Hyperallergic: How to Talk About Whiteness

(Installation view of The Racial Imaginary Institute: On Whiteness, 2018, The Kitchen, New York. Photo: Jason Mandella. Courtesy of The Kitchen.)


The Racial Imaginary Institute wants to “make visible that which has been intentionally presented as inevitable,” to disrupt the “bloc” of whiteness.

by Ryan Wong



The scholar Sara Ahmed opens her essay “A phenomenology of whiteness” with a series of questions on the project of examining whiteness: “If whiteness gains currency by being unnoticed, then what does it mean to notice whiteness? … Could whiteness studies produce an attachment to whiteness by holding it in place as an object?” In other words, how do we talk about whiteness without solidifying, even strengthening it?

Ahmed’s text is one of the groundings for the exhibition On Whitenesson view at the Kitchen — the latest iteration of a project exploring this topic by the Racial Imaginary Institute, a project founded by Claudia Rankine with her MacArthur grant in 2016. The Racial Imaginary Institute decided to focus on whiteness as their first major initiative, in order to “make visible that which has been intentionally presented as inevitable,” to disrupt the “bloc” of whiteness. In addition to the exhibition, several other organizations in New York are hosting partner events, and the Institute published an online “Whiteness Issue.”…

Several works use archival techniques to excavate the construction of the white bloc. Ken Gonzales-Day’s well-known series takes an archival image of a lynching, but removes the body of the slain person, leaving us with the over-exposed images of the white audience against a tree and dark sky. The audience is left to contemplate the expressions and mentalities of those onlookers, who ushered in the modern spectacle of black suffering. Ja’Tovia Gary, in “On Punishment,” draws on and scratches the faces of two white men in a public service television short from the 1970s. The film shows two rats being electrocuted on a wire cage, while one man blandly pronounces the benefits of physical punishment, and the surprising violence that results. One senses that Gary’s physical marks both disrupt and highlight the horrific scene, de-naturalizing what the two men present as necessity….

Whiteness, if we don’t know it already, is a slippery, shifting set of markers, actions, and institutions. If, during the Obama years, whiteness was characterized by dog-whistling, evasion, and liberal blindness, it is having a resurgence today as open pride, supremacy, and terrorism — as the Institute’s online statement puts it, “the volume on whiteness has been turned up.” Amid the noise, this exhibition, and hopefully others like it to come, might be a place to start listening.

Read full article at Hyperallergic