“Well then, in the same way you know how a woman feels, I know how a man feels, because it comes down to human beings being frustrated and distorted because we can’t protect the people we love. So now let’s start ”
– Audre Lorde to James Baldwin in “Revolutionary Hope: A Conversation Between James Baldwin and Audre Lorde”
Protecting people we love: A conversation between Sue Jeong Ka and Candace Williams
Candace Williams (CW): I feel like “we can’t protect the people we love” is a concise and brilliant summary of my core struggle as a queer black person trying to survive colonialism, neoliberalism, racism, and other dominance structures that trigger violence in the name of wealth accumulation. In the wake of Trump, folks from the Art World™ have been writing blog posts, arguing on Facebook, and hosting panels about art’s efficacy, purpose, and direction. When I read Audre Lorde and James Baldwin’s conversation, it’s another reminder that the social, political, and economic situations that leave black bodies lying on our streets, bombs and drones killing innocent families abroad, and immigration agents of terror ripping parents from their children, have deepening roots that cultural workers must try to expose and sever.
Sue Jeong Ka (SJK): “The people we love” resonates with me a lot. As a queer female of color and who is the community that helped me to construct my social identity, I have been involved with activities organized many people I love who are struggling with the neoliberal capitalist political and economic structures. Of course, here in the US, race and such social structures are intertwined in many different levels. Maybe here we can discuss strategies against such structures.
CW: I think about this often—How does my artistic practice both unwind and contribute to neoliberalism and white empire? How can artists and teachers subvert white empire and protect folks who are under siege?
Candace Williams at Oye Group’s Ghetto hors D’oeuvres, 2016. Photo courtesy of Shun Takino.
Some people frame these as political questions but I think that for artists, they are questions of craft. I think the process I use to create and exhibit work and collaborate with others is more important than the final object, performance, or written piece. I want to write about white empire and imagine black, brown, and queer empires. I don’t want to write in service of white empire. I’ve been submitting work and choosing artist and institutional partners much more slowly lately because I have to research and ask questions about folks’ role in white empire. It’s impossible to escape but I want to be as conscious of it as I can be.
SJK: Yes, those are the questions I have asked to myself. Also after Trump, I found a lot of right wing populists mimicked the same strategies that left, anti-neoliberal, marxists, and feminists had used.. so we need to be more careful and sophisticated than the past. For example, most of my works are align with institutional critique, and such practice has been respected, but also heavily criticized since it is part of “white” institution from the beginning. It is hard to escape the boundary of “white empire,” even though it was a weapon to deconstruct them from inside.
CW: True. Let’s face it—if we’re not recognized by white empire, we die. We can’t get work, health insurance, a place to sleep, protection from violence, food, water, and other basic means of survival. I’ve been thinking about how artists, activists, and other folks can build community institutions that help lessen the dependency we have on white empire. I’m also interested in folks agitating from the middle. I think cultural workers have to think inside and outside of the box.
SJK: One of my early dilemma of my practices was that most of mine was actively supported by “white empire”. Luckily, there were white folks who were critical about their empire, wanted to change them. They offered practical resources to me to survive in their spaces to open up my own – a queer female artist of color – one. One positive aspect of all is that I am not the only one, and we have started voicing out together. Solidarity in the urgency of now. I am glad that I could find new social, political, and cultural practices and spaces by folks of color from small community to bigger political organizations recently more than ever before. Of course, it is not enough. It has been never enough. Here I would like to ask a more detailed question to you about psychological borderlines between people of color – between Asian, Latinx, and African descent Americans. Why didn’t they actively communicate to each other? Even though I know the conversation between two of us already asked and answered the question in a certain way, but can we talk about it a bit more here?
Sue Jeong Ka, Archival Resistance at Abrons Arts Center, 2017, Photo courtesy of Monica Bose
CW: I think there is communication across racial and cultural lines. There are well-known examples—The Black Panthers were very good at cross-race and cultural communication and community-building. You have Malcom X and Yuri Kochiyama. Grace Lee Boggs had thriving intellectual and activist relationships with James Boggs, CLR James, and other black activists. There’s a history of collaboration but also exclusion and violence. There is anti-blackness in Asian, Latinx, and other communities. The men who murdered Philando Castile and Trayvon Martin are Latino and Akai Gurley’s killer is Asian. I think the histories and modern examples of collaboration are suppressed because the construction of race was intended to put barriers between different groups of people who could find common ground against wealthy white oppressors. At the early stages, these barriers were enforced legally and reinforced economically. These barriers still buttress our social, economic, and political systems. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts. This is a very complex topic.
SJK: That’s all true. It is interesting to discuss the fact that people of color’s counterforce was people of color such as Black Orientalism, the LA riots in 1992, and etc. These sad (!) this history actually reinforced white supremacy.. in league with white supremacy. the separation between such communities of color by white and/or white inside of us – the latter means a white perspective within us and less visible than the former. I want to quote from one of my favorite movies, Do the Right Thing:
Korean merchant: “Me no white. me no white, me no white… I’m black… I’m black… I am black… I am black… You and me, same we same”
Black boy: “Same?… Me black. Open your eyes mutherfucker.”
This short conversation between a first generation Asian immigrant and African American reflects our understanding about race in the late 80’s and the early 90’s US. Most conversations about race and racism were focused one the binary between black and white, and many immigrants were failed to assimilate any of them. Of course, because they are neither black nor white!
CW: Your comment about the “white inside of us” reminds me of when James Baldwin said “there’s a little white man deep inside of all of us.” Whiteness is wound through my historical and present blackness. Even though I define “black” for myself, the original conditions of blackness were influenced by white empire. I say “influenced” instead of “created” because black people have always built communities and cultures. We’ve always resisted. Beyond dissent, we evolve situations. Whiteness is wound through blackness and blackness is also wound through whiteness and American culture. The complexity of these binds (and bonds) is often erased. I think American culture has so many strands woven within it that people don’t recognize—from the influence of early Islamic empires on our mathematics, language, and storytelling to contributions Chinese immigrants have made to modern medicine.
The binary construction is frustrating because it erases many layers and intersections. In my poetry and performance art, I try to render the complexity of blackness, queerness, whiteness, and other identities. How do you approach this in your work? I know you have a multi-disciplinary approach.
SJK: That’s a good question. It depends on my audience and participants that I deal with. However, I would like to conceptualize what is a core issue we confront. For me, that is whiteness inside us since that could be the biggest enemy in the end. Also, when we spot this out and make it visible, that can be a great weapon to deconstruct white supremacy. It is structural, systematic, and sometimes beyond our understanding about race and class.
CW: Yes. We should continue to create spaces where we can talk about the intersections of our identities. Areas of disagreement and difference are as important as areas of agreement and similarity. We can continue to build a complex narrative or picture of the machinations of white empire, surface histories that have been erased, and imagine how people and communities we love can live beyond the limitations of empire. What will the world look like without empire? That’s a something we can imagine together as we try to make that world real.
SJK: Again, in solidarity. Hope we will be ready to see our dream in reality with our loved ones.
- Revolutionary Hope: A Conversation Between James Baldwin and Audre Lorde
- Black Against Empire by Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin Jr.
- Black Orientalism: Nineteenth-Century Narratives of Race and U.S. Citizenship by Helen Jun
- The Melancholy of Race by Anne Anlin Cheng
ABOUT THE ARTISTS
Sue Jeong Ka is a practicing artist who and her current interest is legal personhood and the history of racial construction in the US. She has participated in the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program, the Drawing Center’s Open Sessions, the Art & Law Program at Fordham Law School, More Art, and SOMA Summer. Her work has been shown at Alumnos 47, the Drawing Center, La Mama Galleria, NurtureArt, Hunter College Times Square Gallery, the Queens Museum, and many others. One of her most recent projects, ID Shop: Round Robin, is currently on view in the exhibition, Marginalia, at the Drawing Center and is commissioned by the Laundromat Project this year. The project had been awarded grants by the Awesome Foundation, More Art, and the Foundation for Contemporary Arts in 2016.
Candace Williams is a black queer nerd living a double life. By day, she’s a middle school humanities teacher and robotics coach. By night and subway ride, she’s a poet. Her poetry has appeared in Hyperallergic, the PEN Poetry Series, Lambda Literary Review, Bettering American Poetry 2017 (Bettering Books), and the Brooklyn Poets Anthology (Brooklyn Arts Press), among other places. Her first collection, Spells for Black Wizards, won the the Atlas Review’s 2017 TAR Chapbook Series. She’s earned a MA in Education from Stanford University, a Brooklyn Poets Fellowship, scholarships from Cave Canem, and a Create Change Fellowship from the Laundromat Project. Candace has presented original poetry, performances, and lectures at the New Museum, the LaGuardia Performing Arts Center, the Museum of Arts and Design, Dixon Place, Eyebeam, the Obie Award-winning Bushwick Starr Theater, and other venues.