Bad Protests, And Bad Art

A student at SUNY Buffalo recently got in trouble for a strange and very unexpected campus project. Ashley Powell, an art graduate student, decided it would be a good idea to open the semester by placing “white only” and “black only” signs around campus, and provide no explanation for these signs.

According to an article by Josh Logue at Inside Higher Ed

Amid the uproar, she published a lengthy defense of her work in the campus newspaper. The signs were “not a joke” and “not a social experiment,” she wrote. Rather: “This project, specifically, was a piece created to expose white privilege.”
In the piece, Powell chronicled her own painful experiences, as a black woman, with racism and said her project was intended to force people to confront “racist structures” they would otherwise ignore. “If [the signs] weren’t needed, and if they are irrelevant, then, why are so many people upset?”

She is certainly correct that black people in this country face continual structural discrimination, but all legitimate grievances do not mean that all expressions of those grievances are legitimate.

In the piece, Powell chronicled her own painful experiences, as a black woman, with racism and said her project was intended to force people ton confront “racist structures” they would otherwise ignore. “If [the signs] weren’t needed, and if they are irrelevant, then, why are so many people upset?

Um, perhaps the problem here is that by placing “blacks only” and “whites only” signs around the campus of the State University of New York at Buffalo you aren’t actually forcing people to confront racist structures but, rather, are sloppily attempting to use the entire campus as a symbol for racist structures that, in reality, are pretty complicated and are intellectually, morally, and professionally difficult to confront.

Indeed, Ta-Nehisi Coates has written a whole book precisely this problem.

The main reason her signs provoked such outcry is not so much that the woman decided to “expose white privilege,” as she put it, but that she decided to do it in such a boneheaded way.

WhitesOnly

She wrote that her project was about both the signs and the way people reacted or didn’t. She wrote that:

Our society still actively maintains racist structures that benefit one group of people, and oppress another. Forty to fifty years ago, these structures were visibly apparent and physically graspable through the existence of signs that looked exactly like the signs I put up. Today these signs may no longer exist, but the system that they once reinforced still does.

Really, “white only” signs on a campus at a state university in Buffalo, NY, a city with a struggling white working class population and without a history of legal racial segregation?

The university, seriously wimping out on this one, issued a statement saying that it is,

Committed to ensuring that the University at Buffalo is welcoming and supportive of all members of our community. On a daily basis our faculty and students explore sensitive and difficult topics in an environment that values freedom of expression, and this week’s student art project is generating considerable dialogue. The university is encouraging our community to discuss how we negotiate the boundaries of academic freedom in a safe and inclusive environment that values freedom of expression and further builds a culture of inclusion. The University at Buffalo stands strong in our commitment to ensuring that such discourse occurs in a safe, inclusive and intellectually open environment.

Oh come on. The University at Buffalo really should have just condemned this as a terrible installation made by someone who didn’t do a very good job expressing her ideas. This is not worth any defense about exploring “sensitive and difficult topics in an environment that values freedom of expression.”

Good art used to express a social problem can be powerful and the impetus for serious change. Bad art used to express a social problem invites ridicule and the dismissal of serious ideas.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer