In the corner of a room is a television behind an upended table. On the wall above are two copies of her father’s birth certificate: one says he is white, the other says he is octoroon (one-eighth black). There are chairs so you can watch her speak on the television for 16 minutes.
In the video she is sitting in the corner of a room at a table (not upended). She looks and sounds like a white middle-class woman who grew up in New York, maybe Jewish, maybe a teacher or a librarian.
She says, “I’m black.”
Does that upset us? Do we think she is making a big deal of her race? Do we think she is seeking attention to make it as an artist? Do we think she must hate whites? If we think any of these things we are assuming that anyone who can pass for white should, that white is better than black.
She is cornered: if she says she is black it upsets white people. And yet if she passes for white not only is it based on sick values, it means she has to listen to all the racist stuff whites say about blacks behind their backs.
Her blackness upsets whites for two reasons:
- They have to watch themselves to make sure they do nothing racist.
- It calls their own whiteness into question.
Some experts say nearly all so-called white Americans are between 5% and 20% black. Which, according to the rules of American society, makes them black too.
She asks whites:
- Do you look into your family tree to find out if you are black?
- If you are black:
- Do you tell friends and people at work?
- Do you keep it a secret?
- If you are black:
- Do you avoid looking into your family history altogether and continue to enjoy the advantages of being white?
- Do you push the knowledge of your probable blackness into the back of your mind?
- Do you just dismiss the whole thing?
No matter what you do, you make a choice.
Some will say that if you can pass for white you have no right to call yourself black: white-skinned blacks do not suffer enough. But if that is true, then you have nothing to lose by publicly calling yourself black. So why not try it and see? You could even take advantage of affirmative action! So go ahead! Do it! What is holding you back?
It’s a genetic and social fact that according to the entrenched conventions of racial classification in this country you are probably black.
So if I choose to identify myself as black whereas you do not, that’s not just a special, personal fact about me. It’s a fact about us. It’s our problem to solve. So, how do you propose we solve it? What are you going to do?
- video: YouTube: Adrian Piper – Cornered (1988) – Part 1/2
- transcript: Google Books: Zoya Kocur, Simon Leung: Theory in contemporary art since 1985 – chapter 14 has the full transcript
- a review: New York Times: Art in Review; Adrian Piper – by Ken Johnson.
- her answer to the review: Piper’s letter to the editor about that review which the New York Times would not print
- passing for white
- One Drop Rule
- The Wigger Fallacy