“OFF WHITE” Bears Witness to Exclusionary Systems of Power in the United States Today

Artwork: Adrian A. Franks, 10 Shots For Help, 2013, Digital giclee on watercolor paper, 60 x 39 inches.

The concept of “race” is a political, social, and economic construct designed maintain a system of double standards that sees one group benefit through the oppression and exploitation of everyone else. Its roots were planted in the Virginia colony during the late 1600s, when political leaders found themselves loathe to give up their bond servants, and the children born unto them, after their period of servitude had been completed. At the same time, it became clear peasants were as difficult to govern in the New World as they had been in the Old. Peasants were prone to band together and rise up against the ruling class, with no thought towards the fact that their ancestries differed from one another.

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Desperate to find a solution to these quandaries, the leaders of Virginia invented a new group of people, legislating “whites” into existence in 1691. Under these new laws, they established the concept of race, where “whites” were given certain rights that “blacks” were denied. Divide-and-conquer is one of the oldest tricks in the book, and the played the card for it all it was worth. At the close of the seventeenth century, race was beholden to legal and economic control, weaving injustice into the fabric of the nation before it even existed as such.

Nema Etebar, America, 2012, Digital c­print, 12 x 18 inches

By the eighteenth century, lawmakers took it to the next level, when they determined whites could never be part of the chattel slavery system, while blacks could never be freed. They used the Bible as “proof” that this was God’s will, conveniently disregarding Jesus’s teachings of love, compassion, and non-violence. At the same time, leaders of the newly formed nation instituted a political system based on class, giving the right to vote exclusively to white men who owned property, meaning land and slaves. To ensure the loyalty of the the whites who they systemically disenfranchised, the power brokers paid them a bounty to catch runaway slaves and made them overseers on plantations, financially and psychologically reinforcing a race-based hierarchy of the newly-emerging state.

The disenfranchised white men and women quickly fell in line, eager to believe the lies they were told. Irrational thinking addles the brain, as evidenced by their ability to sacrifice their faith in the service of the wealthy elite. Over the course of the coming centuries, the ruling class whitewashed history books, bore false witness, practiced pseudo-science, and maintained a legal and economic system that willfully exploited race-based pathology at every possible turn.

Fast forward to 2016, where we live with the legacy of the past—one that we have all inherited as citizens of the United States of America. We live in a nation where slavery is legal under the 13th Amendment, where the prison industrial complex is one of the largest growing sectors of private investment. To feed the machine, the system of law and order has dedicated itself to a school-to-prison pipeline in black neighborhoods across the United States.

Jamel Shabazz, Inside the Belly of the Beast #3, 1995, Gelatin silver print, 20 x 16 inches

For the uninformed and the indoctrinated, the pushback to truth and justice is a neverending stream of misinformation and logical fallacies. Understandably, few who benefit are willing to give up their comforts, particularly when they’ve been brainwashed by the tidal wave of disinformation for generations.

But for those who know the history of this nation, there can never be peace until justice is served. To bear witness to the exclusionary systems of power that simultaneously benefit and punish people based on the conditions of race, photographer Akintola Hanif has curated OFF WHITE, on view at the Museum of Contemporary African Diaspora, Brooklyn, through November 6, 2016.

The exhibition features photographs, film, design, and sculpture by Akintola Hanif, Khalik Allah, Nema Etebar, Shawn Theodore, Fletcher Williams III, Jamel Shabazz, Asif Farooq, and Adrian Franks, offering a counter-narrative to the mainstream depictions of race. The works are powerful, bold, and in-your-face, never shying away from the discomfort of pain and suffering that generations of black people have been forced to experience in the United States.

Akintola Hanif, Ciroc, 2010, Digital c­print, 20 x 30 inches

There are no easy answers to remove rot that was born in the roots of a nation that proclaimed “All men are created equal,” while concurrently selling the children their sired through rape into slavery. The stains of this country run in red, side by side the white stripes of the flag, forever bearing witness to the unspoken and unnamed sins of its forbearers.

OFF WHITE does not provide answers. It leaves you in the silence of your head to question your beliefs, your assumptions, and your heart. It asks you to examine your own moral compass and the direction that your soul is taking you.

Special Event:

On Thursday, October 13, 2016, from 6:00-8:00pm, artist Jamel Shabazz will be in conversation with Sandra Stevenson, Photo Editor at The New York Times at MoCADA. The event will be followed by a book signing for Shabazz’s newest monograph, Pieces of a Man, a 35-year retrospective of his work. For more information visit Eventbrite.

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.