The problem with strictly adhering to the intersectional cubby one is assigned, is that it thickens all walls; glass ceilings become concrete and one eventually finds themselves blind and entombed.
In 2016, Dana Schutz, a white female artist created “Open Casket”, an abstract painting inspired by the widely circulated photographs of Mamie Till’s sacrificial display of her only son, sprawled in an open casket, dressed in his Sunday clothes with barely intelligible facial features. Photos of his former self were pinned in the casket lining to show what was destroyed and to serve as a comparison and a stark reminder of the inhumanity of racist white people. Meanwhile back in Mississippi, an all white male jury took roughly an hour, including their “pop break” to return a verdict and acquit the two indecently boastful white male defendants of the brutal 1955 torture and murder of 14 year old Emmett Till.
The publication of the photographs of the open casket and the throngs of people who came to the viewing in Chicago, ignited the Civil Rights movement in ways that nothing had before. When the story (the true story) was circulated, it sickened our nation; no skin color was immune. Mississippi to this day is soiled from its mishandling of this atrocity.
Schutz’s “Open Casket” was accepted into the Whitney Biennial and it created much controversy. Why would a colorful and painterly abstract work inspired by the recollection of an event that has particular relevance today, amidst the growing tension from a rash of recent racial hostilities, be so hotly contested? Quite simply, the unwritten rules of intersectionality were breached. Schutz, a white woman, used her art to speak, assumedly for her personal gain, of the horrific murder of a young black teenager, incited by the speech of a white woman and perpetrated by two white men. The jury of all white men acquitted the accused, while certain of their guilt, for the simple reason that they felt that life in prison or capital punishment were penalties too harsh for the excusable act of murdering a young black man to protect the honor of a white woman. The only remaining option in the state of Mississippi for first degree murder was acquittal.
Two themes stand out: white and voice. Anger is understandable.
Schutz uses color, abstraction, and a title to re-inject a dose of reality where creases are starting to form again. It is true that she is white and has a voice that is heard, as she is an acclaimed artist. However, she is also a mother, female, and human; these attributes intersect with Mamie Till Bradley, the mother of Emmitt Till. Schutz is fully entitled to create and display her art work, regardless of her state of intersectionality in relation the subject. Most great works are created outside the accepted boundaries of intersectional assignment. The complexity of humanity should be examined from every point of view and through every lens to gain a complete and unbiased understanding.
The danger of this new form of segregation and reverse elitism is its use of shaming and ostracizing those who use, or even sacrifice in some instances, their privilege to promote racial parity and bring darker issues to light. It is better to think of those who willingly step out of their intersectional designation as guardians, interpreters, or equalizers. People like Schutz are a gift to humanity; let them do their work for they have the ability to build bridges. If the destination is the same, does it really matter how one gets there?