Exposing White Privilege

Graduate student who placed "White Only" signs on SUNY Buffalo campus explains her intent -- and renews the debate over her art.

September 21, 2015
Uproar over a controversial and racially charged art project at the State University of New York at Buffalo spread well beyond campus over the weekend -- with people responding to both the project and the artist's explanation of it.

Ashley Powell, a graduate student in art who placed "white only" and "black only" signs around campus last week, did so without any explanation. But 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 explained that the project is both about the signs and the way people reacted or didn't. "Our society still actively maintains racist structures that benefit one group of people, and oppress another. Forty to 50 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. Any white person who would walk past these signs without ripping them down shows a disturbing compliance with this system," she wrote.

"These signs do not allow a white person to give the age-old excuse of 'I didn't create this system' or 'I never asked for this white privilege.' They attempt to give those people the individual agency to rebut the very system that puts them in a place of supremacy," Powell added. "These signs illustrate that white people do not have to be active aggressors, like the KKK, to be responsible for this system of racism and white privilege that threatens, traumatizes, brutalizes, stunts and literally kills nonwhite people every day in the United States."

Response to her defense and the art itself has run the gamut from full-throated support to indignation and anger. An editorial in The Spectrum, the student newspaper, contrasted Powell's art with exhibits elsewhere that have addressed racist violence, but that have let people know the subject of the exhibit in advance. The editorial said, "It’s natural for students to not view the signs as art. Students have a right to be mad even after learning the signs were posted without racist intentions …. Although Powell may have wanted to start a discussion, so far students feel nothing good has come of the incident. Maybe that can change with time, but right now, students just feel anger."

In a statement released over the weekend, the university encouraged students and faculty members to continue to discuss the incident.

"We are 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 statement said. "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."


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