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White Aesthetics and Social Heirarchies

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The study of and significance of Black culture, fashion, and overall personification has often been seen as negligible within many aspects of academic study and intellectual conversation in general. We understand fashion, style, and art to be particularly important to the study of Black expressive and trans-Atlantic culture, since it constitutes a powerful negotiator of agency and authenticity. Through the lens of a queer Black postcolonial creative and autoethnographic perspective, this essay will explore the convergence of art and ethnicity through social hierarchies found in the art world and general popular culture, as well as explore the ways in which Black culture, representation, and manifestation is policed and contested.

Stuart Hall has written about “the double movement of containment and resistance” that emerges in popular culture expressions between dominant and peripheral identities (Hall, 1981, p. 227). An autoethnographic approach to art, fashion, and the general study of culture (situated within Black youth postcolonial thought) is an effective framework in which I will conceptualise visual representation as a medium of cross-cultural Black expression. Many culturally specific mediums and practices are used both blindly and intentionally as a racist, classist, and sexist form of suppression used to maintain the cultural hierarchies that were built on the foundations of colonial times, which to a certain extent still stand today. Many may try and debate or question, what sort of moment this is in which to question what is and what is not “black popular culture”, and the spectrum of cultural appropriation itself. But these moments vary. They have their historical specificity, and although they always exhibit continuities with the other moments in which we pose a question like this, they are never the same moment. “And the combination of what is similar and what is different defines not only the specificity of the moment, but the specificity of the question, and therefore the strategies of cultural politics with which we attempt to intervene in popular culture” (Hall, 1993, p. 104). As well as the form and style of cultural theory and criticizing that has to go along with such a discussion.

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To begin, I will lay down a foundation; social hierarchies are prevalent across almost any and all communities, both social and business. They can be viewed as a tool, both formal and informal, which ranks individuals and groups on the basis of socially valued dimensions (Magee and Galinsky, 2008) or various forms of capital. For example; economic, social, and cultural. Which then leads to individuals and groups to be sorted into “social positions that carry unequal rewards, obligations, and expectations” (Gould, 2002: 1143). One of the most important forms of capital is cultural capital, defined as a collection of cultural resources, including knowledge, dispositions, objects, and traditions that are valued within a particular social group and/or culture. “Cultural capital is often used by dominant groups to construct status and power distinctions between individuals and groups and to legitimize their relative positions in the social hierarchy” (Bourdieu, 1984). Cultural capital and the social hierarchy are therefore sorting individuals and groups into more or less dominant positions in the social structure according to their social status and class. Cultural production has a lot to do with the creation, diffusion, and consumption of any and all art using staple forms of creation and expression to document and create visual representations of the culture/community of people and their collective and/or more individualistic story. As well as serve as a form of healing and therapy for people of color throughout their individual communities.

Considering historically, art as creation and the act of making has been the most powerful and resonant ways for people of color to expose and cope with both personal and collective suffering. The suffering of their ancestors that has bled into the present-day experience, bending, warping, and taking many different shapes. It is crucial to consider the production and consumption of “white art”, the role of white art, and white people’s contribution to art history (white washing of art, classical European art, appropriation of black art, stolen works in white museums, galleries and museums as white elitist colonized spaces). Many people that aren’t “of the culture” see ccultural production solely as related to the marketing and consumption of aesthetics. No matter the consequence of the people from which it derives.

For exampleЖ Dana Schutz’s “Open Casket”, a painting made from photographs of the body of an African American child murdered by two white men in 1955. This murder, and the photographs, played a major role in shaping the civil-rights movement and have acquired an almost sacred quality (Malik, 2017). Schutz’s painting caused little controversy until it was included in the prestigious Whitney Biennial Exhibition in New York. Many disagreed with the idea of a white painter depicting such a traumatic moment in black history, and for that depiction to receive the recognition of a Whitney Biennial invitation. Many artists even organised a petition to have the work destroyed. Nothing was done. In the same Whitney Biennial was a painting by Henry Taylor; “The Times They Ain’t Changing, Fast Enough!”, which shows an African American man horrifically murdered in his car by a policeman. Taylor’s painting, unlike Schutz’s, received little criticism, but rather has been praised for its “hauntingly vivid depiction” of the shooting of Castile (Malik, 2017).

What many people fail to understand is that, Black creatives are humans behind their projected vehicles. Black creatives are asked to see when blindfolded, hear when deafened, and forced to express when imprisoned by inescapable binding expectations. They are expected to walk and express in their truth, with vulnerability and grace, yet remain stuck in a narrowed narrative to gain and exploit a targeted audience in order to be successful and earn a living. Because of the public narrative that has been erected around them by the people of other dominant communities, using their own Black aesthetics/ practices and voices, their personal and artistic experience has been completely warped and infected. They must live in the hopes of their personal truths. This brings forward many questions; what is the purpose of a white person making art, in terms of the moral progression of humanity? What is a white person’s contribution to art history, especially in the instance of cultural mystification (“mystification” meaning a tool created by white people to glorify white art and distract from the original, often sinister, meanings behind its creation), superficial meaning or lack thereof, when said white artist is not deliberately addressing their inherently privileged position in society? What are the politics of white artists depicting black people in their work? (considering the historical appropriation of artists of color in white/ elitist art institutions, white complacency in sight of people of color suffering, etc.) Why do white artists feel entitled to depict people of color in their work if they are not actively working to deconstruct and undo white supremacy in their daily lives? Who essentially benefits from this art? And what does this distract from?

The whole basis of “White aesthetics” generally forces some kind of normative meaning to whatever aesthetic is being referenced or appropriated. We can even see examples of this through many of the stars of the American reality television show, Keeping Up with the Kardashians, in instances where they famously style their hair in “cornrows”, “dreadlocks”, “bantu-knots”, or wear “du-rags”. Traditionally, hairstyles such as these were worn either for religious purposes (i.e. Rastafarianism), and/or are worn solely for function because of the texture and high-maintenance upkeep that afro-textured Black hair requires. According to the Kardashians, their braided and “ethnic” hairstyles come from a “real place of love and appreciation for the culture” (Young, 2018). But what the television stars seem to fail to understand is that over the years, cornrows, along with dreadlocks, have been the subject of several disputes in workplaces around the world, as well as universities. Some employers and educational institutions have deemed them unsuitable and banned them. “The ideology of White aesthetics deculturizes the uniquely cultural expression of people of color. That is, White people use various institutional means to remove or diminish the cultural aspects from the expression of people of color. The ideology of White aesthetics insists that such expression by people of color is simply a fashion statement in the capitalist marketplace because White people can also express themselves in an ‘exotic’ ethnic manner. This confusion over fashion statement and cultural expression allows courts to dismiss as frivolous those claims by plaintiffs who seek to reject the ideology of White aesthetics as manifested, for example, through their employers’ dress codes” (Kang, 1997, p. 295). Black children all over America, no matter their age or social/economic status are bullied and made to feel as if they are less than every single day at school simply because of the way they wear their natural hair. All the while, because of the influence that white celebrities such as the Kardashians have, other white children are walking into the same schools and the same classes sporting said hairstyles and other staple representative forms of Black culture that have been deemed aesthetically pleasing. But instead of them being ridiculed and supressed for the way they choose to wear their hair like all of their coloured piers, they are praised and celebrated for it. Simply due to the normality of the cultural hierarchy that is created from a very young age, solely based on the color of people’s skin and where they come from. Employees and civil rights groups have countered that as evidence of cultural bias, and some disputes have resulted in legal action. “What is fundamental here is the aesthetic of presence, a technique of “being” to counter the aesthetics of invisibility that people of the African diaspora have had to overcome since slavery” (Tulloch, 2016, p. 3).

Parts of the idea of White aesthetics is also based on negative self-identification. White people project onto people of color what they subconsciously perceive as their own visual downfalls. Through this projection, the concept of beauty becomes eschew and pigeon-holed. That is, the concept of beauty, at one time without any meaningful racial connotation, is now completely based off of racial meaning. Because this negative self-identification dehumanizes some peripheral group as abnormal while reinforcing the dominant group’s self-perception as being closer to perfection, the dominant group can put down the minority groups, and even commit horrific acts of violence against them without feelings of remorse or moral doubt. “Indeed, since someone else comes to embody those darker qualities in ourselves, we must subordinate and punish the ‘other group’ in order to exercise a form of external discipline over ourselves. This external discipline is necessary to mold and confirm our collective normality and correctness” (Kang, 1997, p.292)

But also, in defining the ideology of White aesthetics, what must be made absolutely clear is that the appropriation of a voice and cultural representation of a people is not unique to White people or to any particular race. Nonetheless, White Europeans and White Americans have historically enforced, either consciously or subconsciously, their elitist views in order to put down people of color. Because White people can exercise the privilege to prefer certain aesthetic styles over others, they can enjoy the ability to make personal fashion statements for amusement, but people of color are often pushed into racial submission through such normalized acts such as simply straightening their hair. “The imitator, who does not experience that oppression is able to “play”, temporarily, an “exotic” other, without experiencing any of the daily discriminations faced by other cultures. This hierarchical “borrowing” along the last few decades of minority symbols, elements, and cultural commodities by a majority group needs to be contextualized within multicultural practices and postmodern aesthetics, but also within a certain objectifying appreciation of diversity” (Bavaro, 2018, p.26). Where do we draw the line between appropriation and appreciation, between theft and tribute, in today’s society that is deep rooted in its’ shallow, consumerist ways? The ideology of White aesthetics creates a world of aesthetics where, for people of color, the personal is very much the political.

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