After the biracial artist set up his WhiteSmellBot on Twitter and was retweeting about 80 “white people smell like” stereotypes a day, he set out to the streets of New York in whiteface to “protest” those racially-tinged comments. Since the first trial, he’s done this several times — in Harlem and, three times in the Upper East Side. His thirteenth performance (above) was his last.
What have you learned?
I started by going to Harlem to tell black people that they could be racist, but many told me they didn’t have enough power to be racist. I adjusted my approach to say that black people could have prejudice. That was received better but still not well, and two common arguments arose directed at me — “White people started it” and “White people don’t care what we think.” I then went to the Upper East Side to see for myself if this were true. I was mostly ignored by white people on the street. Perhaps it was because white people aren’t aware of the stereotype that they smell funny to black people, or they don’t care, or I was intimidating to them in whiteface. I then returned to Harlem, and told black folks that I didn’t think white people cared, and that they were right to begin with.
How has it changed, so far?
I am done. I decided to stop. I’m not a masochist and it started to feel masochistic.
As far as what happened in the video above and why Nate’s left screaming theatrically, Nate explained that showing up in whiteface that a few street-vendors he encountered in the section of 125th St caused particular tension: “When they see me in whiteface, it’s like the perfect storm.”
The reason I lost control and began screaming “white people are the devil” was because that is what some people in that video really think. If you listen, you can hear one or two men agree. I also lost control because I felt attacked and I felt like I was losing control of the situation. I was hoping that after screaming back, I would equalize things, then we could have a conversation. But some people don’t want to have a conversation with me in whiteface. They want to tell me how it is, and then watch me run off with my tail between my legs. I wasn’t going to do that. On three occasions, I passed these same men on 125th St, and each time they yelled, “Don’t come back!” and each time I returned, and we spoke again. It was weird.
What are some of the difficulties you’re facing in sustaining “character”?
People want to look behind the curtain, as I said to the man in the latest video. It was difficult to keep them interested in talking to a pretend white man. They quickly want to move on to, “Who are you really?” I would try to redirect, but I didn’t want to be a jerk about it. Sometimes, I would reveal that I’m biracial (black/white) first, and sometimes strangers would just blurt it out. It was messy. The saddest part about it to me was that many black people on the street used my biracial background as a way to undermine my message that black people could have prejudice. So it became my problem or something wrong with me, the reason I was protesting. I don’t have anything to hide. I freely admitted on the street that I’m more sensitive to black/white relations because of my racial makeup, but that is not a reason to disregard my message, and I would argue, it is why I was the most qualified to be The White Ambassador in the first place.
It was a difficult project to execute and challenging to have taken it this far, exploring not only notions of prejudice, but also the challenges of taking an object of controversial, confrontational internet art into “real life.” It’s clear that this has opened up the issue to further inquiry — When does an artist break “character?” How is the performance transformed when the artist’s immediate audience dismisses it as “mentally ill”?