‘This is how it feels a lot of the time,’ says one racial justice activist, ‘like white folks are just walking around like everything is okay.’
“Romantic Picnic for Three,” from “Leisure and the Unseen,” © 2015 Brittney Leeanne Williams. Acrylic on paper, 5 x 9 inches.
Last winter, Lena K. Gardner, a Black Lives Matter organizer in Minneapolis and a member of the Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism organizing collective, shared a photo on Facebook of a provocative painting she had seen at a Minnesota seminary. I hadn’t seen anything quite like it before. Its palette, style, and subject matter at first called to mind works like David Hockney’s California pool paintings or Alex Katz’s portraits—serene modern compositions with flat, vivid colors. In the foreground, a contented couple—female and male, both white—recline on a picnic blanket. Behind them, you can see the trunk of a tree and two black legs bound at the ankles.
That painting, “Romantic Picnic for Three” by Brittney Leeanne Williams, is above (and appears at the top of page 1 of the Winter issue’s print edition); another painting from her 2015 series “Leisure and the Unseen” accompanies the cover story, “The Dream of White Innocence,” by the Rev. William G. Sinkford, former president of the UUA (page 24). For me, as a white person, they are more than a little unsettling.
Gardner wrote that she found the painting “particularly poignant and heart wrenching, but many days this is what fighting institutional racism feels like.”
Williams said she painted the series to explore the dissonance she experiences in the affluent white communities she knows well, where leisure and privilege seem worlds removed from her experience of blackness and from urgent conversations within black communities. “Rather than highlighting blacks as subjects, the work reveals the act of not seeing,” she said. “Placing what I see in the same two-dimensional plane as what isn’t seen creates a sharp edge that slices through leisure and privilege.” (You can see the rest of the series on her website.)
“This is how it feels a lot of the time to me,” Gardner commented, “like white folks are just walking around like everything is okay.” Gardner has helped mobilize protests of police brutality in the Twin Cities. The protests have exposed activists to tear gas, arrest, and other tense encounters with police; to threats of legal action; to cold nights in a protest camp; to harassment by other citizens; even to civilian gunfire. But it’s the ongoing exposure to story after story—and video after video—of police brutality that really takes a toll.
In his essay—adapted from his powerful General Assembly sermon in June—Sinkford urges UUs to see ourselves as “one community of resistance to the hate and the violence” because, as religious people, we trust in the power of love. Learning to give up the myth of white innocence—to abandon the act of not seeing—is unsettling for me. But I am grateful to the artists and preachers, the organizers and teachers, who have formed communities of resistance in order to survive, because they have also found in community reason to rejoice.
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Christopher L. Walton is editor of UU World. He holds degrees from Harvard Divinity School and the University of Utah and is a member of the Church of the Larger Fellowship.