“Who Gets to Be White Hasn’t Always Been the Same”
Naima Lowe’s “Thirty-Nine Questions for White People,” a book born from observations about her class of predominantly white students, has been generating buzz for the potentially uncomfortable questions it forces its viewers to consider. The project presents 39 simple questions — questions that are all-too-relatable for anyone who identifies as a racial minority — but flips the perspective from the minority back to the majority. Questions like “How do you know you’re white?” and “Do you notice when the last white person leaves the room?” become surprising and almost jarring, forcing white people to think more critically about the experience (and inherent privilege) of being white.
Lowe’s book has resonated with so many that she is currently working on a second edition, which will be widely accessible. The first edition was published by DangerDot Publishing and put on exhibition at Seattle’s Wing Luke Museum. Salon recently talked to Lowe about her inspiration for the project and its reception.
What inspired the project?
The project was inspired in part by — I teach as well as make art — when I was working with groups of students at the place where I teach, Evergreen State College in Washington, and students I was working with would have a lot of work they were doing around thinking about race and ethnicity, in particular the … students’ artwork, and how they could engage and think affirmatively about how to combat racist assumptions in their work.
And what I was realizing as the work was continuing was that a lot of the students — who were mostly white, in this particular class — hadn’t had a lot of experience with thinking about what whiteness meant. They kind of understood what it meant to say “discrimination or etc. is bad,” and they had a grasp on that as a concept, but they didn’t understand the extent to which they needed to sort of be interrogating their own relationships to race as white people.
So in some ways, that was what was inspiring that work at that particular moment; working with these particular students, but also observing that in my life — in my life as a teacher, in my life living and working in this small town in the Pacific Northwest, which is very sort of liberal in many ways — that particular question of how to really interrogate what whiteness is was not, I didn’t see it on people’s radar on a regular basis. So that was one of the initial inspirations and then from there it became also about looking at my own relationship to whiteness. I’m an African-American artist; I certainly think about myself relative to white people, but I didn’t necessarily — I realized I had to kind of think about the questions, as well, as I posed them.
What did whiteness mean to your students, to you, and how did that change through the course of the project?
I’m not sure that necessarily anything changed. Perhaps it changed in the lives of individual people thinking about these issues relative to their own lives, but I don’t know that this particular project actually changed anything. I feel like, in a lot of ways, the questions I was posing are questions that people of color have been asking and trying to get white folks in their lives to think about for years and years. And so, in that sense, I’m not sure that I necessarily was making an intervention that was new at all, so much as it came about in maybe a form that people hadn’t seen before.
How did you come up with those questions?
Part of the way I came up with the questions themselves was, before it existed in this very simple form, I had been working with a collaborator thinking about this project, thinking about it in a way where I knew I was interested in interrogating whiteness and I knew what that could look like, and it was becoming this really complex form. I had all these different ideas — it was going to be a video installation, it was going to have audio and this and that, different complex things — and then my collaborator asked me, “Well, Naima, what do you actually just want to know?” I was complicating the issue in some ways, almost obfuscating the issue through the form. She said, “Why don’t you just sit down and write the questions that you want to know?”
And so I actually did. I actually sat down in my studio and just started writing down questions for an hour. And, of course, the shape, the order, the kind of questions shifted over time — I mean, that one hour got me started but they did get honed over time. That was kind of what it did. It was literally just me asking myself what I wanted to know. It came out of a kind of pretty pure curiosity about the topic in my own life, in the lives of people that I know — white people and otherwise — to think about what this means.
What were some of the more controversial cards, and did anything surprise you about the reaction to them? Because the whole thing could be seen as controversial to some people, I bet.
Yeah. I assume maybe they’re controversial. I’ve largely chosen to keep my distance from people answering, on some level. Like, my work in this context was to put them out there, and then for people, if they feel inclined to answer or to have that be the basis of broader conversation among white folks, to leave it at that. I feel pretty strongly about that.
And so I think that one thing I can say about the photos is how the questions are situated. They start off — the first couple of ones are about, “How do you know you’re white?” Most people see that one first. I think that one gets people’s attention. And then they go through different things like, “How do you know you’re white?” and “What are the things that tell you you’re white,” and then in the middle range it moves into things that maybe seem more absurd, like what do white people eat or drink, things along those lines, sort of slightly absurd things that maybe kind of echo some of the ways that people whose race is not considered the norm get asked all the time. Then they move, toward the end, into questions kind of about love, which have to do with my own relationship to the questions and my own relationship to my life, but also to this question of what are the things that we as a culture value, and what gets undervalued. I don’t know whether any one question has stuck out as controversial, although my sense is that as a whole, going through this process of thinking, has had a kind of controversial impact.
It sounds like what it’s really forcing people to do — and not just white people — but it’s forcing people in America to think about race in broader terms. But it sounds also like a lot of it is about the inherent privilege of being white, or being part of a majority, in that the whole point of this is that these are questions white people don’t usually have to think about.
Exactly, exactly. I think that’s kind of the point. Also, to be really clear about the idea that this isn’t something that’s static — because there’s this weird way that we have this concept of a norm of whiteness that doesn’t get interrogated, and yet it’s not a real category. That’s kind of the point too. It’s a thing that’s been created, that’s created in order to distinguish between the norm and the majority and everybody else. But it’s something that’s not necessarily inherently real, and something that people have kind of had to adopt into over time. There’s a way that I, personally, as an educator and a thinker, I’m interested in the ways that whiteness hasn’t always been the same. Who gets to be white hasn’t always been the same, historically, and isn’t necessarily this static thing.
I guess to some extent where I see people get frustrated at having to think about it is the fact that tells me something. Even just the fact that people find it hard tells me something, because there is this inherent privilege in not having to think about it.
I was really surprised; I knew people would find it interesting, I knew it was good work; it went into that exhibition in Seattle, which I was really proud of getting to be part of. I knew that my publisher, who’s a small little publisher in my town, when they opted to pick it up and offered to distribute it they were like, “Oh, Naima, this is going to go everywhere.” I was like, “Whatever, we don’t have to talk about this” or “Thank you, but it won’t go anywhere.” I was really pleasantly surprised to find not just people in the U.S. engaging with it, but I have people from outside the U.S. interested in this and interested in talking about this construction and what it’s meant and wanting to talk about it and translate it and know more about it. So, I guess what that’s taught me is that there is a lot of inability to talk, but a lot of hunger to do so. People want ways to have more access to that conversation.
I imagine that these questions spark totally different conversations because of different contexts. I’m wondering how it affects conversations about mixed-raced people specifically, and how they have responded.
Yeah, I do too. I’m not sure. I mean, I know, obviously, my perspective is as someone who’s African-American. I’m fairly sure most people in the U.S. view me and understand me as African-American, right, like that’s the perspective that I come from. But a lot of people in my life, including people in my family, are mixed-race, like you said. Also people who would not — part of what I was talking about, too, is historically there is this phenomenon that at times in our history people who would now be considered white were not. Through immigration and through assimilation, people became part of this majority. It wasn’t always so fixed. What is it about this idea of whiteness and Americanness being one and the same, even though they’re not, obviously.
I think it has something to do with this strange phenomenon of the clinical melting pot, right — this idea that we all sort of assimilate into some category of sameness, and part of the phenomenon of the assimilation is having the capacity to do so because of skin privilege and because of proximity to the norm. And so, anyway, my point is that those are all questions that are really interesting to me, that impact people in my life, that impact how I think about the world. I think when people talk about how we get at and undo white privilege — well, I think one of the ways to do that is to actually look at what whiteness is, look at what it is historically, look at what it is now, look at what’s afforded, look at what’s sacrificed by assimilating into it.
Those are the kinds of things that I think help to engage with it, and part of it is that that’s the more complicated issue. Most people — we live in a culture that looks for the simple answer about what all of these things mean. My hope is that I’m contributing to — and, again, I want to emphasize that I don’t think that anything I’m saying is new, so much as it was in a form or at a particular moment when it has some accessibility, maybe, to people — a conversation about complicating it and getting us to really work with questions of race more broadly and in more complicated terms. Because the way that most people live with race is in a complicated way. It’s only the most privileged who don’t have to think in complicated ways about their relationship to these things.
I’m looking forward to seeing the second edition. Are you putting it out online?
I’m not totally sure. The second edition won’t be online, it’ll probably be in another print format, but a more accessible print format. So, rather than this limited edition, only 40 copies, kind of expensive version, it’ll be in another form that’s still in development. Possibly a poster form, possibly another type of form, but maybe something that’s a little easier to get one’s hands on. Again, because I was sort of surprised at the speed of the response and the way that it occurred, I’m kind of getting my head around what would be the next best form for it.