The post I wrote over the summer about Detroit was nicely picked up by Culturebot, and was praised by a lot of my friends. Soon after I put it online, I had a conversation with a colleague in that city – also white, like me – and a longtime activist and artist. We discussed a few gaps I might have left open, a few questions I couldn’t answer, or oversimplifications I might have made. At the same time, I noticed that most of the people visibly approving or championing the post were white.
I wonder how my point of view was impacted by the access I have to certain forms of societal opportunities as an educated white person of some means. By ‘some means’, I’m specifically talking about the education I had, and the access to social and job networks granted to me by my education, and other opportunities. No, I’m not rich, but money isn’t everything.
In the last post, I wrote about artists I’d met through the Kresge Fellowships, for whom I teach a yearly workshop. My Detroit friend and colleague pointed out that, while the fellowship is of tremendous value there, the language of those fellowships – their guidelines and mission – are the language of a particular kind of cultural norm – a mostly white, mostly educated norm. Kresge is, of course, not alone here, but just my closest experience at hand.
These opportunities are great. The people who get the award, all of them, are remarkable artists, all deserving, regardless of their level of access. But as an example and embodiment of the seemingly subtle (but not subtle if you’re black or brown) ways that exclusion takes place unintentionally, without even anyone needing to discuss it, Kresge, like many grantmakers, might have some more work to do. And my practical experience in that one city brings up questions for me about the way many funders and their guidelines interact with diverse communities. I hope anyone reading this from that community can take this inquiry in the spirit of generous progress.
Another way to put it is, in a city that’s 80% African-American, the grant recipients are largely not African-American. Again, it’s not that the intentions or practices of the foundation are excluding black people by design. It’s that they don’t even have to. Nor am I suggesting that the population of grantees should necessarily be an exact reflection of the overall population, just that the disparity seems glaring. A starting point to unpack the problem is this: that the way the grant is positioned and described is race neutral, yet the results of the process are not. Because nothing is.
For those of us in the middle of it, whose intentions are 100% positive, the critique here can be mystifying. What I would say is that, if we should look at the language funders use, and the language surrounding concepts and trends like “social practice”, “community engagement” and “artistic excellence” as being in part specific to a particular set of people, then issues of unintentional exclusion might start to make more sense. Or, put another way, as an African-American colleague said to me at a conference recently, “Social practice. We’ve been doing social practice for a long, long time. We just didn’t call it that. Now we can’t get in the door.”
I don’t know answers for Detroit. I’ve seen and read work by people like Grace Lee Boggs and Invincible, Allied Media and the US Social Forum, as well as smaller collectives and even individual activists like Bill Kellerman. I’ve met and loved the work of artists and gardeners galore, and I’ve been visiting with my in-laws for a bunch of years. But in the larger discourse, I keep seeing a kind of blind adherence or a resignation to market principles (profits over people, business start-ups over needs and services, though perhaps this time couched in a comfortable scruffy hipster coffee shop instead of a casino), and to the rhetoric of ‘opportunity’ and ‘entitlement’ over justice, equality or democracy.
“…our project becomes less of one based on self-improvement or even collective self-improvement, and more about the creation of new worlds and futurities for which we currently have no language.” – Andrea Smith, “The Problem With Privilege.”
There is a dynamic and almost dialectical tension in the city that is palpable and painful – between the rhetoric of improvement and the continued desperation; between the fact that people are making things happen everyday that do not conform to what we think of as renewal, but those same people are largely shut out of the official process of renewal and salvation the city proposes. Because those people are engaged in daily acts of renewal, and daily acts of resistance, does not mean they are doing okay. The system doesn’t work in Detroit. Other systems are forming. Both of these facts highlight the ongoing racial scars in our history, our present, and perhaps our future.
I ask readers, especially white readers, the following questions. People of color have been asking them and answering them for a long time. Whether or not you’re in the arts, these are questions I actually don’t know the answers to, and I think they’re worth thinking about. There will not be a test, or there already is.
What do you feel responsible for, politically?
What don’t you feel responsible for?
How do you benefit or suffer because of restrictive offerings?
What is the cost of making politics solely about economic impact?
What is the cost of making politics about ‘the best we can do,’ ‘the sensible solution,’ ‘the most we can hope for?’ What have we lost by our pragmatism?
What are many well intended people forgetting when it comes to race and class, when it comes to trying to remake, renew, or simply re-engage a place like Detroit?
What are the unspoken assumptions about what’s possible in the realm of what we now call “politics’, when it comes to Detroit’s future, and the future of cities in general?
How is the language behind certain opportunities offered by well-intentioned bodies – foundations and government agencies offering grants and fellowships, educational institutions offering new models, bodies politic changing governance to surmount a real problem – restrictive or exclusive to the underclass, however unintentional or covert those restrictions might be?
How are you creating opportunities for people unlike yourself to have the systemic, embodied power that you have?
Do you feel you ought to be doing “more?”
Do you feel you ought to be doing better?
What do you assume to be true about the necessity of the entrepreneurial spirit, the profit motive, competition?
What are the corollary benefits to being white, over and above the color of your skin?
Have you accidentally internalized the dominant rhetoric about poverty?
Does some part of you believe it’s a choice to remain poor?
Do you believe that there is a level playing field?