To Participate or to Self-Organize: Reflections on the Experience of Race at Hand-in-Glove 2015
What follows is a conflicting set of feelings which arose for me over the weekend at Hand-in-Glove 2015 and have remained since. There is a peculiar sensation associated with coming clean about one’s experience as a person of color. There is always a fear of being cast as the angry, cynical, or bitter person of color at the mostly white convening – a fear that tells you that you will not be heard and therefore prevents you from voicing criticism. I feel that fear now and it motivates me to preface the following statement in this way.
What I am wrestling with here are the ways in which my experience of the conference seemed to reinforce essentialization by speaking of people and communities of color as though they are a formless mass just outside of reach, as though those of us in attendance who self-identify with those communities were nowhere to be seen. This is not to say that there weren’t panels and conversations that discussed such feelings and, in fact, this reflection directly emerges from a breakout group in which I voiced these concerns to other artist-organizers of color. While I am thankful for the thoughtfulness of the panel organizers and the opportunity to meet and share the weekend with other artist-organizers of color, I am also compelled to write this reflection in hopes of opening up the dialogue and process to foreground the experience of artist-organizers of color.
What I understand the Hand in Glove conference to be is a convening of independent artist-run organizations and projects for the purpose of both building a national network of like-minded collaborators and to have the opportunity to share strategies and anecdotes from our own individual practices with each other. Having never attended the conference before this year, these were my expectations. What I found instead was largely a gathering of non-profit professionals wanting to emphasize not the alternative, but social responsibility and contextual responsiveness. In the process, most of the folks I met, along with with the co-host organization, Common Field, seemed to move away from specificity in pursuit of commonality and shared value systems – effectively working towards essentialism. As they would have it, ‘the artist’ is removed from any particular context becoming a free floating universal subject eschewing anyone particular politics for a kind of general politics of good intentions. The same was true for the subject of ‘community’, which was similarly flattened in such a way as to stand in for people of color generally. As formal and informal conversations turned towards strategies of engagement, concrete examples of projects or initiatives were replaced by generalizing narratives about the struggles of communities of color. This flattening process simultaneously worked to erase those artist-organizers of color in attendance, many of whom work from and within the so called ‘communities’ being discussed, effectively including us by way of our exclusion, while also reinforcing essentialization by stripping these communities of any agency in the process. Each utterance of these nameless publics worked to erase not only the histories and peoples under surveillance but also those of us in attendance who self-identify as being a part of such communities.
I first noticed the peculiar position of artist-organizers of color at the conference while taking notes during a pre-session in which 80 or so of us gathered to share what topics or themes we would want to discuss over the weekend. As one of only 2 or 3 artist-organizers of color at the session it quickly became aware to me, as fellow conference goers suggested themes like aesthetics, engagement, and relevance, that the topics that I might want to discuss as a person of color, like safety and mental health, were too rooted in the specifics of my lived experience to arise on their own in what was largely a session of white non-profit professionals. I observed this sensation within me and moved on to the rest of the conference where I was consistently met with a kind of exclusionary inclusion. I tried to lay out my experience where I could, as I did during a breakout group in which I was the only person of color in a circle of white conference goers discussing equity. In that case, I tried to make it apparent that how I thought about equity as a person of color was different from the rest of the group because equity in that context meant giving people like me access to resources that they controlled. Working towards equity as an artist-organizer of color is fundamentally different from working towards equity as a white non-profit professional precisely because the experience of the world for people of color is shaped by concerns such as safety and mental health that in many cases precede aesthetics, relevance, and the like.
Reflecting upon the experience of the weekend and the conversations had there, I find myself asking this question:
Given that the concerns of artist-organizers of color are anchored by a lived experience that includes the ever present threat of psychological and physical violence, as well as systemic and institutional racism, including the policies which govern and allow for non-profits and other art institutions, should we participate in events and organizations that knowingly or unknowingly strive towards universality at the expense of our experience and presence or should we self-organize?
Self-organization here refers to putting our minds and labor towards convenings and organizations that privilege the experience of people of color or else are built exclusively for us.
I am conflicted to say the least. While many of us talked about separatism as a viable strategy in the sense that it would allow for the formation of group solidarity in order to enter dominant society from a position of strength (as was echoed in one of the panels), I can’t help but feel that there is something rooted in my expectations about the weekend that may serve to aid us in answering the question and perhaps in working towards participation.
Well, that ís what we thought, and that ís what we think. That in order to consolidate any kind of developing super-structure, that is those ideas and institutions, you have to build organization and institutions. You have to replace things. You have to create alternatives to them. You can’t just criticize bourgeois theater. You have to create a theater. You can’t just criticize racist newspapers. You have to create a newspaper, you see? And, and that’s the problem. Too often many of us are stuck in a protest syndrome, and while that’s necessary, you know, still the alternative is necessary too. You have to create an alternative. You have to create something that’s other than that which exists. You can’t keep pointing in the abstract toward what should be. You have to give some example of what needs to be now, and can be delivered.
I have been circling around this quote because it seems to suggest a belief in the alternative as a means of empowerment and catalyst for change, a belief that motivated me to attend Hand in Glove in the first place. If there is a desire, within those in attendance, to imagine or enact some kind of alternative, then I would suggest that it start by proposing an alternative to processes such as essentialization that work to bury the lived experience of excluded peoples and communities beneath abstract and generalizing language. I would propose that we work towards an alternative to “saving victimized communities” by listening to and learning from members of those communities who are already present. The alternative is political to the extent that it allows us to mobilize around the urgency of the present, to move away from the abstract and to ground ourselves in the specificity of where we are right now.
From where I am now, I can still see the tide of white hands swallowing the few artist-organizers of color who raised their hands, during an exercise in which we were asked to self-identify as either being of color or white. While the feelings I have associated with being submerged there are mine, the concern should be all of ours.
This is part of a larger social response to the Hand-in-Glove 2015 conference. Read the full response here.