A new series of prints by artist Roger Peet aims to address a tricky topic: cultural appropriation. In his series In//Appropriate, which debuted at the Portland State University Littman Gallery this month, Peet printed images of white people engaging in cultural appropriation on tall banners. Frozen in time, Miley Cyrus joyfully twerks with her tongue in its signature position, a hipster wears a keffiyeh, and Katy Perry smiles in her American Music Awards geisha costume. Behind them, another vision of whiteness—a violent one—is printed in red: Miley stands out against a scene of police in Ferguson, a bohemian white girl in a feathered headdress is juxtaposed with an iconic photo of a mountain of buffalo skulls, and a still from Iggy Azalea's "Bounce" video frames a portrait of colonizing Queen Victoria.
To accompany the images, Peet constructed special glasses made from cardboard and red plastic. These are “whiteness goggles,” a sign explains. When you put them on and look at the images, suddenly the red, violent image disappears.
Viewers are left with just the visions of Miley, Katy, Iggy, and Elvis with none of the violence behind them. White audiences specifically are forced to consider the blinders that race creates: one of the privileges of being white is the ability to ignore racism. All too often, the reality of the white supremacy is rendered invisible to people who don’t want to see it.
“When you put on the Whiteness Goggles, the colonial, military and police violence that underpins casual cultural consumption disappears,” explains Peet, in his artist statement of the project. Peet himself is a white immigrant to the US from Britain—he works as a politically minded printmaker with the Justseeds Collective. To develop this show, he worked with a group of advisors (including artists Sara Siestreem, Sharita Towne, and Gabe Flores) who offered ideas for how to make art exploring cultural appropriation, critiqued his ideas, and pushed him to develop more creative and rigorous ways of addressing the issues at hand. steered him toward making these prints. In addition to well-known celebrities engaged in cultural appropriation, the In//Appropriate show includes an image of Peet, foregrounded holding an American flag against a backdrop of the wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan. Including himself in the show was important, Peet says, to show that as a white person coming from England, he faced few hurdles in immigrating to the United States. “I was welcomed with open arms,” he says—a contrast to the racial stereotyping many people of color face when they immigrate the US.
Whenever there’s a high-profile act of cultural appropriation, like Katy Perry at the AMAs, there’s often a strong backlash among white people who say, “This isn’t a big deal. It’s just a costume. They’re just having fun.” As many people of color have pointed out, white people often derail conversations about racism by saying, “But I’m not racist!” Writer John Metta summed this up recently in an essay about why he stopped trying to talk to white people about racism, “The entire discussion of race in America centers around the protection of White feelings.” And as Malik Nashad Sharpe at Black Girl Dangerous explained, white people often willfully ignore racism underpinning our culture:
“Stop ignoring our history as if it’s literally dated, past-tense, far removed from our more civilized modern society, as if we haven’t been obviously trapped by the deeply cultivated White supremacy entangled with the very founding of the United States.”
Peet is using his platform as a white artist to make white audiences specifically think about cultural appropriation in the context of the history of violence. Without the backdrop of history, acts of cultural appropriation may not seem hurtful. By slipping on the “whiteness goggles,” white audiences can see how we often conveniently ignore the history and current violence that makes cultural appropriation so damaging. Since it calls out whiteness, some white people will certainly be offended by this show. And that’s a good thing. Some white people will get upset by Peet’s implication that they’re missing a huge part of the picture—and that’s a conversation we need to have.
In//Appropriate is up at the Littman Gallery until the end of the month—the show is presented in association with artists Sara Siestreem (Hanis Coos), Camas Logue (Klamath-Modoc), Sharita Towne, and Gabe Flores, who are programming additional installations in the gallery. You can see more images from the show and listen to voicemails from people calling in to discuss cultural appropration on the project's Tumblr.
Related Reading: Just Eat It — A Comic About Food and Cultural Appropriation.