In Rage and Paranoia

Industry drama, personal accounts: BIPOC artists feel like we're losing our minds in art institutions

Unleashing my racial paranoia

Disclaimer: There are no images in this newsletter. It’s gonna be more of a classic blog post. I wrote three different drafts of a piece about the imaging of anti-Black violence in visual culture over the course of a month, from the beginning of May to the end of June. I tried to write articles, comics, mixes of both. The text got longer and unwieldier as more and more organizations (from government bodies to small institutions, international and local) laid bare their roots and practices in anti-Blackness, white supremacy and colonialism—and the cruel, manipulative tactics, visual or otherwise, they predictably deployed in an attempt to paper it over. 

But I didn’t really want to write about it because I was sick of thinking about images of violence and the which images are deemed OK to circulate to the point of desensitization. News of violence had already saturated hours of my daily life, characterized by scrolling through twitter trying not to cry and then going to bed knotted with anger. Many friends echoed sentiments that their mental health was plummeting. Sometimes it does feel useless to be an artist.


Careerism and white supremacy

While it’s true making images can feel impotent at times, people including artists are continuing to mobilize with rage—not only in protesting policing and government policy, but also in calling for change within their local fields. Artists began feeling more empowered than ever to call out institutions—schools, museums, boards, festivals, gallerists—for their complicity in upholding white supremacy and other forms of oppression within their own doors (links at the end). The tidal wave of demands and personal accounts made it clear that mealy-mouthed, reactionary “i’m sorry”s from carefully-crafted, buzzword-filled, Instagrammed black squares weren’t going to cut it.

Among these institutional call-outs was an Instagram account made to amplify the stories of racism faced by Black students and faculty at SVA. One of the posts written by an anonymized Black student outlined the appalling discrimination they faced in Chris Buzelli’s illustration class

@svanyc We just want to be treated like human beings. Your faculty and non black students lack a basic understanding of what racism is and how it manifests on a daily basis. A cultural competency training should be given every semester. Lectures, Interactive Courses and workshops should be mandatory. We must foster a safe environment for students of color.
June 28, 2020

What was particularly horrifying about this post was the number of professional, successful East Asian illustrators (Yuko Shimizu, Victo Ngai, Johee Yoon) with connections to Buzelli immediately rushing to his defense in the form of paragraph-long comments. They were very purposefully gaslighting and dismissing this student’s experiences on an account made explicitly for Black students and faculty.

Image

The troubling responses made me think about the way many East Asians benefit from our proximity to whiteness while simultaneously being tokenized, fetishized or dismissed. (It’s also worth pointing out that there’s a sheer ignorance of how Black people are oppressed, if not an outright anti-Blackness, in many Asian communities.) What made these illustrators feel like they had the right to speak so loudly over the voice of a Black student? Why did they so enthusiastically assume the role of a tool for upholding white supremacy and silencing marginalized artists? Is it privilege from a proximity to whiteness, is it a desire for approval, is it pure abuse of power? Certainly it doesn’t seem that these comments were made purely because they stumbled upon the post and felt they had to protect their friend, because it’s pretty clear that sicing Asian artists onto a post by a Black student is, even just speaking purely on the level of optics, possibly one of the worst and dumbest looks I have ever seen.

Reading these chilling comments that echo the larger systemic pattern of Black students being dismissed, discredited and gaslit simultaneously filled me with disgust and rage. Then, I closed Instagram for a minute, realized this was the industry i was technically getting myself into (read: sinking tuition money and years of my life for). Cue a wave of dread and despair. Something about the whole debacle felt so darkly unsurprising.


❤️ Me and my institution ❤️

It made me think about my own experience as an Asian student in an illustration program, fearing for the corruption, nepotism and careerism that teems in the art world and the illustration industry. I’m going into my final year of school at OCAD U in the fall. I want to describe my own experience in school, and I encourage others to share their own experiences with OCAD or other art institutions.

The accounts from SVA and other art schools remind me of the way I interface with the institution—emotions range from approval-seeking to paranoia to shame. What I mean by this is: I think of noticing white peers be consistently favoured by instructors, as well as gaining more acclaim and leverage within the institution than their BIPOC counterparts (especially those who are Black and/or first-generation), then immediately questioning my own judgement and instinctual perception. I am instantly flushed with the shame that comes with feeling spiteful. Should I be bothered by this perceived discrepancy, or is their work just better? Is this a pattern I’m observing, or a fluke?

I don’t want to feel like I’m “making excuses for myself.” There is, then, a certain pressure to conform to what white instructors and peers expect from “good work”, which is easy to do because good work is quite homogeneous—it’s clear these instructors (newer hires as well as people who have been working in the department for years) and are overwhelmingly white, and overwhelmingly men. I don’t have cold hard data on this right now, but trust me when I say this is true for the OCAD illustration department. It’s not that I don’t deeply appreciate or feel gratitude towards many of these professors, but you have to wonder who has the tools and access to return to this institution to teach, and why.

It’s at times like this when numbers on demographics are so helpful and validating to reference. But at the same time, not every microaggression or institutional oversight can be neatly summarized into a statistic. Institutional privilege manifests in many different ways. It manifests in some students attending art programs in their high school or being otherwise already familiarized and exposed to the art world. It manifests in being able to socially adjust to a school, program or class with a BIPOC minority. It manifests in having previous connections with professors and industry professionals. It manifests in having the funds to be able to live closer to the school. It manifests in having supportive parents to fall back on. It manifests in positive attitudes towards making mistakes. It manifests in positive experiences with authority. It manifests in seeing people like you in positions of success—and recieving mentorship because industry professionals see themselves in you. It manifests in professors “understanding” your art and vice versa; in being fluent with the styles that shaped their taste and yours; in not being tokenized or fetishized; in not being “expected” to make work a certain way. It manifests in some students feeling they are allowed to take risks and speak up because they have been encouraged, either in class or from the very start. It manifests in not being worn out by casual racism.

I have no delusions about the privilege I have in quickly learning how to access and navigate institutions, and the cultural and financial capital required to succeed. But many BIPOC art students have fought tooth and nail for access to their post-secondary education, especially in the arts. For many of us, the stakes of being successful in art school are crushingly high. Compounded with the institutional barriers of white supremacy lurking in our industries (industries that champion competition and an idea of meritocracy—who gets to decide who has the “highest ability”?), the system is designed for us to simply believe everything is OK and running smoothly. We just haven’t been working hard enough.

Still, I continue to think about this “proximity to whiteness” and wonder how much of my own success can be attributed to my tendency to seek approval from figures of authority. This gets tricky when working as a minority within a white-dominated field. What can I say? It’s not very cool or sexy of me, but I feel great when people tell me I’m good at what I do, or have potential, or am better than most, or different from the rest. Keep telling me these things, I’ll eat them up. But when you’ve been eating from the dish of white approval your entire life, it can make you sick in ways that aren’t so easy to fix.

I remember teachers in the art program of my high school, all four of which were white, question why I was depicting so many blonde-haired, blue-eyed white people in my work (specifically a study I did of the Rococo style—part of a Eurocentric art history curriculum that they were teaching me). To have a white teacher feel like they’ve read through your own internalized racism, all while you’re trying to work it out for yourself, hurts. (A betrayal? I thought this was what you wanted?) Though my representations skewed white, I also depicted people of colour throughout my high school projects. I wondered if this criticism was also brought up to my white colleagues, who were exclusively drawing and painting people who looked like them. The same thing happened again in my first year of university. It’s a loaded criticism because it’s made by a white professor and, even if it is valid, you always leave remembering that people expect your art to look a certain way because you are visibly racialized.

Conversely, I feel uncomfortable when I make work that brings my Chinese-ness to the forefront. I don’t want to feel like I’m trying to milk the benefits of orientalism or, God forbid, tokenizing myself? Is that even possible? This is a whole other conversation to have—what it means to be making art in the Asian diaspora—but within the context of the art world, you can be tokenized, fetishized, and then discarded when your work strays from the box you’ve found yourself in, wondering how you got there in the first place. Am I catastrophizing now? But God, sometimes I want to make work about my relationship with the Chinese language, and other times I want to just draw a weird monster.

I noticed other things in class critique that irritated me. A white student using Japanese text as a shorthand to convey confusion (it’s confusing because he can’t read Japanese). My professor loves this piece. Ableism: other accounts of the same prof telling a student to put their subject, a ballet dancer, in a wheelchair to emphasize a depiction of “darkness and nightmares”. Poorly handled caricature assignments. Comics as a valid style of art but anime and manga as being derivative. Largely being shown white illustrators and designers in class for inspiration slides (this was awful especially in second year for some reason). Generally being encouraged to pursue more “cultural stuff” (again, not a bad thing, but I wonder what is being said to white students). Thesis professors not “understanding” ideas that tackle issues outside of their own experiences. Little things that contribute to BIPOC students feeling ostracized on even just a classroom level. These are just a few accounts among countless others. No wonder so many illustrated attempts at what we call representation feel so shallow: Students can’t be exposed to ideas that professors can’t envision.

First, the system enacts quiet violence on its marginalized students via structural barriers, bigotry, dismissiveness, and passive lack of support; then, it makes us feel an ugly shame and guilt for feeling like we might be falling behind more than our more privileged counterparts for anything outside of our control. A familiar feedback loop of plummeting mental health…this is what I mean by racial paranoia: You are always second-guessing your interactions and feedback, positive or negative, well-intentioned or not. These are the biggest tricks used to coax us into silence and submission.

This isn’t to say I never feel comfortable at my school. in fact, I still love so, so many parts of OCAD and its illustration program in so many ways. Which is why I feel like it’s important that I hold it to a high standard. I suppose it’s naive of me to have ever believed art school would be anything other than mimicking the systems of power in capitalism.

It’s for all these reasons why it really hurt me to see so many East Asian artists gaslight a student for their detailed and painful experience. Beyond anti-Black racism and nepotism (which are certainly the key issues at play here), I have a feeling that these illustrators feel so threatened because: If the accounts prove that the system is rigged to benefit those who are white, rich, able-bodied, neurotypical, etc. (or have a certain proximity to whiteness), then that means their success was built on a system that actually wasn’t very fair at all. And they take this as a personal attack on their abilities. But other people who haven’t found as much success have ideas and abilities too, maybe even way better than yours. It’s easier not to self-reflect if you silence long-held criticisms and continue to build the mythology of independent hard work or intelligence as the sole reason for your success. But this isn’t just a mythology; it’s a full-fledged, collective delusion we’re currently living in.

When and if I begin to consider myself a mid-career artist I never want to forget the kind of art meritocracy (which mimics all the evils of capitalism) that has led me to success. I want to be able to be vocal and candid, and to stay true to committing myself to fighting racism, bigotry, and white supremacy wherever I might have any scraps of power or jurisdiction. I want to share my power with others and learn from their abilities; I want to credit, uplift, and compensate my peers. I want to be smart enough to recognize how the language of the oppressor might sneak its way into my personal and professional life. I want feel able to bite the hand that supposedly feeds. I don’t want to use other people, nor do I want to be used, and these are the greatest hopes and commitments I made to myself when I read the comments on that post. Realizing, naive, desperate, fearful, how deluded successful artists could be.


But if you’re going to say sorry, at least don’t do it like this

Some of the original commenters decided to post more long-winded comments about how they were learning they were wrong, and part of the problem, etc. But these statements felt equally as misplaced as their previous ones and hollowly rehearsed. This mirrors the institutional statements (links at the end) which seem to be more concerned with choosing their words carefully than enacting real change. This made sense to me once Buzelli released his apology, contained in the captions of two artworks posted on Instagram, that detailed what exactly happened.

2/2

I want to be fully transparent about the friends who spoke up for me on the @blackatsva post. When I first read the post, I broke down and my wife reached out to our good friend Yuko who I’ve been co-teaching with in the same classroom. She asked Yuko if she could help by going to the post and adding a comment since she’s been teaching with me once a week for the past 5 years. She also thought this could be helpful because Yuko knows me well, especially my etiquette in the classroom which she could speak about. I had no idea at the time that the forum was for black voices only.

We also reached out to our friends—Victo, JooHee, Robyn, Dadu, and Wesley Allsbrook—who are also my former students on group chat where we communicate regularly and asked for their advice/help. At that time, I honestly did not think about the professional ties that they have with my wife who hires them as freelance illustrators. In the world of illustration business relationships and friendships often merge. I now see both how wrong I was to involve them and how that is another facet of a system that allows some in and keeps others out.

I regret these decisions, because these friends did go on to speak up for me and they all received major backlash for doing so since this post was for black voices only and for accounts by black students at SVA. I was grateful that they spoke up for my character, and I value these important friendships so much, and now I’ve destroyed that in just a couple of days. I’m so so sorry for hurting my friends and I just hope one day we can start a dialogue again.
July 1, 2020

You can read them for yourself but this apology is deeply troubling—especially the second post, which outlines how he “broke down” after seeing the post and then his “wife [Soojin Buzelli] reached out to our good friend [Yuko Shimizu]” to essentially round up people who have worked for Soojin to do damage control around Chris Buzelli’s good name. The power dynamics and victimhood on display are almost too messy to try and dissect. And even with the blame-shifting (I was breaking down / my wife did it) and leveraging of industry power aside (forgot my wife employs my “friends”), this apology shows that he still thinks the main issue was his invasion of a space for Black students. In reality, non-Black people were actually free to comment on posts—What people were troubled by was his willingness to throw critics who spoke very candidly about his racist pedagogical strategies under the bus instead of actually doing something different. 

There is no good space for racial gaslighting and he doesn’t acknowledge that his actions fit neatly a history of racism and dismissiveness of Black students. Nor does he manage to produce any tangible plan to change his teaching practices. If “breaking down” and then co-ordinating PoC friends to silence an anonymized account on social media is Buzelli’s first response to criticism, I’m truly scared to think of how he would teach or hold a class critique. And the comments on the apology are, predictably, closed.


Redistribute the power: supporting each other

Being on social media is a trip. It seems that new shitty things are being uncovered all the time. Even as non-Black people are stepping down and being shuffled around in these organizations, they seem to be “making space”, “listening” and “learning” as if they had discovered racism just yesterday.

In the wake of so many white leaders resigning and stepping down from their positions within these structures, you have to wonder if the sharing of power people are actually calling for will actually occur, or if we are doomed to a system of meritocracy where the most privileged tastemakers will continue to call the shots on who is seen and supported and who isn’t. It’s an attempt to “make space”, but make space for who? Aren’t we better off using this power to reconfigure the space so it can include and sustain more voices?

Judging from all these messages I’ve read, many institutions still don’t have a clue: It’s not about just hiring more BIPOC staff (side-eyeing the very strange and incomprehensible letter the president sent to OCAD students today), it’s about a real and tangible re-distribution of power and resources across the administrative level. We know you’re “devastated”, “heartbroken”, “in solidarity”, “have a long way to go”, but you have power and you’re just making us exhausted with your pleading words. It’s about making sure that the BIPOC students and faculty in your institution are properly supported and not burning out in all interactions, be it within the larger network or on the smaller classroom critique scale. Neither an apology nor a resignation will fix a system modeled off of white supremacist ideas of leadership and structures of power. It’s poisoned by design. 


Further Reading and Resources

New: BIPOC at OCAD U is now an instagram account: https://instagram.com/being.bipoc.at.ocadu

Wow, you made it to the end of this massive diary entry…thanks for bearing with me! Would love to hear what you think. Agree? Disagree? Share your personal experience by leaving a comment or reply to this email.