Ken Gonzales-Day, "The Wonder Gaze", St. James Park, 2007-2013, from the "Erased Lynchings" series (2002-ongoing), C-print, 85 x 40 in. Edition of 5. Image courtesy of Luis De Jesus Los Angeles.

As part of our ongoing response to the global uprisings against the systemic violence perpetrated upon Black, Indigenous, and racialized communities, the MacKenzie Art Gallery and Art Museum at the University of Toronto have decided to share some resources from active research for a forthcoming co-produced exhibition, Conceptions of White. With a focus on the North American context, this 2022 (to be confirmed) exhibition will examine the origins, development, and present reality of “whiteness” as a concept invented to classify degrees of humanity and justify inhumane actions and social structures.

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 BIPOC 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. 

LINKS TO RESOURCES

Podcasts/videos/interactive

  1. Biewen, J. and Kumanyika, C. (Scene on Radio). (August 2017). Seeing White [Audio podcast].
  2. Demby, G., Meraji, S.M. NPR (Code Switch). (June 2020). Why Now, White People? [Audio Podcast].  
  3. Eberhardt, J.L. [TED Talk]. (2020). How Racial Bias Works – and How to Disrupt It [Video]. 
  4. Irvin Painter, Nell. [University of California Television]. (2014). Why White People are Called Caucasian (Illustrated) [Video].
  5. Dow, Whitney. (2014). Whiteness Project [ongoing, interactive video installation and website].
  6. D’Souza, A., Stanwix, J., Dow, W., Benjamin, R. [MoMA]. (25 March 2019). “White Male” [panel discussion].

Books

  1. Allen, T.W. The Invention of the White Race. Vol. 1 Penguin Random House, 1994. 
  2. Backhouse, C. (1999). Colour-coded: A Legal History of Racism in Canada. University of Toronto Press.
  3. Baum, B. (2008). The Rise and Fall of the Caucasian Race: A Political History of Racial Identity. New York University Press.
  4. Coleman, D. (2006). White Civility: The Literary Project of English Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
  5. D’Angelo R. (2018). White Fragility: Why it’s so hard for White People to talk about Racism. Beacon Press.
  6. Da Silva, Denise Ferreira. Toward a Global Idea of Race. NED – New edition ed., vol. 27, University of Minnesota Press, 2007. JSTOR. Accessed 16 July 2020. 
  7. D’Souza, A. (2018). Whitewalling: Art, Race & Protest in 3 Acts. New York, NY: Badlands Unlimited.
  8. Dyer, Richard. White: Essays on Race and Culture. London: Routledge, 1997. 
  9. Gonzales-Day, K. (2006) Lynchings in the West: 1850-1935
  10. Hategan, E. (2014). Race Traitor: The True Story of Canadian Intelligence Service’s Greatest Cover Up. Incognito Press.
  11. Kendi, Ibram X., How to Be an Antiracist. New York: One World, 2019. 
  12. Painter, Nell Irvin. (2011). The History of White People. W.W. Norton.
  13. Rankine, C. (2014). Citizen: An American Lyric. Graywolf Press.
  14. Shraya, V. (2014). Even this page is white. Arsenal Pulp Press.
  15. Yancey, G. (2003). Who Gets to be White?, Lynee Rienner Publishers.

Articles

  1. Ahmed, A. (August 2007). A Phenomenology of Whiteness, Feminist Theory. Vol. 8 No. 2.
  2. Anderson, E. (2015). The White Space, Sociology of Race and Ethnicity. Vol 1 (I) 10-21.
  3. Baldwin, James. (1984). On Being White … And Other Lies,  Anti-Racism Digital Library. Accessed July 16, 2020. 
  4. Bhaba H. (May 1998). The White Stuff,  Art Forum International. Vol. 36 No. 9.
  5. Biss, E. (December 2015). White DebtNew York Times. 
  6. Carroll, S. (2014). The Construction and Perpetuation of Whiteness [in Canada],  Journal of Unschooling and Alternative Learning. Vol. 8 Issue 15.
  7. Coombs, A. (3 August 2017). The Ever-Changing Nature of White Canada, Active History.
  8. Cothran, C. T. (1951). Negro Conceptions of White People, American Journal of Sociology.
  9. Chow, R. A. (6 March 2020). We Have No Practice Talking About Race in This Country, Time.
  10. Fee, M., & Russell, L. (2007). “Whiteness” and “Aboriginality” in Canada and Australia: Conversations and identities. Feminist Theory, 8(2), 187–208.
  11. Fokianaki, I. (May 2018). Redistribution via Appropriation: White(washing) Marbles, e-flux. Journal #91.
  12. Jackson, L. M. (4 Sept. 2019). What’s Missing From “White Fragility”, Slate.
  13. Johnson, G., & Howsam, R. (2020). Whiteness, Power and the Politics of Demographics in the Governance of the Canadian Academy. Canadian Journal of Political Science, 1-19. 
  14. Kanagawa, H. (7 June 2020). The Unbearable Whiteness of Being, Medium.
  15. Lozanski, K. (2007). Memory and the impossibility of whiteness in colonial Canada. Feminist Theory, 8(2), 223–225.
  16. McIntosh, P. (1988). White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming To See Correspondences through Work in Women’s Studies”, Wellesley College Centre for Research on Women.
  17. Simmons, X. (2 July 2019). Whiteness Must Undo Itself, The Art Newspaper.
  18. Taylor, J. (June 2020). Murdering white men and the work of white womenToronto Star.  
  19. Wong, R. (April 2017). A Syllabus for Making Work About Race as a White Artist in AmericaHyperallergic
  20. Wortham, J. (August 2019). White Film Makers Addressing or Avoiding on Screen, New York Times.
  21. Yancey, G. (December 2015). Dear White AmericaNew York Times. 

Collections

  1. Moser, G. Spectatorship, Race and Citizenship (September 2017). Arts and Education.
  2. Ricardo Brown, B. Science and the Origins of Race (Spring 2000). School of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Pratt Institute.

Other Reading Lists

  1. Creative Computing Institute (June 2020). MA Internet Equalities Reading ListMedium. 
  2. Jesson, Janna. (February 2019). Books to Check Your White PrivilegeMedium 

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.