Art Acts: Reframing the White Gaze in Claudia Rankine's The White Card


In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

"Until we are willing to look at the ways in which white Americans are culpable in the suffering of the people of color, and understand that culpability needs to be present in the representation of that, suffering will continue." Claudia Rankine1

"Art has always been the tool of the powerful, and also the weapon of the dispossessed: official imagery controls narratives of identity and defines what is 'right', but these representations can be creatively subverted and destroyed. You have to know the rules of the space to sabotage it." Alice Procter2

Protest arose at the Whitney Museum's 2017 Biennial exhibit in response to Dana Schutz's painting Open Casket, a somewhat abstract rendering of the famous photograph of Emmett Till in his casket. Artist Parker Bright's critique led him to stand in front of the painting wearing a tee-shirt that read "Black Death Spectacle." Bright's physical protest was followed by an open letter written by Hannah Black that demanded the Whitney remove the painting, in which she wrote:

Although Schutz's intention may be to present white shame, this shame is not correctly represented as a painting of a dead Black boy by a white artist—those non-Black artists who sincerely wish to highlight the shameful nature of white violence should first of all stop treating Black pain as raw material. The subject matter is not Schutz's; white free speech and white creative freedom have been founded on the constraints of others, and are not natural rights. The painting must go.3

Some artists and patrons responded to this protest by arguing the dangers of censorship, while many others supported removal of the painting. The controversy led to hot debates in the art-world and culminated in the Whitney's decision to stage a public discussion about race and representation within the traditionally "white" spaces of museums. The museum asked Claudia Rankine to moderate this discussion due to her work in founding the Racial Imaginary Institute, an inter-disciplinary "cultural laboratory" that explores, counters, contextualizes and demystifies cultural ideas about race.4 The Whitney billed the evening as a discussion about "questions around race, violence, the ethics of representation, and the limits of empathy."5 Although the curators of the museum did not alter the exhibit in response to the protests, the debates about representation in visual, literary, filmic and theatrical arts continues as American culture grapples with legacies of colonialism, appropriation, and white dominance. Claudia Rankine's 2018 play The White Card immerses its characters and audience in these debates and is most fully understood in this context to be refocusing not on Black experience but on the blindness about whiteness that is a traditional part of the white gaze.6


1. Nadja Sayej, "Claudia Rankine on Whitney Biennial Row: "'Anyone who is subject to a culture can use it,'" The Guardian, April 10, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/apr/10/claudia-rankine-whitney-biennial-emmett-till-painting.

2. Alice Procter, The Whole Picture: The Colonial Story of the Art in Our Museums & Why We Need to Talk about It" (London: Cassell, 2020), 16.

3. Alex Greenberger, "The Painting Must Go: Hannah Black Pens Open Letter to the Whitney about Controversial Biennial Work," ArtNews, March 21, 2017, https://www.artnews.com/artnews/news/the-painting-must-go-hannah-black-pens-open-letter-to-the-whitney-about-controversial-biennial-work-7992/. Black's open letter to the curators of the exhibit was first posted on Facebook and then reprinted in Art News.

4. "About the Racial Imaginary Institute," accessed Aug. 29, 2023, https://www.theracialimaginary.org/about. The Racial Imaginary Institute explains that the term "'racial imaginary' is meant to capture the enduring truth of race: it is an invented concept that nevertheless operates with extraordinary force in our daily lives, limiting our movements and imaginations. We understand that perceptions, resources, rights, and lives themselves flow along racial lines that confront some of us with restrictions and give others uninterrogated power. These lines are drawn and maintained by white dominance even as individuals and communities alike continually challenge them."

5. For more on the Whitney Biennial controversy see "Perspectives on Race and Representation: An Evening with the Racial Imaginary Institute," April 9, 2017, https://whitney.org/media/1493; Aruna D'Souza, Whitewalling: Art, Race, & Protest in 3 Acts (Brooklyn: Badlands Unlimited, 2020), 15-63; Alice Procter, The Whole Picture, 182–187.

6. The term "white gaze" refers to a framing of how whiteness "sees" or as Judith Butler puts it, "reads" the non-white as threat while overlooking its own position of power. In her discussion of the interpretation of Rodney King as a threat even as he was being mercilessly beaten by police, Butler explains how this is "a reading which became for the white community, and for countless others, the same as seeing" (p. 16). Judith Butler, "Endangered/Endangering: Schematic Racism and White Paranoia," in Reading Rodney King, Reading Urban Uprising, edited by Robert Gooding-Williams (New York: Routledge, 1993), 15–22. In George Yancy, Black Bodies, White Gazes: The Continuing Significance of Race in America, 2nd edition, (Lanham, Maryland: Rowan and Littlefield, 2017), Yancy discusses how Toni Morrison examines this white gaze in The Bluest Eye, explaining that this gaze "is linked to the power to define" (173). Added to this negative reading of Blackness, the white gaze overlooks the power that is in its own whiteness. Dani Snyder-Young succinctly defines the white gaze as "a concept whereby white people resist inclusion in a racialized category yet render people of color as representatives of racialized groups." Dani Snyder-Young, Privileged Spectatorship: Theatrical Interventions in White Supremacy (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2020), xxix.

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