A few weeks ago I taped a print of this painting on the wall across from my bed. It isn’t comfortable to look at. I am living outside the US as we collectively catch a harrowing glimpse beneath the myth we’ve continued to live. The myth that civil rights were won in ’64 and we are nearly a “post-racial” society. The myth that everyone has an equal seat at the table. The myth of teaching our children the value, “to be colorblind.” Why be blind to what is beautiful? The only way I know how to understand and engage in the revelation of our insidious collective complicity is to examine and root out these things on the individual level. I recognize that the system of values which twitches a police officer’s reflex is within me, too. I taped up Titus Kaphar’s Beneath the Myth of Benevolence because I mirror its duplicity.
I remember growing up favoring Jefferson because in history classes he was introduced as “a good slave master.” “He did own slaves but he treated them well.” I was satisfied with that. Sympathetic. I decided I could like him the most. It was the system that he was living in that was so bad -- in that era, slavery was normal. “He did his best.”
Sarah Millsaps is a good white person. She does her best. She is not a racist. She likes social justice pages on Facebook and reads books and articles that inform her about injustices. She can quote Martin Luther King Jr. She doesn’t support racist thinking. She feels for black people— for the marginalized. She considers herself on their team.
But the painted “good white person” canvas falls. And we see that Sarah gets quite a kickback from the system. She is content in being complacent because the system is set up to trust and favor her whiteness by handicapping and robbing the rights of others. It took her awhile to even take note of the still strong taint of white supremacy in our schools, streets, lawmaking, and faith communities. She walks streets with prejudice in her head to be more alert around the presence of black males. She has ingested too many news stories. She accepts it when people chalk up poverty rates, graduation rates, incarceration rates, and police shootings to unfortunate ethnic identity characteristics. She’s a part of conversations when someone's voice drops low before revealing, “he is…black…” as if it were a disease. She didn’t attend many of the organizing Black Lives Matter groups in college. It feels too risky to step out into the political. She sometimes excuses herself that she doesn’t like to get too involved with politics — blissfully ignorant to how everything is political...because the politics don't oppress her(too much.) Sarah has worked so hard accumulating points according to this system’s rules. She’s got a seat at the table. Challenging the current systemic violence means challenging the system that is set up to favor her. She prefers to save face. Sarah is a good white person shamefully culpable of perpetuating the socio-political machine this country was built on that is forever slanted towards white folks.
If “doing my best” is reading articles, and writing nicely worded essays like this one but NOT analyzing and acting upon my entanglement and privileged position in the system that Neo-Nazis march to protect— then I am complicit. I am living the Myth of Benevolence. I want my best to be all ears and then all action. I must start honestly -- facing the evil that has rooted in my own image before I can join corporately against the backwards, sickening, egotistic violence of marching white supremacists and bigoted presidents. I must be devastatingly conscious of how I need to follow my friends of color as the leaders of resistance. I must listen and act along side of them— amplifying their voices instead of overusing mine. I must be political-- risk losing in the system in order to build a new, truly just one. I must talk to white people that remain dangerously trapped in the myth. It is the only way I will look less like a good white person and more like love.
Kaphar explained what inspired his piece on this episode of On Being:
MS. TIPPETT: “Beneath the Myth of Benevolence,” which is — as you often do, it’s one painting on top of another. And it’s Thomas Jefferson, right, but then the canvas is peeling away, and you see this image of a slave woman, and it’s an intimate image. And in some ways, you could almost say that’s a picture of implicit bias, right, the contrast that we carry around — who we are, who we present to the world, and who we believe ourselves to be, and are, in some way; and then, also, who we are.
MR. KAPHAR: This painting was made after a conversation with — and this is a couple of years ago. We were sitting down, we were having a conversation, and she’s a schoolteacher, she was a schoolteacher for years, for 30 years. And she taught history, AP History. And I love talking about history. And as we were sitting there talking about history, we sort of moved on to Jefferson, and I said, “Fascinating individual. Fascinating individual.” And she said, “Well, what do you mean?” And I said, “Well, you know, the issues of slavery, but at the same time, this brilliant mind. Wow. Just complex.” And she said to me, “Well, there was slavery, but he was a benevolent slave owner.”
And I said, “I… I…”
“I don’t know what you mean by that.”
And she didn’t respond to me. And so I sort of followed up, and I said, “I’ve never once ever heard anyone called a benevolent rapist. I’ve never heard that before. I’ve never heard anyone called a benevolent kidnapper. I don’t know what you mean. Could you please just clarify it for me.” She sat in silence for at least two or three minutes, and then that was the end of the conversation. And so I got up, and I left. I went to the studio and had to do something, and this is what came out.
Home is in North Carolina. But, I take seriously Wendell Berry's imperative, "Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction."