Street art, race, and discourses of exclusion

Street art

Jessica Harnett-Kikstra

We have produced a piece of street art that explores the intersection between race, citizenship, and discourses of exclusion. Specifically, we aim to capture the irony inherent in the hostility expressed towards people of colour, labelled ‘immigrants’, in the United States (US). We were inspired by a news story that surfaced a couple weeks ago, wherein a white man in Kansas shot dead an Indian-born man in a bar. Evidently driven by xenophobia, the perpetrator allegedly shouted “go back to your country” before opening fire on the man and his friend.[1]

The irony in this story lies in a white American questioning the belongingness of an individual based on their assumed status as an immigrant. Indeed, this is ironic as the US was founded on large-scale immigration during the 18th century.[2] White Americans are themselves descendants of European migrants, highlighting the arbitrariness of the ‘immigrant’ label. In globalizing and multicultural nations such as the US, how can we legitimately draw a line between someone who belongs, and someone who does not?

Through this piece of street art, we attempted to convey the absurdity of this act of racial violence by including a Native American in the frame of action. We have used an easily recognizable symbol, a war bonnet, to communicate the identity of this individual. By including a Native American, we are making visible what (or rather, who) is otherwise invisible in these xenophobic narratives. In a postcolonial Western nation such as the US, dominant discourses of citizenship seem to omit considerations of the colonial past.[3] Instead, they naturalise ‘whiteness’, racializing the dichotomies of ‘them’ and ‘us’, ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’, granting white individuals a legitimacy that people of colour are not afforded.

While our piece references a recent incident, tensions over immigration and race relations are certainly not limited to this story, nor to the US. For example, in New Zealand, our home country, racial discrimination serves to undermine the ability of visible ethnic minority groups to access employment, sometimes subjecting individuals to verbal abuse.[4] Despite being considered a multicultural nation, anti-immigration discourse pervades, epitomized in “New Zealand for New Zealanders” speeches by nationalist Member of Parliament Winston Peters.[5] This exclusionary rhetoric resembles that of many radical right-wing populist political parties throughout the Western world, which are rising in popularity and mobilizing on fear as multiculturalism increases.[6] Like the US, New Zealand is a postcolonial nation; the claim to exclusive citizenship by the white majority is therefore fraught with hypocrisy and illegitimacy. In this sense, the struggle for the power to determine who belongs and who does not along border lines is of significant consequence in contemporary international relations.

There is an explicit visual dimension to the issue we are exploring. People of colour are frequently subjected to racial prejudice, perceived in a particular light according to their physical characteristics. Assumptions about someone’s character, history, and indeed their very legitimacy, are made on the basis of what is visible, often their skin colour. Indeed, simply using different colours in the faces of the three characters in our piece indicates to the audience that we are addressing issues pertaining to race, speaking to the overt visuality of race relations. Exploring these themes through a visual medium is therefore extremely appropriate, as it captures the essence of the tensions at hand.

Street art is a particularly appropriate visual medium with which to approach themes of racism. We argue this for multiple reasons. Firstly, street art is an explicitly partisan art form that makes no claim to neutrality.[7] Unlike photography, which Bleiker argues is often misperceived as producing objective representations of political matters,[8] street art opens up space for debate and dialogue by taking an explicit political stance. In this sense, street art is perfect for broaching issues as politically contentious as race relations. It enables artists to make provocative statements, particularly because it is uncensored as an informal medium.[9]

Secondly, street art constitutes a form of mass communication due to its location in public space.[10] This medium has the potential to be wide-reaching in terms of its audience, as individuals do not necessarily have to actively seek it out in order to encounter it. This is particularly important, as we aim to reach beyond those who sympathize with the perspective we are offering to capture the eye of passers-by in the street for whom this piece may challenge their thinking.

Thirdly, street art as a medium enables a relatively wide scope for creative freedom.[11] Whereas a photographer is restricted within the bounds what is available in front of him, a street artist is able to fuse elements of reality and imagination in his or her piece. This enables the medium to challenge the audience to think about issues in a different light. For example, in the case of our piece, the inclusion of a Native American in the frame obviously does not reflect the reality of the Kansas incident. As a result, it is unlikely that a photograph of the incident would have been able to capture the critique that we present. Further, we had free range in selecting our use of colour in this piece; we selected blacks and reds to invoke sentiments of distress and brutality. The creative freedom involved in producing street art therefore enables the artist to provide a political commentary that is perhaps more difficult to achieve through other media.

In sum, our piece aims to provide a political critique of xenophobic discourses that serve to exclude people of colour, both in postcolonial nations such as the US, but also elsewhere in the Western world. Through our use of street art, we are able to merge the real and the imaginary in such a way that invites the audience to view the issue in a new light. By referencing a specific incident in our work, we hope to both respond to this particular event, but also broach these broader discourses we have mentioned.

Bibliography:

Betz, Hans-George. “The new politics of resentment: radical right-wing populist parties in Western Europe.” Comparative Politics 25, no.4 (1993): 413-427.

Bleiker, Ronald. Aesthetics and World Politics. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

Butcher, Andrew, Paul Spoonley, and Andrew Drago Trlin. Being accepted: The experience of discrimination and social exclusion by immigrants and refugees in New Zealand. Auckland: New Settlers Programme, Massey University, 2006.

Doshi, Vidhi. “Man charged with killing Indian said to have shouted ‘go back to your country.’” The Guardian. Accessed March 1 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/feb/24/killing-of-indian-man-in-kansas-bar-investigated-possible-hate-crime

Gleaton, Kristina. “Power to the People: Street Art as an Agency for Change.” Master of Liberal Studies Thesis, University of Minnesota, 2012.

Hogan, Jackie and Kristin Haltinner. “Floods, Invaders, and Parasites: Immigration Threat Narratives and Right-Wing Populism in the USA, UK and Australia.” Journal of Intercultural Studies 36, no. 5 (2015): 520-43.

Kurthen, Hermann and Michael Minkenburg. “Germany in transition: immigration, racism and the extreme right.” Nations and Nationalism 1, no. 2 (1995) 175-196.

Liu, James and Duncan Mills. “Modern Racism and Neo-liberal Globalization: The Discourses of Plausible Deniability and their Multiple Functions.” Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology 16, no. 1 (2006): 83–99.

Waldner, Lisa and Betty Dobratz. “Graffiti as a form of contentious political participation.” Sociology Compass 7, no. 5 (2013): 377-389.

[1] Vidhi Doshi, “Man charged with killing Indian said to have shouted ‘go back to your country,’” The Guardian, accessed March 1 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/feb/24/killing-of-indian-man-in-kansas-bar-investigated-possible-hate-crime

[2] Hermann Kurthen and Michael Minkenburg, “Germany in transition: immigration, racism and the extreme right,” Nations and Nationalism 1, no. 2 (1995) 175-196.

[3] Hans-George Betz, “The new politics of resentment: radical right-wing populist parties in Western Europe,” Comparative Politics 25, no. 4 (1993): 413-427.

[4] Andrew Butcher, Paul Spoonley, and Andrew Drago Trlin, Being accepted: The experience of discrimination and social exclusion by immigrants and refugees in New Zealand, Auckland: New Settlers Programme, Massey University, 2006.

[5] James Liu and Duncan Mills. “Modern Racism and Neo-liberal Globalization: The Discourses of Plausible Deniability and their Multiple Functions,” Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology 16, no. 1 (2006): 83–99.

[6] Jackie Hogan, and Kristin Haltinner, “Floods, Invaders, and Parasites: Immigration Threat Narratives and Right-Wing Populism in the USA, UK and Australia,” Journal of Intercultural Studies 36, no. 5 (2015): 520-43.

[7] Lisa Waldner and Betty Dobratz, “Graffiti as a form of contentious political participation,” Sociology Compass 7, no. 5 (2013): 377-389.

[8] Ronald Bleiker, Aesthetics and World Politics (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

[9] Waldner and Dobratz, “Graffiti as a form of contentious political participation,” 377-389.

[10] Kristina Gleaton, “Power to the People: Street Art as an Agency for Change,” Master of Liberal Studies Thesis, University of Minnesota, 2012.

[11] Gleaton, “Power to the People: Street Art as an Agency for Change.”