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Should White Creatives Depict People of Color in Their Works?

Updated: Apr 20

Recently, a White, cisgender, heterosexual man publicly demanded that I burn a charcoal drawing I had made of a Two-Spirit female warrior from U.S. History because he felt that “for a White man such as yourself to make money off the image of natives seems insensitive.”

Arien (a small, skinny man of fair complexion with short, dark hair, tattoos, and wearing black clothes) holds up a large, framed and matted print of a Native American presenting as female and wearing large, square-shaped, metal earrings.
Photo: me holding up a large print of the drawing.

When I worked at Fresno City College, I spent a couple years volunteering for the Social Justice Center task force and also the Anti-Racisim Resolution committee, and helped setup of the American Indian & Indigenous Allies Staff & Faculty Association. So although I'm accustomed to creating spaces where conversations about race can be held, I'm not often one to start or lead such conversations because my voice is not the one that needs to be heard. But then I received this public comment, and I've been wanting to start a blog for a while now, and human equity--especially racial equity--is, and has always been, very important to me, so I can't think of a better theme for my first post than this question: should White people depict people of color in their creative works?

Before I can answer that, and since this is my first blog post, let me introduce myself.

I am Arien (arr-ee-en) (he/they) and I am a U.S. citizen whose is racially from the Netherlands on my mom's side. I am a queer, transgender man living with chronic pain due to scoliosis, visual impairments, and ADHD. My partner Micah (he/him) is a multiracial Black-Choctaw-Cherokee-White person of color who was literally raised in a tent on land near the Chukchansi reservation. I'm now caring for my husband's parents in their old age as much as they will allow, while also selling my art and creative writing skills to help provide for them, myself, and my partner, who currently works full-time as a propane service technician.

A man of fair complexion with dark hair smiles at the camera as a man of light brown complexion and black hair pretends to bite the first man's ear
Arien (left) and partner, Micah (right)

Now that you know a little about me, let's discuss.

In my opinion, featuring only White, cishet people in visual media increases the over-representation of an already privileged community which simultaneously exacerbates the marginalization of underrepresented communities. In my opinion, every artist and writer should educate themselves on the history and impact of racism, and on other cultures until they are confident they can represent all people and their experiences as authentically and equitably as possible. I also believe that learning is a journey that is never finished.

Speaking of a willingness to learn, let’s recall a very important and often understated fact of U.S. history...

Turtle Island (now called the United States) was colonized through theft, destruction, physical and sexual violence, kidnapping, brainwashing and White-washing, forced cultural and religious conversion, and genocide. Teaching and protecting Indigenous history and culture is a duty belonging to every person living on stolen land, not just to those who are Indigenous.

My art is made on land stolen from the Mi-Woks, Yokuts, and Chukchansi, so 10% of my net profits always have been, and always will be, donated to Native American tribes (currently, the NDN Collective)--a business practice I wish was more common on stolen land. My “Unerasure Project” (series of vintage-style art featuring figures from U.S. trans history, including the drawing which offended the man) is my lowest earning art series. It is a labor of love, not profit. The goal here is to preserve and promote trans history in the face of book bans, teaching bans, queer erasure, and trans genocide. U.S. trans history includes Two-Spirit history.

So, should White creatives depict people of non-White races?

In my very queer opinion, YAS. We have a duty to do so, and to slay! (do it well), and to support non-White communities through our works.

Artists and writers have no duty whatsoever to listen to anyone entitled enough to think they have a right to tell us what to create. If someone wants to see an artist painting only cisgender, heterosexual, White, skinny, pretty, or able-bodied people, let them do it themselves.

Being White does not require White people to participate in racism or to allow it to exist by remaining ignorant of it and allowing it to thrive unchecked. I think diversity is necessary in creative works. Diversity of subjects/subject matter, technique, and thematic expression are necessary attributes for enjoyable creative works. Achieving this requires self-education, the willingness to be inclusive, and the bravery to be vulnerable and imperfect. When one of these elements is lacking, so is the creative work.

Personally, I feel that limiting my art models and the characters in my novels to people like me (skinny, White, trans men) would only degrade my work, the human beings serving as art models, and my purpose as an artist and a writer.

Do I "profit off" my work? I wish.

I was told by the leading marketing advisor at the largest artist website and art marketing company in the U.S. to stop painting trans people because I would never earn a living or otherwise succeed so long as I “kept painting the type of stuff that offends half the people in the nation.” If I wanted to “profit off an image,” I wouldn’t be painting trans people of any color.

But would it be okay if I did?

Personally, I think artists deserve to be compensated for their hard work. Like any human being, we need to eat. I live on cheap, vegan protein powder in a cabin I built with my own hands. I even make my own electricity totally off-grid. I’m just surviving, feeding my loved ones, and trying to encourage a safer, more loving world into existence through my creative works.

Decolonization and inclusivity are at the heart of everything I do. If you don’t like that, follow a different creative; I am not the one for you.

So, what do you think? Should White creatives only feature White people in their works?

Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

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1 Yorum

white people should be allowed to paint people of colour

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