We need to include a multiplicity of voices
When I talk about spaces, I’m not just talking about the physical. My definition of “space” encompasses anything that can contain our lives. It is the dimension within which all things move and interact. A quick Google search for the word “space” will offer definitions such as: “A continuous area or expanse that is free, unavailable, or unoccupied”. Therefore, a room can be a space, but so can a job opening, a spot in line, a place in someone’s heart. As such, “space” is simply something that can be filled. The question, then, is what do we fill it with?
A “space” can be concrete, too, such as an art gallery. This kind of space is made to be filled with people’s artwork, and with those who admire it. It is important, therefore, to be mindful of what is included. White people aren’t usually made conscious of this. I recently attended a small art show put on by students of a local art college. I didn’t notice anything strange, until one of my best friends remarked: “Why do you guys always bring me to these white art parties?”
Although they were partly joking, I also knew there was truth to that statement. While it may have been unintentional, my oversight had caused my friend to feel uncomfortable. Mainstream art spaces have historically been white-dominated and white-centred—this remains true of most institutions.
At a curated talk at the AGO last month, Eileen Myles, Lori Blondeau, and Vivek Shraya conversed about intersections in art. One topic that struck me most about the talk was that they all mentioned their experiences being tokenized; Myles as a non-binary queer person, Shraya as a trans woman of colour, Blondeau as an Indigenous person. I’ve found that in some circles, when discussing “art” in its many forms, the word “diversity” is thrown around as a placeholder. It acts as a performative crutch on which we rely to indicate that yes, we are conscious of our choices, without really demonstrating it. Tokenism is what happens when a majority group makes a perfunctory effort to include any minority group. Artists and creators who are in positions of power and privilege often rely on tokenizing marginalized people and performing their allyship when confronted with the reality of their work.
The truth is, I’m a part of this problem. Every white person is. And even my writing of this piece shows a level of privilege that I’ve done nothing to deserve. Recently, Munroe Bergdorf, a Black trans woman, was fired from her modelling campaign job with L’Oreal for stating that “all white people are racist, even those who don’t intend to be”. She was effectively removed from her spot on the campaign for saying something that white people just didn’t want to hear. This is an example of the double standards I’m talking about; people of colour should be the only judges of what they think is racist, but too often this right is taken away. Racism doesn’t just exist in police violence and white supremacist rallies. It is embedded at the root of the colonialist society we live in. And this isn’t news, but as white people, we are only starting to be cognizant of it.
Dodging responsibility won’t make anything better. We deal in spaces every day, and we are constantly making choices that affect the spaces we interact with and who gets to fill them. At this point, it is crucial that we make informed, responsible, and actively conscious decisions when faced with this kind of power.
I thought I’d end this article with the names of some collectives/publications doing amazing work on dismantling oppression: Leste (@lestemag), Babely Shades (@babelyshades), GAP (@getartistspaid), Art Hoe Collective (@arthoecollective), Risen Zine (@risenzine), Yes Yes Y’all (@yesyesyall416), Gal-dem (@galdemzine).