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Nora Howell thinks deeply about what it means to be white in America.
She’s spent much of her adult life wrestling with terms such as “privilege,” “responsibility,” “fear,” and “opportunity,” as they relate to people and race in this nation. Now, at age 26, she’s surrendered to exploring themes of what whiteness means in her life by making performance-based art and by teaching art in inner-city schools in Baltimore.
This is hard work. Pondering such heavy thoughts can be paralyzing, which is why she suspects so few other white people pause to think about being white and what effect it has on their lives. “I try to understand what it means to be white in 2013,” Howell told me yesterday. “I’m trying to understand the privileges you have as a white person and what your job is once you acknowledge that privilege.”
With blobs of paint splotching her fingers and sheetrock dust in her dark hair, Howell paused from whitewashing the walls at the Hamiltonian Gallery in Washington, D.C., where she was setting up her upcoming show.
Titled “Spotless,” the part art exhibition, part performance show is a monochromatic study of the imagery and fixations with cleanliness. Installation pieces include oversized white representations of household products such as toothpaste tubes, bathroom cleaner, soap bubbles, and the like. The centerpiece of the show will be Howell’s opening-day performance piece, titled “Rub-A-Dub-Dub,” featuring three nude women of varying races bathing in claw-footed tubs filled with marshmallows.
As Howell explains it, the oversized pieces and obsessive effort at cleanliness are artistic and physical “metaphors for the equivocation of whiteness to purity, cleansing, and superiority.”
This theme is kicked up a notch by the decision to showcase the art and performances at a gallery in the U Street corridor, one of Washington’s rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods. Over the past decade, the community surrounding the Hamiltonian Gallery has transitioned from a space of hot-dog shacks, nightclubs, and shoe-shine parlors that catered to mostly poor and working-class black customers, to upscale watering holes and European-themed eateries that attract white hipsters and young suburbanites looking to get their inner-city groove on.
In a notable Washington Post essay, Stephen A. Crockett Jr. coined the phrase “swagger jacking” to describe what’s happening in the U Street neighborhood:
Look. I get it. The Chocolate City has changed. It isn’t what it used to be, and I don’t know what’s worse: the fact that D.C. was once so marred by murder that it was nicknamed Dodge City or that there is now a hipster bar on U St. that holds the same name. Point is, there is a certain cultural vulturalism, an African American historical “swagger-jacking,” going on on U Street. It’s an inappropriate tradition of sorts that has rent increasing, black folks moving further out—sometimes by choice, sometimes not—while a faux black ethos remains.
The raw feelings of some black Washingtonians toward swagger jacking inspired Howell to make one of the photographs in the exhibitions, an image of a black woman using an enormous bottle of Wite-Out correcting fluid to swab away a historic marker on U Street.
Though she always wanted to be an artist, Howell didn’t start her career with race-themed work. It slowly came upon her, she said, as she became increasingly aware that being white was critical to her experiences in every place she lived. In some cases, being white was obvious by its stifling vastness, such as when her art studies took her from a multicultural high school in her hometown of Cincinnati to the nearly all-white Wheaton College outside of Chicago. But in other places, whiteness was noticeable by its absence. Teaching at an all-black public school or choosing to live in a row house in a predominately black West Baltimore neighborhood rendered her the lonely white face adrift in a sea of black bodies.
This experience of choosing to see whiteness in American society is rare for white Americans but fuels Howell’s creative spirit. For example, one of her most powerful works, “Racial Make Up: More Than Skin Deep,” grew from the realization that being a white person prevented her from having the connection she desperately wanted with her black students. The minute-and-a-half video makes the inescapable point that whiteness is a sticky mess with in-your-face clarity.
“I knew that my race was a barrier with my students,” Howell said of the piece, her favorite. “I wanted it so badly for my race not to matter with them. I just didn’t want to be white, if it kept us apart.”
Howell is frustrated by some reactions to her work, notably from white viewers who feel as if she’s putting them down in some sly way. Or, in some cases, from her young, urban, white audiences, she wonders whether they have the cultural frame for her exploration of whiteness. A clear example is “Cracker Dress,” a performance piece where Howell parades in public wearing a sundress fashioned out of saltine and oyster crackers. “Sometimes it just goes over their heads,” she said with a laugh and a wave of her palm skyward. She continued:
Maybe it’s a good thing that people don’t get the reference to “crackers” as a derogatory term, but I made the dress as visual representation of what I felt like to be stared at as the only white person in a community. I know that people of color get those stares all the time. I wanted to get people to think and talk about what it means if you’re white.
At its core, art is about finding the humanness in all people, she told me. It’s about bringing people together, not pulling them apart. When people think about these things and find the courage to talk about them civilly, then racial understanding is inevitable.
Howell finds it amusing that some people question whether she’s really white, given her work and her determination to confront white people with being white. “People ask me that all the time: ‘What are you trying to get at?’ ‘Are you really white or multi-racial?’” she said. “The assumption is that if you’re white, you’re not going to be challenging whiteness. You just embrace it.”
But that’s not possible for her. She believes whiteness demands examination with the same detail and precision that attaches to being black in America.
“I don’t want to speak for black people or presume what they think in my work,” she said. “I don’t want to make those assumptions. That’s something white people are really good at. I work from the spaces I know best.”
“Spotless” runs from June 22 through July 27 at the Hamiltonian Gallery, 1353 U Street NW, Washington, D.C. The show opens with the “Rub-A-Dub-Dub” performance at 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Saturday, June 22. Howell will present an artist talk about her work at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, July 16.
Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.