White Racial Tropes
Written by Dr. Herukhuti Williams
In the United States, whiteness is nearly always present and invisible. As a result, people are frequently bombarded by messages—overt and subliminal—that tell them what whiteness is and is not. Society demands that Black, Indigenous, and people of color become keenly aware of these messages to avoid the dangers and risks associated with transgressing the formal and informal racist social codes for what they can and can not do, where they can and can not go, and who they can and can not become. In order to maintain the comforts of innocence and naïveté, people who think of themselves as white learn how to be oblivious to these messages even while reinforcing them.
Photographer and artist, Justin Maxon, and I have developed an ongoing dialogue of identifying, examining, and analyzing how whiteness, white supremacy, and white nationalism operate in American visual culture. As a cultural studies scholar and social critic, I have been introducing Justin to critical race analysis. He uses those discussions to inform his collaging. After he creates a collage, I respond to him by writing poetic annotations on the collages—creating a new artistic work of images and text and the material evidence of our cross-cultural dialogue.
We bring that conversation to this series of collages composed of Justin’s family photos, historical and contemporary images of American life, and my poetry. Our intention is to create a visual glossary of white racial tropes that affect viewers on aesthetic, intellectual, emotional, cultural, and social levels. For authenticity, we have selected tropes related to Justin’s experiences and for which Justin could locate images in his family archives. The series examines, analyzes and critiques how whiteness is both represented in American culture and embodied by people in American society. We also want our visual glossary to comment on the constructed nature of whiteness over time—and the challenges it has posed for those who have embraced it and been embraced by it, as well as those people whose humanity have been measured against it.