A black-and-white photo shows a crowd of people gathered under a tree at night. Many of them are wearing hats and appear to be engaged in conversation. The background is completely dark, with no other visible details.

Ken Gonzales-Day, "The Wonder Gaze", St. James Park, 2007-2022, from the "Erased Lynchings" series (2002-ongoing), C-print, 85 x 40 in. Edition of 5. Image courtesy of Luis De Jesus Los Angeles.

This research toolkit was released in 2020 to prepare audiences for our 2022 exhibition Conceptions of White. That exhibition page can be found here, but this toolkit remains available for those interested in learning more about the concept of White identity.

In North America, incidents like the senseless murder of George Floyd, the killing of Colten Boushie, and the widely-circulated video of a White woman calling the police on a Black bird watcher, have acted as a wake-up call for many people about the structural de-valuing of the lives of Black, Indigenous, and other racialized folx who are systemically dehumanized and vilified. These are not isolated incidents; the devastating legacies of violence against Black, Indigenous, and racialized communities are extensive.

The Ku Klux Klan established a division in Saskatchewan beginning in 1926 and had about 25,000 members at its height. In recent years, we recall the infamous “starlight tours” in Saskatoon, where police would take Indigenous people to the edge of the city in the winter with little clothing and leave them to freeze to death. The Toronto Police are currently under internal investigation for the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet. More recently, Riah Milton and Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells were found murdered, adding to the appalling epidemic of violence against trans—and particularly IBPOC trans—individuals and communities. It is becoming increasingly clear to many people across the western world that this is not a problem that will fix itself; it will require conscious effort by an engaged majority.

“Whiteness permeates through western society as thoroughly as the air that we all should have the right to breathe.”

The image above is from Ken Gonzales-Day’s Erased Lynchings series, which documents the historic lynchings of Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and Asian American individuals across California. The victims in these images have been removed by the artist. The horrific nature of these crimes often makes it difficult to see the apparatus that surrounds the spectacle of the dead body on display. By removing the victim, Gonzales-Day allows us to see what is hiding in plain sight: the White audience gathered for this act of racial terror. The image is a stark reminder of the invisibility of White identity. Whiteness permeates through western society as thoroughly as the air that we all should have the right to breathe. The people in this particular image are not all actively tying a noose, but their mere presence and inaction creates an atmosphere within which such violence is normalized and perpetuated.

The violent subjugation of Black and Indigenous bodies is a foundational tenet of how the concept of “the White race” was created. Despite Anglo-Saxon myths that claim Greco-Roman cultures as the origins of White culture, there is no scientific, nor was there ever any sociological basis, for understanding a unified “White” identity until after the colonization of North America. White identity was invented—alongside Black and Indigenous identities—to differentiate between “civilized” bodies, labouring bodies, and bodies in need of displacement/erasure. Concepts like the “melting pot” of the United States—and to a different extent the “cultural mosaic” of Canada—were some of the first ideologies used to define Whiteness. Through these concepts, the variety found in European peoples could either be erased or embraced through the creation of one unified people distinguished in contrast to Asian, Indigenous, and Black peoples (contemporaneously lumped under three primary categories of Caucasoid, Mongoloid, and Negroid).

In North America, the racial category of “White” or “Caucasian” has never been fixed, but instead relies on a common social understanding (expanding to include Irish and Eastern European peoples in the twentieth century, and at various times including or excluding individuals of Jewish descent, for example). There are no essential characteristics one could ascribe to White people as a category, except those which are constructed through social structures and conditioning. Perhaps the most consistent social characteristic is the consolidation of state power under majority White leadership and ideologies.

“Violence (economic, psychological, and physical) perpetrated by the state against Black and other racialized communities requires a deeper understanding of the systemic nature of white identity as the norm within North American legal, political, social, and economic models.”

Violence (economic, psychological, and physical) perpetrated by the state against Black and other racialized communities requires a deeper understanding of the systemic nature of White identity as the norm within North American legal, political, social, and economic models. We are undertaking this project to understand more fully our institutional foundations, and to better recognize and resist the normalizing invisibility of White identity in our society. The materials gathered in this toolkit disentangle fact from fiction in the mythology of White origins, revealing the complex web of White then black slavery, intra-European xenophobia, artistic invention, and colonial imperatives that have established this relatively new identity into something as natural and unquestioned as the ground we walk on. Unpacking these ideologies is particularly important for White people seeking to understand race politics in North America; in order to reach that broader understanding, it is essential to recognize one’s own racial positioning and how it orients itself in relation to others.

This research is part of a larger project examining the existential, experiential, and ethical dimensions of our institutional presence and activities, including how we can resist and undo the racist frameworks embedded within our own histories and context in order to help create a more just and inclusive community and culture. This research is active, evolving, and ongoing. More will be posted in the coming months, and we welcome your input and participation.

Please forward comments, resources and suggestions to: programdevelopment[@]mackenzie.art. We cannot necessarily answer every email, but thank you in advance for your interest. 


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Conceptions of White is co-curated by John Hampton (Director of Programs, MacKenzie Art Gallery) and Lillian O’Brien Davis (Assistant Curator, MacKenzie Art Gallery), along with support from Barbara Fischer (Executive Director and Chief Curator, Art Museum at the University of Toronto). The exhibition is co-produced by the Art Museum at the University of Toronto and the MacKenzie Art Gallery, where it is scheduled to open in Winter and Fall of 2022, respectively.