“The field [of social practice] has to turn toward the mirror on this question of equity before it can answer that question about its contribution to equity in society.”
This interview between H. “Herukhuti” Sharif Williams and Justin Maxon is a part of an ongoing dialogue and serves as an entry point into a project they have been developing. Since 2017, Williams and Maxon have been working on a collaborative book project titled Chester: Staring Down the White Gaze. At the epicenter of this critical collaboration are two sets of images: the work Maxon completed as a photographer and journalist, covering the city of Chester, Pennsylvania from 2008-2016, and photographs from Maxon’s childhood archives. Using the latter, Williams and Maxon built a visual glossary of white racial tropes to unpack Maxon’s relationship to whiteness. They use this framework to reconsider Maxon’s work in Chester, along with other contemporary and historical local media coverage of the city, to elucidate the ways the white gaze reflects its own values when reflected off of the bodies of Black people.
The following questions were created in collaboration.
Justin Maxon: I feel like intersectionality has recently been elevated in academia and in the arts. It seems like you were way ahead of the times. Long before it became a thing artists and scholars were doing in the mainstream, you were bringing together systems of knowledge that were siloed.
H. “Herukhuti” Sharif Williams: In terms of intersectionality, I had the benefit of engaging Black feminists texts like the Combahee River Collective, which is a Third World and transnational feminist text [written in 1977]. They talk about the interlocking systems of oppression and how people are impacted by holding multiple identities. I had that within my education learning because I come from parents that were politically active in the 60’s and 70’s. On my mother’s side, our family would be considered “race people” back in the day. They used to call them “race people,” people who were conscious of the racism that existed, what it meant for Black people to own their greatness and own who and what they are in the world. So, regardless of the formal educational environment I was in, I always knew that there were resources out there to develop my own intellectual lineage. I had a mentor, Ibrahom Abdurrahman Farajaje, who was an intersectional scholar, and talked about intersectionality in various kinds of ways.
And so the intersectionality that I knew actually came from a different lineage than what most people think about. Like when most people think about intersectionality, they think about Kimberlé Crenshaw’s work as a critical race theorist in legal studies who talked about how Black women in particular would be impacted by the law and treated differently than Black men, because of their gender, and different than white women because of their race. That there were these intersecting identities that made them particularly vulnerable on both levels of race and gender. Most people reference Kimberlé Crenshaw as the founder of intersectionality theory but she coined the term in writing from a concept that had been a part of Black feminist thought and Third World feminist thought for decades before Crenshaw published on the topic.
Some of the stuff that people articulate now, I’ve heard before from generations prior. The whole idea of pleasure activism, for example, that’s something that’s become trendy now. But when I opened up a sexual cultural center, in the early 2000s, and was organizing sex parties and massage groups and having sexual Olympics, where people had these Olympic style meets that had an erotic component, it wasn’t as trendy. So back in the early 2000s, and even the late nineties, when I was trying to find a way to operationalize Audre Lorde’s “The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” it wasn’t as popular. It was more seen as, “That’s the nasty stuff.” How can you both be an intellectual, and a sacred whore or how could you be an academic and organize sex parties? How could you be a scholar, and be coaching people in how to have orgasms and experience richer, deeper levels of pleasure?
Justin: A lot of the work that we’re doing together is staring down the white gaze. I’m curious, you talk about systems of knowing and being that have become popularized and trendy. How do you think that dynamic works within a white supremacist system?
Herukhuti: So the matrix of domination that is currently operating in the clinical Western world is what I described as settler colonialism, imperialism, white supremacy capitalism, and cis-heteropatriarchy. The capitalism piece of that matrix of domination functions to commodify any and everything, in ways that extract resources from the masses of people, to increase and build the wealth of a small elite who are at the top of the social hierarchy. So why does something that was once considered heresy or scandalous or problematic become popularized? It’s because the capitalist part of the matrix of domination found a way to commodify it. It took more people being open to the idea as mildly acceptable. It took the desensitization process and the commercialization process time to get to the point where now, “Oh, yeah, we can commodify it.” You can tell when it’s the matrix of domination doing it as compared to something else when there is no lineage. It’s been plucked out of its original context and served to you on a platter, with the new packaging. When it has a lineage, that’s about people working continuously contributing to become what it is.
Justin: So when things are plucked out, out of context, out of that lineage, do you think it becomes less of a confrontation towards white supremacy? In my opinion whiteness only gives ground when under fire, under pressure. It doesn’t volunteer anything.
Herukhuti: Part of the commercialization and commodification process is to make it legible and digestible for people racialized as white. Because of the white supremacy part of the matrix of domination, things have to be in service to the convenience of people racialized as white, and the extraction of wealth has to benefit people who are racialized as white. In making it legible for people racialized as white, it has to be taken up out of the cultural context in which it develops. You can see that in foods, now quinoa—we know quinoa, quinoa, quinoa. There’s a cultural context for the cultivation, preparation and eating of quinoa, but we again pluck it out so that’s is now legible to a particular class, a particular group.
Justin: Yeah, we got quinoa burgers. We got quinoa salads. We got quinoa soups.
Herukhuti: Yeah, because now it can be in service to white supremacy. It can be in service to the market. Again, that’s all about those interlocking systems of oppression, that interlocking matrix of domination in which settler, colonialism, imperialism, white supremacy, capitalism, and cis- heteropatriarchy, all relying upon each other to feed the beast contained within each of them.
Justin: Well, I think that’s a perfect segue into talking about social practice given what we had discussed before on a separate occasion. First off, what’s your relationship to social practice?
Herukhuti: I am one of the founding core faculty in the new BFA in socially engaged art at Goddard College. I also am an adjunct assistant professor in City University of New York’s school of professional studies in the masters in applied theater program. My relationship to social practice and socially engaged art is rooted in the lineages that I spoke about earlier, which Toni Cade Bambara comes from. Bambara, a Philadelphia-based artist, filmmaker, writer, and author wrote a great novel called Salt Eaters. Bambara talks about the work of cultural workers, what it meant to be a cultural worker. She was talking, in particular, with and to Black people and Black artists in terms of this concept of a cultural worker. She talks about the cultural worker as someone that makes revolution and resistance irresistible to the masses.
Her concept of the cultural worker is someone who is rooted in the Black community—artists who are members of the Black community, living in the same social and cultural context as other Black people. Who are working to address the same struggles, the same challenges of other Black people who are faced with the horrors of that matrix of domination. They use their gifts in service of that struggle; as everyone in the community should be leveraging the things that they bring to the table as well as to offer works of art that affirm our existence as well as inspire us to vision and envision a way out of that matrix of domination, and a future in which the matrix we know no longer exists.
I come out of the lineage of Nina Simone, who spoke about the role of the artist to represent, reflect and comment upon the times in which they live. To do so, they can contribute to their communities’ conversations about, is this all that there is, is this all that there could be? And if not, okay, so then what do we have to do to change up some things?
I find that for a number of my BIPOC colleagues, Black, Indigenous people of color, when we talk about socially engaged art and social practice, we have lineages that are not represented or reflected in the sanctioned discourse of social practice by academic gatekeepers, in publishing, grant making and within academic programs. They’re operating with and in conversation with different lineages. So then our lineages then become illegible, and therefore invisible.
Justin: From your perspective what is the relationship between social practice and equity?
Herukhuti: The capitalism part of that matrix of domination attempts to commodify and exploit any and everything, in the interests of settler colonialism, imperialism, white supremacy and cis-heteropatriarchy. So the question of equity in social practice functions at multiple levels. It’s about what resources are available to do the work and who has access to them and who does not; it’s about who’s at the table that makes the decisions about that distribution of resources, and who’s not; it is about who gets written into the popular history of social practice and socially engaged art, and who does not; and who makes those decisions? So there’s the equity piece that is about holding up the mirror on the field of social practice and asking what’s going on in the field. Then it’s about the degree to which social practice can contribute to the struggle for equity, justice, decolonization in the larger world. And I would say the field cannot do the latter without doing the former.
There can not be an adequate, appropriate, or consequential contribution to that struggle without the field doing that internal work and asking those critical questions and dismantling the functions of the matrix of domination within the field for a whole host of reasons. One, you’re not a credible messenger; you’re spending resources to maintain the hypocrisy. There has to be effort to be in denial and effort to not know. So that means then there’s significant resources that aren’t dedicated to the contribution of the larger struggle.
Justin: You mentioned how whiteness plucks ways of knowing and being from lineages of BIPOC communities. Can you speak about what that looks like, specifically in the context of social practice?
Herukhuti: So the arts that African people brought to the United States had to be, by necessity, turned to helping them deal with and manage the horrors of settler colonialism, imperialism, white supremacy, and slavery in the Americas. The stepping that Africans were doing in the Americas, the tap dance, shuffle foot, to the jig, developed because the Europeans who were enslaving them would not allow them access to the drum. So they became the drum that they couldn’t physically access. There was a difference in the performance of those steps based upon the context, in community with other African people, and when the European slavers asked for entertainment to be performed. There was an attention to context, community and audience. That was already happening just even in that small example.
I have a quilt that my mother made for me that is called the Underground Railroad quilt, which is a quilt that provided messages to support African people, liberating themselves from the slave plantations. You would quilt certain designs and those designs would be communications about what could happen in that journey of the Underground Railroad, being able to move from place to place. So you could put out a quilt as a signal. When somebody was preparing to liberate themselves, or in the process of liberating themselves, seeing that quilt was a signal about what to do.
There’s art, communication, and semiotics coming together. The humming and the singing as well, the spirituals were sung to communicate when it was time to liberate oneself, and when it was not time to liberate oneself. So these African people could be communicating with each other on the plantation and across plantations, underneath the surveillance of the Europeans who had them in bondage, to talk about their struggle for liberation. Can there be any more rich, deeper, meaningful, powerful artistic practice that is socially engaged? Where people’s lives were on the line and people’s destinies and futures were on the table?
Using something as simple as, “Wade in the water, wade in the water children, wade in the water, God’s gonna trouble the water.” That was about communication, a subliminal message. “Go down, Moses.” Moses was one of the code names for Harriet Tubman, one of the most successful conductors on the Underground Railroad, one of the most successful liberators of African people. So when people are singing, “Go down, Moses,” they’re taking this Christian hymn song that was a part of their indoctrination, a part of the imperialism of European slavery. Taking that and turning it on its head and using it as a way to liberate themselves by singing, “Go down, Moses” to communicate, “Oh, Harriet is on the way.” Or, “Harriet, you know, they’re looking for you now.” Is that a part of the canon of social practice and socially engaged? This was happening in the 1600s and 1700s. Again, the mirror has to be turned on the field; rather, I should say, the field has to turn toward the mirror on this question of equity before it can answer that question about its contribution to equity in society.
Justin: That just gave me shivers. I didn’t know you could sing, one of your many talents! Wow. Thank you for that!
So, what is the impact of divorcing the histories and development of social practice art from the work of BIPOC artists in their communities?
Herukhuti: The impact is more settler-colonialism and imperialism. The impact is that the field becomes anemic because of its inability to recognize the role, the function and the power of soul food. Of soul, as food. What ends up happening is that things get heady, sterile and respectable.
Justin: There’s this common association within social practice of the “do gooder,” a perceived benevolence in terms of its impact on community spaces. And from what you’re saying, the lineage of social practice comes from benefiting the local context. So, I wonder if when we talk about plucking something from lineage, are white artists plucking this “do gooder” dynamic?
Herukhuti: I think, again, of Toni Cade Bambara’s concept of the culture worker. One of the hallmarks of lineages that come out of BIPOC traditions of social practice, is that the person is already a member of the community as opposed to going into somebody else’s community, somebody else’s world, someone else’s context. Which is that settler-colonial, imperialist framework. In theater, we talk about stakes; what are the stakes for the character; what are the stakes for the audience and what is happening on stage, as a piece of contributing to the allure of theatre? There are different stakes when you’re doing work in your community as compared to doing work in somebody else’s community. No matter what you do or whether you have good relationships or bad relationships, whether you fuck up or not, if you can never see those people again, the stakes are different than if you’re doing work with members of your own family. The stakes are much higher if you’re doing work in your neighborhood where you grew up, or if you’re doing work with the people who you got to see at some point. You won’t be able to just never be impacted by them again.
So oftentimes I observe that students and practitioners, who are racialized as white, their starting point is working in somebody else’s community. It’s not even a thought, it’s like, “Oh, no, I’m going to go over there.” And part of that comes from how whiteness is marketed within white supremacy. Whiteness is marketed as devoid of color. Whiteness is marketed as devoid of culture. It’s just the a-priority. It’s just what is. It’s the norm. And so if something is going to be interesting, it has to be located outside. And so if one is going to do good, one has to do good with the stuff that’s really messed up outside. When it’s white supremacy that has made the stuff over there in that other community fucked up. It’s the soul murdering and the intergenerational trauma carried in families and communities, racialized as white, that creates this will to power. This fear based will to dominate, and have power over, leads to the matrix of domination: targeting those folks out there, fucking up their countries and their lives, exploiting their natural resources and jailing members of their community.
There’s a whole lot of interesting work that can be done in families racialized as white. There is intergenerational trauma. There is domestic violence. There’s intimate partner violence. There’s childhood sexual assault. There’s rape, there’s incest, there’s patriarchy and sexism. There’s the feeling as though one cannot measure up to the standards of whiteness that have been promoted and articulated in white supremacy. So one is always feeling less than, and always feeling that one doesn’t measure up, and always feeling that one is an impostor, and always feeling that somebody in the next moment is going to find out that one is just faking it until they can make it. Yet the well-meaning, missionary inspired, white savior thinks first about going into some Black, Indigenous people of color community and helping those folks better manage their lives, living under the horrors that were created by settler colonialism, imperialism, white supremacy, capitalism and cis-heteropatriarchy.
Justin: You’re talking to me! You really are talking to me. That’s exactly what I did, right, and that’s the context in which we are working together. I did all of that which you said. And I wonder for white artists that have gained tremendous social capital from spending years facilitating stories to BIPOC experiences [like I did], who are in the process of turning that mirror around, what is their role in engaging initiatives to remedy the harm they’ve caused, contribute to reparations and develop anti-oppressive ways of working.
Herukhuti: One is to say to themselves and to their colleagues that this work is not over until the matrix of domination no longer exists. Even once it’s been dismantled, there will still be internal work necessary to envision and to create a new world and a new way of being. So part of their role is to always say to themselves and to their colleagues that we still got more work to do. The acapella group, Sweet Honey in the Rock, has a song, “We who believe in freedom shall not rest.” So, yeah, the work continues.
That’s one. Two, is to ask critical questions about the structures of power, the distribution of resources, and who is at the table and what’s being done at that table? That’s in their work as artists, and in their discourses and conversations with not just their professional networks, but in their families and in their communities.
I would say another role is to leverage their position and their positionality in institutions and structures to disrupt the functioning of settler colonialism, imperialism, white supremacy, capitalism and
cis-heteropatriarchy. It means contributing to the shifting of the standards and the criteria upon which decisions are made and actions that are taken from eurocentric and settler values to ones that provide reparations and restoration to BIPOC people, BIPOC communities and BIPOC lands. It means finding out from the BIPOC people in their proximity how they can be of service. There’s the golden rule that says, “Do unto others as you’d like them to do unto you.” And then there is the platinum rule, which is about do unto others, as they would have done unto them. Two very different paradigms, so the golden rule is that missionary savior approach, which is, I know based upon my value system, what is good for you. Platinum rule is recognizing different strokes for different folks. So ask the person, “How can I be of service?” and allow their articulated needs to determine and dictate how you show up, and what you do to support them.
Justin: I think that even in the context of the long journey ahead for people racialized as white, there’s pitfalls along the way, right? You mentioned plucking and divorcing lineage, so even in this moment of reckoning that’s upon us, with the Floyd Rebellion, I see a lot of white people responding to social pressures in ways that are empty gestures. Virtue signalling gives white people a vocabulary to say and do just enough to keep themselves at a distance from their complicated relationship in the matrix of domination.
How do people racialized as white not fall into those pitfalls? Even someone like Robin D’Angelo who is lauded as this great critical whiteness scholar, pushing white people to turn that mirror on themselves. In appearance she does that throughout her book, but yet she’s divorcing, right? She’s divorcing lineages because she makes the claim that she is the sole purveyor of that information. She infrequently references BIPOC authors and scholars in her book and on stage. She gains tremendous social capital. How do white people not fall into that? Even in the context of the work that we’re doing together, I’m going to be gaining social capital by centering myself and re-entering whiteness in the process. There’s going to be a book published. My name is going to be on it. I’m going to be speaking publicly. What’s the solution here?
Herukhuti: The book project is a good example; yes, your name is on it, but so are other people’s names as well. When I say this is a continual thing, you can’t be caught sleeping. “We who believe in freedom shall not rest.” You have to keep thinking and keep being conscious. The matrix of domination will always do its thing. Remember how we started this? That capitalism part is always
seeking to find out, “How can I commodify this?” The settler-colonial part of it is always seeking, “How can I own this?” It’s being conscious of it, so when opportunities arise, like being invited to speak, to be compensated, or to be canonized, you have to always think, okay, so what’s the angle that the matrix of domination is putting on this thing? As you do that questioning more and more, you begin to become more adept at being able to ask that immediately. As soon as you hear the offer, as soon as you hear the invitation, as soon as you see the way in which things are written, and framed, the font size and the positioning, you begin to say, “Ah ah, that’s that stuff!” It’s developing that as a practice. I had a professor in undergrad in social psychology that talked about tangible material goods. What are the tangible material goods that are coming out of this project? And then look at where they’re being distributed. The matrix of domination is a distribution system. It distributes advantages as resources to people and communities and away from other folks. It distributes disadvantages to certain people and communities and away from other folks. Doing that kind of audit on any project, okay, where are the advantages and disadvantages? That gives you a glimpse at the functioning of that matrix of domination.
Justin: I think it’s interesting, whenever we’ve had an opportunity in the public sphere, like, for example, when the Washington Post magazine commissioned us for the race issue they were producing, we have been met with resistance and hypocrisy. We did the survey that you just mentioned, right: what are they asking for, what do we want to say, and where are they willing to go? And in the end they killed it because our work was too inflammatory for their readers. I was dejected, all that work we did and at the last hour they said no. And you told me this is a common response within white supremacy, as it relates to white people engaging in inequity. As soon as they start losing access to resources, they begin to question the struggle and if it’s worth engaging in.
Herukhuti: When you demonstrate that you’re able, willing and committed to disrupting that flow of the advantages and disadvantages to and from, the system then moves you out of the equation. So you don’t affect what it’s set up to do. The Washington Post offer was a great example of that. It’s like, oh, wait, you’re not willing to keep this distribution system going the way it’s going. Okay, okay, well then we’ve got to move you out, even though it’s a commentary on race and racism, because again, settler colonialism is about owning any and everything. And capitalism is about commodifying everything, so white supremacist capitalism can commodify anti-racism. In ways that benefit people racialized as white, that benefit white supremacy.
Justin: It’s ironic; every turn for a person racialized as white there’s an opportunity for them to commodify, right? Like in the context of the white person who sacrifices their access to resources, the next choice they have is I could exploit this, right? I’m a savior in this situation. I’m sacrificing myself. I could go on TV. I could write a book. I can do all of these things to recenter my resources, right?
Herukhuti: Right, all of us are given the opportunity to collude with that matrix of domination even. If we have decided in the past not to collude with it, we’re still given an additional offer to come back. You remember the movie The Matrix. There was the opportunity for one of the characters to get hooked back up into The Matrix. So we always are given the opportunity to come back into compliance.
Justin: That’s a very tight system, right?
Herukhuti: Yeah, again, my doctorate is in human and organization systems. What you learn in systems thinking and systems theory is a thing called autopoiesis, which is a system’s ability to maintain itself, its resilience and ability to incorporate any new dynamic or threat to maintain its core functions, its basic reason for being. The strength of a system is measured in this way. And yes, this matrix of domination is a self-sustaining system. Though, like anything, it has an end because it had a beginning. It didn’t always exist. It lives in reality rather than in theoretical physics, where you can have a continuous perpetuating machine that just goes on to infinity. It had a beginning. It will have an end.
Justin: Can you see an end or is the end too far away to see?
Herukhuti: If you look at the history of human time, the life cycle and duration of this matrix is not a significant amount of that whole history up to this date. Yes, I see its end as a felt sense, rather than looking out of the window at the horizon—that’s not how I experienced the end of this matrix of domination. It’s a yearning in my heart and in my core. It’s a knowing that resides in the marrow of my bones. It’s the fuel for the rage that I experience at another example of the violence and the trauma that’s inflicted. That’s how I experience the vision of its end. And what comes after I experience in moments of joy and in moments of orgasm and pleasure. I experienced those moments to be a microcosm and a finite example of what comes after.
H. “Herukhuti” Sharif Williams PhD, is the founder and chief erotics officer of the Center for Culture, Sexuality, and Spirituality. He is a playwright, stage director, documentary filmmaker, and performance artist. Dr. Herukhuti is the award-winning author of the experimental text Conjuring Black Funk: Notes on Culture, Sexuality, and Spirituality, Volume 1 and co-editor of the Lambda Literary Award nonfiction finalist anthology and Bisexual Book Awards nonfiction and anthology winner, Recognize: The Voices of Bisexual Men . Dr. Herukhuti is a core faculty member in the BFA in socially engaged art, co-founder and core faculty member in the sexuality studies undergraduate concentration at Goddard College and adjunct associate professor of applied theatre research in the School of Professional studies at the City University of New York.
Justin Maxon is an award winning visual storyteller, arts educator, journalist and aspiring social practice artist who often examines social, political and environmental issues. His work takes an interdisciplinary approach that acknowledges the socio-historical context from which issues are born and incorporates multiple voices that texture stories. He seeks to understand how positionality plays out in his work as a storyteller. He is a second year student in PSU’s Art and Social Practice MFA program. He has received numerous awards for his photography and video projects. He has given more than 50 lectures and has taught photography workshops in over 8 different countries across the world. He was a teaching artist in an US State Department- sponsored cultural exchange program between the United States and South Africa. He has worked on feature stories for publications such as TIME, Rolling Stone, the New Yorker, Mother Jones, and NPR.
The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a bi-annual publication dedicated to supporting, documenting, and contextualizing socially engaged art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal focuses on a different theme in order to take a deep look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions, and the public. The Journal seeks to support writing and web based projects that offer documentation, critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.
The SoFA Journal is published in print and PDF form twice a year, in June and December by the PSU Art & Social Practice Program. In addition to the print publication, the Journal hosts an online platform for ongoing projects.
Sponsored by the Portland State University Art and Social Practice MFA Program