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Beck Krefting
on Empathic Looking

Associate Professor of American Studies Beck Krefting curated the exhibition When and Where I Enter with students in her spring 2018 “Critical Whiteness” course.

Beck Krefting
Associate Professor of American Studies
Skidmore College

The relationship between you and art is active—you make meaning of the object you see in front of you. The exhibition When and Where I Enter sought to guide that meaning-making process by tasking visitors with empathic looking. Imagine how it feels to fight in a war for democracy while serving in racially segregated divisions like the African American men of World War II, depicted in Joachim Schmid’s found photography work, did. Empathic looking means to simultaneously engage with racialized, gendered, and classed histories, connect them to the present, and pause for self-reflection. In those pauses, ideological winds stir and fires of change ignite.

Fifteen Skidmore College students and I co-curated When and Where I Enter as part of coursework for the upper-level American studies seminar “Critical Whiteness.” Students applied course concepts to art objects, researching nearly fifty works from the Tang collection. The twelve works selected displace the white subject, call attention to histories of colonization and exploitation, reflect shifting constructions of race, and beg questions of cultural appropriation. Students learned about the curatorial process and wrote the introductory text and extended labels for a brochure that accompanied the exhibition. For most students, this experience was their first time analyzing and writing about art. In a society that casts white as the invisible norm, as the default, as the unspoken, this exhibition attempted to make whiteness strange.

Critical whiteness studies is an interdisciplinary field that examines race as historically, geographically, and globally contextual and contingent; and it examines whiteness as a system of privilege and part of a larger constructed racial order. In the course, we use historical accounts, legal cases, literature, and art to examine the shifting constructions of race in the United States at various points in the country’s history. We attend to the ways science, law, government, and religion colluded in the creation of a racial order predicated on white supremacy. Artists have long sought to capture and recapitulate these realities back to the masses.

A black-and-white photograph shows a crowd of people walking up the steps of a large classical-style building while a figure in a long modest black shift stands watching the crowd.
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Carrie Mae Weems (born Portland, Oregon, 1953)
When and Where I Enter the British Museum, 2006
digital print
Gift of Ann and Mel Schaffer Family Collection

Carrie Mae Weems’s When and Where I Enter the British Museum (2006) depicts a stationary Weems dressed in black facing the foreboding facade of the immense British Museum. Pensive and stoic in this stand-off between individual and institution, she is eclipsed by the immensity of the structure, a signifier of imperialism and conquest, the objects inside extracted by the British from other nations and cultures. This photograph offered an arresting visual around which the exhibition crystallized. Imagine what it is like to enter a museum and be misrepresented or not represented at all.

The title of the Weems photograph references Paula Giddings’s book When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America (1984). The text examines African American women’s place in US history and, like Weems’s photograph, Giddings’s book implicates past historical accounts as inchoate and problematic in their depictions of black women. Similarly, read as sites of knowledge acquisition, museums fashion narratives around national identity occluding racialized Others. This can make it uncomfortable for Carrie Mae Weems to enter the British Museum. Will sacred objects from her ancestral lands be on display and in what context? Will she find evidence of her history here at all? We wanted visitors to enter the gallery conscious of the ways identity informs one’s experience of all public spaces, but especially heritage sites, government buildings, universities, and museums.

Scholars Michael Omi and Howard Winant’s racial formation theories are foundational to learning 
to approach history as a series of racial projects. They define a racial project as “simultaneously an interpretation, representation, or explanation of racial dynamics, and an effort to reorganize and redistribute resources along particular racial lines.”(1) Social groups struggle over the redistribution of resources as a way to maintain or challenge the racial order—this plays out in media, politics, popular culture, and fine arts.

Examples of racial projects meant to equitably reorganize and redistribute the racial order include affirmative action programs, cultural and financial reparations, and mixed-race coalition building. Examples that reify the racial order include voting laws that disproportionately and negatively affect the disenfranchised, racial profiling, and harmful media representations. Consider the staying power of the mammy or jezebel stock characters and the hold such representations can have over our collective imagination, shaping beliefs that inform our laws and institutions as well as our social interactions. If stock characters function as a racial project that redistributes resources in an ideological sense, what happens when you use the same stock characters to the opposite effect? Artist Kara Walker uses black caricatures from the antebellum South and connects them to contemporary racisms by depicting scenes that are often described as lewd, lyrical, and horrific. Her work demonstrates the uncomfortable ways racist and sexist stereotypes influence our everyday lives.

Kara Walker’s The Bush, Skinny, De-boning (2002)—three steel silhouettes cut with exaggerated features typical of racist caricatures—shows African American women doing daily plantation work: gardening, caring for children, and cooking dinner. However, there are inversions of racial power as each of the women own the means of violence traditionally used against them. One woman wears a Klan hood and ominously feeds a kneeling child, and another wields a knife in one hand and a human head in the other, reminiscent of the more ubiquitous tableau of a woman decapitating a chicken. The third woman has gouged out her sexual organs with a garden hoe; she is, like the other women, in control of the violence and owner of her reproductive capabilities. Imagine what it would be like to be a black woman in the antebellum South and consider that many of the same issues—white supremacy, sexual violence, and negative representations—persist today.
About Beck Krefting
Skidmore Associate Professor and Chair of American Studies Beck Krefting teaches courses that range in focus from comedic cultural forms to food pathways to disorderly women, and her research focuses on feminist comedy studies. She presents her work nationally and internationally and is the author of All Joking Aside: American Humor and Its Discontents.

Cite this page

Krefting, Beck. “Beck Krefting on Empathic Looking.” Tang Teaching Museum collections website. First published in Accelerate: Access & Inclusion at The Tang Teaching Museum 3 (2019).
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