White Like Me

I have a friend, a good, nice girl, who once asked me crankily why there was Black History Month, but no White History Month. Of course, most people understand it's White History Month 337 days a year—except in leap year, when it's a measly 336.

With its long-awaited "Whiteness: A Wayward Construction," which opened March 23, the Laguna Art Museum (LAM) and its crackerjack curator Tyler Stallings aren't decrying the lack of attention paid to white people—that's left to the nutjobs at the California Coalition for Immigration Reform and lowest-common-denominator talk-radio hosts who fill their many, many drive-time hours bitching about affirmative action and "reverse discrimination." Instead, Stallings and company are decrying the lack of attention white people pay themselves—specifically, it seems, the lack of guilt about being white and, therefore, privileged. Unless of course you're white trash, and then you're not privileged but should still feel guilty because, let's face it, you're disgusting.

I can only imagine what Jesse Helms—God rest his bigoted, old, undead soul—would bray. Hell, they even have works by Andres Serrano. LAM doesn't get funding from the NEA, does it?

The problems they pose, at least in the accompanying essays, are unwinnable conundrums. In his introduction to the show, Stallings first calls whiteness "a strategy of authority rather than an authentic or essential identity," but then whips white people for "not seeing themselves as having a racial identity"—that is, those of us who are white are just "people," while others have a race. Hmmm. I thought whiteness was just a strategy of authority. (Of course, every tribe in the world has named itself "The People" in its own language, but now I'm nitpicking.) Lastly, citing the great Harlem writer James Baldwin, Stallings avers that "white is a brand that has been placed upon some of us, just as black has been placed on others, and this brand does carry a particular history. In this light, we have the choice to accept it or to change it, that is to rename our identity." I thought we were supposed to see ourselves as white!!! And once I've recognized that I don't have an essential identity, raced myself as white, and/or understood the privileges inherent within either and/or then decided to rename my identity, what would I call it? Sheila?

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Boy, this cultural studies stuff is sticky!

Because I'll tell you the kind of people who do see themselves as white and as members of a white race: the goodly folk who plan to put on White Power "benefits" at the Shack in Anaheim—at least until the Jewish Defense League and the fun Communist Mexican protestors get wind of it, and they always do—with bands like Blood & Honor. And, surely, that would be a small step backward?

Throughout the airy Laguna Art Museum, beautiful works by 28 artists glow as if lit from within. Many of these look at race relations. Many look at the privileges accorded whites. Some of the most beautiful are the most tenuously connected to the theme. And some are just really bad.

So far, so good. Relations and privilege are fine topics for an artist to consider, and I'm generally in favor of both ill-fitting beauty (which is, of course, its own excuse) and bad art (which generally just makes my job fun).

Two artists who draw controversy like meat in the sun draws maggots are among the best in the show. Andres Serrano, whom you all remember from the whimsical Piss Christ, shows large photos saturated with color. One is a Black Like Me-type portrait. A white man, his skin visible at the bottom of the frame, is caked with rich brown makeup until he becomes a very convincing black man. It's not a minstrelsy, exaggerated blackface job; the man looks real, and I'm not sure it isn't two images seamlessly stitched together in Photoshop. Another of Serrano's large, lush photos is a portrait of a hooded Klansman, his ill-made costume as raggedy as a child's makeshift cape. It would be bathetically childlike, this belief in dress-up magic, if he wasn't, you know, getting ready for a lynching.

Kara Walker, who received a MacArthur Genius grant when she was 27, reprises her silhouettes here, although nowhere near as shockingly as she did at the Huntington Beach Art Center back in the late 1990s, when Stallings was making headlines there instead of at LAM. In that show, she had cut from black paper pristine silhouettes of antebellum slaves and masters committing obscene violence on one another: sucking off children, sucking off each other, hands at each other's throats, all in pretty petticoats. That it was a shadow committing these acts was an added level: the rage and violence and assaults may have taken place only in the frustrated imagination while humbly serving juleps—or while being served.

But here Walker is less out loud. She has retained her oeuvre and her symbols—there's the prettily dressed slave woman, recognizable even in silhouette by her plump, wide African features. But nothing obscene is happening. The woman is embracing a shapeless pile of white goo—a melding together of the races? A leveling of the playing field through romantic and sexual love? A rape? A complicity in being victimized? A triumph? It's much more ambiguous than Walker used to be. Has she been shamed into niceness by the outrage of other black women artists—including Betye Saar, who had been working for civil rights for decades and was not amused?

Some of the pieces are easier to read. In the Blue Eyes series, for instance, Kyungmi Shin digitally altered head shots so that each of her subjects—scruffy Filipino-lookin' dude; young, light-skinned black woman; etc.—has sparkling blue eyes, vivid as the Caribbean. They're the eyes of only a few in the world—people of mixed race in the Caribbean perhaps, but certainly no one I know. And each of the resulting portraits is so striking it made me wonder why everyone doesn't wear blue contacts, which probably wasn't Shin's intention.

While Shin's photos are wonderful, Kammy Roulner's are perhaps not as thought-provoking as she intended. Roulner scans and enlarges baseball cards of players with the names of colors—Bud Black, for instance, is white! She somehow neglected to mention that Shawn Green is a dirty Jew!

Stallings says in his essay that it's important that a show on whiteness not be centered on depictions of others. Most are.

But there are a few that do focus on white subjects who aren't Klansmen or Bud Black—a very fine pitching coach for the Angels, by the way, and not at all a Klansman to my knowledge. Richard Shelton's Out in the Open shows some white-collar guys in the street on their lunch break. We see them from the back, leering after a trio of chicks. But while the insistent mantra throughout the exhibit is one of the Man keeping everyone down, on closer examination, the only way these middle-management schlubs could oppress you is by maliciously putting you through to voice mail. They have no power. They're as dully unsatisfied and oppressed as anyone else—they just get to go to Club Med once a year. The rest of the year, they kick the dog and grovel to the boss. Just like any tap-dancing minstrel.

If you're white, you're gonna look like a dick in this exhibit, and there's nothing you can do about it. Even a murmur of protest would be gauche. Why? Because you are privileged, and this nation is racist, and we do blithely command all the world's resources, unwilling to put cocoa farmers to the fire for buying and working orphaned Ghanaian child slaves for our Nestle bars. People who complain—usually on the AM dial—about how the white man isn't getting a fair shake are morons. And so the rest of us white folk don't sit around and ponder our whiteness. That would generally result (if we're not the self-loathing type) in our taking pride in being white, and at least in the nicer families, that just isn't done—specifically because (if we're not morons) we already do know how privileged we are.

Sure, we check the appropriate box on the census form, but when we identify, we identify as Irish or Swedish or Russian-Polish Jew. It's perfectly kosher to be proud of being Irish or Swedish or a Jew. But white? We ignore it out of politeness.

"Whiteness, A Wayward Construction" at the Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Dr., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-8971. Call for hours. Through July 6.

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