Not The White Devil, I Promise, answered by Augusta Savage
I’m a dude. I’m white. I’m straight. I’m sufficiently middle class. In essence, I’m the bad guy in every minority’s diatribe. I totally get it. I’ve had it pretty easy in life, and I’ve definitely been able to slack off and still have it so good.
My question is, what can I do to not come off as the proverbial “Man”? What do I say to support my friends and peers (black, female, gay, whatevs) when it’s needed? Or, what do I NOT say? When do I stand up for them against an asshole versus when does my standing up come off as “privileged white guy looking for someone else’s cause”?
Again, I get it. This is totally white guy first-world problem. But, I don’t have the answer for it. Maybe you do?
Not the White Devil, I Promise
Dear Not the White Devil,
I appreciate that you are wrestling with this question. It is a difficult thing to acknowledge the advantages you were born into, especially in a climate in which it is so easy to deny that the advantage is there. The life of an artist is fraught with challenges; it was easy for my white colleagues to point to the difficulty of their lives as proof that they didn’t enjoy any privileges. My mentor, however, was a white man who championed me after his fellow committee-members rejected me. I, in turn, taught a new generation of artists, some of whom inspired a new generation and then generation after that and established trusts that support artists today.
I would encourage you to think of yourself as part of this cycle of education and educating. The mantra of your letter is “I get it”, but I’m not certain you do, not if you feel you are the recipient of a diatribe. I was rejected from programs my work had earned because I was black. I know this because they said it to my face. I didn’t hate the white guy who got in. I abhorred the system that barred me. Please do not confuse those two sentiments.
The thing that will help you truly “get it” is also my best suggestion for being a good friend to your loved ones – and acquaintances – who are not straight white men: listen. Listen with empathy, putting yourself in their shoes. Listen with the belief that your friends know what they saw and heard. There is an impulse to find a reason that incidents are misunderstandings, not one of the big ISMs. Maybe it comes from wanting to protect your friends. Maybe it comes from wanting to live in a world cured of such prejudice. I desperately want to live in that world, too. Unfortunately, imagining we currently live in that world will not conjure it for your friends. When you try to find an alternate reason for what happened, it feels like you are excusing the bigot who’s not even in the room, rather than supporting the loved one who is.
Your loved ones who are not straight white men experience things you never see. You may never see a woman get harassed on the street, for example. It generally happens only to women who are walking by themselves or with other women. When a friend tells you about it, do not assume, even to yourself, that she is overreacting. Remind yourself that she sees things you don’t and believe what she tells you.
Listening is the best way to respond when interacting with people who don’t have your privilege, but there is a time where your voice is crucial. This is when you enter the educating side of the cycle. Please speak for us when we are absent or outnumbered. Racism, misogyny, and homophobia survive when the speakers are allowed to assume they speak for everyone who looks like them. When you disrupt that, you move us all forward.
I know this can be scary. My mentor was the lone dissenting voice on a committee of the most prestigious artists and theorists of the day. Given what they said to my face, I can only imagine what they said to him, an older white man championing a young black woman. That committee voted against me, but he took me under his professional wing and sought out opportunities for me. Your voice is needed most when you are the sole dissent. Your privilege becomes a powerful tool when you use it to open doors for those who don’t possess that key.
My heart is in my hands as I sculpt, not my words as I speak, so it is hard for me to say this thing I feel I must. It is exhausting to encounter a barrier every day of your life, to feel the thing you care for most is silenced not by what you do but who you are. I am a good sculptor, great even. My talent got me from Florida to Cooper Union. It got me into the Harlem Renaissance and the finest schools of Europe. Despite my talent, my career was crossed by daily and profound racism. My gallery closed, my works were destroyed, and the commissions I received were less than I saw go to white men. Sculpture gave me my own true joy, but the daily fight to create it broke my heart.
We need straight white men who will listen to our experience and take the fight where we cannot go. I’m sorry to tell you that you have farther to go on your path, but I am grateful for the journey you are on.
Born in 1892 in Green Cove Springs, Florida into the large family of a Methodist minister. Died of cancer in 1962 in New York City. Despite family disapproval, Augusta sculpted clay from a young age, eventually winning not only a place at Cooper Union, but a grant to fund all her expenses. Despite a career marked by racism, she traveled across Europe and created a body of work that celebrated African-American life, most prominently “The Harp” and “Gamin”. She founded arts centers in Harlem and mentored a generation of artists that included Jacob Lawrence, Norman Lewis and Gwendolyn Knight.
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