‘White Only’ and ‘Black Only’ signs cause offense and outrage rather than discussion

An artistic intention, but a botched execution

The Spectrum

A graduate art student posted at least four signs near bathrooms and water fountains in Clemens Hall Wednesday with broad letters stating “White Only” or “Black Only.” University Police took the signs down, but the impact was still felt around campus.

The intention of the student may have been to create a piece of art and start a discussion, but The Spectrum editorial board finds it to be in bad taste a misguided act.

Ashley Powell, who is black, posted the signs for a UB art class project. Still no word if she had the permission of her professor or department to do so. She attended the Black Student Union special meeting in response to the signs and admitted to the room that she posted the signs and to “get a reaction out of people.” Many at the meeting were deeply offended, with some leaving in tears. While a few defended her provocative statements, many more expressed anger and disgust.

Race relations are still a pressing issue in the United States.

Such problems need to be discussed freely and openly. A public awareness of such problems remains necessary for our society as a whole to move forward. But the posting of racially disturbing signs in a public forum, with no advance warning or notification, crosses the line of artistic venture.

The initial reaction of many students was horror and disgust. The signs brought back feelings of segregation and Jim Crow laws. No one wants to be reminded of that.

For others, the incident provoked rage at the idea of someone perpetuating racism on the UB campus. Few students gained anything out of this experience. Indeed, one could argue that the signs actually damaged the conversation about race.

This is not to say that art cannot provoke questions about race and society’s issues. An art gallery in Chicago ran an exhibit called “Confronting Truths: Wake up!” The primary feature of the exhibit was a recreation of the crime scene involving Michael Brown Jr. – a Ferguson, Missouri black teenager who was shot by a white police officer last year.

There are massive differences between that exhibit and the signs in Clemens Hall.

To view the Chicago exhibit requires a conscious decision to engage the art with full knowledge of what you’re being exposed to. The signs in Clemens Hall were posted in a highly public venue without any kind of context.

Students were, essentially, tricked and manipulated.

Powell admittedly was trying to get a reaction out of students. Her art could have created a discussion about race and how we view it in 2015. Her intentions may have been good. But the execution was all wrong.

Some students, regardless of race, had first reactions of disgust and fear. Black students felt targeted. Some felt unsafe. They had a right to look at a ‘White Only’ sign next to a bathroom and feel offended and scared. In the United States’ current racial climate and with the power of social media, posting the signs were a recipe for disaster.

It’s natural for students to not view the signs as art. Students have a right to be mad even after learning the signs were posted without racist intentions.

The artist should be held accountable for her misstep, but she should not be harassed or expelled. While her decision to post it without first warning her potential viewers was a disastrous and sad mistake, it may prove to be a valuable learning experience for her and her art career.

Although Powell may have wanted to start a discussion, so far students feel nothing good has come of the incident. Maybe that can change with time, but right now, students just feel anger.

The editorial board can be reached at editorial@ubspectrum.com