Help Desk

Help Desk: Race & Voice

Help Desk is where I answer your queries about making, exhibiting, finding, marketing, buying, selling–or any other activity related to contemporary art. Submit your questions anonymously here. All submissions become the property of Daily Serving.

I am a writer and curator. I’m also a woman of color. While people think this may not be important, it is! We don’t live in a postracial society. What I find particularly infuriating is when I bring up race, gender, and identity—and then I’m questioned about my stance and my research; sometimes my words are edited to the point where it is no longer my writing. In a few instances, MY VOICE is almost eradicated. I’m upset, and the more I write about art, the more I realize how art institutions (universities, galleries, museums, and publications) have a LONG way to go before they actually showcase writers, art critics, curators, and creative professionals that are underrepresented and obscured. Yes, I understand there are shows dedicated to women and people of color to show diversity, etc., but I don’t care, I’m still going to bring up the question. How do I tell an editor that I’m entitled to my opinion—even if it brings up issues of race, gender, and identity—without being pegged as the “angry brown woman”?

In answering this question—which is really a few questions in one—I could write volumes about gender, editorial relations, and the misguided belief that tokenism can correct the problem of institutionalized race-based bias. However, this is a humble advice column and not the Help Desk Unabridged Advice Encyclopedia, so in the interest of brevity I’ve asked some women who have experience with these matters, and I’ve sprinkled this reply liberally with links to further reading for people of all colors. In the interest of getting straight to the point, let me say: First, you need a mentor. You have to have someone you can rely on for guidance, preferably a woman of color who is in your field. A mentor can help you review various issues around writing and editing, critique your performance, help you define your goals, and bolster your professional community. Here are some tips for finding this person.

Next, I want you to focus on building conflict-resolution skills. This will be helpful for you and everyone else reading this column—there is no doubt that every one of us will encounter myriad clashes in the workplace and beyond, and these skills take a while to master. Remember that conflict resolution is not just about mediating disagreements, it’s also about managing stressful situations. Start practicing now, before the world makes you crazy and bitter.

Start or join a writing group for women of color. You’ll get feedback on your work and have a support network for your endeavors. You might already know some women from school, at your job, or in your social network, who might be glad for the opportunity to get together once a month to talk about these topics. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has a wealth of information on how to start a writing group. You can likely find co-members through AICA, the College Art Association, the Society of Contemporary Art Historians, or even

On to the next part: Because I am white, I haven’t had any firsthand experiences like the one you describe. But, as I often do in this column, I reached out to two authors who I thought could speak from their own understanding. First, Jordana Moore Saggese, Associate Professor of Contemporary Art and Theory at the California College of the Arts and author of the newly released Reading Basqiuat: Exploring Ambivalence in American Art, responded extensively:

“On reading the submitted question, it seems that the writer is referring to something which many of us are all too familiar [with]—that is, what Olu Oguibe called ‘the culture game.’ In Oguibe’s terms, there is a distinction between 

 difference. The former being largely ‘benign and profitable’ (e.g., the museum shows dedicated to women and people of color mentioned by your reader), while the white, male, heteronormative, and cisgendered majority perceive the latter as dangerous, as a threat. It seems to me that this reader is coming up against the limits of tolerable difference; her voice and presence as a woman of color in the field is appreciated (and perhaps even advertised as part of a diversity PR campaign)…but only to a certain degree. It is a question of being heard, as well as seen.

“My advice to the questioner would include several points. First, I agree with Bean’s suggestion of mentorship. It is important for any woman of color, who by default faces problems of double exclusion in most academic fields, to have someone with whom they might share experiences and frustrations. In my own life, the ability to share strategies and advice is as important as having someone there simply to recognize and to acknowledge the forms of micro-aggressions a woman of color experiences in this environment.

“This leads me to my second point, which is to pick one’s battles carefully. Early on in my own career I felt it somehow necessary to correct every single person’s perspective on race and racism—from my own family, to my colleagues, to people overheard at the coffee house. This can be exhausting and can lead to particularly short fuses (at least in my case). I now know that sociologists have termed this ‘racial battle fatigue.’ I have learned that it is just not possible for me to manage oppression on such a large scale. Furthermore, not all silence is bad (see the work of Margaret Montoya for more on this). I now try to focus my efforts more strategically, which leaves me with more energy to manage criticism where it matters most (i.e., in my own academic work).

“The questioner asks how to express ideas, and in particular those which might bring up issues of identity, without being perceived as an ‘angry brown woman.’ This is a complicated question and I would like to unpack it a bit. On the point of expressing one’s ideas, I would encourage the questioner to try and recognize the rhetorics with which her critics might most be familiar and apply those in the furtherance of her own arguments. For example, if dealing with a critic well versed in Marxist theories, it might help to frame one’s discussion of race within a context of hierarchies or the problems of oppression. We often only recognize others when they speak to our own interests. So, assuming the best-case scenario (that this particular critic is just ill informed), your reader might try this approach to satisfy criticisms about her own work. And when failure and disappointment occur nonetheless, try to focus on what has been accomplished despite all the barriers of racism and sexism. One should realize that there is always room for improvement, and take any lessons that can be learned from that experience, but then move on. Being sensitive to criticism (of any kind) can make academic life very difficult.

“Now, the most interesting and perhaps difficult part of the question is how to avoid being identified as an ‘angry brown woman.’ Unfortunately, this is something that very few have any control over. Perceptions are perceptions; we have more control over our reactions to those who interpret our actions within such a racist framework. When you decide to respond to criticism, do so professionally and thoroughly. Leave it at that. If they peg you as an ‘angry brown woman,’ so be it.”

I also reached out to Patricia A. Matthew, PhD, Associate Professor in the Department of English at Montclair State University, who also writes this amazing blog on race and academia. She said, “It’s interesting, but not surprising, to see how the problems I read and write about in the academic sphere pop up wherever women of color want to contribute to mainstream conversations. This query reminds me of a recent Buzzfeed piece offering advice for journalists and writers of color.”

“It seems to me the questioner has two sets of questions that intersect—one is about how to manage the societal response to women of color who assert themselves, and one is how to balance editorial expectations with her writing goals. I think it’s important to be aware of the former without letting it be too distracting (no small task!) and to learn how to balance the latter. People may or may not see her as the Angry Brown Woman, but that is largely beyond her control, so she should just stay focused on the work that is important to her and focus on perfecting her craft. Things like ’voice’ and ‘entitled to’ matter more to writers than editors, so she should be specific about what matters to her about her writing. I think people respond best to concrete things (this sentence or this paragraph) than abstract ideas (the ‘voice’ of a woman of color). It seems vital to make the case for one’s writing based on how that writing supports a specific idea or argument, and so I always try to go that route when talking about my work with editors.”

“Building a relationship with an editor you trust and who respects your point of view is so important, so if it’s possible, shopping around for publications is a good idea. Depending on the publication, sometimes sharing a draft that is close to being finished can make it easier for writers and editors to have a conversation about what a piece should and shouldn’t include.”

“The larger problem she rightly points out is that folks in the art world want to think that one show a year featuring ’diversity’ is enough, and hearing anything that counters that is bound to make them defensive. Again, I find it better to have these conversations in concrete ways—to think about who is doing the curating, how shows are organized, and where art is presented. I’m not saying that people will respond well (or at all) to concrete suggestions, but they can be more effective than simply naming the problem.”

I hope this advice will prove useful in the future, and I also hope you will check in and let us know how you’re doing in the future. Meanwhile, here are some more resources for Help Desk readers:

The bibliography Resources for Women of Color Faculty, by Robyn Magalit Rodriguez, PhD, Associate Professor, Asian American Studies, UC Davis

Matthew Salesses’ essay “When Defending Your Writing Becomes Defending Yourself

Frances E. Kendall’s “How to Be an Ally If You Are a Person with Privilege

Guidelines for Being Strong White Allies,” Adapted from Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Social Justice by Paul Kivel

Good luck!