New Work: White Memory

White Memory, oil on pre-stretched canvas, 16″x20″ (2019). Copyright 2019 Monica Heiser

Take a minute to peer into the painting. What do you see?

  • Portrait of the artist as a little girl, wearing a white collared shirt
  • Words in the background that wrap around to the next line (racism, racial profiles, white privilege, fear, oppression, bias) some of the words are hidden by the portrait
  • A white film cover the portrait in certain spots
  • Pink outlined words that spell – “White Memor”that allow the portrait underneath shine through
  • Circled words – “Racism”; “I”; “See”; “U”

These visual tools and techniques are employed in an attempt to comment on the way that racism has been woven into the matrix or fabric of our American society, so much so that it becomes hard to read unless we look closely. White privilege, racism, etc. are taught to youth, we are not born with these ideologies. To unlearn them as adults, we must look closely, peer through the white washed veil that protects that narrative and white washes white people. White memory has been privileged as the voice of truth, but the word falls to the bottom of the canvas before it’s even complete. Memory is fallible, it quickly changes, and it can be manipulated to oppress.

As I was once a white girl, and now a white woman, this confrontation is an important reclamation of my identity. This painting is sad. I didn’t want to literally white wash a very colorful and joyful smiling image of myself – but that is what racism does: it kills the humanity in all of us. However, I stare through that veil in defiance and challenge the viewer by gazing at them, hoping that they too can examine how white privilege has been painted over their reality.

“As a white girl, and now a white woman, this confrontation is an important reclamation of my identity.”

This is an incredible important conversation to have if we want racial equality in the United States. We need to remember and confront the past harm and evil that racism has created, as well as the insidious ways it continues to benefit white people. As an art educator, I am not only thinking about how I visually create this dialogue, but also how I can incorporate it into my art classes as a potential unit or lesson plan. Teaching Tolerance is an awesome resource for radical pedagogy for any core curriculum. Here is a link to a unit specifically unpacking white privilege: https://www.tolerance.org/magazine/fall-2018/what-is-white-privilege-really

Although recognizing white privilege is an important step to dismantling it, here are some ideas from Teaching Tolerance that we can do:

  1. Do not take it personally or use discomfort as an excuse to disengage. The point of talking about white privilege is NOT to make you feel guilty; this is NOT a personal attack on you; and no one is calling you, as an individual racist. So while feelings of guilt or defensiveness may arise, to make those feelings the center of the conversation instead of confronting the main issue of dismantling racism actually perpetuates the problem. Rather than centering your own feelings of discomfort, center the feelings of people of color in evaluating what to do with this information. Be proactive and think, What actions can I take to help?
  2. Educate yourself. One way to help is to educate yourself! It is not just the job of people of color to dismantle racism, it’s all of our responsibility because it harms all of us. Evil and harm feeds off of ignorance, so educating yourself is a powerful method of social change. There are so so many books and articles on the topic written by people of color – take advantage of the resources out there and avoid burdening friends or coworkers of color with constant questions about their experiences.
  3. Educate fellow white people.  Share what you’ve learned. Push through discomfort and demand courageous conversations in your circles. Do not let peers get away with problematic remarks without making a serious effort to engage them.
  4. Risk your unearned benefits to benefit others. There are other ways to do this in our daily lives: intervening if you see a boss or fellow educator treating someone differently because of their racial identity; being an active witness (filming) when you see people of color confronted by law enforcement or harassed by bigots and letting them know you are there to support them and record the interaction if necessary. And of course most through direct anti-bias work, like building inclusive practices at your school or business or working with people committed anti-racist activism, such as SURJ

If you know of resources – books, websites, magazines, free online courses, etc. – that have helped you, please comment them below! Thanks for reading ❤

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