Refusing Tokenization/Racial Fantasy

20200123_2004321436008444149919509.jpgA few weeks ago as I read Nadia Owusu’s article “Hiring a Chief Diversity Officer Won’t Fix Your Racist Company Culture,” I recalled various moments in which people have projected their racial fantasies onto me. While I’m not a “diversity officer,” I have found that some people believe my role as a curatorial fellow through a diversity initiative entails
serving as the institution’s racial conscience. They demand that I change aspects of the institution that they find racist. In their minds, I am the one lone Black Wonder Woman who is supposed to save everyone.

That is not my work. I couldn’t succeed at that even if it was, I wanted to, I tried.
No! Trying to fix institutions by myself is basically a rat wheel that would result in my pre-mature demise. I’m pretty sure that track leads to anxiety, hypertension, cancer, and other aliments. It kills us.
Undoing racism requires collective work. It’s unfair and uncaring to project this demand on a Black woman who is in a low-level, non-supervisory, temporary position.

This fantasy is a facet of tokenization. It derives from a lack of critical consideration of the various forces that create institutional inequities, my actual duties, my access to power and support, the day to day overall environment, and intersections of oppression I battle daily outside of the workplace. The idea that one Black woman is responsible for changing institutional culture by herself once she has battled her way into a temporary job in an exclusionary field is racial violence.
This form of racism is particularly treacherous because it often comes from other Black people, even Black women, who as a group experience various interlocking forms of oppression. Yet many of us also are entrenched in racist, sexist, and colonialist thinking.

As someone committed to collective liberation (in other words, the dismantling of White supremacists logics* rather than the management of race), I will continue to fight racism and colonialism through my curatorial praxis, cultural organizing inside and outside museum spaces, and work as an educator. My methods include rejecting racial fantasies. I’m interested in building with those who can see that something more than selective inclusion of a few Black people is necessary to uproot racism in the museum field and broader spheres.

In the past year, more than once people who don’t know me have criticized me for not doing enough to end racism. Stop!
I’m done experiencing that violence. I recommend reading the work of Black feminist authors as the first step to curing oneself of being steeped in racist, sexist, classist, and colonialist thinking.

  • In the Black feminist tradition, Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom’s book Thick: And Other Essays stunningly reflects on the intersections of the personal, social, and political.
  • Another key text- bell hooks’ Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. hooks spotlights the historical factors that have shaped contemporary misogynoir (hatred of Black women).
  • For specifically examining the institutionalization of diversity and inclusion measures Dr. Sara Ahmed’s On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Through her interviews of university diversity officers, Ahmed provides a critical study of why and how institutions perform representational action. She also reveals how fantasies of togetherness and repair are both integral to diversity work and are also methods for perpetuating violence.
  • The motherlode– Rinaldo Walcott’s essay “Against Social Justice and the Limits of Diversity: Or Black People and Freedom,” in Toward What Justice: Diverse Dreams of Justice in Education. When I first read this essay last fall, it shook me. Walcott exposes the foundational role of antiBlackness in much of  the diversity industry. Akin to Christina Sharpe’s brilliant rumination on the endemic nature of antiBlackness in her book In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, Walcott’s essay highlights how the standpoints of “diversity, equity, social justice, and anti-racism still too often rely upon the rhetoric of the institution and its structural apparatus as the bias of its critique, as though the institution itself is power and not a performative representation of power at work.”** As he obliterates fantasies of tokenization, he calls for a deeper, groundbreaking decolonial project that would develop entirely different relations of power.

I’ve outlined just a few excellent resources for understanding, strategizing actions, and organizing for building something better together. Notice that I used the word- “together” as I refuse antiBlackness’ incessant calls for exceptional, lone Black saviors/martyrs.
Collective liberation requires collective, decolonial action.

* Walcott, 93
** Walcott, 95

February 14, 2020 at 4:53 am

“By Any Means Necessary: Racial Justice and Representation in the Arts”

On August 8th, I shared my talk– “By Any Means Necessary: Racial Justice and Representation in the Arts” at the Portland Art Museum. The video of that presentation is now available via YouTube: https://youtu.be/MMgeLWqOSg4.

Many thanks to Mike Murawski for the invitation to speak at the occasion of the institution’s exhibition “Color Line: Black Excellence on the World Stage.”

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La Tanya S. Autry, Portland Art Museum, August 8, 2019, Photo by Mike Murawski

I considered Du Bois’ “The American Negro Exhibit” at the 1900 Paris exposition through Toni Morrison’s thought. Before the week of this presentation I never put the practices of these two people together. So all of this is still in the bubbling stage which is wild and messy– I love it.

Fortunately many good Portland folks joined me in considering the ideas put forward by Toni Morrison, W.E.B. Du Bois, Gordon Parks, Lee Friedlander, Emory Douglas, Decolonize This Place, Alexandra Bell, Shawn Michelle Smith, Leigh Raiford, and more. It was quite a journey!

It was a pleasure to have this opportunity to talk about ideas and issues related to my dissertation work. This is a rare occurrence for me.
Now I’m incorporating material from this talk in my dissertation – yes!

August 28, 2019 at 11:18 pm Leave a comment

Toni Morrison Taught Me

Toni Morrison (February 18, 1931 – August 5, 2019)

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Last week was another difficult week. We have experienced so many heavy feelings in the past days. Of these moments, I want to start with a reflection about Toni Morrison.

On Tuesday morning while I was at work, I learned of her passing. A pain grew inside me; I almost cried at my desk. Toni Morrison is a towering figure in literature, in Black Studies, in feminism, in life in general. Many argue that she was the best American author ever. I looked around my desk for signs of shock. After I surmised that I was the only one in that state, I shared the news with those around me. A couple of people stopped and acknowledged the moment for a few seconds.
This experience reminds me of when I learned of Maya Angelou’s passing back in 2014. I was at a workshop of a social justice conference in Chicago. Someone interrupted the session to tell us about her death. Many of us were shaken; several people openly cried. We had lost family. Together we reflected on the many moments where Angelou had shaped our lives. At the time, I felt that I was with people who cared about us, about me.
Morrison’s contributions have shaped my thinking, curatorial praxis, and activism deeply. One chief lesson she has imparted on me – she has made me stronger, more unapologetic about my conviction to center Black people in everything I do. Because of her fierce brilliance, I routinely ask myself: “How can I make this project care for Black folks?” This orientation, which aligns with the praxis of other leading Black women thinkers, such as Audre Lorde, Saidiya Hartman, and Christina Sharpe, involves representation, however it also operates beyond representation. This deeper liberatory work entails connection, commitment, understanding, love.
Those of us who care about one another create our own spaces of care, remembering, honoring, feeling, community. Toni Morrison taught me that.
She was/is a powerful force.
Rest in Power, Toni Morrison! ❤👊🏿

#ToniMorrison #tonimorrisonallday #beloved #amercy #songofsolomon #sula #careaspraxis #careistheantidotetoviolence #ToniMorrisonFanGirl 💔

August 13, 2019 at 9:41 am Leave a comment

My Oyster Knife Is Love

Zora Neale Hurston-oyster knife

Today I came across this tweet from Chelsea Hodson shared on Twitter:
“Stop worrying about networking & just write a book that feels like a knife.” SmartSelect_20190729-134218_Twitter

It reminds me of Zora Neale Hurston’s reflection from many years before: “I do not weep at the world – I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.” Also I hear the words of Toni Morrison: “The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”

For those of us who are cultural producers and are also living in the wake of antiBlackness and other oppressive forces, we have to fortify ourselves from the pervasive violence that comes our way. These tides are extensive, multifaceted, and insidious. They show up regularly on the streets, in hospital waiting rooms, social media platforms, curatorial meetings, displays and labels on museum walls, university lecture halls, op-eds by professors and museum directors, news media headlines, and more.
The violence is ongoing comes for us when we fight injustice through our work as scholars and activists, when we breathe.

“Giving talks about my dissertation research on the modes communities and individuals employ to remember lynching violence has helped me understand that many people prefer to remain or claim to be ignorant of the deep ramifications of institutional racism and unequal power relations in this project called “America.” Oftentimes, encountering this resistance coupled with my experiences of navigating the archives of violence has been painful and stultifying. 

Making my way out of this quicksand has involved redirecting my energies and recalibrating/lessening my expectations of other people’s ability and willingness to care. Some of us get it. Some of us care for one another. But many people are committed to ignorance/denial. It suits their self-interest.

This work typically feels lonely. But I know that my research and writing is for the ancestors, It is for those who are doing the work of justice now. It is for those who will lead the work of justice in the tomorrows. It is for those who love.

#goals #disswriting #dissresearch #blackstudies #inthewake #writingfortheancestors #writingasrioting #writingasrighting#writingwithcare #writingascare #blacklove #blackselfcare #squadcare #careaspraxis #careistheantidotetoviolence #wakework #weouthere”*

I’m doing the work of love and sharpening my oyster knife too.


*from my Instagram post July 23, 2019

 

July 29, 2019 at 3:29 pm Leave a comment

Service Announcement

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Several folks think I give talks on inclusion. I don’t.
My ethos involves dismantling the ideology of white supremacy in institutions. This focus is a deeper, structural project. This is where I concentrate my energies.

#MuseumsAreNotNeutral #academiaisnotneutral #lookbeforeyouleap #inthewake #wakework #careaspraxis #careistheantidotetoviolence #artactivism #audrelordeismymentor #idabwellsismymentor

* this post is adapted from my Instagram post July 23, 2019

July 29, 2019 at 2:17 pm Leave a comment

How Writing Matters

“The Race for Theory” by Barbara Christian, Feminist Studies, 1988.

Last December I read Barbara Christian’s excellent “The Race for Theory.” I wish I had known about this essay when I started grad school. It highlights how those who champion academic theory often isolate their writing from the complexities of the everyday. Christian argues that much of this theory reproduces the ills it claims to oppose.

Of the various critical points, I particularly like her discussion of the difference between theorizing and theory. She identifies the ongoing work many people who experience oppression do to survive their conditions as theorizing. Their labor takes many forms that frequently involve narrative.

Academic jargon, which some art historians obscure their thoughts with, has never felt natural or useful to me. In the beginning I wasted time wondering why people wrote in that manner. Even worse, I thought that maybe something was wrong with me because that style seemed so awkward to me. I should have been reading Black feminist thought from the beginning. It would have steered me right.

Understanding writing in relationship to living has been very helpful to me while I write my dissertation. Christian’s perspective is another crucial building block for me as she elucidates a belief I have held for a long time- how I write indicates who I am and what matters to me.

I learned of Christian’s work from the tweets of the Association of Black Women Historians, #ABWH2018, conference.

#barbarachristian #theracefortheory #blackstudies #blackfeminism #womenstudies #blackliterature #blackartsmovement #arthistory #arthistorysyllabus #criticalracearthistory #interdisciplinarystudies #dissreading #disswriting #disslovenotes

[Image description: photo of first page of essay, “The Race for Theory” by Barbara Christian, Feminist Studies, 1988.]

March 21, 2019 at 6:19 am Leave a comment

It Doesn’t Get Easier: Writing about Lynching and Believing Something Else Is Possible

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As a descendant of enslaved people, writing about lynching memorials is horrible. Sometimes as I’m writing my notes, I’ll re-read a passage about a lynching and the memory of it hits me again. I’ve read about so much killing and I’ve developed ways of putting much of it out of my mind. I can’t keep all this violence up front and still live my life with some joy. However, the killing is always there, just recessed. When I come back to the telling, it crushes. The pain doesn’t diminish. It changes. But it doesn’t go away. Actually, I think it’s worse when it returns.

Toni Morrison’s concept of rememory perfectly conveys this experience:

Places, places are still there. If a house burns down, it’s gone, but the place – the picture of it – stays, and not just in my rememory, but out there, in the world. What I remember is a picture floating around out there outside my head. I mean even if I don’t think it, even if I die, the picture of what I do, or knew, or saw is still out there. Right in the place where it happened.

The picture is still there and what’s more, if you go there – you who never was there – if you go there and stand in the place where it was, it will happen again; it will be there for you, waiting for you. So […], you can’t never go there. Never. Because even though it’s all over – over and done with – it’s going to always be there waiting for you.
– Toni Morrison, Beloved
This evil isn’t a sideshow act. I don’t share the horrors I encounter in the archive on social media because context is essential. Also in person, I don’t talk much about what I’ve found. When people ask, “How’s the writing going?,” I quickly assess their knowledge of my dissertation topic before answering. As most of these people don’t study this topic, I usually keep my responses superficial, administrative. It’s just about pages, timelines. We don’t discuss the weight. When this happens, I feel like a liar or at best an undercover agent. I remain quarantined because most of the people I know have no clue of the depths of this disaster and I’m pretty sure they don’t want to know. They haven’t taken on the weight of knowing it. As I’ve mentioned before, even at public events on the topic of lynching, people have told me that they don’t want to hear about lynching. I wish none of it happened. But wishing doesn’t change reality.
I often want to make the writing less painful by avoiding certain things. But I feel a stronger need to be a witness. Performance studies scholar Diana Taylor, among others, has discussed the role of witnessing as ethical engagement. I think she’s right. Being a witness requires commitment and maybe even a soulful engagement.
So I’m going to keep fighting myself to stay with the truth. Here in the writing, I can do the only things that are possible – identify the disaster and modes of care some of us have implemented to honor the dead and protect the living and envision possible better ways to exist.

March 5, 2019 at 11:56 am Leave a comment

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