Scott Woods: Wait, I thought you wanted to have a race discussion

Confronting an organization’s racist acts requires deep digging to discover the root causes.

Scott Woods
Scott Woods

I was observing a callout of a local institution the other day. Someone from the institution had promoted a list of artists from several years ago, but it had no local Black entries, and this was a field in which Black artists were concretely present. The list was long, so the oversight was glaring. There was an immediate mea culpa by the curator (who came into the position well after the list had been made), along with an explanation about student help, a promise to update the list and a redirection to another resource that supplemented the omissions (but which was also several years old and not updated). 

Problem solved, right? Wrong.

Naturally, because the callout occurred on the internet, other people chimed in. There were further admonishments by several Black artists pointing out that, while it was fine that the institution would update the list, the erasure was a problem from the beginning, and that comes from the ingrained racism in the original process, not a lack of updating. A white organizer of art events stepped in to defend the institution, first stating that the list was old, then that they had never personally observed any intentional negative (racist) behavior from the institution, which is generally how white privilege works—you don’t observe the racism because you are not its target, but its beneficiary.

When the Black artists started to dig into the uncomfortable work of building the scaffolding for a deeper dive into how such omissions occur, all of the arts organizer’s old-school defense mechanisms fired up, including: asking for solutions without processing the problem; dismissively admitting there was a problem, but folks should get over it; charging the whistleblower with grandstanding; handing off the heavy lifting of solutions to the aggrieved critics; proposing an over-coffee reconciliation; lobbing a “nobody’s perfect” feint. These are all things one uses to end a discussion, not advance it. Which was funny to me because I thought this was the kind of conversation all of that racial reckoning we had a couple of years ago was supposed to generate. I guess we don't want any actual reckoning with our racial reckoning.

When an organization does something that is racist, it’s almost never random. I don’t mean that it’s always intentional (although it frequently is). I mean that something in the organization sets up racist functions. It might be its internal culture. It might be leadership blind to their privilege. It might be a dismissive mission. It might be capitalism. It might be all of the above and more, but whatever it is, it was already in place. And when that system kicks in to do a thing, some racist act is the result. 

In this scenario (which you can skin over most organizations or businesses that come to mind), there was a problem in action, an act of erasure. The problem was generated from a deeper issue: a prior erasure or a devaluation of Black contribution or ignorance. Or all three. Or worse. Fixing the initial erasure without taking the time to dissect the root cause of the problem practically ensures you will have the problem again.

This is why Black folks often don’t just let a fixed thing go, why we rarely seem satisfied by white solutions to racial problems. We know there are things behind such solutions that white folks rarely take the time to deal with. There is history and evidence and the secret sharing of war stories. And the people who generate or inherit those problems need to confront those things or else we’ll be having the same argument later. Not just acknowledge, but confront. Deal with. Unpack. Accept.

It’s not easy being called out. In this situation, the institution’s curator did everything they should do to fix the initial problem. By my eye, they are open to further interrogation about how to dig deeper into making their institution better in a racial regard. But their defender has a lot of work to do. There is a deeper conversation that can happen now, and, without such evidence and observation, it would not have been brought to the table at all. We must be careful that in our rush to get past the embarrassment of having done something wrong, we do nothing right.

Scott Woods is a poet, cultural critic, essayist and founder of the arts nonprofit Streetlight Guild.