Whiteness is a relationship: Thinking with Shary Boyle’s “Outside the Palace of Me”

18 January, 2024 – access copy

Race is a social relationship, a creation, a collective fabrication. But it is real. It kills some people and enriches others; it pretends that these deaths and that horded wealth are just the way the world is and therefore how it will always be. This is a lie. Even if we are not personally targeted by the life-destroying lie of racial superiority, if we care about our own and other’s humanity, we should fight for the truth. We should bend our will toward liberation with all our hearts and all our skill. We should look for every opportunity to reckon with the past and create the imaginative and practical possibility for a different present and future. We should fight on the side of people targeted by racism, border militarism, and genocidal colonialism. We should fight to win.

If we begin this work against racism, we might feel helpless or useless. White people in particular often feel adrift and incompetent, implicated by the fact that we benefit from violence directed against other people. Shary Boyle’s new show, “Outside the Palace of Me” offers us a model for thinking about race in the midst of those complex feelings. A rare example of a white artist reckoning deliberately with whiteness, the show is beautiful, provoking, and pedagogical.

Viewers enter the exhibit through a curtain, stepping onto a raised stage. On the stage of this show, but also in our lives, we enact different roles; our expressive intent does not control the interpretive uptake we might receive. And we’re only ever holding a role in relation to others. Thus talking about something like whiteness invites us to dwell with the complexity of social relations that are entirely made up but have real material effects. We make and remake our self and the world in relation with others; Boyle’s work here stages some relations with which we can identify or disidentify – figures, images, and also the space of the stage, other people who might move through it with us, in complex configurations of gaze and body.

We experience whiteness this way, as a whole world we move through with others, a co-production in which we are differentially situated and for whom the meaning we make shifts depending on how others perceive and position us.  So, we can start by recognizing that whiteness as a social relationship of oppression and benefit has not always existed, that “white” is not a biological category, and we can ask what it will take to destroy the work it currently does – to make whiteness as a relation of oppression no longer exist. And we can reflect on how looking at art can help in that creative destruction.

The pieces in the show that most directly engage whiteness are the White Elephant figure and the images that bracket them. But it is notable that we could have an entire discussion about whiteness exclusively through attending to the work in this exhibit that is not overtly or obviously about whiteness or white people. Indeed, often the most important places to understand whiteness are through thinking about the ways that culture creates identity [potter]; how culture is racialized, travels, and becomes mutually-implicated [Cephalophic saint]; the echoes of people experiencing what Franz Fanon called epidermalization, Black skin contemplating white masks [drag show]; the entanglements of racial capital with spectacle and performance [Centering]; and the ways gender and sex are always lived through race and vice versa, in ways that mark the vital importance of resisting binaries and fixity as we move toward worlds that can celebrate the glorious complexity of our actual lives [Oasis].

But space is limited! So let me tell you a little about the animatronic sculpture “White Elephant” and its affiliated paintings “Lone Gunman” and “Settler.” As Boyle said in one of the conversations about the making of this work, “white elephant” names whiteness as the perpetual elephant in the room, which white people would like to not have to acknowledge or talk about even as it distorts the fabric of space and time. And a “white elephant” sale is often of those things that people don’t want but have priced too high to sell, that which has been overvalued but cannot be disposed of.

But where does this sense of “white elephant” come from? It turns out, OG colonialism! Which is to say, this phrase densely figures the intertwined material and symbolic formation of whiteness as it manifests today, though this actual animal other. Toung Taloung was a Burmese (from what is now Myanmar) elephant with distinctive epidermal difference, pale patches on their body. Symbolically, in parts of cosmologies in Siam and Burma, the birth of a chang pheuak or “strange coloured” elephant marked the auspiciousness or legitimacy of the monarch ruling at the time. They became symbolically important when Britain invaded and took over direct rule of Burma over the course of three wars between 1824 and 1885 – complex fetish objects for the British colonial imaginary. And so when circus operator P.T. Barnum bought and brought to first London and then the US this white elephant it is perhaps to be expected that it catalysed a much bigger conversation about race and whiteness.

As Sarah Amato notes in her brilliant social history of Toung Taloung and race, the definition in the OED in the 1850s read: “a. A rare albino variety of elephant which is highly venerated in some Asian countries. b.  fig A burdensome or costly possession (from the story that the kings of Siam were accustomed to make a present of one of these animals to courtiers who had rendered themselves obnoxious, in order to ruin the recipient by the cost of its maintenance). Also, an object, scheme, etc., considered to be without use or value”. Amato carefully examines how debates about whether Toung Taloung was “really” white, or mottled, whether he was becoming whiter the longer he was away from the east, and what it would mean about the orientalised other for him to be venerated in the ways Barnum claimed that he was.

All of this carried over into the elephant’s further adventures in North America, facilitated by the Pears soap campaigns that quickly tranversed the trope of the elephant being whitened through to the idea of Blackness being something that could be washed off. A competitor to Barnum painted and bleached the skin of an elephant, rendering it much whiter, and put it on display. So here we have one aspect of whiteness, the epidermal question, pigmentation, melanin, “looking white.” Determining who is “really white” by the colour of their skin (alongside other physiognomy criteria) has of course been a key technology of racial oppression globally. One of the fears 19th century racists had about Toung Taloung was precisely the worry that colour could be erased – if it was so easy to become white, how would the racial order be maintained?

Boyle’s White Elephant is a kind of white no white person is, from their skin colour to their nose, lips, eyes, hair texture, and politely cold expression. Boyle deploys here the visual markers that have been central to racial projects of whiteness. But, as marked by the racial anxieties white people had about the existence of a white elephant (or an elephant who could be made white), the project of whiteness requires constant vigilance. In White Elephant’s case, this manifests as a motion-sensor-triggered spinning head, a 360 degree pivot on a moment’s notice. We can think of it as the racial pivot from imputing racial biological markers to fanatically stabilizing a social order that creates racial meaning. This figure harkens back to many horror tropes; the uncanny spin of their head, along with the distortion of the White Elephant’s body, might enact the affective charge of horror in viewers of the exhibit. As scholar Laura Hall and Chanda Prescod-Weinstein have elaborated, horror as a genre is densely entangled with legacies of chattel slavery and genocidal colonialism, especially as horror works through the question of resistance to Christian domination. So there are interesting questions here about what it means to be horrified by whiteness, especially for those of us who are white. 

It matters that Boyle’s work is coming from the Canadian context. Color-based racism of course matters in Canada, everywhere from the ongoing reality of police murders of and violence against Black, Indigenous, and other racialized people to less overtly murderous forms of interpersonal racism. But consider what was happening in Canada the same year Toung Taloung was brought over to North America, 1884. 1884 was an early iteration of what would later become the “Indian Act.” John A Macdonald forwarded the “Indian Advancement Act,” an early iteration of “enfranchisement,” voting, Canadian political control of Indigenous governance. The Act, and indeed all subsequent versions of it, aimed at extinguishment of Indigenous being. This doesn’t sound so bad, but enfranchisement in fact was part of a genocidal project – if Indigenous people became eligible to live off-reserve, vote, if they became clergy or got a university education, they would forfeit their Indigenous status. This extinguishment was also material, manifest in the government’s stated policies to use starvation, confinement to reserve systems, and withdrawal of medical care to kill Indigenous people. Macdonald and the Dominion and subsequent Canadian government used these extermination practices (including but by no means limited to stealing children from their communities through forced residential schooling and later the sixties scoop) as an arm in the broader genocidal project that continues to ground what is currently “Canada.” That project uses legal extinguishment in attempts to formally end treaty and other relationships that require Canada to respect the sovereignty of Indigenous people. Indigenous people and their governance structures, being, and relationships with other beings and places are not dependent on Canadian recognition, much as Canada has tried to make them dependent on that recognition and then withhold it.

The emaciated White Elephant who sits in judgement, head spinning, the long arms of the law ready to hand, whose mouth is so small that they cannot ever consume enough to satisfy their long, long body, might be a figure of this manifestation of whiteness. This is whiteness as the legal arrangements that determine who can enter or stay in the country, who has standing for civil engagement in all its forms, who should be imprisoned, and how resources are distributed. Whiteness like this is hard for white people to perceive even as it is constantly apparent to the people it targets for our benefit.

The way that Canadian whiteness happens is often as being “better than the US.” We can consider the figure of the “Lone Gunman,” who evokes the Boy Scouts, Hitler Youth, the agent of deadly mass shootings that happen so regularly now in the US that they are not even reported, and certainly not as a form of a racial project. Boyle’s work points to the formulation of the “lone gunman” whose whiteness and frequent connection to overt white supremacist and misogynist groups is erased through media representation of him as a lone actor.

The Lone Gunman, his violence and the refusal to reckon with what that violence protects, expresses one aspect of whiteness in the mode of the work white people do to create and then discipline a racial order – whiteness is in continual need of defense, collusion, and violent maintenance. Philosopher Charles Mills called this the “Racial Contract” – formal and informal agreements between white people that sort the world into groups, benefitting the people constituted as white.

The Lone Gunman also signals the violence of resource extraction, militarism, and the idea that it is possible to have dominion over the land, and that some people have the God-given right to that domination. Aileen Moreton-Robinson focuses on the aspect of the racial contract which operates on a logic of what she calls “the White Possessive.” She writes, “racialization is the process by which whiteness operates possessively to define and construct itself as the pinnacle of its own racial hierarchy” (Moreton-Robinson, 2015, p. xx). The gun is a key technology for enforcing the very idea that ownership is possible, with whiteness emerging from the classifications of who can own and who or what can be owned. This is practical (inherited wealth being the engine of home ownership) for example, and it’s ideological (as when Black people entering their own homes are assumed to be robbers). As Robyn Maynard argues in her work on Blackness in the Canadian context, it is vital to consider the role of state violence in the creation and maintenance of the racial order, from colonization to police murders of racialized people; who has sanctioned or official access to guns, and who they kill, tells us a lot about the racial organization of violence in our world, and what it protects.

Whiteness also organizes the eugenic work of determining who should reproduce the pure white race and who should be sterilized. Boyle pairs with the boyish representation of the RCMP the figuration of the settler, a young, pregnant, chained white woman necessary to securing the future of the white nation. She is bound by her own whiteness, but as she gets what one hopes is some ease from the pot she smokes, we can see the echo between her fingers clutching her chains and the fingers that clutch her. For me, this is an important reference to the ways that white women have been central figures in the violence meted out to racialized men in particular. White feminists thus can trouble rather than embrace the anaesthetic necessary to either numb out to our complicity with, or actively participate in, the evils of racism.

This figure of the pregnant settler also references ongoing debates about meaningful abortion access. Forced sterilization of racialized people and disabled people are part of the eugenic project of forced pregnancy for the white race. White supremacists here in Canada, as abroad, consistently reference a commitment to securing a future for whiteness, whether they reference the “14 Words” of white supremacist David Lane (“We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.”), or in the slightly masked formulation of the Progressive Conservative party, simply “Secure the Future.” The figure of the pregnant white woman settler asks us what other futures we can imagine, which do not simply replicate the horrific histories and presents we now live.

Canadian evocations of multiculturalism and diversity often stand as a counter to this triptych of the white elephant, the lone gunman, the innocent-yet-knowing settler. This returns us to everyone in this exhibit who is not overtly coded as white. What is the relationship between them and the figure of the White Elephant, the Lone Gunman, the Settler?

Most of what I’ve elaborated so far applies to white racial formation across North America, grounded in the founding violences of settler colonialism, chattel slavery, and border militarism. In Canada, we have a perhaps more subtle unfolding of white racial formation and the racial contract, which uses the language of diversity and multiculturalism. To be a diverse and multicultural nation sounds good, better anyhow than being an engine of white supremacy – and this is complicated because decrying “multiculturalism” has become itself a dogwhistle of the right. As both Himani Bannerji and Sunera Thobani have elaborated, what seem to be value-neutral or actually quite positive commitments to multiplicity and complexity are in fact more complicated. Being a mosiac rather than a melting pot seems to hold the promise of everyone being able to have their own dignity. These thinkers argue that what happens, instead, is a solidification of conceptions of people framed as “diverse” or “multicultural” – everyone who is not white – into fixed cultural or ethnic groups, who are then seen as the site of difference, backwardness, and “culture.”

So as white people look hard at ourselves, maybe with new eyes, what can we do with what we see? If this exhibit is to help us think about whiteness, situated as it is in the context of an art world that has not yet collectively reckoned with its own whiteness and the material conditions that make questions about race consistently the white elephant in the room, what kind of action might it spark? 

What new faces might we shape, if white people aim to refuse the benefits we receive from whiteness and repair the harms of the inheritances we’ve received? One option is to come to this exhibit, or to think about whiteness, and feel bad. Lots of us do this – white people feel bad, decide we need to learn more, read more, and so on. When we do this, the bad feeling and the learning more can become the end point of our actions. This does not actually help dismantle white supremacy and massively transform the racial order that is doing its part to destroy our shared world.

The best way to break the racial contract, to become a traitor to whiteness, is through collective action. This doesn’t have to take the form of a protest march, though it can and often does. Wherever white people are situated, we are made complicit against our will with horrific wrongs. And each point of complicity, each thing we want to repudiate, is also a site of traction for transformation. We can ask, both in daily life and as we set broader strategic goals for collective transformation, how we can rend the forms of life that stabilize racism.

As the tombstone for antiracist white activist Joel Olson asks, “What is the most damage I can do, given my biography, abilities, and commitments, to the racial order and rule of capital?” Are we upholding whiteness, or transforming and destroying it? These are helpful questions, and ones I think this exhibit helps us ask.

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