Monthly Mentor

Natalie C. Jones (February)
Each month, a different member is the guest writer for the NAEA Monthly Mentor Blog. Natalie C. Jones is an artist, small business owner, and the director of education at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture. She has 10 years of experience working as an art teacher and teaching artist throughout the east coast and the Midwest. Click "GO" to read her full bio.



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July 08, 2020

Where do we start? My Journey of Whiteness in Art Education

By Matthew Neylon

Hey there - my name is Matt and I am so glad you’re here. As an artist and teacher, you bring so much to this space and I hope that this month’s blog posts will encourage, empower, and equip you for what’s ahead.

It was exactly one year ago that I was on a roadtrip with a person of color, when he began playing a podcast featuring Robin DiAngelo. Having taught in a school that was nearly all-black on the south side of Chicago, I thought I was acutely aware of racial issues and leagues ahead of my white colleagues. In her book White Fragility (a must-read for white educators) Diangelo explains that it is often most difficult to expose privilege and our part in the system of racial inequality to white liberals. After about 30 minutes of listening, this white liberal began to get emotional as the podcast exposed my privlidge and whiteness. I immediately countered with statements about “my immigrant great-grandparents” and “my modest upbringing” and “my unique urban teaching experiences”. I soon learned how much work I had to do and the last year has been a frustrating, emotional, and necessary journey.

As art teachers, many of us have celebrated BIPOC artists, we have shown their work in our classrooms, and invited artists of color to speak with our students. We have taken students to museums and engaged in multiculutral experiences in our schools. We want to believe we are not part of the problem, we are part of the solution. After reading, listening, and learning I have had to humble myself and identify the scope of the real problems around race. While I have had a passion for children of color and social justice as an idea, I have said and done things that are racially problematic, I avoided difficult conversations around race, I have failed to learn the systemic ways racism has deeply permeated the arts, and I have centered whiteness in many ways that I didn’t even realize.

We are artists. And as artists, we need to see color. If we can see color on the palette and understand the nuance and importance of each specific shade, we have to be able to see it in the artists and students with whom we interact. The time has come to see the color of pain, the color of privilege, and the lack of color/representation in the arts. From our most prestigious US opera and orchestra companies, to the boards, curators, and executives of art museums, to those of us who have been teaching art for many years and the pre-service art educators about to enter the workforce, there is an extreme lack of representation and we need to see that. Once we begin to understand our whiteness, to realize our privilege, and to reveal the ways the art community has centered whiteness for years, only then will we be able to zoom out and begin to understand the context of our field as we work toward change.

I am ashamed to admit that, although I had grown up being exposed to BIPOC artists, teaching in a predominantly black school, and celebrating artists of color, it took a white person (Robin DiAngelo) writing a book called White Fragility for me to truly begin unpacking and understanding my whiteness. Why is that? How had I centered my experience and compartmentalized the black experience so much that it took Robin DiAngelo shaking me out of my confort to realize the breadth of the problem of race? When we believe that we are part of the solution without fully understanding the problem, the only problem we’ve solved is the problem of our own discomfort. I still mess up and I will undoubtedly say problematic things over the next several posts. But much like an artist has to to be willing to hear and apply critique, I have to be humble and willing to learn. The more skilled the artist, the more nuanced critique they can digest and understand, so no matter where you are on your journey, if you are a white educator, I hope you will be open to critique and eager to receive more nuanced critique as you learn more.

We find ourselves in such an important and historic time with artists and teachers fighting for their mental, emotional, and physical health every day. Simultaneously, we are wrestling with the emotional and complex work of understanding race. A renewed national awareness of racial injustice and systems of oppresssion has led me to accelerate my own understanding of privlidge, race, racial inequality, and social justice over the past two months and I am realizing how much work I have yet to do. As an administrator and teacher, my days are filled with learning, responding and supporting my community, while making plans for the multiple teaching scenarios we may encounter in this unprecedented school year.

As I wrestled with what our NAEA community needs and deserves right now, I realized we need to understand whiteness, unpack intersectional identity, and amplify the voices of artists and educators of color. I reached out to colleagues from a wide variety of racial/professional backgrounds and asked if they would be willing to discuss their thoughts and resources on intersectionality, identity, education, and art. I was overhwelmed and humbled by the rich responses and engaging conversations that they offered. I hope you will join me in learning from and honoring their stories by reading and accelerating your own journey with humility and urgnecy as we all work to build a new type studio that is responsive, healing, and seeks justice for all.

This is not a monologue, this is a dialogue and it is only the beginning. Please comment, respond, reach out, and most importantly, help to respectfully educate eachother. There is no better time to be an educator than at a time where we all have so much to share and so much to learn.

In my next post, I will tackle what makes a mentally and emotionally healthy art teacher, how we can unpack white privilege in a way that is honest, authentic, and humble, and how the understanding of self can lead to an understanding of others.

Great resources are never far out of reach, here are a few to get started:

White Fragility (book)

Whiteness in Art Education by Dr. Joni Boyd Acuff, Ph.D. (editorial article)

Are these diverse and women artists a part of your curriculum? (list)

White Lies: Unraveling Whiteness in the Elementary Art Curriculum (article)

Stamped from the Beginning (book)

- MN


Brandi H.

When we believe that we are part of the solution without fully understanding the problem, the only problem we’ve solved is the problem of our own discomfort. — YES!! Love this blog and look forward to hearing more!

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