Sigh ... must we go over this again, white people?
In the latest case of habitual boundary overstepping and appropriation, painter Dana Schutz’s work Open Casket has sparked controversy and outrage at the Whitney Biennial in New York City. The medium-sized painting depicts the battered face of 14-year-old Emmett Till, who was lynched in 1955, as it appeared in photographs and news reports. The artist used smudges of paint and cuts in the canvas to reflect the brutality of Emmett’s death mask, because obviously what the commentary surrounding a 62-year-old brutal murder of a 14-year-old needs is the voice of a white woman from Brooklyn.
The exhibit has sparked protests, including from a group of people who dedicated their time to standing in front of the painting all day, blocking from view what they termed the “black death spectacle”:
Another artist, Hannah Black, penned a letter to the museum asking it to take the painting down, citing the insensitivity toward and appropriation of black bodies:
As you know, this painting depicts the dead body of 14-year-old Emmett Till in the open casket that his mother chose, saying, “Let the people see what I’ve seen.” That even the disfigured corpse of a child was not sufficient to move the white gaze from its habitual cold calculation is evident daily and in a myriad of ways, not least the fact that this painting exists at all. In brief: the painting should not be acceptable to anyone who cares or pretends to care about Black people because 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.
Although Schutz’s intention may be to present white shame, this shame is not correctly represented as a painting of a dead Black boy by a white artist—those non-Black artists who sincerely wish to highlight the shameful nature of white violence should first of all stop treating Black pain as raw material. The subject matter is not Schutz’s; white free speech and white creative freedom have been founded on the constraint of others, and are not natural rights. The painting must go.
... Through his mother’s courage, Till was made available to Black people as an inspiration and warning. Non-Black people must accept that they will never embody and cannot understand this gesture: the evidence of their collective lack of understanding is that Black people go on dying at the hands of white supremacists, that Black communities go on living in desperate poverty not far from the museum where this valuable painting hangs, that Black children are still denied childhood. Even if Schutz has not been gifted with any real sensitivity to history, if Black people are telling her that the painting has caused unnecessary hurt, she and you must accept the truth of this. The painting must go.
There is sure to be some pushback over artistic freedom, the right to free speech, and whether the entire subject and history of America’s discrimination against people of color should be off-limits to white artists. But this controversy isn’t about rights or freedom. This painting is a prime example of peak whitepeopleing.
What is “whitepeopleing”?
Whitepeopleing is the privilege and dismissive confidence that you have not only the right but also the permission to do whatever the fuck you want. Whitepeopleing is the audacity of believing that your white hands are gifted with the skill, soul and empathy to transmute the horrific spilling of black blood into something passersby can contemplate before they move on to another sculpture or painting. It is either not knowing or disregarding the difference between a mother saying, “Look what these monsters did to my boy” and a New York paint-slinger saying, “Look what I did.” Whitepeopleing is this.
Just because someone can say something doesn’t mean he or she should. There are some spaces, subjects and times where white voices are not needed. Even when whitepeopleing is often disguised as empathy or allyship, it always turns out to be the same Caucasian strain of white-savior narcissism. It’s not as if the entire country was sauntering through museums unaware of our suffering until this kind, Caucasian Dana Schultz pointed out the plight of black people.
Perhaps there should be a mutual agreement: We promise Lil Wayne won’t write rap songs about the Holocaust, and Beyoncé won’t follow Lemonade with a hit album about unseasoned chicken.
And in return, regardless of how ghostly or pale your face may get, could you please stop using black people’s blood as your cheek rouge?