- do you wonder if you’re not passing well enough?
- do you wonder if you should wear heels and lipstick more often?
- do you internally scream that you would be passing if you lived in san francisco or new york?
- do you wonder if that’s the reason you didn’t get the grant?
- do you wonder what the church ladies say about you when they go home?
- do you think about the people who would shun you if they knew?
- do you try to look respectable knowing no part of you is respectable?
- do you feel bitter resentment when your colleague introduces himself as a “husband and a father”?
- do you wonder if you will be received just as well if you introduce yourself as “unmarried, childless, and prone to relationship anarchy”?
- do you prefer to stay home alone rather than be exhausted by the heteronormativity of your social environment?
- do you kiss your lover in public?
- do men watch you when you do?
- are they armed?
- have you found love here?
- have you given up on finding love here?
- do you think you’ll find love here?
- do you think you can survive without love?
dana schutz’s painting of emmett till at the 2017 whitney biennial is the 2017 version of kelley walker’s paintings at the contemporary art museum of st louis is the 2016 version of kenneth goldsmith reading mike brown’s autopsy report is the 2015 version of joe scanlan’s performance as a fictional black woman donelle woolford in the 2014 whitney biennial. in other words, it is yet another white artist’s appropriation of a black body and black death, under the justification of white free speech.
the conversations around schutz’s painting are disappointingly familiar. in some regards, i truly feel i can add no more to the conversation about white free speech versus black death. (hint: white free speech is never the answer. here are some reads.) and then art historian melinda guillen posted this curious question: would intersectional woman of color feminism call for the destruction of the artwork? or, rephrased, how do we approach this offense by considering restorative, instead of punitive, justice? if that proposition makes people on both sides of the debate want to throw up, please bear with me as i navigate through the nausea.
as someone who has experienced sexual assault, who has both experienced and perpetrated domestic violence, and who believes deeply in a non-carceral future, i have spent a few years sitting with the question of restorative justice. i often still find myself at the uneasy crossroad between anger, accountability, and forgiveness. when stanford rapist brock turner was sentenced to a mere 6 months in prison and his supporters were calling the reduced sentence restorative justice, i wanted to throw up without knowing if i had the right to throw up. it was in that moment that this piece of writing clarified my understanding of restorative justice.
in sum, restorative justice is about the centering of the victim(s)’ suffering, creating shifts in elements of the victim(s)’ community that enabled the offense, and determining restitution for the perpetrator based on centering the victim(s). none of that happened when brock turner was sentenced to a trivial 6 months. indeed, the centering of turner and his feelings of hurt, shame, and remorse, is frightening similar to the centering of schutz’s good intentions and right to free speech.
when whiteness transgresses us, which is apparently still every single day, the path to resolution cannot center whiteness, the great transgressor. but it is also not enough to identify the guilty party and rest. non-carceral does not mean non-accountable; rather, it means looking for accountability on a systemic level. we must acknowledge our various roles in the system and use this moment to shift the bigger issues in our community that have led up to this point.
- how could two asian-american curators make this anti-black oversight, which debuted the same month that a korean storeowner assaulted a black woman? (by the way, my offer to come collect asian nonsense still stands, as long as i am provided with a direct connection to the source of the nonsense)
- how are we still defending white free speech in 2017, after the election of a billionaire who used his “free speech” to encourage white supremacist violence against women, immigrants, and people of color?
- why are art schools, art classes, art books, art galleries, art shows, art funding, art markets, art fairs, art museums, art nonprofits, art spaces, everything related to art pretty much, still disproportionately white?
schutz’s painting is representation of violence—just not the violence she intends to portray. it is a representation of the violence that black and people of color encounter daily as cultural workers. undoing that violence may include destroying the painting, but the call for transformative change also goes much, much deeper.
photo credit: Parker Bright protesting Dana Schutz’s Open Casket, SCOTT W. H. YOUNG (@HEISCOTT)/VIA TWITTER
there have been many headlines written about this dumpster presidency, but one of them keeps flashing through my mind; it is an article about how in this moment, we can learn from organizers resisting ICE in maricopa county, phoenix, arizona, the site of this country’s most racist and extreme laws against undocumented immigrants. we learn from the people who have been through hell, not the people who live in paradise.
somewhere between my last two trips to los angeles i felt a great comfort descend upon me with living on the margins. not that i consider living in a big city managing a high profile project to be in any way a marginal situation. i am referring more to the well documented spatial marginality of the south and the midwest relative to the coastal areas, from its access to culture, to its voting records.
another form of marginality i’ve been considering is the marginality of countries considered less developed in terms of late capitalism and representative democracy relative to the united states. is this true anymore? as the united states gets downgraded to a flawed democracy and we are shown to be the puppets, not the puppeteers, of international electoral manipulation, what is the cold comfort that accompanies no longer being at the center of the world?
in migrant words, did i leave my homeland for this?
i’ve been asking myself these questions about a regional and global loss of centrality that was perhaps never mine to begin with. i have no answers because perhaps i too, retain a glimmer of a dream that somewhere is better than here. but i am learning to love the margin. i am learning to love the way it gives me critical distance with which to view the center, i am learning the value of the occasional slip into anonymity, i am learning hyperlocal contradictions that give bloom to the complexity in humanity; i am learning the bitter beauty of forging survival.
my artist community has been fretting about the loss of the national endowment of the arts, and while i by no means want it to go, living on the pseudo-margins has taught me that we don’t need anything, but ourselves, for the revolution.
a few days ago i wrote a piece that elicited so many white tears, they could be used to provide the city of flint, michigan, with water. i have also appreciated the ways that people have engaged with and questioned the piece, so that sentence will be the only joke i make about white people in this post.
in reflecting on why some white people and nonblack people of color don’t think some of the behaviors i outlined are destructive, i truly believe it is because our traditional immigration narrative has been rooted in anti-blackness.
i am equipped to speak to the traditional immigration narrative because i am the most model of model minorities. my father received a scholarship to come study in the united states after completing his degree from the Harvard of China. my parents received WIC aid and worked themselves up from factory jobs to homeownership and sending their two children to top tier, ivy league universities. everyone in my nuclear family has citizenship and advanced degrees.
this doesn’t mean that we haven’t felt racism and discrimination along the way, or that we don’t know what to it’s like to survive through poverty. however, i think it does mean that we have rested on those experiences of suffering to not engage with solidarity efforts with black people in the united states, who also suffer racism, discrimination, poverty, and additional violences like police brutality and trauma from slavery.
this is ironic because black people have been at the forefront of fighting for our rights as immigrants in the united states. the civil rights movement fought for voting rights for immigrants, and martin luther king jr and malcolm x were vocal critics of the united states’ imperial war in vietnam. black people have done more in the united states for immigrants than white people, and we need to revise our immigrant narratives to acknowledge the role of blackness.
anti-blackness in the immigrant narrative starts happening when distinctions are created between “good immigrants” and “bad immigrants”, or “good minorities” and “bad minorities”. this is why i am vehemently opposed to narratives about”great” immigrants, because they are used to indict black people and people of color, especially undocumented people, who don’t fit into this mold. black people are criminalized in the united states according to stereotypes like “lazy” and “thuggish”, whereas immigrants are praised for being “hard working” and “upstanding”. donald trump is already perpetuating this good minority/bad minority divide with his order to publish a list of immigrants who commit crimes (funny how white people are suddenly silent about how “we are all immigrants” on that front). focusing on “great” immigrants is just a white liberal way of doing exactly what donald trump is doing.
the good minority/bad minority distinction is perpetuated by paternalistic descriptions of peaceful, docile immigrants (asians!) in stark contrast to angry, divisive black folks. however, paternalism has always been a key justification for colonial wars. the submissive asian woman stereotype continues to sanction violence to this day, when asian women are killed by their white boyfriends because of a paternalistic narrative of submission. this violent history is at the root of attempts to persuade white people to let in “the peaceful and kind immigrant,” which is why i don’t fuck with appeals to how comfortable my existence is for white people.
lastly, it is important to understand that anti-blackness and colorism plays a role in the erasure of certain immigrant communities. i have often been told that asian americans are too wealthy to concern themselves with the struggle. this may be true of some east asians, but it not true of darker southeast asians, many of whom are refugees, and who live in some of the highest poverty in the united states. anti-blackness and colorism within white communities and our own communities erase immigrants who are systemically disenfranchised because of anti-black discrimination across the globe.
in having conversations over the past few days, i’ve come to realize that the mass narrative of immigration is not accustomed to being challenged at this profound level (though these arguments are nothing new amongst immigration organizers). we’re in a moment of transformation where i think we should question and challenge many of the prevailing ideologies that got us to this moment—including our ideologies about immigrants. i point out these fallacies in the immigration narrative not to be divisive but precisely because we can never come together under an ideology that commits violence against some of the most vulnerable in our society. it is this violence against black communities and people of color latent in white liberalism that divides, not the voices of people of color who point it out.
This past week, Donald Trump showed his ass. So did white liberals. You know, the ones swathing themselves in American flags and holding pictures of dead Syrian children. For a moment I thought the alt-right had gone so far right it was left again, because some of the white liberalism I witnessed at #NoWallNoBan actions this weekend was downright imperialist in the name of immigration.
“Yo!” you protest, “Stop criticizing the people that are joining the movement! They should be rewarded with freshly baked cookies and golden safety pins for their allyship!”. To which I reply, without criticism, the only movement that these white liberals are joining is the United States’ movement to colonize the globe. People need to understand what they’re fighting, and it is unfortunately abundantly clear they will never reach this understanding without my salty first generation immigrant opinions ruining their day, nor the voice of other sisters who’ve been fighting their entire lives.
In no particular order, here are some things I want to express to well meaning white liberals. And trust me, I’m a model minority, so this is the nicest and gentlest way anyone is ever going to explain this to you.
- It’s the United States, not America. There are many countries in North and South America, and they sure as fuck don’t want to be lumped in with a monstrous administration that is trying to legislate them out of existence.
- The United States’ “greatness” is a code word for expansionist imperialism. It is part of decades-old nationalist rhetoric that says because the U.S. is greater than other countries, they are justified in imposing their greatness on other countries through military violence. Seeing United States flags and hearing “USA! USA” chants is fucking violent to those of us who have seen nationalist jingoism be used to justify military intervention in our home countries. This is not at all a proud moment for the United States, so leave your patriotic pride at home.
- Immigrants don’t owe you any explanations for their existence. Please stop with the well meaning talk about how immigrants make this country great, as if we ONLY grant citizenship to great individuals. If citizenship were based on greatness and contribution, we would be revoking the papers of white people who didn’t do anything with their lives.
- If it takes a picture of a dead Syrian child to get you to care about immigrants, you might need to have a talk with yourself. If you are NOT a member of a community of color who has PTSD from seeing dead bodies killed by the state, then you should thank the stars for your sheltered existence, and then have a talk with yourself. And then stop circulating those images forever.
- Yeah your great grandpa was 1/8 Hungarian or something, but unless Trump signed a ban on travelers from your country OR your family is here due to the U.S. bombing your country, please kindly stop appropriating the experiences of people who are actually suffering. “We are all immigrants” is cute in theory, but it completely erases the role white supremacy plays in specifically targeting Latinx, South Asian, African, and Middle Eastern* immigrants.
- Learn some fucking Spanish. Or Arabic. What’s the point of expressing your well intentioned allyship if the people you are supposedly supporting can’t understand you?***
- Immigrants are among most impacted in the United States by lack of access to healthcare, wage theft, poverty, gentrification, police violence, etc. So if you’re pro-immigrant, consider fighting for those issues that affect immigrants once they have to figure out how to live here.
- Black people are Muslims/immigrants too. Sudan, one of the countries on Trump’s ban list, is a country of predominantly Black Muslims. The United States has been resettling refugees from Africa for decades. And slaves were brought to the United States against their will. And yet people will hold #RefugeesWelcome signs and in the same breath wonder why #BlackLivesMatter isn’t #AllLivesMatter. If your immigration stance is only based upon uplifting immigrants that are pale (i.e. light-skinned Muslims) or stereotypically docile (i.e. Southeast Asians), then you are not actually pro-immigrant; you’re pro-white. To oppose colonialism is to oppose the anti-blackness inherent in our global systems, and to say #BlackLivesMatter.
Now go drink some water to wash away that salt. Oh, and that poster by Shepard Fairey sucks.
* 1/31/17 UPDATE: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated “Arabic” and omitted South Asians and Africans affected by the ban.
** 1/31/17 UPDATE: White people have complained that this post leaves them paralyzed and without action items, so I have culled only the directives from what I have written above :
- Leave your patriotic pride at home.
- Stop with the well meaning talk about how immigrants make this country great.
- Have a talk with yourself.
- Stop circulating those images [of dead Syrian children] forever.
- Stop appropriating the experiences of people who are actually suffering [via] “We are all immigrants”.
- Learn some fucking Spanish. Or Arabic. ***
- Consider fighting for those issues [healthcare, wage theft, poverty, gentrification, police violence, etc.] that affect immigrants once they have to figure out how to live here.
- Say #BlackLivesMatter.
***2/2/17 UPDATE: People are apparently tripping out over the fact that language justice is like, a thing, so here’s further explanation. https://www.waysidecenter.org/programs/language-justice/
white people love to say we need to fill our hearts with more love in this post-trump world. this upsets me (and many others) greatly, as a denial of our right to anger and resistance. but it also upsets me because it perverts and appropriates what has always been, to me, a critical resistance practice.
when white people say we need to fill our hearts with more love, they most likely do not mean the following. but i do:
- love black people. love blackness. unlearn all the anti blackness in you that has been passed down through your own culture, that has perhaps caused you to not love yourself. understand loving blackness as a key underpinning of how to become free.
- love people of the same sex. love trans folx. love your friends. love your friends’ children. resist the idea that love only exists in a nuclear family formation between a man and a woman and their biological children. love your friends.
- love the earth as if it were another being to be honored rather than another resource to be pillaged. resist the commodification of life in the form of restricted access to clean air and clean water. love the people who are fighting for the love of this earth.
- love with humility. know that love means learning and undoing your own ignorance and complicity. love through listening.
- love because love is balm against violences perpetuated by the state. recognize this violence in your most loving moments. love not only through feeling, but through actions that dismantle oppression.
- love because the emotional and supportive labor of women, queers, and people of color have always been cast aside as unimportant. love because emotional labor is and has always been central, not ancillary, to the building of our movements and communities.
happy holidays, i love you.
on november 9, millions of americans woke up and for the first time realized this country is racist, and sexist, and classist, and many other -ists. maybe you’re one of them. maybe you started wearing a safety pin (0.5 woke points), or maybe you called your senator about #noDAPL (3 woke points), or maybe you took a class on intersectionality in college (5 woke points).
i’m just kidding. there is no such thing as woke points, because wokeness is not a competition (use of ‘woke’ while non-black: minus 50 woke points). in all seriousness, i’m noticing an epidemic of people who are beginning to have a social justice political analysis, or who have had a political analysis for a while, but who do not have a method to act on that analysis.
it’s great that many more people are beginning to develop their political consciousnesses. please continue! read here and here and here and here. but while i do believe social media is an important aspect of 21st century discourse production, sitting around saying what’s wrong with the world is not going to change it. and i say this as someone who sits around quite a bit saying what’s wrong with the world.
one issue with the sole focus on social criticism is that it tears things down, but it does not build. and creating is harder than destroying. as an educator, i am always thinking about how to create entry points for people just discovering the work. what enables me to have empathy for people wearing safety pins is reflecting upon when i was, quite frankly, a privileged little shit, and what it took to get me to this point, and where i still need to go. how do we move people from wearing safety pins to being on the front lines of resistance?
working in community-based art for the past few years, this is where i think socially engaged art is helpful in providing an entry point to praxis. perhaps people don’t know how to organize a campaign. but they can make a visualization on paper. and i’ve seen that one material realization of an idea be the starting point for many, many more forms of material realization. i’ve heard many participants in community arts project say, “i never thought i could be an artist”. maybe it’s time we find a way to change that phrase to “i never thought i could be an activist”.
having a political analysis is meaningless if you cannot practice your words: if you constantly flake out on others, if you speak but never listen, if you perpetuate toxic masculinity or colorblindness while criticizing patriarchy or structural racism. but praxis also looks different for every individual. for some it’s getting involved in organizing efforts. for others it just looks like staying alive. however, it is up to you to be self conscious of your praxis, able to articulate it in relationship to your political analysis, and willing to self reflect and self challenge.
as a political educator, i commit to the task of sharing tools, building bridges between analysis and action, and constantly learning and holding myself accountable. here are some places where you can start, and i’m more than happy to share resources offline or directly.
- Tips for Joining the Movement
- “We’re His Problem Now” Weekly Calling Sheet
- Oh Crap! What Now? Survival Guide
in these times more than ever, we must hold each other close and love each other, and in the words of dr. cornel west—“never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.”
(so stop with all that ‘all we need is love’ crap—seriously!)
Photo: Tania Bruguera and Ai Weiwei, at Brooklyn Museum, ELLEN QBERTPLAYA
my parents think ai wei wei’s father, ai qing, writes bad poetry. my parents also think donald trump will save the u.s. economy, so their opinions are to be taken with a grain of salt.
still, there’s something refreshing about hearing a chinese person’s opinion on chinese art. i don’t hear that often living in the united states. instead i hear opinions from people who have never set foot in asia, not only about ai wei wei, but about the legacy of communism and about tibet’s right to be free.
i want to clarify that i’m not denying the trauma of Maoism which i still feel in my body to this day, and i’m not denying that china has committed severe human rights abuses in tibet. there’s this metaphor that i use to explain gayatri spivak’s argument in “can the subaltern speak?”, which is that when your mother tells you to finish your food because there’s a starving child in africa, your mother doesn’t actually care about the child in africa in this situation, even though their starvation is real. the african child is the subaltern through which another power justifies its regime of domination. so is the tibetan monk. and perhaps, so is ai wei wei.
when ai wei wei was imprisoned by the chinese government in 2011, i remember many US-based artists showing up in protest for ai wei wei’s freedom. but how many of those artists in that same breath wore clothes that were made in china? documented their protest on iphones made in chinese factories with abysmal working conditions? and how many of those artists are conscious of the hong kong umbrella revolution*, and the jailing of chinese feminists?
in a recent exchange with tania bruguera at the brooklyn museum, ai wei wei was invited to discourse on his work regarding freedom and dissidence. but freedom for whom? dissidence against whom? i often wonder if ai wei wei would be considered such a champion of freedom if legacies of orientalism and fear mongering against communism did not paint china as one of the ultimate representations of unfreedom. i also wonder if dissidence is acceptable and glamorized only when it is a dissidence towards a “foreign” government and not a current global superpower whose quest for empire has decimated the lives of millions. certainly i don’t claim that the chinese government is blameless, just as i don’t claim that there are no starving children in africa. but in the context of ai wei wei and western art, the china being evoked for brooklyn audiences is a western imaginary rather than my diasporic reality.
i used to joke that the US-based ‘free tibet’ movement was analogous to a minority group of chinese citizens raising awareness in asia about freeing native americans from US occupation. but it seems like the chickens have come home to roost as the UN sends an investigation into human rights abuses against indigenous water protectors at standing rock. in a country where 1 million black people are incarcerated, water protectors are brutalized and held in dog kennels, and the current presidential election makes me seriously consider what life would be like if i repatriated to the homeland, i’m not comfortable with saying that we are freer here, then we are anywhere else.
*though hong kong’s colonized road to democracy is another complicated subject.
more and more, i am tempted to disavow my identification with the creative class. i can’t tell if it’s just a dallas-based discontent, or if it is more far flung, like when i see gentrification apologists being smug on facebook.
in this particular situation, ‘class’ is the operative word. i still remember sitting in on a meeting of a group from CalArts that was working on the topic of MFA debt, in which one of the white male organizers stated quite clearly, “i want to be able to afford to not live in a ‘bad neighborhood’.”
as someone who grew up with parents working in factories, nursing homes, and back-of-house restaurants, the distinction that the creative class makes between itself and the working class/poor (aka the people who live in ‘bad neighborhoods’) makes me twitch. in my experiences with some artist organizing in los angeles and dallas, it seems like the class concern stops at the artist’s well being. as long as artists with MFAs can live in affordable apartments and have steady jobs with benefits, it’s fine. nevermind the fact that the gallery you are about to open is in an area that displaces hundreds of working class families.
in dallas it’s particularly exhausting because very few artists here generate art with political content. it’s one thing to generate art with political content but then not practice that politics in one’s real life. it’s another to be completely disengaged with politics altogether. this lack of critical political thought leads to artists not making the connection between the city’s complicity in evicting renters and its crackdown on art events without a certificate of occupancy. artists are willing to mobilize for the latter, but not for the former, because ultimately the creative class in dallas does not see itself in solidarity with the working class/poor.
when the city of dallas finagles a closed door $15 million bailout of a performing arts center that pays its top executive just shy of half of a million per year and dallas opera is telling you to go shop at versace so that they can get a percentage of the proceeds, the class affiliation of the dallas art scene is seriously, seriously twisted. why does the creative class see themselves in these institutions, and not in the faces of working class families who are most likely closer in income and struggles? is it aspirational? is it the denial of privilege?
i think it’s a difficult pill to swallow for artists to take a step back and say “i’m privileged”. but it’s true. i have to pay my student loans and my health insurance every month, but i have an MFA and a savings account and because of that, i’m one of the most privileged people living in my neighborhood. privilege stops being an indictment when one transforms that privilege into solidarity. that solidarity is what is lacking in creative classes not only in dallas, but nationally.
there are a handful of people in dallas who keep me going, without whom i probably would have given up this place months ago. some of them are artists, but some of them are decidedly not. i’m fighting, but i’m also fighting exhaustion.
what i’ve noticed about living between places/modalities (texan, angelena) is that people have very, very twisted views of the other. i want to flip over a table every time i hear the new york times extolling topochico or the hip art galleries in boyle heights, as i witness deeply the pain and politics of gentrification that accompanies the discovery of “cool” in your place of residence (dear non-texan world, please don’t ever talk to me about south by southwest).
it’s this crisis in amplification and miscommunication that leads me to have conversations with community organizers in in the chicanx neighborhood of barrio logan, san diego, who are puzzled as to why “they’re protesting nonprofits in boyle heights, los angeles”. angelena organizers on the ground will be very quick to explain to you why, but nevertheless, the miscommunication has already happened.
likewise, dallas experiences a significant crisis in amplification in which white-led nonprofits who shall not be named gain national attention and significant funding for their work that is, on the ground, exploitative of the labor and struggles of communities of color. but through channels such as slick powerpoints, annual reports, or perhaps the new york times, organizations like this rise to the top of the national consciousness.
amplification then, is a double edged sword. i have seen amplification be critical in bringing the controversy around the kelley walker exhibition at the contemporary art museum of st. louis to the national stage, ultimately resulting in the departure of curator jeffrey uslip. but i’ve also seen amplification come at the expense of unsung hometown heroes who may never see their day in the sun.
i would argue that particularly in the age of social media, what we amplify and the ways in which we amplify are highly political choices. i hear the calls of others to bear witness, and occasionally i call out too, for example, begging that my pain as someone in a deeply policed neighborhood not be swept away in the national narrative of the dallas police shootings. i make this call to amplify while recognizing that, when you’re on the outside looking in, it is crucial to be conscientious about what you see.
when i see a slick powerpoint or a hip artist enclave, often times i don’t see it as a representation of accomplishment; i see it as a representation of capital*. i think about the immense amount of start up capital that someone or some organization must have in order to present themselves according to the norms of corporate media, and how different communities have different forms of access to capital. if you’re flat broke, you will not be able to afford a shiny website. but conversely, if you’re flat broke and still making a difference in your community, then perhaps that practice is more worthwhile of amplification, even if your website is kind of shitty.
since moving away from los angeles, i’ve made my choices about what to amplify based on listening to people on the ground whom i trust implicitly due to our personal history and our ethical alignment. and in terms of ethical alignment, i mean aligned in an understanding of justice that looks beyond attractive surface representations to uplift labor, gender, and racial equity in practice, not just in name.
whenever i see a practice or initiative, i often ask, what is the critical take on this? whose voices are missing, and what are people saying**? it’s not just because i love myself some chisme, but because the politics of place are so complex that a critical perspective is the only way to begin to acknowledge all of the contradictions and power relationships inevitably at play. my bias will always be towards asking questions geared towards liberation, rather than suppressing them. i think this is the only way to ethically address the task of amplification.
*on an unrelated aside, i’ve been thinking about people who use the refrain “what about class?” in discussions of marginalization. i am concluding that what they are pointing to is less about class difference as a category of analysis, but about capital as a form of violence that enforces class/race/gender difference. this is why class might be seen by some as the ultimate differentiating identity category; however, usually when it is invoked this way, it conflates the function of capital with the function of class.
**my practice will always be indebted to the work of the school of echoes, who taught me how to listen.