White People Problems: On Kara Walker and the Way White People Interact with Black Art

photo by Austin McAllister
photo by Austin McAllister

The scent alone is enough to stop you in your tracks, the way the strong, sweet smell of molasses permeates the air around the old Domino Sugar Refinery instantly overwhelms anyone passing by with what could be considered the ultimate sugar rush. But it isn’t until you wend your way through the at times hours-long line and are confronted with the source of that scent that your senses are truly subsumed.Standing 35-feet-tall, Kara Walker’s snow white, sugary sphinx demands the attention of everyone who sees her. As the centerpiece of Walker’s “A Subtlety,” the sphinx is sculpted to look like a naked woman, and is an homage to the countless black women whose unpaid labor and overworked bodies bore the burden of our culture’s rapacious desire for all things sweet, sickening though they might be. Walker has said that the sphinx is supposed to be overwhelming and can’t be taken in all at once: “It had to have the ‘too much’ and it also had to be easy to see. Sweet on the eyes–or something.”

Not dissimilarly to Walker’s other work, “A Subtlety” is anything but subtle; much of its power lies in its bold reappropriation of images of black women and its insistence that viewers acknowledge the power and the pain behind what they are consuming for what can best be described as pleasure. Because pleasure is the driving reason behind most people’s consumption of art—even when the work is known to tackle a painful subject, nobody ever said pain wasn’t its own kind of pleasure. But with this specific work, there is a different kind of pleasure at play, namely, that because Walker’s installation has been much-lauded and talked about, and because it’s located in the Domino Sugar Refinery in Williamsburg, and because if there’s one thing New Yorkers and people who want to look like New Yorkers can’t resist it’s a long line, seeing “A Subtlety” has become a New York experience akin to buying a Cronut or braving the Madison Square Park Shake Shack line.

And just like Cronut and Shake Shack crowds, many of the people who are going to see Walker’s work are just about the worst kind of people possible. How bad? Well, as revealed in a recent post on Gawker titled “The Audacity of No Chill: Kara Walker in the Instagram Capital,” pretty damn terrible. Stephanye Watts, the author of the post, relates her own experience at the installation and her disgust with many of her fellow visitors, who used the opportunity to “yell ‘Sugar tits!’ ‘Hey, did you get a picture of the lips? Those sweet lips!’ and ‘That’s a big ass!'” and take “photo ops, which ranged from the Munch/Home Alone ‘Scream’ face to sexually inappropriate.” After leaving the installation, Watts was further outraged by the discovery of countless offensive Instagram posts that objectified Walker’s sphinx, and dismissed claims that this type of behavior should be condemned, though ultimately excused, as simply part of white privilege. “Like a fool,” Watts says, “I expected all adults involved to act like, I dunno, adults?”

The problem is, though, that this is exactly how “adults” have acted for generations and it is this very type of “adult” behavior which is at the root of our society’s ability to dehumanize groups of people based on nothing but the color of their skin in order to profit off their pain. And, in fact, this type of despicable behavior by white patrons is undoubtedly something that Walker knew would happen and is part of what makes her work so effective. The not so subtle message in Walker’s work is that not all that much has really changed in our society; we are still collectively invested in the objectification and diminishment of minorities—black women in particular.

In an excellent essay on Colorlines, Jamilah King wrote about “the overwhelming whiteness of black art,” and how the majority of museum-goers—even to black artists’ exhibits—are white and wealthy. King writes, “it’s reassuring that so many white people have a vested—or at least passing—interest in consuming art that deals with race. At the same time I found it unsettling to view art by a black artist about racism in an audience that’s mostly white. It reinforced the idea that black people’s histories are best viewed but not physically experienced.” But the very nature of “A Subtlety” forces interaction with black history, making the white response to it a part of the work of art itself. And while many—probably a majority—of the white people who have gone to see Walker’s exhibit have been appropriately respectful of the work, the mere fact that countless others have no reverence and no care for the message behind the piece is as fascinating as it is distressing and is what takes Walker’s work out of the realm of excellence and into the realm of brilliance. It is not enough to see Walker’s “A Subtlety” and only look at the sphinx. Part of the power of the work is to look at the people interacting with it and realizing that no matter how far we’ve come, we’ve still got a long way to go. And that, more than the sickeningly sweet smell of sugar, is what will stay with you long after you leave the factory.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen


  1. Somehow this story doesn’t hang together. The silly and offensive remarks that were made seem to me to be representative of the kind of remarks that lowbrows of every race and income level make when confronting art that prominently features–in any fashion other than some tepid prettiness– a nude or partially clad woman–very sexist and demeaning to women (and offensive I agree) but not particularly racist. Part of the problem seems to be that the writers thinks those looking at the art understands the back story, the “homage” as she calls it and are reacting in some way to that. I think that’s highly unlikely. I like the sculpture very much and I see it as powerful, mysterious female figure but I had no idea of the backstory, the “homage”. And I don’t think I needed that information. The art stands by itself and speaks for itself. I think the lowbrows were reacting in a childish way to the image of a powerful female figure partially clad. While Ms. Iversen is entitled to her own view, I think she may have gotten it wrong here. I don’t think it’s a story about how white people interact with black art. I think it’s more a story about how some people react to the art and images of powerful women.

    • The Sphinx is not just nude, or partially clad, though. Its head and face, have been sculpted in the image of a Black womans, some have even suggested it looks like Walker herself. Black and Brown people cultivated cane for generations and have not profited from the billion dollar business sugar is today. The Sphinx could never be White, in image or in likeness, even though it is completely white in color.

      So yes, the comments of visitors are racist, and offensive, and ignorant. If a poor person goes to a museum and views naked or partially clad bodies, those bodies are usually White. The respect is there because it’s implicit (that’s privilege), this is art that someone (likely rich and White) thought worthy enough to put on display in a museum. The Domino factory is not a traditional museum.

      Additionally, when visitors comment on the large lips and “ass”, it only underlines the objectification of Black women, some of us encounter daily.

      • Right. Because no White (or Asain, or Latin, or IndoPaki) woman has EVER had full lips or a round ass. RIGHT.
        This is bullshit. Anyone without the cultural indoctrination on the “polite”way to view art , is likely to giggle at nude depictions. Especially men, of naked women, and especially in a culture were the female body is patently (and unequally) taboo. If you’re having confusion on that, please quickly consider men’s and women’s nipples in public, for a moment.
        Anyway, the article’s author has it completely wrong; It’s got nothing to do with race, at all.

        • This is arguably the most shortsighted, culturally encapsulated comment I’ve read regarding this piece. It has everything to do with race. Clearly, you aren’t familiar with Kata Walker’s work. If you think the sphinx is supposed to be a white/Asian/indian woman you have bigger problems than I can address.
          Obviously, Kara is challenging the mammy trope while commenting on an industry that has benefitted on the backs of African Americans. Any simpleton can see this who has an understanding of the history of slavery.

  2. And let’s face it. How many black people view white peoples’ art at all? And if white artists produced art that specifically featured white people from a RACIAL perspective, they would probably get an extremely negative reaction.

    • I don’t understand the point you’re trying to make. What is “white people’s art” and what “racial perspective” would it be shown from? The perspective of dominance? From the perspective of being the norm? How about this, if there were a huge nazi chocolate gas tank (you can google the nazi chocolate connection, please keep in mind this is for example purposes only) and people (specifically non Jewish) came to see this display and made tasteless jokes, there would rightfully so be an issue. People with empathy would take offense. I don’t know who you are person on the internet but try to see it from other’s perspective and don’t get so caught up in some tit for tat “if this were white art” bs.

  3. I’m going to take a contrarian perspective (surprise surprise) and disagree with this article. the author links immature exhibit viewers who focus on the statue’s ass or lips with the kinds of people that have “dehumanized minorities to profit off their pain.” that’s a big leap.is everyone who makes a joke about the statue’s oversized vulvae actively contributing to the perpetuation racism? thats a ridiculous presumption, but that’s essentially the subtext in the author’s argument. i’ve been there and seen it; the statue has a comically enlarged vagina that you see only at the last second when you turn the corner as you walk alongside it. even if you DO enter the factory with a sense of reverence at the subject matter, when a labia the size of a volvo hits you in the face, its a human reaction to chuckle. i understand that kara walker made the statue’s vulvae so large so as to make a statement about the sexual objectification of women of color. however, car-sized vaginas and solemn reverence don’t always mesh so well. would the author prefer that the statue’s audience move silently in single file, pausing only to drink in the grave injustices of the world while shedding a single tear, before making for the exit in an orderly fashion? she should just relax and let the piece’s viewers take it in in their own way. immaturity and introspection are not mutually-exclusive traits.

    • @ Matt W ” the statue has a comically enlarged vagina that you see only at the last second when you turn the corner as you walk alongside it. even if you DO enter the factory with a sense of reverence at the subject matter, when a labia the size of a volvo hits you in the face, its a human reaction to chuckle.”

      Whose human reaction are you speaking for? I cried when I saw it, from that traumatized vulva that you called comical was a hurtful reality of all of the pushed out babies meant for love, honor and respect , becoming property of a system of degradation, torture, hopelessness, and the inability to stop it! then on the other hand her clenched fists and closed eyes, for me symbolized the strength to produce from those same loins, the fighters to demand, and gain their right to exist and be respected.

      And Yes for your clarity you are in the same company of those who ridiculed the Hot and Tott Exhibition, and you are part of the problem.

  4. White people don’t get to decide how black people should react to their art being mocked and degraded by other white people. Shut up, for once, and listen. Maybe you’ll learn why this artwork is still so sorely needed, and how far we have not come as a country. Maybe you’ll finally grow up.

  5. I was fortunate enough to see this exhibition yesterday and was brought to tears. I’m commenting because I understand the message of @kmiversen, but want to say that my experience was very different than what she has described in this article. I saw parents with their children explaining the symbolism of the materials and imagery throughout the space, very kind docents having conversations with patrons wanting to know more, and a diverse crowd taking in the work. I’m glad that this has become a spectacle, another must-see of New Yorkers and tourists — the work is powerful! My biggest praise of the work was seeing the learning curve of Walker in the sugar baby sphinx, I expected it to be flawless and over-produced, but instead it had honesty of the hand in certain aspects of the form. Lastly, I would like to point out that sculptures all over the world get fondled, groped, and harassed (Michelangelo’s David, the lions outside of Chicago’s Art Institute, etc.) so I don’t think Sugar Baby’s mistreatment is very different, unfortunate, but par for the course. Go see it if you can! And take some Kleenex.

  6. Yeah, assuming what all white people think and why they do what they do is not racist! Just as it then is not racist when they assume the same things about us. Like when a white person assumes that when walking by a group of blacks and we look at them and talk amongst ourselves, that we are thinking about robbing them. And we do that because we are all thugs. Sooooo, no racism here on either side! ESPECIALLY black being racist against white, because that NEVER happens…….or maybe you just don’t read about it because it is not socially acceptable.

  7. I really don’t think that the “worst kind of white people” are any worse that the “worst kind of black people.” In my experience there’s both wherever I go. I find it laughable – here you’re outraged by the sexually inappropriate behavior of people saying thing like “sugar tits” and “sweet lips,” when black men yell very similar things like that to me during my commute every day! And I’m really over people throwing around derogatory comments about white people living in parts of Brooklyn as though they’re a bunch of privileged ding-dongs that have never worked, suffered, or made an attempt to lead their lives with empathy and dignity. This kind of criticism is shallow, if not detrimental, because it continues to divide and subdivide people. I mean… you even admit that this is targeted at a small group of light-skinned, cronut-loving jokesters who were having a few laughs in line.

    And what’s with the King Quote? “it’s reassuring that so many white people have a vested—or at least passing—interest in consuming art that deals with race. At the same time I found it unsettling to view art by a black artist about racism in an audience that’s mostly white. It reinforced the idea that black people’s histories are best viewed but not physically experienced.” So are white people supposed to not go to openings of black artists shows? Are people in general only supposed to publicly view art that they have strong convictions about? Are only pornographers and animal-balloon makers allowed to go see Koons’ work? Of course white people cannot physically experience black peoples’ history because they’re not black! A lot of the information here feels like a bunch of whiny, provisional bullshit that transcends nothing more than a superficial complaint.

    I think Kara Walkers work is so strong that I don’t have to make a slew of petty comments about white people to prove it.


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