On the morning of September 16, 2015, students at the University of Buffalo who attempted to use the restroom in Clemens Hall were greeted with signs that said “White Only” and “Black Only.” By that afternoon, campus newspaper The Spectrum reports, the police had received 11 calls. At that night’s Black Student Union (BSU) meeting, it was revealed that the signs were the work of Ashley Powell, a black student who was carrying out a public art assignment for a class titled "Installation: Urban Space."
“I apologize for hurting people, but I won’t apologize for what I did,” Powell told the assembled students and faculty, which included her professor and members of her class. Her peers were largely upset and some left following her revelation.
Student Jefry Taveras stayed and addressed Powell, saying, “As an artist, I respect you as an artist. But you should know racism isn’t art, it’s a reality and traumatizing.”
Powell responded to the incident via a letter published by The Spectrum. In it, she wrote:
I am in pain. My art practice is a remnant of my suffering, but also an antidote that brings about healing. The afflictions I suffer from are self-hate, trauma, pain and an unbearable and deafening indignation. White privilege and compliance only exacerbate my symptoms. Non-white suffering is the greatest psychological detriment that I have ever faced, and one that many individuals undoubtedly face as well. It manifests as a blatant or furtive acknowledgement of inferiority to the dominant group. It results in a trauma that is perhaps more destructive and damaging than any physical, legislative, or societal oppression an individual may ever face.
I understand that the ambiguity of the “black only” and “white only” signs are problematic in light of recent events on other campuses where actual acts of hatred, misogyny, and racism occurred. However, my work is something else—an artistic intervention. This was not a social experiment. I do not need to experiment with non-white people’s trauma, nor pain, to know that is there. This was not a joke. I do not need to, and will never joke about my own reality, or anyone else’s, because our reality is grave, it is frightening, and it is one of constant endurance, resilience, and burden. This project, specifically, was a piece created to expose white privilege. Our society still actively maintains racist structures that benefit one group of people, and oppress another. Forty to fifty years ago, these structures were visibly apparent and physically graspable through the existence of signs that looked exactly like the signs I put up. Today these signs may no longer exist, but the system that they once reinforced still does. Any white person who would walk past these signs without ripping them down, shows a disturbing compliance with this system. These signs do not allow a white person to give the age old excuse of “I didn’t create this system” or “I never asked for this white privilege.” They attempt to give those people the individual agency to rebut the very system that puts them in a place of supremacy. These signs illustrate that white people do not have to be active aggressors, like the KKK, to be responsible for this system of racism and white privilege that threatens, traumatizes, brutalizes, stunts, and literally kills non-white people every day in the United States.
I apologize for the extreme trauma, fear, and actual hurt and pain these signs brought about. I apologize if you were hurt, but I do not apologize for what I did. Once again, this is my art practice. My work directly involves black trauma and non-white suffering. I do not believe that there can be social healing without first coming to terms with and expressing our own pain, rage, and trauma. For anyone who is questioning my actions on the basis of the pain they caused, I will say this is the nature of my art and this is the nature of social change. Perhaps, sharing some of my own experiences may elucidate the question of trauma and pain.
Read the full letter here.
(H/t The Huffington Post)