In America’s clap-back culture when camps are easily polarized, complex conversations get shut down before they start. Before we praise an idea or criticize it loudly, what would it take to allow room for ideas to grow and for progress to be made? In a world wrestling with diversity and inclusion at work and public spaces, it appears diverse ideas increasingly don’t count.
Munroe Bergdorf, L’Oréal’s first transgendered model, found out the hard way when she was fired over a Facebook post saying white people’s “privilege and success as a race is built on the backs, blood and death of people of colour.” The company clapped back in a tweet: “L’Oréal champions diversity. Comments by Munroe Bergdorf are at odds with our values and so we have decided to end our partnership with her.”
Has Bergdorf’s firing closed the door to a more complex conversation, suggesting diversity comes without opinion? Let’s hope not. Because we need opinion to start conversations, not stop them. And if we’re to find meaningful solutions, we need to take advantage of those who are being heard.
First, we need to get out of our feelings.
Some people are still smarting over comments made by artist Kara Walker, who, in the artist statement for her upcoming fall show at Sikkema Jenkins & Co., explained the ways she was tired: of standing up, of “being a role model,” “of being a featured member of my racial group and/or my gender niche.”
Art watchers already possess strong opinions about the work of Walker, who is known for exploring race, gender and sexuality through dramatic, macabre silhouettes. So when she spoke up, some applauded, while others suggested the tired artist sit down. A New York Times headline declared: “Kara Walker, ‘Tired of Standing Up,’ Promises Art, Not Answers.”
As a gallery director, I, too, expect artists to create art that will prompt questions, not provide answers. The questions could lead to conversations that find solutions, but I don’t like to get ahead of myself. In other words, instead of extolling or condemning Walker’s fatigue, consider how her comments reflect a widespread sentiment of racial responsibility. How, for many of us, in this climate of divisiveness, we’ve become de facto spokespeople for anyone who looks like us. Consider the weight and danger of this growing phenomenon. And ask yourself, why aren’t we talking about this?
In the era of Google, we value answers, readily available at our fingertips. But consider the value of the question. Art is a point of entry — a platform from which to illicit questions and start a range of conversations. So, can art also serve as a model to process opinion?
When English novelist Zadie Smith announced she had established a 15-minute time limit for her daughter to put on makeup, people had things to say. There were validations and criticisms of the author’s beauty philosophies, and a potentially important conversation was boiled down to: Makeup means different things to different people.
But, if we peel back the layers, Smith’s comments are essentially about empowerment — a complicated and relevant consideration. In an age when gender, race and sexual politics are at the forefront of heated debate, Smith’s comments about beauty could serve as a reminder about the complexities of empowerment, a truth that affects all of us, not just those of us who have an opinion about makeup.
Remember: We have placed these people in positions because we want to hear them. So before we convict or laud a viewpoint, let’s honor their role as conversation starters instead of expecting them to be problem solvers. Before latching on to how a certain opinion affects you, consider how the idea affect all of us.
And as we do with art — pause — and let different viewpoints serve as a gateway for discovery. It’s true: We’re all entitled to our opinions, but when we shut down the conversation, the room to unpack complexities disintegrates, and progress halts.
Lise Ragbir is director of the Warfield Center Galleries at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Austin American Statesman.
To view more op-eds from Texas Perspectives, click here.
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