I’ve written before about being a token and how exhausting that is. And I’ve written about how important it is to encourage your black children’s creative endeavors. Throughout my career, I’ve had supportive individuals who helped nurtured my curiosity and pushed me to do better.
But there was one type of teacher or mentor I wish I had: a black fine arts teacher. Black art instructors and teachers make a world of difference.
The closest I had to a black arts teacher was my black instructors in the film school. They made film school a little easier to tolerate, especially when attempting to address racial discourse in film and television. My black instructors and professors confirmed the biases I’ve been fed for years but they were able to articulate them for me. Why did I feel like I’m on display in white spaces? A black professor introduced me to Frantz Fanon and all of a sudden the respectability politics myth made sense. Because of black educators, I was able to challenge racial thinking disguised as legitimate debate.
It wasn’t until I became an instructor that I realize how paramount it was for black educators to enter this space. The black community knows how even one black teacher helps retain black students. But despite black excellence in media and arts, the academic spaces tied to the Arts remain lily-white.
Most of the students I teach are also white, but I’ve realized they receive a different type of arts education with me versus my colleagues. By existing in an academic space, I challenge stereotypes and preconceptions about what arts education should be.
I’m fortunate enough to be in a program where teaching my personal experiences in whole is encouraged. I don’t feel pressured to squash discussions about being an artist of color in an overwhelmingly white space. But often I wonder about arts programs that manage to function without a single person of color. What are the students missing from a diverse professor or instructor pool?
They are probably missing a lot. Every now and then while teaching, an innocent question emerges that happens to be a question where a person of color may have a different point-of-view. Earlier this month, I was teaching my class how to use a gray card or a color chart in their photo work. A student asked that she heard she could use her hand. A white photography teacher most likely would have said that metering off of your hand would have been acceptable. After a brief pause, I answered, “yeah, if you’re white, you can sorta use your hand, but I would stick to a gray card or color chart.”
All arts programs need a black instructor. Two are even better to avoid tokenism. There’s no reason why art schools and programs need to be so white. Failing to hire people of color has real-world consequences. Our culture is defined by art. Art was important enough for the Nazis to manipulate the type of art that was visible to the public. And in the modern era, you’ll even hear “race realists” justify their white supremacist views based on the oversaturation of European art in fine art spaces. Any attempt to change the arts environment overnight is dismissed by these individuals and even some not-quite-alt-righters as “cultural Marxism.” But the more black arts instructors, professors, and teachers, the more we can normalize diversity in art.