Photo courtesy of Nathaniel Donnett
Culture 2

My Top Five Suggestions for Racial Insensitivity for When People Do – What People Do by Nathaniel Donnett

Recently Glasstire one of Houston’s major art websites, placed an image that most people of color; particularly those who are considered brown, would consider insensitive on Instagram. It was an image of what we are told to be a woman of Latino descent and a person I consider a good guy who seems to be of European heritage crossing the (I assume) Mexican border. There are things you just don’t do when it comes to racial sensitive issues and especially in art where you would think that the thinking would be progressive and considerate. The post (that was recently removed from Instagram) seemed to be an attempt at a satiric punch line. You know, all fun and games. But for some people this subject is no fun and games. People have lost their lives trying to deal with issues regarding crossing the border. This what was meant to be satire fell completely flat and comes off insensitive. The founder of Glasstire has issued an apology and removed the image post (which I applaud and appreciate) but that doesn’t remove the impact and the response it has generated particularly on social media and Facebook.

Photo courtesy of instagram and Glasstire

Photo courtesy of instagram and Glasstire

I figure some rules and regulations, well more so, some suggestions are warranted when it comes to this type of thing.  So in the spirit of Chris Rock’s film Top Five and my love and interest in hip-hop-here’s my top five suggestions for racial sensitivity in the public and socia-media sphere.

1.  Don’t paint your face black or brown if you’re not black or brown. Even if you’re black or brown you probably shouldn’t paint your face black or brown. It may be funny to you but it’s insensitive to the many if not the majority of that group for historical and ethical reasons. I understand there are people within that group who are indifferent and will allow that type of behavior to happen despite the disrespect but many are quite invested in their cultural history and it is offensive. There are reasons currently that foster up notions of fear, concern, and extra heartbeat palpitations these days that we in the real world recognize. The most popular and recent is police brutality and the stop and frisk project. Yes white folks are indeed harassed and killed by police but they aren’t presumed guilty as a group from just walking or driving, like black and brown people are. Studies show that there are racial biases against black and brown people. So when you paint your face you conjure all of the history, current day struggles brown and black people have had and continue to have, it doesn’t’ read as funny in that context. Just don’t do it.

2.  Don’t talk or post about your real or imaginary brown or black friend(s) as your “faux progressive” representative. We get it; you had a best black friend from high school you shared half of your sandwich with. You’ve dated a beautiful “exotic” from Venezuela, Mexico, Trinidad or Jamaica in college. You may talk about how cool you are with your black neighbor who always wears a red cap that you’ve mistaken for a “Trump Let America Be Great Again” message on the front when it really reads “Twitter – A Great Place to Trend” and you want to let the world know that you aren’t racist. You may even have a tattoo of “I Voted for Hillary” on your stomach by your navel piercing or on your bicep muscle but that doesn’t mean a thing regarding your concerns with race if you only see the individual racism and not the systemic racism that permeates within our (art) institutions and (art) organizations . I continue to wonder how truly diverse Houston is when it comes to the leadership of these organizations? Maybe you tell yourself or others you don’t see color, not realizing that you’re rendering the people of color invisible. I don’t know Sway. I have no answers but I say just don’t do it.

3.  Don’t make the mistake of calling me ya or your Ni##a or a Ni##er, on or offline. I don’t care if you’re black or not but surely if you’re white don’t do it. I don’t care if you left the house with your hat turned backwards, your favorite hip hop song is playing in your ipod or Beats by Dre headphones, and you’ve learned how to Milly Rock or Twerk and you just posted it on YouTube. There are consequences to those words. I’m not interested in violence towards another human being but I do believe in self-defense. And you can come up on the wrong person at the wrong time, especially after an artist receives a bunch of rejection letters from some far away residency they’ve applied to or an art work their gallery told them was about to be sold but the collector changed their minds. They may send you to the hospital or worse file a police report. Shrugs! You just never know and if you’re in doubt I would suggest to call them ma’am or sir and keep it moving. And are folks who are not black still itching to say that N-word for the sake of saying they can say and do what they want because -it’s a free country-freedom fries? Get your mind right and just don’t do it.

4.  Don’t assume that because an artist doesn’t go through “your” art history channels, aren’t looking at “your” references, or has an interest in “your” aesthetic that “they” are wrong and “you” are right by default. America doesn’t equate to white standard only anymore, neither does art in America equate white male cis- gendered artist only; although there’s plenty who continue to think that it still does. There’s plenty of room for everyone. This means that art history, philosophies, and/or ideas about art are no longer based only on the European –Western centralized model and tradition. Yes, I get it. I know what we were taught were considered THE RULES but I also know what we were not taught and in the present day, art history is more global in thought and practice. I mean you may not need to go and get some beers and discuss the issue with the president of the Black Art Movement but it would be wise to get to know some of the other artists, ideas, and practices of people of color (besides the big names and blue chippers) outside of your scope. You don’t have to like it, understand it, or agree but being informed is a wise thing to be. That rhymed and everything but I mean seriously, just don’t do it.

5.  Listen, listen, listen and listen some more. We know that you’re pretty sharp and well read. We know you had the best of the best growing up or the worst of the worst and you pulled yourself up by your bootstraps. We also know you don’t know every damned thing and neither do I for that matter. And maybe this is one of the things you’re not an expert on. Race. Art and race. Racial relations. So instead of trying to tell folks what they’re feeling or thinking; how about listening to what they have to say. Surely there’s some merit in there somewhere. Perhaps this is the most important of my top five because it truly requires reflection and some thinking rather than imposing your position onto others with no true source to pull from. If you are an ally, a friend, a person or group of people or art website that cares I’d suggest you listen and think before publishing these types of things, unless you only want those clicks and hits and not be concerned with the consequences. But I guess that’s the way players play and people gon’ people but I’d suggest you just don’t do it.

We all make mistakes and who is perfect? So the apology that was issued out was I assume, genuine and I also assume most likely accepted and received as genuine. I’m a bit more skeptical but more importantly, what will be the next Instagram picture, next article written, Snapchat snapped or Twitter tweeted? Who knows? But what I do know is that there will always be a response to that mess. These days’ folks aren’t allowing this type of behavior to go on uncontested. Yes this time it was only an Instagram post that revealed an insensitivity from Glasstire but who knows what it’ll be a next time? I look forward to checking out what people will do and what types of dialog materializes in the future with a focused but yet squinted side-eye.  I would hope that this will be the last time it happens but I doubt it and yet the beat goes on and people just do what people do.


Nathaniel Donnett is an interdisciplinary artist from Houston, Texas who is interested in human behavior and psycho-social concerns. Donnett is currently working out his “Dark Imaginarence” concept/manifesto soul theory, and is also the founder of “Not That But This.” You can find him at www.nathanieldonnett.com, https://twitter.com/artistik, and on facebook.

Nate Photo

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2 Comments

  • Mary Mikel Stump says: November 4, 2016 at 12:18 pm

    So good and lots to consider.

    I was really puzzled when I saw this photo on Instagram because, from what I know of this fellow, he is a considerate and thoughtful person (not at all the bro type from whom you would expect this sort of thing). You nailed it when you said that it’s systemic; often it creeps up on considerate and thoughtful people when they don’t even realize it (and, yes, anyone “can make a mistake”). It is, however, that moment of realization and the ownership that should follow that is so critical. I’m hoping that there’s a valuable takeaway from this that will spur others to realization about the ways in which we are insensitive and hurtful without realizing it or meaning to be. I recently had my own moment of realization as I was walking through Market Square in San Antonio to attend the Opening of a show at the Centro de Artes that was curated around the idea of cultural identity and how that translates from Mexico to San Antonio and back. There was more than a little dissonance between the thoughtfulness of the curation and the works in the show when compared to the wares for sale just beyond the gallery doors. On one side of the museum walls were heart felt and compelling questions and comments from the exhibiting artists about “what life in San Antonio is like through the lens of [the artists’] Mexican and Mexican-American heritages” and on the other side in the Market Square shops were commercialized and caricatured symbols of that heritage for tourist consumption. I’m still making sense of that, to be honest.

    That said, I have a simple phrase that has served me well in life. It is, simply, “Pay Attention.” Pay attention to your words, your deeds, your partner, your children, your political choices, your finances, your job(s), your friends, your attire, your driving…the list goes on. Implicit in the two-word mantra is that we are conscious about our choices. Cultural appropriation is never okay and it sure isn’t ever funny. So, pay attention to what you do and don’t do, no matter the context or intent and don’t make jokes at others’ expense…hear endeth the lesson and my collective mothering for the day. Thanks for your words, Nathaniel. They’re good ones.

    Reply
  • Ruby Surls says: November 4, 2016 at 1:15 pm

    Beautifully stated and concise. thank you for writing this.

    Reply
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