Today in checking our privilege, I want to talk about how representation matters.
Reading from scriptures* was off-and-on a near-daily experience in my formative years. (*for us that meant the Book of Mormon, the King James Bible, and some other LDS sacred texts) We read about the old Mormon prophets: Nephi, Mormon, Abinadi – their heroic and daring and unwavering faith. We read about the old testament prophets: Jacob and Abraham and Noah – their (blind) (come on, even as a child the old testament was messed up) obedience and… actually, I never got much out of those stories. And we read the new testament, the gospels mostly, and Jesus was the ultimate self-sacrificing hero there. And in my middle-child, people-pleasing way I tried very hard to be the best Mormon girl I could be, holding these men up as the epitome of devotion to God.
And then I read a version of the first chapter of the Book of Mormon with gender-swapped people and pronouns. I must’ve been at least 20, probably older, and suddenly a floor fell out from under me. I found myself crying, sobbing really. My whole life I had been missing something and I never even had been able to recognize it. I wanted to be able to see me in the stories I had been taught from birth. I wanted to be able to see me in our heroes. I didn’t know I needed it, not consciously, until it was given to me.
Whoopi Goldberg has famously told the story of seeing Nichelle Nichols in Star Trek and believing she, too, could be a successful actress. When Ellen Degeneres came out 20 years ago, she thought her career was over. But she’s been able to use her renewed success to advocate for LGBTQ kids and show them how being courageous can lead to wonderful things. Stories like this have prompted the saying, “if you can’t see it, you can’t be it.”
But representation is more important than just opening up possibilities to our minds. Ensuring a diversity of voices in leadership positions (in business, schools, non profits, etc.) improve the experience of marginalized kids and adults in those environments. Giving voice to individuals who have a different lived experience than the majority, will give voice to all those people coming after them with similar struggles. This holds true for race, gender, sexuality, and disability.
So today, in checking our privilege, let’s read about some people that are speaking out and doing about representation in visual art.
Mohammed Fayaz is an illustrator that draws queer people of color doing every day normal stuff. Remember how Cheerios got backlash for showing an interracial couple in one of their commercials? That wasn’t 20 years ago. Not even 10. That was 2013. We still struggle with seeing people we consider “different” – no, let’s not sugar coat it – with people we consider “less” than normal in every day life. We’re okay if we tokenize them. We’re okay if we hold them up to be a martyr in their struggle to overcome the odds. But sitting in a split-level ranch-style home eating Cheerios? Too far! So artists like Fayaz are doing important work, normalizing what is already normal despite our many protestations that it isn’t so.
Dr. Lisa Whittington painted a deeply unsettling portait of Emmett Till in 2012 and gave an honest and raw interview to NBC regarding a white artist’s depiction of Emmett Till in 2016. Please click through to read the entire interview. She touches on very important topics including why viewing/displaying/supporting black narratives from black perspectives is essential, and how white artists can responsibly create work dealing with the history of black Americans.
As a White woman, did that make her feel better to paint Emmett Till that way? Did it give her solace to downplay the horrible truth of Emmett’s death in a manner in which she can handle it as a white woman and can pass on to other white viewers? Maybe.
I believe she painted Emmett Till in her perspective as a White woman. However it was not deep enough to understand the Black perspective. If her painting, and my painting were side by side, the difference contrast between what a Black woman would see and paint, versus what a White woman would see and paint in the interpretation of Emmett Till’s death/body would be immense.
She also discusses the responsibility galleries and curators have in ensuring that art told from the appropriate perspective is elevated. Included at the link are statistics on the representation of women and POC in major galleries. (Spoiler alert: it’s not good.)
Where do you find representative art? Do you find that it is difficult to seek out a diversity of artists? Share you favorite artists in the comments!