Buy White Privilege in San Diego
“Recently a local artist by the name of John Mireles converted a local space down in logan heights into an art installation: a store which sells “White Privilege” ID cards to minorities. The installation only lasted 2 days but it was featured in the San Diego City beat, sporting the front page. It’s since garnered a lot of controversies.
Let me just say this. Art in the public space will always be highly political & thus be controversial. Especially with such a level of interactivity. Participatory art mobilizes communities and opens a space for healthy critique & dialogue. One of the problems, however, is when an artist gets too wrapped up in espousing a political agenda. This, often times, weighs the art piece with the burden of carrying its own interpretation. Being too explicit with a work degrades the dialectic between the spectacle and the spectator. This is an ongoing difficulty in undertaking activist art projects. It, thus, renders the interpretation to a hegemony of meaning enforced & regulated by the artist. So if there is overinflated politics behind an art piece, we must ask ourselves: at what point does art become propaganda?
What is White Privilege?
So the term “White Privilege” borrows heavily from modern American polemics of identity politics. If you are unfamiliar with the term “White Privilege” or what “White privilege” means in English vernacular it quite simply is a blanket term that functions as a metaphor for a litany of social grievances:
- police brutality
- Corporate and Political corruption
- The exploitation of the working class
- Social Nepotism
- Inherent Europeanized cultural Artifacts
- Disproportionate textual representations
- Dominant Culture Authoritarianism
- Western Colonialism
…etc, etc, etc,
Now what “White privilege” does, is it takes the multitude of these grievances and unifies all these fears so that that we can simplify these experiences into one experience. It’s mitigation of anxiety. Like an index fund of grievance. “White privilege” is believed to be causally responsible for this index while at the same time exempt from it.
Milares’ Representation of White Privilege: The White Privilege ID card
“The concept is, basically, we are selling white privilege.”
-John Milares for the San Diego City Beat
I think that Mileres does an outstanding job of symbolically representing this notion of white privilege. He condenses down the micronarratives of the communities’ personal experiences into one prophetic material gestalt: The White Privilege ID card.
Authors note: Now I would like to somehow give a very in-depth analysis of the way in which Milares symbolically represents this concept through his work. Unfortunately, due to the ephemerality of the work (only lasting 2 days), this hinders me to just engaging and analyzing transcripts, articles & Instagram posts of the account rather than actually being physically present at the installation itself.
“Buy White Privilege” is very simple from what I’ve read:
1. One enters the installation space
2. One is greeted by a secretary
3. One is lead through the liminal space of transitioning towards receiving “white privilege.”
4. One receives the “White Privilege Card”
Here’s where it goes wrong
The “White Privilege ID card” is only available to people who aren’t white.
How do you create a politically charged art space to discuss the problems in the community about exclusion based on race only to exclude patrons based on their race?
White patrons were turned down from participating in the project because they “apparently” already had “White Privilege.”
Explicit exclusion like this is too ironclad for a tongue in cheek satire. There’s no opening for interpretation. It is sabotaged by ideology, collapsing in on itself like a black hole. An artist is a pedagogue who opens a liminal space for learning, growth & self-discovery; a pedagogue, NOT an ideologue.
“Art is no ideology.”
In my opinion, this is where the work becomes self-effacing. Where the ID card should be the proper distance (ekstasis) in order for a critique of our notions of “white privilege.” This inherent exemption (from white privilege) of white people, on the ground they “already have it,” is far too clunky for me. It doesn’t fit into the symbolic order of the artwork.
The satire is that an ID card is a capitalization of “white privilege” available for $1-$100. It allows patrons a space of self-commodification. Instead, whites being excluded from this libidinal surplus as commodity excludes them from the ekstasis of the critique. The “material” copy is a necessity to embody these multiplicities that “white privilege” represents. The withholding of the ID on the grounds of a “metaphysical” copy (they already have white privilege) directly undermines the necessary dialectics of the ID cards commodification: that is of its fetishistic theology. Here the work becomes a sous rature; an exclusion without adequate exclusion.
This attempt of erasure (as it was intended), however, becomes inclusionary exclusion. Whites are not not excluded from the work. The Slovenian Philosopher Slavoj Zizek refers to this use of double negative: “What you don’t get is part of the identity of what you do get.”(Zizek IQ2 talk)Bringing this logic to it’s extreme you can see how a double negation when you “do not” have (whiteness) without (whiteness) the result is not nullification, but hypertrophy. A pure emphasis on the importance of white privilege qua white privilege.
The problematic of the artwork causes it to become a reinforcement of the importance of its whiteness rather than a parody or satire of it. In order for there to be the proper critique of our notions of “white privilege” the piece needs to adopt better mitigation of this inherent symbolic deadlock. That is between the erasure of “whiteness” & the “whiteness” which remains the salient identity of the texts given paradox.