featuring Warhol’s signature silkscreen techniques and Basquiat’s devotion to graffiti and folk/traditional art techniques. The inclusion is mildly confusing to me, not because of Basquiat, but because his work with Warhol is, by comparison to his own, so slight. At the Warhol Museum, for many years these collaborations—which included videos, sculpture, and paintings—were represented by a large canvas (a commissioned portrait of a car that looked as though it was abandoned halfway through) and a sculpture piece of punching bags with each artist’s designs on them. Warhol, who in many respects represents the whitest of white artists, seems detached from Basquiat’s connection to lived experience; Basquiat seems detached from Warhol’s antiseptic and clinically repetitive late-80s work. The disconnect between the two artists, as well as their closeness, shattered by Warhol’s sudden death, was one of the few redeeming aspects of the otherwise troublesome bio-pic Basquiat. (Jean-Michel would die of a heroin overdose less than 18 months later.) Their collaborations feel often like two artists arguing with each other, rather than playing friendly, although this does not seem to be the biographical case. This is, perhaps, the reason that this collaborative work was included over a solo work of Basquiat’s, to represent the black artist’s engagement with the (then as now) majority white art culture and art establishment.

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Dollar Sign (Don’t tread on me)  Basquiat & Warhol (Photograph by the author)

Experiencing 20/20 before walking through the remainder of the Carnegie’s collection produces a (perhaps unintended) side-effect of refocusing the white viewer to the pervasive entity that is whiteness on a museum wall. It is, by and large, only with the movement towards 21st century art that we witness an increased range of representations in the visual arts, not just of the subjects on display, but also of the artists themselves. REkOGNIZE, by Bradford Young (June 16-December 31), a visual installation project running concurrently with 20/20 explores documentary photography and the history of violent images in American racial history. Many of the images I saw do not contain explicit violence as the center point, but the cutting between images and the pieces of computer code used to translate the images into a film creates a sense of violence in every moment. To the left and right of the main screen, footage of a streetlamp, barely demonstrating the motion that comes with the passage of time, contrasts with the central images and the score. The score, which is inspired by and modeled after the “raw data” that makes up the images, builds into a cacophony on the level of late Elliott Carter. The effect between the photography, the lines of code flashing on the screen, and the music, is such that the viewer is pushed to the point of having to leave the work within a few minutes. This is a cumulative artwork, a representation of the stress and emotional drainage that comes from violent histories and histories under erasure. The viewer leaves not because they do not want to see what is happening before them, but because the viewer can no longer stand it. It is interesting to contrast this with Howardena Pindell’s video piece, Free, White and 21, in which the artist discusses her experiences with institutionalized racism, starting with her mother’s being burned by a babysitter through to her experiences with institutionalized racism in the art world. The piece ends with a white-faced figure pulling a cream-colored stocking over her head and obscuring their eyes with large sunglasses. What should I care for all of these stories, the figure speaks, for I am free, white, and twenty-one! The declaration of not having to care, of the ability to deny attention, sympathy, and indignation to Pindell’s history, serves as a cruel reminder of the distance an observer can place between themselves and the oppressed.

Screenhot from Free white 21
Screenshot from Free, White and 21 by Howardena Pindell (Photograph by the author)

When looking through the Carnegie Museum of Art, after the experience of 20/20, the temptation to inverse the portraits became very strong. It was not a question of parity—to say that for every white artist, a black artist should be included; for every man, a woman, etc. It is not just a question of numbers, and including art for the sake of meeting a quota often results in the inclusion of disjointed and frankly just bad art. The drive to include a range of artistic representations seems often to be derided as a political stance, rather than an aesthetic one. (I have not noticed in the discussion of Charlottesville a great many people point out that treating whiteness as the norm is also an inherently political stance.) That-which-is-not-there in the gallery space remains a powerful force to be reckoned with. Whether this exhibition marks a start towards including a wider experience of artwork, or whether this is, like the rages of experimentation plucked by modernism, a moment for reflection before it is dropped for a new object, one does not know.

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More than a Grab Bag Candy Game: Citing Social Capital

Candy on human canvas: from “Wosit All About” by James Ostrer

“Did I tell you my mother, she never did stop dancing?”

“Yes. You told me. And mine, she never got well.”

Roberta lifted her hands from the tabletop and covered her face with her palms.

When she took them away she really was crying. ‘Oh shit, Twyla. Shit, shit, shit. What the hell happened to Maggie?’”

from “Recitatif” by Toni Morrison

 

In my English Composition II course this spring a student gave an exceptional presentation on Queer Theory citing J. Jack Halberstam’s Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal. They discussed precarity relating to queer people, something I wanted to prod when we got to Q&A. A problematic moment arose, for me, when my student, to support Halberstam’s thesis about Lady Gaga being the beacon of queer fluidity and new conceptions of the individual, said “Lady Gaga went to Tisch School of the Arts, so you know she’s really smart.” Now I would tend to agree: I think Stefani Germanotta, the artist known as Lady Gaga, is talented, smart, and fascinating. But this false equivalency of equating NYU with what is considered the pinnacle of intelligence affirmation was troubling to someone who understands the myth of American meritocracy. You can be smart and go to NYU, I agree, but you are not smart because you go to NYU.

The class I mentioned was not at a tier one school, or even ivy league periphery, so while this may have been an offhand comment on the part of my student, I took it seriously. Did this student think the work they were doing at this university, ranked 61 in “Regional Universities North” on U.S. News and World Report, was a waste of time? Another more important question, for the purposes of this essay: do students, or any people, understand the ways social and cultural capital work to insert people in particular stations in American society?

This is not meant to be a “call out” of the student, so this gives me an ethical concern, but I do wish, in that moment, I had a chance to explore American “meritocracy.” The most pressing concern at that time was highlighting the student’s research and hopefully leading their audience to understand more about Queer Theory. Later in the semester we were able to discuss meritocratic matters, especially when we read Toni Morrison’s short story “Recitatif,” which emphasizes the intersections of gender, race, and disability in America.

Halberstam also wrote The Queer Art of Failure, a text “about finding alternatives—to conventional understandings of success in a heteronormative, capitalist society; to academic disciplines that confirm what is already known according to approved methods of knowing; and to cultural criticism that claims to break new ground but cleaves to conventional archives.” Halberstam suggests: “All losers are the heirs of those who have lost before them.” Halberstam posits that “failure is built into capitalism.” So what does that mean?

It helps to define social and cultural capital first—two similar concepts that usually work in tandem:

Social capital–the network you are part of, the connections you have. You may have earned these through working for them, but they may have also been inherited by your family. People enter college to earn social capital through learning about the vast systemic workings of our society. But to enter college it helps to already have:

Cultural capital– the access to prior education, intellect, style of speech, dress, or physical appearance.

Some people will say these are the same, but they are slightly different. These forces are what give people power and mobility. It’s important to deconstruct our own sources of power, and that’s what I’ve been trying to get better at.

One of the most important reasons to understand social and cultural capital, hitherto known as “privilege,” is to know meritocracy is a myth in order to deconstruct the apparatuses that keep the same people in power generation after generation.

 

 

“Oh this is a good quote for me,” I said to my partner as we sat at the dine-in section of the grocery store. It was a quote by André Gide:

The bottle cap reads, “One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.” André Gide

I thought maybe I would post it on my Instagram page, after all people love their inspirational quotes, and though I try not to perpetrate ones as generic as this one, I do have moments. It did personally speak to me since I’ll be moving 5 hours west at the end of this month.

I’ve learned over time to think over the most mundane posts, quotations, and pictures because there might be something I’m missing.

The first act I took was to look up André Gide  and find out what kind of person he was. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked up biographies of public intellectuals to find they were slave owners, Nazi sympathizers, misogynists, racists, homophobic…the list goes on. This summer I was writing a paper for a course and could not use Heidegger after I researched his ties to Nazism.

I’m glad I looked Gide up: he was a pedophile who used his position of power to molest young boys. Now when I read the quote on the bottle cap it feels creepy.

One of the very first points Ange-Marie Hancock makes in her book Intersectionality: An Intellectual History is that her colleagues, on a panel about intersectionality at a Western Political Science Association conference when explicating power dynamics, were citing Michel Foucault instead of the theories of Patricia Hill Collins. Why, she thought, were a group of panelists discussing intersectionality failing to be intersectional? Of course I reflected on all the times I’ve used Foucault instead of Collins to explain power. In terms of marginal identity, Foucault was gay and has contributed much to the field of cultural theory, but if I cite him every time when he may not even be the best person to cite all I’m doing is privileging one critical perspective over other, possibly more nuanced critical perspectives.

As someone who has accumulated social capital (through education related activities) and possesses cultural capital (as a white woman) I have to be careful about what I portray as acceptable. If I find out something is unacceptable, I also must apologize and account for that. One of the reasons people who use their power in questionable ways are able to maintain that power is because, either by citing them (or even making them president) people show the ideas they want at the fore of our society.

 

Privilege is the force that allows fluidity of being. As the public has seen with someone like Rachel Dolezal: Dolezal, at any moment, can go back to being a white woman. People who are born with cultural capital, like Dolezal, have choices. Those born without it do not.

The 1995 song “Common People” by the band Pulp comes to mind: a narrative of an economically privileged woman going out:

She came from Greece she had a thirst for knowledge,
She studied sculpture at Saint Martin’s College,
That’s where I,
Caught her eye.
She told me that her Dad was loaded,
I said “In that case I’ll have a rum and coca-cola.”
She said “Fine.”
And in thirty seconds time she said,

I want to live like common people,
I want to do whatever common people do,
I want to sleep with common people,
I want to sleep with common people,
Like you.

Well what else could I do
I said “I’ll see what I can do.”
I took her to a supermarket,
I don’t know why,
But I had to start it somewhere,
So it started there.
I said pretend you’ve got no money,
She just laughed and said,
“Oh you’re so funny.”
I said “Yeah?
Well I can’t see anyone else smiling in here.
Are you sure you want to live like common people,
You want to see whatever common people see,
You want to sleep with common people,
You want to sleep with common people,
Like me.

Privilege implies choice. For instance if you are cash poor and someone tells you to “manage your money better” they are asking you to make a choice you don’t have. If you have money left over every month after you pay your bills and buy essentials, maybe then people can talk to you about budget and savings, but otherwise, no. There are no choices involved.

A few weeks ago, the Hollywood Reporter sent out a tweet to correspond to the ending of the HBO show Girls:

The backlash was immediate.

So while Dunham may have been female and body non-conforming (she points out her body is not a typical one you see as a main character), she started at a place that was not as hard of a climb as many articles have pointed out. Unfortunately, I didn’t see a big difference between Dunham’s show and, for instance, an “ole standby” like Friends, a show that is only recently being dragged for the same reasons, or Sex & The City (basically Girls a little older), and Frasier, a show about affluent people problems.

(Also not surprising: #45 doesn’t know what racism is…)

As I talked about in my last post, now that our culture is becoming more transparent, people know Dunham is the daughter of a famous and well connected family and was able to make her feature movie, Tiny Furniture (which was the ticket to Girls) using her parent’s resources. It’s not shocking people are disgruntled that we all do not have the same opportunity, and there’s a larger system at work behind it.

Pretend you never went to school.
But still you’ll never get it right,
‘Cause when you’re laid in bed at night,
Watching roaches climb the wall,
If you called your Dad he could stop it all.

You’ll never live like common people,
You’ll never do whatever common people do,
You’ll never fail like common people,
You’ll never watch your life slide out of view,
And dance and drink and screw,
Because there’s nothing else to do.

Sing along with the common people,
Sing along and it might just get you through.
Laugh along with the common people,
Laugh along even though they’re laughing at you,
And the stupid things that you do.
Because you think that poor is cool.

Like a dog lying in a corner,
They will bite you and never warn you,
Look out, they’ll tear your insides out.
‘Cause everybody hates a tourist,
Especially one who thinks it’s all such a laugh,
Yeah and the chip stain’s grease,
Will come out in the bath.

The new show on Amazon I Love Dick is based on a book of the same name by someone Dunham has cited as a favorite: Chris Kraus. The entire narrative seems to center on the follies of people who don’t care about anything greater than themselves. Woman as nonredeemable, unremarkable is posed as a radical action.

Recently Kendall Jenner received her due for the infamous Pepsi advertisement where she pacifies police at, what looks like, a Black Lives Matter protest with a can of Pepsi. An outrageous and ahistorical piece of trash, from the same industry that in the 60’s brought you “I wish I could buy the world a Coke,” (an ad promoting global consumerism as a Band-Aid during the time of the Vietnam War) Pepsi pulled the ad. Onlookers were quick to defend Jenner citing she’s “just a kid” (not factually accurate considering she’s way beyond a legal adult at 21). People snapped back saying “Trayvon Martin was a 17 year old kid walking when George Zimmerman shot him, but nobody usually points that out when they try to justify his murder.” For 21 year old Jenner (not a kid), unlike Trayvon, life will go on, she will receive financial benefits for parodying an important movement as solvable by a consumable good.

 

You will never understand
How it feels to live your life
With no meaning or control
And with nowhere left to go.

‘Cause when you’re laid in bed at night
And watching roaches climb the wall,
If you called your dad he could stop it all
Yeah

You’ll never live like common people
You’ll never do what common people do
You’ll never fail like common people
You’ll never watch your life slide out of view
And then dance and drink and screw
Because there’s nothing else to do

 

On a clip of an early season of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, Rob Kardashian apologizes to his sister, Kourtney, for missing an interview she set up for him at a law office. While reprimanding him, she said: “Rob, you have to start from the bottom just like we [his sisters] did.” I laughed to myself for the obvious reason that they did not start “from the bottom” as she phrased it, but that’s how she perceives her level of trying. This is never to say that people with existing privilege do not work hard, they just have less of a climb than those without privilege, whether it’s money, social or cultural capital.

In later seasons, Rob is the sibling that struggles with maintaining the level of success his sisters have. Kim says during an interview with Oprah, “Nobody gave us anything.” Rob corrects her and says, “We wouldn’t be anywhere if it weren’t for our parents.” Kim scoffs at him, not understanding. The other siblings are silent. Rob seems to deal with mental illness throughout the show, compounded by the thread of his older sisters’ obtuse “nobody helped us, Rob.” Rob also does receive a considerable amount of help through all 13 seasons and 4 spin-offs (including his own: Rob & Chyna).

Kourtney, Khloe, and Kim frequently have intervention style meetings with Rob.

To take it down a peg from the simulated Kardashian-sphere, people I’ve met who would otherwise appear to understand how social and cultural capital works through their activism, still misunderstand that we do not actually live in a meritocracy. Eliza Cummings-Cove, a student from University of Durham in the U.K. recognized the cultural impact of the Kardashians and decided to explore whether or not they had created a “post-feminist” environment on KUWTK. She concluded “the culture they exist in is still very much rooted in misogyny and inequality.” It’s a difficult terrain because on one hand we can’t fault people for trying to thrive in broken systems. We can, however, point out if they are contributing to that system and reifying it instead of trying to change it. Then it gets tricky again: what if people are only changing it as much as they know how?

People with knowledge of one type of oppression can be obtuse to other kinds. I’ve met feminists who are homophobic and queer people who are ableist. Social capital is a shifting terrain, and to some degree cultural capital is too when you consider “passing.” You will not always know the struggles people go through because in a capitalist society, passing (for abled or white comes to mind) keeps your life sustainable financially. (To understand that you’d have to first acknowledge there are specific disadvantages for people who are non-white and disabled).

Sometimes we can be certain how privileged people are, but there are people who are “passing” who struggle silently.

Other activists should not re-traumatize people who live with invisible burdens by asking them to self-identify if they are passing. In these times passing can be the difference between surviving and not. People are rarely sensitive to this preferring a town-hall style call out culture, relying on ableist language (when somehow also being sensitive to every other justice struggle except for disability).

But when we, like Kourtney Kardashian (above), don’t consider our own privileges granted by cultural and social capital, especially as it pertains to a meritocracy, we end up looking foolish.

I think of privilege and lack of it like I would the psycho-social traits we inherit from our parents. If you’re anything like me, sometimes I dwell on the difficulties I inherited and not the privileges. Both of my parents struggle with mental illness. My father is a misogynist. My mother does not conform to normative gender stereotypes.

But both of my parents are white and able bodied. My mother read to me every night until I was 11 years old. I always had clean clothes to wear to school…

I could come up with infinite personal examples of how I understand privilege in my own personal life, but white privilege is more far reaching than just those interpersonal examples.

There are parts of myself, like my gender, that make me feel like I’m up against a lot. So much that I can overlook my whiteness as something that protects me in this society.

Barbara Smith echoes in my mind:

The reason racism is a feminist issue is easily explained by the inherent definition of feminism. Feminism is the political theory and practice to free all women: women of color, working-class women, poor women, physically challenged women, lesbians, old women, as well as white economically privileged heterosexual women. Anything less than this is not feminism, but merely female self-aggrandizement.

Feminism without examining privilege is just self-aggrandizement…

College student Jenny Lundt was angry when a classmate of hers, a Person of Color, was harassed by campus authorities for carrying a glue gun to class for an art project. Authorities put the school on lock down. Lundt pointed out a year prior she wielded a sword around campus and was not looked at with the same suspicion and extreme reaction:

My privileges are my whiteness, education, mostly abled body, loving partner, and emotional buoyancy (now I know not many people would cite emotional buoyancy as an official category, but I believe it to be one). My disadvantages (visible) are my gender, (invisible) PTSD related anxiety and depression, chronic physiological illness, and current lack of economic security. The latter (lack of economic security) is filled with meritocratic connotations, even from people who are activist-identifying and questioning.

“Doesn’t educational privilege grant you economic security?” Whether they know it or not, they have just asked me a question which reinforces the American exceptionalist idea of “personal liberty” related to work (again, there’s that idea of “choice” again) and doing this disregards what many activists understand as intersecting systems of power known as privilege. I’m an adjunct. No, I do not have economic security. Telling me to “get a better job” implies 1. I can “beat” out the competition (not in my hands and people tend to take for granted there are hundreds of applicants who apply for one position, in academia and beyond), 2. I should not be paid well for what I already do, 3. I’m not “trying hard enough,”4. my online activism (using my real name to post about controversial issues I believe in) holds no bearing in the real world (hint: it does).

We do not live in a meritocratic society. I would love to have commensurate success matching my level of education and spiritedness. A lot of people have “merit,” but in addition to a variety of societal constructs working against them, when lumped in a pool of others with similar merit with only a few achieving “status,” there is a “luck” factor in the mix.

One of my friends, who is a low-key genius, started college with me in 2004. He never finished because of reasons relating to a disability. As I read more for my dissertation work, I think of people I know dealing with various PTSD related to trauma and other mental health issues correlating with less initial economic advantage has impacted their standing in society, invisibly. People can also become disabled because of their working conditions, and because of the ableist undercurrent in our society this is frowned upon, even though that puts the onus on the casualties. My growing dissertation reading list is filled with people who’ve studied this.

One thing I’ve realized over the years is I must appropriately assimilate to a new place in the realm of social capital relating to my educational achievements. People who traverse higher education are tasked with using their social capital to benefit everyone, not just themselves. If intellectualism wasn’t frowned upon and 74% of the academic labor force wasn’t adjunct, maybe academics’ financial status would reflect our intellectual achievements. But even so, our education is as much of a privilege as it is a responsibility, and those who are able to complete it have social and cultural capital to thank both for getting them to that point and for completing schooling with a diploma. It is harder for people who do not possess these personal forms of capital to get through the rigors of higher education.

 

Recently the term “Men are Trash” received a great deal of attention in the internet sphere. In reaction to that someone who did not understand the full cultural intimation behind “men are trash” created a shirt on Teespring reading “Black Women are Trash.” What most people did not notice past their immediate defensiveness was: “all men are trash” was never said. “Men are Trash” implies some men are trash for reasons such as sexual and other forms of violence against women. When someone says to me “white people are trash” I have to realize that in most cases, like any privileged group, yes, many white people are trash. I’m not talking about the phrase “white trash,” I’m talking about everything you’ve ever heard about what white people do in our society: from microaggression to police murder. When I say it like that, I’m sure you know what I mean. So when people say “men are trash” if that isn’t you then move along.

Talib Kweli Greene explained this best:

 

In terms of my whiteness, sometimes I believe things without recognizing the codified variables behind them. For instance, I might admire a famous woman for her shunning of gender conventions, but that same woman might be cherry picking bits of LatinX culture to appropriate into their music that LatinX people get criticized for (I know this seems oddly specific for just an “example”). If I practice intersectionality, I must recognize that person has become problematic until they understand, apologize, and explain how they will do better.

Since I’ve brought it up already, even the term “white trash” is constructed in favor of white culture. Kovie Biakolo underscores this as part of a larger explanation in “Deconstructing Whiteness and White Privilege”:

Consider the term, “White trash” and how it has to be linguistically specified that this person is “White” but also “trash.” Other races that may fall into similar socioeconomic backgrounds as poor White people don’t need the racial linguistic qualification. Language mirrors reality more than most of us are aware of. Even a term that is meant to be a pejorative for a racially privileged group, still ends up exposing privilege.

The purpose of understanding White privilege and Whiteness is not to point fingers or place blame on entire groups. The purpose is to understand how many of us, including those who are disadvantaged by the system are still complicit in that system. The purpose is to be more aware of our thoughts, words, and actions, and how they might contribute to a system that disadvantages entire groups of people.

Lori Lakin Hutcherson wrote a thorough explanation of white privilege that detailed her interaction with a Facebook friend from high school who asked people to enlighten him about how white privilege had helped him along in life. She enlightened him with a generously long posting and went on to publish it in detail on Everyday Feminism.

 

 

 

When I was in 4th grade Mom and I moved again. Mom wanted me to go to make friends in the new school district and let me wear a large brimmed hat she got from the thrift store to mingle with the new kids. What I now know to be a Gaucho hat was appropriated by affluent white people after being a staple of farm work culture and re-assimilated as a marker of class privilege. Just like people cite being tan as growing in popularity after Coco Channel was tan from her vacationing (though it also seems like another way white people poach “aesthetics” from People of Color without repercussions), it became another marker of class privilege. Prior to that, a tan meant you were a worker. I wore this hat and someone asked me “Are you rich?” I looked at them and they continued “because you have that fancy hat. I thought you were rich.” A completely unearned designation they were giving me by this conjectural marker of class.

A gaucho hat for sale with no context.

 

I wonder what my great grandmother thinks of me her great granddaughter who sits across from her at the restaurant we’re at for Mother’s Day. I draw up a picture she must have of me: I just got done with a year of teaching at a university, after this summer I will change from a PhD student to a candidate. This fluidity is made possible by my whiteness. The difficulty that adheres is from my gender, recurring chronic illness and mental health issues. I’m wearing acid wash jeggings, a black tee-shirt under a blazer with some light shoulder padding, my hair has blonde highlights with a purple toner, my face has carefully placed cosmetics. Maybe she thinks I’m rich until I tell my mother who sits with us we’re “splitting the bill.” But in many ways: I am rich, especially from my educational privilege.

I remember Toni Morrison’s quote, “When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.”

Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist also asked us to remember: “aren’t we all privileged in some way?” I’m not trying to be the “privilege police” anymore, I’m simply saying that recognizing our own privileges can be a form of activism.

Giving power to others also means taking stances that don’t always coincide with your identity. For instance: my MA thesis was uplifting to sex workers and then I had a period where I was questioning the misogyny inherent in sex work (honestly from a specific interaction with a misogynist I had around that time) not thinking “hey, you have the privilege to consider such things: you’re not forced to become a sex worker.” Therefore, it was a step back for me to point out the already obvious misogyny in sex work instead of advocating for sex worker protection.

In Disidentifications: Queers Of Color And The Performance Of Politics, José Esteban Muñoz writes about AIDS/HIV activist Pedro Zamora of The Real World: San Francisco fame, and how, through the Greco-Roman concept of “Care of the Self” (Muñoz was writing in 1999, we now say “Self Care”), he turned the corporate MTV atmosphere into a teaching space. He simply lived his life in public and opened up people’s hearts to him. There was a huge cost to him for doing this: his health declined from stress. All the while he was working against his antagonistic housemate “Puck” who was both causing him immense stress and lessening his visibility and also just proving his point about straight white cishet men. Zamora’s work caused him stress that probably contributed to the acceleration of his illness, ultimately leading to his death, and that was the risk he took when he entered The Real World house. As Muñoz poses it, he was the only “real” part of that artificial environment.

For people who do not already hold every marker which would make them powerful in society, they will need to gain social capital in their lifetime to take care of themselves. We must also acknowledge this will only be possible with the help from others and certain privileges. Meritocracy is one of America’s gods, but it is a myth.

How do we balance getting enough power for ourselves while giving some to others?  It’s a mixture we all figure out along the way, I think. At the minimum we need to like ourselves, have a good quality of life where we can take care of our health, and be around people we love and who love us back.

What I tend to appreciate about people with power usually is: if they give to others and how much. This act shows me they know how privilege works.

What I try to hold close is if and when we can take care of ourselves, we can’t decide that all the power we’ve gained is only for us. We have to recall the many and varied intersecting forms of privilege, luck, and people who have helped us. Only then are our moral legacies worth more than a “grab bag candy game.” That glint of recognition is what makes truly “smart” people.

 

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