Art as an Ally for Social Justice

Photo by Fibonacci Blue of Black Lives Matter protest in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Photo by Fibonacci Blue of Black Lives Matter protest in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

The events of the past week are weighing heavy on my heart, as I’m sure they are for many of us. Personally, I was very struck by both the shootings that have occurred across the country and the resulting protests. I spent nearly a decade of my life living in Baton Rouge and the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex – nearly 3 years in Baton Rouge and 7 years in DFW. My uncle was also the Captain of Homicide for the Houston Police Department for many years, and it was not unusual to see his face on the local news as a child whenever a notable shooting or murder had occurred, sometimes as the investigating detective. For me, the face of law enforcement is very much tied to the face of a family member whom I love very much.

I have also had several friends share their terrifying experiences with law enforcement, and have had a few hostile experiences of my own with officers that have shaped my own point of view as an adult. Perhaps the most influential event I’ve experienced through art in the last year was a video shown by Katina Parker of a short documentary film she shot of children who had participated with their parents in the Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, Missouri. Each of the children was young, around 8 or younger. As they tearfully described being tear gassed and brutalized by law enforcement and struggled with understanding the motivation behind their experiences, I couldn’t help being moved to cry myself. And yet I am more than painfully aware that (despite my Latino roots), the way I look pretty much assures that it is likely I never have to experience what these innocent children have already had to endure in their young lives. The fact that young black children have experiences so much more hate than an adult because of how they look is truly disgusting to me.

In light of the tragedies in our world, and the frustrating, confounding and often upsetting times we have lived through recently, there is one thing that gives me some solace and piece of mind: art has the power to transform hearts and communities and overcome the oppressive dominance of white culture. As artists, we possess the power to say without speaking, to feel without touching, to create light and song where there is none. I see art as a power of hope in educating our communities about what we see happening in the world and to combat the injustices that persist in our communities.

Katina Parker presenting to the Hatch, artist cohort
Katina Parker presenting during the Hatch program pilot to artists and C4 Atlanta staff.

Through our Hatch pilot program, I was privileged to work with so many wonderful individuals, both artist-students and facilitators, toiling tirelessly to create change and address social ills in the world in a meaningful way. Their work and compassion for their communities is an inspiration to me as both an administrator and artist that our contributions are meaningful in some way in spite of injustice and inequality in the world. We must continue to work to create the reality we’d like to live in where everyone, regardless of background, race, origin, disability, sexuality, gender or any other identity expression can feel safe and pursue “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” without fear.

To do this work is more than placing a mural up in a neighborhood without regard for the deep wounds that need healing over beautification without connection to its audience. It is more than putting a paintbrush or a microphone in the hands of members of the community, although that’s sometimes a good start. To make clear, sustainable change in the world takes hard work and commitment to showing up. It takes an open heart and thick skin. And most of all, it takes extreme patience. While the immediacy of this situation (people dying in the streets) creates a sense of urgency to fix the problem as quickly as possible, the reality is that for any kind of lasting and meaningful progress to be made to change the status quo, it often takes YEARS of tedious, time consuming, relentless work with community members just to lay the groundwork to begin even the smallest of lasting changes.As they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and we are literally combatting systems of oppression and colonization that have existed almost as long as humans have lived in close proximity to one another.  That shouldn’t discourage us from doing the work, however. Small changes and even those that don’t last still help us to move the needle forward towards a world free of the oppressive dominance of White Culture.

Understanding the ways in which White Culture dominance affects our organizations, institutions and social systems is particularly important for non-POC (People of Color) allies trying to support and aid their POC friends in combating oppression, racism and xenophobia. In her essay “White Supremacy Culture“, Tema Okun details the characteristics of white culture found in organizations and why they are harmful to all, not just those of color:

…Culture is powerful precisely because it is so present and at the same time so very difficult to name or identify. The characteristics listed below are damaging because they are used as norms and standards without being proactively named or chosen by the group. They are damaging because they promote white supremacy thinking. Because we all live in a white supremacy culture, these characteristics show up in the attitudes and behaviors of all of us – people of color and white people. Therefore, these attitudes and behaviors can show up in any group or organization, whether it is white-led or predominantly white or people of color-led or predominantly people of color.

It is important to understand that Okun is speaking about White Supremacy not as a movement where participants believe that white people are superior to all other groups. Instead, Ms. Okun is referring to White Culture Supremacy – the notion that our society is dominated by characteristics of (traditional, hetero-normative, Anglo-Saxon) White Culture  that put those of other cultures, backgrounds and identities at an inherent disadvantage because those characteristics are attributed as a societal norm. To make the distinction, Okun does not believe that all white people and their culture are bad or that all white people are made to believe that they are better than everyone else. In fact, she is not referring to white PEOPLE as a group at all. The point she is trying to make instead is that allowing our society to be ruled and governed by aspects of a culture that not all ascribe to is harmful because it inherently asserts bias and preference to those who are perceived to be of the White European cultural persuasion, regardless of whether they want it or not. Additionally, people and groups of color can unknowingly also participate in perpetuating White Culture Supremacy . All other norms are therefore perceived to be of lesser value or “incorrect”.

Project Row Houses, a community based art and social impact project in Houston, TX. Photo taken while on a recent visit.
Project Row Houses, a community based art and social impact project in Houston, TX by artist Rob Lowe. Photo taken while on a recent visit.

By understanding the characteristics of White Culture Supremacy and identifying them as cultural bias instead of societal norms, we can begin to identify ways to be more inclusive of other perspectives and other individuals. Inclusivity strengthens us all by providing more creativity, more resources, more allies, more points of healing, more knowledge, more love, more respect and more appreciation for everyone.  Greater sharing of power amongst us all does not damage or or hurt those to whom power has been ascribed. It does not mean that those who have inadvertently benefited from privilege are bad people or should feel guilt. But ensuring that true equity and inclusion happen means understanding the roots of oppression and inequality and making them visible and obsolete.

Which brings me back to my original assertion that art is perhaps humanity’s best tool to help understand each other, create a world with power shared more equitably amongst all and insure that all receive equal protection and safety under the law. Every culture has art. Every community has artists. Every human being has both aesthetic and biological needs, wants, and desires. It is what makes us human.

Where we tend to differ is in semantics. Something as simple as how we define what mediums or forms of expression we call art or creativity can be the first step to creating a more inclusive and understanding world. Emphasizing process and inclusivity of community over product and ego can help us to realize a greater communal artistic vision that we could achieve on our own. We can also chose to utilize our artistic voice to shed light on the characteristics of White Supremacy culture that harm us all.

So for those that, like myself, who struggle with how to be an effect ally to our friends, neighbors and loved ones, here are three ways that you can help to continue to move the needle forward:

  1. Understand the privilege you have and utilize it in ways that dismantle systems of inequality and inequity. Voting, protesting, speaking to elected officials, and listening to others all fall under this category.
  2. Work to identify and eradicate the ways that you personally perpetuate White Culture Supremacy.
  3. Utilize your artwork and artistic voice as an expression of core values of equity and equality. And support organizations, institutions and other artists who maintain this core value as well.

And hopefully, then, one day, no one will need to write this blog post because the cultural constructs that harm us all will be obsolete.

Application for the Hatch Training Intensive is now open for the Fall 2016 session. For applications and more information about this training program, please check out the Hatch Training Intensive page. Deadline for application is August 15, 2016.

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