Brief History of Structural Violence and Racism in Art Education

How the roots of white supremacy taints the reality of who can and who cannot be an artist.

Much of what is understood to be art and artistic in education in the United States is rooted in a white supremacist notion of what normal is. Normalcy and whiteness are often characterized as universal notions. If deviated from in any capacity, negative reactions become a very real consequence. When it comes to determining what art is, we can look to the aristocracy for evidence of what they value and why. Leavy talks about some physical reactions to art, music, literature, and performance as a powerful force that can jar, move, pass through, and evoke emotions of varying degrees of intensity and duration (2009). Proper and socially acceptable reactions are equally steeped in white supremacy in the United States. If anyone is to become too loud, or too emotional, or too physical in their consumption of art, they run the risk of becoming deviant in the eyes of a white dominant culture. However, these definitions of excess are also rooted in white supremacy. White people who enjoy loud music are often viewed as exercising their constitutional rights whereas Black people who enjoy loud music are often viewed as disruptive. In some cases, the disruption to white people brought about by their Black neighbors results in police action. Even in places where art is supposed to be free of bias like museums we find the dominant racial profile of artists (and workers in the museum) to be white. Examples like this are why whiteness and normalcy are often characterized as one in the same.

One of my previous students remarked to me about their experience in their “Humanities Through the Arts” class. They were sharing with me how “lame” the class was, and I asked why? From my view at the time, art was something I always found joy in and was curious to learn why they were not finding the course intellectually stimulating. Through the course of discussion, it was revealed that their disinterest was motivated by a lack of connection to the material. They continued to share that all of the art and artists that were shown to have contributed to our modern view of art were largely white, male, and European. From my experience in education, this was not outside of the norm. In fact, learning about the contributions of white aristocrats to culture was common for me. It was normal. Like this student, I must intentionally seek out non-white and non-male artists through my own research. I thought about this story as I read the chapter by Stanczak.

The passage that stands out to me the most came in his outlining of the book. Stancazk refers to the visual collection of images, “documenting the work of mission societies, the powerful political and economic actors with whom they came in contact, and the daily and ceremonial life at the junctures of cultures” (Stanczak, 2007, p. 14). The work of missionaries!? Is he talking about the pillaging of indigenous cultures and exploiting their labor and resources? Is he talking about forcing millions of racialized populations into unfair and dangerous working practices for capitalist gain? Is he talking forcing groups of people to adhere to Christian doctrines they espoused in an effort to mask their predatory behaviors? Maybe these are some of the images of works done by these sadistic barbarians…

This is some clear evidence of “work” done by these religious zealots…

When it comes to artistic representations of culture, clearly white people have the advantage in American culture. White people have the power to distort history through “artistic collections” of photography which tell a remarkably divergent story to the truth. White people use art to obscure the past and negate contributions of non-white populations. In social science research, previous investigators have done this under the guise of science while never really recognizing and validating the awful lived experiences of their subjects. Today, perhaps more than ever, Americans need to reckon with our racist history in an effort to liberate racialized and oppressed art, history, and narrative that have gone ignored or underrepresented in dominant cultural discourse. We need to do this to begin the process of healing for those who suffered (and continue to suffer) in a society that does not respect their contributions, that is unless it can be monetized and sold to white people.

As we peel back the racist onion of American white supremacy we can learn how this ideology of normalcy has penetrated our collective consciousness and validated by the broader community. Just look at the racist history of the Oscars. It has only been 5 years — FIVE YEARS — since #OscarsSoWhite emerged to challenge the dominant racist ideology that permeates the Screen’s most prestigious award. This isn’t to say that non-white artists were silent up until that point. But it took until 2015 for the largely affluent white population of actors who benefited from the normalization of their ascendency and promotion and increased wages above their non-white counterparts to open their minds to the possibility that their contributions to cinema were and are equally valuable. The racialization of art and artists will continue in the future. Non-white artists will continue to be judged more harshly. Non-white artists will continue to be paid significantly less than their white counterparts. Non-white artists will continue to be forgotten by history. All of the aforementioned will continue to be true, unless American culture can come to terms with the possibility that calling Viola Davis the Black Meryl Streep is not a compliment. Instead, it is a reflection that all art and artists are measured according to the same yardstick that was used by “missionaries” and other plunderers of humankind who infected a nation with a vision of normalcy that justifies the exploitation and oppressed of non-white populations for capitalist gain.

Leavy, P. (2009). Method meets art: Arts-based research practice. Guilford Press (Ch 8).

Stanczak, G. C. (Ed.). (2007). Visual research methods: Image, society, and representation. SAGE Publications (Introduction)

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