Some excellent social commentary was made during SXSW this year, something that I would have loved to see years ago. Someone put stickers on East Austin business replete with the COA logo that said, “Exclusively for white people. Maximum of 5 colored customers, colored BOH (Back of House) staff accepted.”
The satire clearly linked the historic institutional racism of Austin with the ongoing consumer-led gentrification and displacement on the East Side. This has stirred discourse in the city, but to a level, which falls short of what we are capable of. All the reaction from the media has been laughable. There is a disturbing collective feign of ignorance floating around about the intention and meaning of the art. Let’s not kid ourselves – it is a pretty straightforward message about race and gentrification.
Main points aside – here are some considerations of Stickergate before it fades into the unfashionable fortune of having happened last week:
- The flash issue obscures gentrification.
There is a lot of gentrification happening in the city and it is partially fueled by SXSW. It would be great to see people take more responsibility in mitigating the negative effects that tourism and consumer-based economies have on historic neighborhoods. I would love the same engagement on revitalizing the East Side and holding exploitative City and capitalist practices accountable as I do from people reacting to relatively innocuous art.
The same week, for example, a beautiful and historic mural on East Cesar Chavez was nonchalantly painted over by a foreign artist. The Lotteria mural is culturally significant to Cesar Chavez as a Mexican neighborhood, but as the makeup of businesses is changing, our culture is being erased. This was not covered on the news, and that layer of paint doesn’t peel off quite so easily. Neither does the displacement of thousands of people from their neighborhoods across the country. Another example is the demolition of Piñatas Jumpolín (see Dale Dale Dale postmarked 2/23/15) – a far worse act in terms of destruction and insensitivity, but one that was defended and as specifically “not racist” by many.
- People missed the satire.
Sadly, many people thought the stickers were made by White supremacists and to be taken literally. Geesh! I don’t know what to say. That would be like reacting the Right Wing ravings of Stephen Colbert. Austin Mayor Steve Adler called the act “appalling” and “offensive”. This comes from a mayor who made no public comment of the demolition of Jumpolín or the destruction of the Loteria mural. It seems like making White people uncomfortable is a greater sin than destroying the culture and heritage of historic Communities of Color (which is exactly the point of the stickers, so maybe Adler is really in cahoots with the artist and is just laying the satire on extra thick).
Others mistook the stickers to be aimed at garnering ire toward the businesses and the city by framing them as overtly white supremacist. This was not an attack on the businesses or the city or the people associated with them. That some civil rights leaders took it there was an unfortunate diversion. The point was to imply that the City of Austin is racist as an institution, and businesses cater to specific class groups that follow racially segregated norms. There, that’s not so bad, is it?
- People misused the concepts of racism and hate-speech.
People were really offended by the stickers and called them racist. One business owner called it “ hate-speech”. This messaging was also consistently and conveniently accompanied by a message of confusion – “why would they do it?” If you do not experience gentrification as a painful reality resulting in the displacement of your community or understand the racist history and current structure of our city, than you might not understand the point here. However, your ignorance does give you the authority to claim the status of a victim. Regardless of who owns or runs the targeted businesses – they are profiting from a system that is rooted in exploitation. That does not mean we hate you. Please stop pretending that pointing out social reality is hatred because it makes you feel guilty. Racism is real and the stickers probably reflect a painfully accurate depiction of who patronizes these businesses.
I was so flabbergasted by the conviction of the business owner’s whine that I thought about staging a boycott of their business – just because they so distastefully inserted their own self-serving grievance. Instead I decided to write this. You can thank me later (with free cupcakes – kidding!)
- The weak response from POC community leaders is inconsistent with the political history (and I’m not sure why).
Instead of Black leaders seizing the opportunity to bring attention to the plight of their communities and the legacies that have been mostly forgotten, Councilwoman Ora Houston, NAACP chairman Nelson Linder and Representative Dawna Dukes all responded with White protectionism. Completely out of touch, missing the satire and feigning ignorance of meaning and intention, the cadre of Austin’s old guard Black activist seemed to parrot the naiveté of the city’s rookie mayor. How disappointing that even when the door is blown open, these leaders failed to simply walk through it.
Each of these three community leaders has been vocal on segregation, racism, gentrification and fair business practices. How could they have possibly missed the satire and the political opportunity to respond? Why when the clueless enactors of gentrification ask “but why?” do our POC officials not have such a simple answer? This makes the need for disruptive art/activism so important.
- Back of House comment should not be overlooked
How many Austin businesses have POC working in the kitchen and all White, or white-passing, servers up front?
If you answered “probably most of them”, you are absolutely probably right.
Racism is inequitable outcomes where there shouldn’t be. Mexicans are not naturally just better at washing dishes and Whites better at serving because they have fine breeding – no one really thinks that. No one really thinks they are racist either – but take a look in any restaurant in town and it is plain as day – real, live racism! I’m sure there are no business policies or city mandates for BOH/FOH racial segregation. The point is that there doesn’t need to be. Let that soak in before reacting.
- It is pretty funny
“Uh, Earth to Brint, I was making a joke, okay?”
With all the horribly racist violence against People of Color, the cultural and historic racism in East Austin, the racist outcomes of profit-driven exploitation and gentrification and everything else POC deal with, can we have a simple joke? The stickers peeled right off.
The fact a few little stickers are such a problem for people is harsh. Lighten up. This is a long haul and there is a lot of real work to be done to heal, undo racism and stop gentrification. Don’t fall too hard.
It’s just a sticker – It’s not like somebody destroyed the neighborhood where you grew up.
Thanks to Native East Austinites Andrea Melendez & Estrella de Leon for your strength and inspiration for this response.