Updated: Jan 19
By Michelle Wen and Bryan Cabrera Perez
More than ever, formerly private power structures have been dragged into the public interfaces of social media and our national politics (for example: Colossal Media, The Wing, The Guggenheim and other huge companies that have been exposed for their mistreatment of POC). Politics and social issues have always overlapped and one cannot truly separate one from the other. If anything, this discussion is needed now more than ever. We often separate ourselves from the politics of socioeconomic structures believing ‘that which does not affect me, does not exist.’ However, structures still exist to the benefit of some, and whether intentionally or not, the harm of others. Conversations that were easily avoided at the family dinner (or Zoom meeting) are now impossible to ignore.
As we have these conversations we recognize four general ideas that people seem to align themselves with:
1) Being actively racist
2) Choosing neutrality because one benefits from the current structures
3) Choosing neutrality because one feels removed from the current structures, or that the power structures don’t exist at all
4) Being actively anti-racist
Both #2 and #3 maintain racism. These neutral populations hold considerable power and influence. According to this 2009 Cornell Study on whether unconscious racial bias affects trial judges, “judges, like the rest of us, carry implicit biases concerning race.” This is evidence that racial bias can infiltrate even those who hold positions of power that are supposedly unbiased. The point is not to divide amongst ourselves, but to recognize our own internalized patterns that can be destructive or harmful for others.
Ultimately neutrality is an illusion. Bishop Desmond Tutu put it most bluntly, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Neutrality makes us complicit in these pre-existing structures, therefore one is an active participant whether or not they choose to be. There is no way to be isolated in these conversations. This is demonstrated in the mathematical simulation Parable of The Polygons created by Vi Hart and Nicky Case based off of Thomas Schelling’s 1971 paper Dynamic Models of Segregation. This shows that “Small individual bias can lead to large collective bias.” Only by being proactively anti-racist can we work to achieve an inclusive society.
The Cornell study further suggests, “...people may have the ability to compensate for the effects of implicit bias...If they are internally driven or otherwise motivated to suppress their own biases, people can make judgments free from biases, even implicit ones.” This proves that it is possible to change. Changes in the structures of our society begins with the individual, and not the other way around. Our goal then, is being actively anti-racist through applications of inclusivity.
Breaking it Down
As we witness the wave of social consciousness that is changing the modern model for inclusivity, these are some points to keep in mind for where we can manifest the change we demand into reality. According to pdhpe.net, “Socioeconomic refers to society related economic factors. The socioeconomic factors that determine health include: employment, education, and income. These factors relate to and influence one another.” Socioeconomics shapes our identities from an early age by controlling our exposure to certain qualities of education, to certain types of people, and exposure to opportunities. Here are some of our personal examples:
MW: Socioeconomic factors shaped my perception of authority and education. For example, my passion for teaching was born from my exposure to positive influences regarding school environments. I was especially impacted by art programs and afterschool programs. Although I don’t come from a high-income household, as a NYC resident I was able to apply for schools in higher income neighborhoods. There was a noticeable difference in quality of education compared to “poorer” schools. The inequity stems from affluence of the district, as school funding relies on local taxes.
Wealthy families move to districts that spend more on schools, home values rise as they move in, then the district spends even more on schools as they reap the higher property taxes. According to Zahava Stadler, “The best financed school districts become islands of affluent families, where no one else can afford to buy into the community. You wind up with school districts with wealthy kids and the poor kids on the other side.” For example, poorer districts like Rochester, NY relies on the state for 90% of school funding, while the wealthy district of Pittsburg, NY receives 76% of its funding from property taxes and only 23% from the state. This means that when economic disasters like Covid-19 hit, Rochester’s educational system will suffer while Pittsburg will comfortably float.
It is crucial to point out that “good” schools are located in primarily white neighborhoods or have a significant white student population. Race is very much related to a school’s funding and performance.
BCP: During these conversations it’s become clear that not everyone shared the same experience with their education. Michelle and I were encouraged and told exceptional effort in school would pay off; a frame of mind reinforced in our high school environments. We had healthy mentorships as opposed to environments that emphasized punishment and hindered growth. For example, we weren’t treated like targets at Pratt Institute even when we questioned authority. This allowed us to develop relationships with our authority figures. This lead to amicable views towards authority figures in life and the professional sphere, rather than fear or resentment. This is supported in a study of Texas high schools, "Breaking School Rules." The study shows that students who were most often targeted with infractions had worse outcomes later on, such as dropping out. This directly correlates to race and ethnicity as black students are not only disciplined the most but specifically targeted preemptively.
Until the same resources, programs, and facilities are made available to low income schools with POC student bodies, students cannot and will not have the same opportunities post-graduation as their white and higher-income counterparts. This is part of the intertwined inequality structured into our society.
MW: While reflecting on my childhood, in most of my classrooms the white kids chose to sit together on one side, and non-white kids sat on the other. It deeply affected my, and many others, sense of belonging. It was not a school rule, but a choice amongst the kids that reflects internalized racism. This falls under category #3: “Choosing neutrality because one feels removed from the current structures.” Students divided into groups because they befriended those who they felt most similar to. In reality, what they had in common was defined by these structures of wealth and representation. Hurtful stereotypes still exist and are embarrassingly portrayed in media and television: quiet, invisible, out-cast Asian kids, misfit or threatening Black and Latinx kids, while the popular kids are usually white and wealthy. Does this sound familiar to your high school experience? These “cliques” are the teenage version of the socio-economic hierarchy of divisions prevalent in grown-up society. These same divisions remain later on in life in jobs, neighborhoods, and social groups.
BCP: The behaviors of my white friends growing up made me aware of the disparities in our socioeconomic background. I was always struck by the judgments that my white friends confided in me. I remember my best friend in high school mocking the neighborhood that to this day my mother has called her favorite of all the places we’ve lived. This was a home in a Texas suburb which my mother felt accomplished to be paying for. This was the home which was safely ours after years living in tiny apartments, under my uncle’s roof, or with my grandmother. That home was an accomplishment, but to my friend it was “a cheap eyesore.” Her perception was an expression of category #2: “choosing neutrality because I benefit from the current power structures.” By commenting on the division, she was reinforcing her neighborhood’s elite position over the surrounding areas. And I’ve seen it again and again. These things which are considered accomplishments by my family are taken for granted by my white friends. Their point of view is directly related to their socioeconomic standing.
MW: As we mentioned before, neutral bystanders are the silent oppressors who can be just as dangerous as the perpetrators of harassment or attack. One particularly disturbing story takes place during my high school years. A friend and I were meeting a group of her friends whom I did not know. Within the first twenty minutes, one of them bluntly tells me, “I hate Chinese people.” He went on to make vulgarly racist comments. I was shocked. My face was tomato red and I felt steaming embarrassment. I argued with him and tried to reason with him as to why that was unacceptable as my voice cracked in anger. However, what angered me most was that his friends, and even my own friend, practically did nothing and continued to be his friend for years to come. It was a hellish slap of reality. The boy is an example of #1: “being actively racist,” while the rest of the friends are an example of #2 and #3: choosing neutrality.
As we strategize on how to overcome socioeconomic obstacles we must keep in mind that money is the key player in almost everything. Our goal should be to have POC in influential positions that will lead to lasting change. On a broader scale, we can already see companies are diversifying their staff and target audience. For example, Naomi Beckwith has been named the new Deputy Director and Chief Curator at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, making her the first black chief curator. Beckwith’s career has demonstrated her abilities in coordinating exhibitions for black and POC representation, such as “The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to Now” and “Homebodies” at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. It’s important that diversity is dictated by POC in positions of power.
If the only invitation for a Black artist to work or teach is one dependent on a short-term trend of inclusivity, then it isn’t sustainable in the long term. Will they be invited back in the future after social justice is no longer a hot topic? If not, these artists then become novelties, rather than regular members of our artistic community spaces. In contrast with Naomi Beckwith, who was given a long-term position at the Guggenheim, Chaédria LaBouvier was a guest curator with a short contract. These short-term relationships are not sustainable for inclusivity, in fact, Labouvier claims that her relationship with the Guggenheim was unequal in power as she was denied proper credit, and was treated as expendable.
This is eloquently addressed in a New York Times article regarding representation in media and entertainment by journalist Nadra Kareem Nittle:
“...blacks in Hollywood don’t just need meatier parts but a wide range of characters to portray, including those whose experiences aren’t defined by white oppression. Movies that show blacks in a variety of roles — in past, present and future circumstances — challenge stereotypes and demonstrate that black people have a multitude of diverse identities today. It’s not that Hollywood shouldn’t tell difficult stories from history; it’s just that there’s more to the black experience than the past.”
Even though we have arguably more diverse casts in popular media, if these roles only speak towards the racial trauma endured, or their Otherness, it perpetuates another pigeonhole and prevents true mobility. The same can be said for the visual arts world. We have to acknowledge that the ceramic arts community is overwhelmingly white. Walk into any ceramic studio or ceramic arts program, whether it is a national organization or a local little spot, and you will see that most participants are white. Does this mean white people have to stop making ceramics? No! If you’re thinking, “Well how is it our fault if people of color don’t want to make ceramics or join our studio?” just remember that our spaces need to be actively inclusive. One cannot expect POC to just show up and integrate themselves into a space that had been previously dominated by or exclusive to white folks. That would be shifting the responsibility onto people of color to do the work of making themselves welcome, or at the very least, accepted. Imagine walking into a community where you are the only person that looks like you, or worse, when everyone pretends to not even notice. Being ‘colorblind’ to that is choosing silence and denial by not addressing these facts. It is not impossible to change this power dynamic either; women have steadily been able to gain representation in these sectors, so we need to bring that same energy of equity to our artists of color. According to an article by Mark Hewitt in the 2017 issue of Ceramics Monthly:
“Western wood firing is predominantly a white-male practice. Yes, there are wonderful women wood firers, and a few people of color within our ranks, but they are greatly outnumbered. Why? In a way the problem is not one of exclusivity, but of impenetrability, for everyone interested in joining the profession. It costs so much to get trained, to buy land, and to buy materials, not to mention running a business. It’s extremely hard for anyone to make a living as a wood-fired potter in today’s marketplace. We must work together to make the playing field more level, so that all have access to our field, through recruitment of students and apprentices, through alternative financing practices, and through lifelong collaboration and mentorship.”
It’s time to collaborate with new employees, new directors, new teachers, new artists, and new companies for long-term opportunities. Purchase or exhibit art from underrepresented people. Proactively extend the invitation, and provide the space for new faces, whether it is a physical space like a studio or gallery, a digital space like a social media platform or website, or resources and opportunities for research such as scholarships. We use the word collaboration, so that these new faces can have their input included into how things are created and managed.
We should especially stress up-and-coming young artists. To schools, exhibition spaces (museums and galleries), marketplaces, and artists studios: you are about to change the future. You are about to choose who you will give your money and jobs to, your facilities, and your time. If you care about where the future is heading, listen to the generation that will dictate the decades to come. Stop with the exclusive invitations for people who are not only comfortably accomplished and privileged, but from a generation so far removed from what this generation needs. Young people can accomplish more than unpaid internships and minimum wage mopping your floors and wedging your clay. We can teach. We can create. We can lead.
Consider the voices that you want on your team. Consider the young people who have that energy and eagerness to learn, giving them room to explore and grow, and ensure that higher goals and positions are accessible. The twenty-something year old will not be perfect. But if doors are shut in their faces, that passion can be stifled; thus continuing the vicious cycle of underrepresented, underprivileged members of our community being locked out. If no one gives us that stage to shine, you will never know just how good we can be. Worse, we would never know our own potential. After that point, even if someone believes in us, it hurts far more because we don’t believe in ourselves.
For our well-seasoned bosses, directors, shop-owners, and teachers; you have the experience, so share it. Extend a hand and show us how we can get to where you are. Inclusivity is not just for ‘clout’ or virtue signaling. There are tangible returns for the business. Inclusivity and diversity is monetarily advantageous because: 1) it exposes your business to a wider audience 2) it presents opportunities for sponsorship or collaboration from other companies 3) younger people can offer valuable skills in social media, marketing, and other up-and-coming trends
This is essentially a two-way street; an ecosystem develops in which the experienced folks and new folks can both be recognized and offer their respective skills to the business.
Conclusion and Resources:
We’re sowing the seeds now. If you’re not already participating, it’s never too late to start. Since the turn of the century, we’ve witnessed on multiple occasions how these power structures have been shaken. The United States has had its first black president, allowed for gay marriage, and we’ve seen some of the largest protests for social justice in our nation. And although you may not be in a position of power right now, you may be in the future. That’s partly the reason we’ve undertaken this essay; to keep these ideals in mind as we move forward and the structures continue to shake.
Instagram accounts to follow: The Color Network (@thecolornetwork) and Black Ceramicists (@black_ceramicists) are pages that are uplifting artists of color working with ceramics, especially artists who create work exploring identity and their racial or ethnic backgrounds.
Women Street Photographers (@womenstreetphotographers) is a collective that holds an annual show in NYC, and Katy Hessel (@thegreatwomenartists) has weekly podcasts. Change the Museum (@changethemuseum) is a page that exposes and critiques racist behaviors from within museum walls.
Pot LA (@pot_la) is a ceramic studio located in Los Angeles, California that is owned and operated by POC. They are currently holding a fundraiser to support their studio during the pandemic. Donate here:
Read about just how white our museums are: https://mellon.org/media/filer_public/e5/a3/e5a373f3-697e-41e3-8f17-051587468755/sr-mellon-report-art-museum-staff-demographic-survey-01282019.pdf
Read about how our districts are influenced by race:
Read about socioeconomics:
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK24690/ https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1694190/ https://www.pdhpe.net/better-health-for-individuals/what-influences-the-health-of-individuals/the-determinants-of-health/socioeconomic-factors/
Examples of companies being exposed:
https://observer.com/2020/06/guggenheim-museum-chaedria-labouvier/ By the way, Colossal Media is the Brooklyn-based mural company that was exposed by a former employee who detailed how racist coworkers called him the N-word among other things. Colossal Media had made announcements over the summer of 2020 addressing these issues, as well as an announcement of their director stepping down. However, all traces of this controversy have not only been deleted off their page, but erased from their tagged photos and any articles or blogs. They have chosen to erase all evidence of their shortcomings, rather than preserve them in acknowledgment.
Michelle Wen is an artist and teacher born, raised, and living in Brooklyn. BFA from Pratt Institute.
Bryan Cabrera Perez is an artist and arts education administrator born in Bayamón, Puerto Rico. Living in Brooklyn. BFA from Pratt Institute.