When Bree Newsome climbed up a pole to remove the confederate flag we all cheered her on. The confederate flag represents racism and oppression in the black community. So when Bree took a stand and said enough was enough every black person in America felt empowered. But what happens when the opposite happens? What happens when a black person takes a stand on racism and oppression but it is not properly received? Ashley Powell is a graduate student at the State University at Buffalo (UB for short) and for an art project she placed “White Only” signs up throughout the campus. Ashley Powell is enrolled in the art department and her assignment was to create an installation near the campus arts center about time. Of course students were outraged when they saw the signs posted up, at first nobody knew who posted them…so you can imagine what people thought when they got a glimpse of the signs.
Students were calling it a hate crime and even went as far as saying that it was an act of terrorism. When I first got wind of the news I honestly didn’t think it would cause such a commotion because the University at Buffalo is not new to students taking provocative measures to gain attention for their beliefs. Then I wondered what was Ashley Powell’s reason for putting up the signs? She is in graduate school so I knew that she understood that her actions would not be overlooked. Once the story got to me it had already been floating around on the internet, and being alumna of the school I was informed through social media. It seemed as though everyone had an opinion of what disciplinary actions should be taken against Powell. I wondered what was going on in Ashley’s head, she didn’t hide the fact that it was her, she even went to the Black Student Union’s “emergency meeting” that was held once the signs circulated on campus. She attended the meeting and told her side of the story, but her side wasn’t well received, at least not in the way that she had hoped. I reached out to Ashley for an exclusive in depth interview because I wanted to know the girl who had enough balls to not only put up the signs but stand firm in her work and be unapologetic about it.
Note: This interview took place one week after the signs were placed around the University at Buffalo’s campus
SH: Tell me a little bit about yourself.
Ashley Powell: Well, I am from the Southeast side of Chicago, I was born and raised in Chicago. I went to a school that was mostly non-white, the population was Hispanic and Black. Ironically we were situated in Roseland which is well known to be a pretty rough area. In undergrad I received my BSA in art with an emphasis in sculpture. That’s my background before Buffalo.
SH: Now just to make sure, you are black right?
Ashley Powell: (She laughs) Yes I’m black, I’m definitely black. I have dealt with racism in the past, like I mentioned in previous statements I was called racial slurs. And what I was trying to express or let people know is that racism doesn’t only effect us through racial slurs or insults. It effects us in how we are novelized in certain situations. Of course it systemically effects us in how we are ushered into living in certain parts of cities, we are ushered into having certain jobs, we are ushered into having certain educational opportunities, we are fetishzied by people. We are bombarded with European standards of beauty and aesthetics and taught that our own aesthetics are wrong and should be hated. And a lot of people fall prey to that hate and begin to start self hating. That’s why that’s apart of my practice, because I am a person who used to suffer from self hating, I am a person who used to be self conscious of my skin color. I used to hate my hair texture, but now I love my skin color and my hair texture. But in order for me to love my skin color and hair texture I had to confront the fact that I didn’t. I had to examine what happened to me that made me not love those things about myself. I had to examine what was bombarding me to make me hate myself. I had to come to terms with it so I could love myself. Which is why my practice directly involves black pain, black trauma, non white suffering pain and rage. There is no way that we can change ourselves without addressing the things that we need to change. And things like trauma and pain are things that we need to address and overcome. We cannot come to our population and say “we need change” without first showing them why we need change.
SH: Are you experiencing racism right now?
Ashley Powell: I am experiencing extreme racism because of my art exhibit. You can look online, the explicit harsh racists comments that are being made on social media and news websites that are all being aimed at me individually right now. And it’s sad that I can take it so well because I’m so used to it, that’s the issue there. This is something that I have dealt with all of my life, so when people ask me what sort of racism have I experienced in the past..I have experienced it immensely in the past, and I am experiencing it immensely right now.
SH: Tell us about the art of it all, what made you decide to do this specific piece. You could have done a sculpture, a multitude of things but you decided to take a step in the direction where you placed up “whites only signs.” What was going through your mind before you put up the signs.
Ashley Powell: Well like I said, I’m at a point right now where I am very unapologetic, I’m very fearless in my practice. And in my practice I specifically know that I need to and I want to change racism in America. We need to fix racism in our society. My belief and what history has been able to tell us with the gift of hindsight is the main reason why it hasn’t changed is because we haven’t done enough to change it. If we had done enough to change racism it wouldn’t be a subject, it wouldn’t be such a volatile subject. So with my practice I aim to implicate the individual to an extent, because first its the individual that is going to have to make a personal choice and take personal action and start personally influencing others to talk about racism. So when I did this I wanted to put racism right in front of peoples faces. I didn’t want them to be able to look at it through the news or a newspaper article. I wanted them to feel it in their personal space, and that’s exactly what I was thinking. I was aware that this would get an emotional reaction out of non whites. I was aware that it could get a racist reaction out of white people who are angry at me for talking about race. But my main goal was to implicate the individual and motivate them to realize that although we are physically in 2015, we are still structurally in the sixties when these signs did exist. So I really needed a way to get individuals to feel that, and one of the ways I know that I would get people to feel that was to put this tangibly in their own area where they can’t hide from it or run from it.
SH: Now what about the Black response? All of the outlets that I have seen cover the story have been using the black student population to kind of navigate how you should be disciplined. They are not specifically talking about the school administrations reaction, they are using black organizations (Black Student Union) on campus that are for black students to kind of anchor their argument on why this is upsetting. So what has been the stance from Black students on campus?
Ashley Powell: So its been a bit of a split from black people and white people. That response has been split by age which is very interesting. All of the black people that I have spoken to that support me are majorly from the older generation. Now there are some people from my age group that support me but it has been majorly from black people who actually had to live through those times of segregation that support me. Um, the black people who have been against me are people who are my age who did not have to live through those signs at all. I feel like these signs sparked this sort of fear of generational fear, pain, and trauma that many young black people have that are aware of those signs that didn’t have to live through it or address it. But most of the backlash have been from young black people. There are a few things that are very telling of that, I’m wondering…have they been convinced to self police? Have they been convinced to self police the trauma or self police their pain, have they been convinced to not confront trauma and pain? One of the biggest criticisms in society today is that black people are often told to forget about slavery. What I’m wondering is, have they been truthfully convinced to forget about it, and are they upset that someone is forcing them to remember it?
SH: But then it comes back to you, racism has been at a big time high in the news recently. So a lot of people have come to a conclusion that you did it just for attention. Not for a cause but you did it because it’s a hot topic and would cause a rise. Anybody in their right mind knows that University at Buffalo is a big school and popular so putting up those signs would get a lot of attention. So while I get the intention behind it why didn’t you put up an explanation with the signs, why did you just leave it?
Ashley Powell: Because I didn’t want people dismissing the topic that I was trying to bring up. Usually when people get a warning about a race topic it allows them to put their defenses up, and it allows them to be as dismissive as they have been in my opinion. I believe that our society has been dismissive, people bring up the point that race is a very prevalent topic right now, we have marches and protests, but I don’t see people my age being as mobilized as they need to be. They get upset for a little period surrounding the incident and then they forget about it.
SH: Okay so knowing that, wouldn’t you think that this would be the same situation? You get some attention, some interviews, and then in about a month we won’t even care anymore.
Ashley Powell: Well no, I couldn’t have anticipated that it would have reached this magnitude but that’s another affirmation of the commentary that I’m making is that we don’t talk about race enough. So if this does pass just like Micheal Brown passed or just how Trayvon Martin passed that only affirms that we are compliant with racism in America. Something like the death of another human being should not pass at all, it should not be a hot trendy topic and then fall to the wayside, and then people become upset again when the next thing happens. They need to be upset the entire time until we find some kind of change. That’s going to take individual changing and that’s gonna take effort that many people don’t want to apply to this topic. And that’s the whole point, somebody who spoke out at the BSU (Black Student Union) meeting in opposition on how the BSU was focusing on me and not the topic of racism. He said that, “this is the biggest turn out that the BSU has ever had, regardless of actual black human beings that have actually been murdered.” And he was bringing up the point that I did this to bring us together to form a non white solidarity. And the point is that if they do pass over this it’s only going to prove the point that we don’t care enough and we need to care more.
SH: Do you consider yourself an advocate for black people? Or an artist who just wanted to express yourself artistically?
Ashley Powell: I’m definitely an advocate for black people. My whole practice surrounds black pain, black suffering, and black healing. The reason that I’m in graduate school right now and went to undergraduate school is to help empower black power people, and to heal racism in America. For people who would say I’m not an advocate for black people just because I reminded them of pain I would say that that’s an illogical argument. Because how am I not an advocate for someone just because I’m trying to get them to heal? People are saying that I may have re-traumatized people, but I would argue that we were already traumatized. That trauma was already there, I didn’t create that trauma, I didn’t create racism. People keep derailing the conversation to actually reminding these students of race instead of the fact that racism exists.
SH: What was your personal reaction once you saw how everyone reacted? The police were called, they called the photos an act of terrorism, did you get scared? Did you think you would get kicked of school?
Ashley Powell: Well, as far as the project goes I initially thought it became even more successful than I thought it would be. As an artist we hope our work has a great impact in magnitude but we try to remain realistic to a degree that it may stay small. When it was gaining attention I thought it was very successful because I thought, “maybe we are all going to start talking about race the way we should be talking about it. Maybe once peoples emotions calm down they will be able to start a critical discussion.” So on the one hand I was very happy and excited because I do believe in my campus.
Ashley Powell: I do believe that this is a place where we can talk about these topics and have these discussions. Just like you reminded me, UB has always been a place where we have done some very provocative things to criticize things like racism. So even right now I’m still very hopeful and encouraged that we can get to this monologue once emotions calm down. But of course naturally I did feel that bit of nervousness, if one person on the street you know said something very angry and negative to you that will make you nervous. So imagine having hundreds of people saying it to me at once it made me feel very nervous. But I still felt very successful and I still remain unapologetic. So whether you guys are upset with me or not we are still going to have this discussion.
SH: So what made you go to the BSU meeting in the first place?
Ashley Powell: During the critiquing for my class we were critiquing my project and I saw some students who were by the signs. I brought extra signs because I was counting on people ripping them down. Two guys walked up on the park bench in defiance and said, “we’re not going to put up with segregation.” So they were very defiant and happy about it, and then some other students came and ripped the signs down, they were visibly upset so I explained the project to them. They told me about the emergency BSU meeting surrounding the project and said that I should come to explain to people that it wasn’t purely a racist act, that it was an art project so they could have a different perspective on it.
Ashley Powell: So that’s how I ended up at the BSU meeting. I went there because this was my art, these were my actions, and I was taking accountability. When it comes to art, just because someone is having a negative reaction or because someone is having an allergic reaction that does not mean for one second you should run away from what you did or what you stand for. So I went there to clarify and the hope was to have critical conversation, I was like, “this is the BSU, this is the organization for black people and black empowerment, this is definitely going to be the space where we could have that critical conversation.” But obviously it did not come to that.
SH: So what was the situation or the climate when you walked into the meeting?
Ashley Powell: Basically they were expressing themselves and their opinions on the project. Then I stood up took full accountability for it and then they expressed towards me how they felt about it and it was a very negative reaction. We were never able to reach a critical point of discussion, there were two students who tried to take it there but they were immediately shot down and we couldn’t ever reach that point. And that’s when I started getting even more negative feedback on social media afterwards. Just because they were offended that a black person did it.
SH: I was just about to ask you that, do you think the reason why they were so angry was because a black person did it? Put it like this, if you would have been white students of color on campus would have known how to deal with that anger, it would have been justified. But because another black person did it I don’t think they knew how to receive it.
Ashley Powell: Three of the biggest criticisms that I heard from the BSU was, “your black you know how these things hurt you should have known better.” My response was, I exactly know how these things hurt, that’s why I hope that we are strong enough as young intellectuals to move past the hurt and become constructive. The second implication from all of this is that it seems they would have been partially satisfied if it was a white person because then there anger and their hurt would have been affirmed. But once I turned out to be a black person that escalated it to a critical moment that I don’t think they were ready for, so I think they just responded with more anger. And unfortunately the last criticism I’ve heard is that now they feel like I have made them look moronic because they got so upset about the signs and I turned out to be black.
SH: They assumed it was a white person?
Ashley Powell: Yeah, some people brought up the point that if it was an art project it could have been done a certain way. Others were bringing up the point that this was definitely an art project and this response was the point of bringing us all together. But majorly they thought it was a white person and when it wasn’t they were more disappointed for some reason.
SH: Do you think they were more disappointed because now that it wasn’t a white person they didn’t have something to jump on?
Ashley Powell: I honestly do believe that. One of the traps that I feel like many people and especially many young people fall into is over victimization and loss of agency. And I think they were going down that super victimized route, and I don’t know if they see in them what I see in them. I see that we are capable of great agency and capable of the intellect to talk about these things critically and constructively but once again emotions were running very high. And sometimes when you are overly emotional you start to forget about those critical things. I do still have faith that the BSU (Black Student Union) can move forward and become critical.
SH: How has your campus life changed?
Ashley Powell: I don’t know if I want to talk about that too much I want to focus on the project. But I will say that it has been very difficult but that difficulty comes with the territory. It comes with the territory of people who try to bring up difficult conversations or people who try to distill social change. So naturally it has been difficult because I received a lot of hatred, a lot of racism, many people want extreme punishment. But, a large portion of my campus has been extremely supportive, I have been getting support from different faculty members from different departments. I’ve received extreme support from my own department and from my college, so although its been difficult it has been very encouraging and affirming. I’ve been very much encouraged to go on with this conversation and to go on with my practice.
SH: If you had to do it again would you do it the exact same way?
Ashley Powell: Definitely. I do not regret my actions at all. I will not apologize for my actions. I believe that I definitely did the right thing because this nationwide critique on race has been discussed and the point of the project has been affirmed. People are trying say that I wanted attention or that I wanted to experiment on people. All of those deflections only affirm that people don’t want to talk about race, that’s the only thing that it does affirm. So I would do everything the exact same way. Because this is a discussion that needs to be had, and if it would have been had we wouldn’t be getting this reaction.
SH: How do you feel now, where are you at mentally, spiritually, are you okay?
Ashley Powell: My schedule is a lot more busy, and dealing with all of the backlash at first was very difficult but the entire time I felt affirmed. I don’t know if that’s the right word to use right now but I felt very affirmed and very happy that I did this because if I didn’t do this people would be at their same run of the mill routine. So the entire time I felt very happy that I did the right thing.
SH: So what do you want people to know about Ashley Powell?
Ashley Powell: I hope that they understand that I did not invent race, I did not invent these signs, I simply exposed race in a way that people weren’t necessarily prepared for. And in a way that people don’t find it easy to deal with. And what I think they should know about me is that I’m really hopeful that they’ll be able to criticize the fact that these signs did used to be institutionally reinforced. And that although the signs don’t exist anymore institutional and structural racism does exist. And that’s what I want them to get to, the reason why I did this period is that I am hopeful that we can have this discussion. And as a nation we can move forward to make things better, I brought up this difficult topic to talk about the topic, not to talk about me. To talk about the fact that racism exists and not to talk about the person that reminded them of racism.
SH: Will you be finishing your education at the University at Buffalo?
Ashley Powell: I am definitely going to finish out my education here. I am at an excellent art department, I’m surrounded by an excellent group of colleagues. I’m in a great college (the college of arts an sciences) and I’m at a great University because the University supported me. My college and my department are supporting me and to try to runaway from harsh backlash and criticism especially because of the fact that they’re my own people that I’m trying to represent would be me running away from racism.
SH: Where do you think your biggest backlash has come from, white people or black people?
Ashley Powell: I think it has been equal. I think the backlash from white people comes from them being upset that I have brought up this taboo subject that implicated their privilege. The other half of that has been young black people my age who don’t know how to confront their trauma, and who have been encouraged to runaway from it and stay comfortable.
SH: And for the record, how old are you?
Ashley Powell: I’m 25.
SH: That’s the interview, I thank you for being honest, and I commend you for staying true to who you are, and what you believe in.
Ashley Powell: Thank you.
I did this interview the week after the Ashley Powell put up the signs and almost a month later I decided to release the interview to the public. I held onto the interview because I knew people were very emotional and it’s a tough topic. Bree Newsome took down a flag that represented segregation, hate, and racism. Ashley Powell put up signs that represented segregation, hate, and racism. One was praised and the other has been criticized greatly for her actions. But are they different? Bree wanted the reminder of racism and oppression to be gone and Ashley wanted to showcase racism through art to create an in depth discussion on racism in America. Both woman wanted the same things, they went about it using different methods. Both actions were calculated and planned, both were to cause a reaction, and start the conversation about race in America.
In the beginning I had my reservations about the intent behind Ashley Powell’s art project. After speaking with Ashely I realized that she is a bright young woman who’s courage under fire is remarkable. To the students especially the Black students who currently attend the University at Buffalo ask yourself this question and be truthful, why are you mad? Are you mad because Ashely is black? Are you mad at the sign? Are you made at racism? Are you made because you felt powerless? Are you mad because being mad seems cool? Why are you really upset? Because Ashley Powell didn’t create racism and yet our black brothers and sisters are dying at alarming rates because of racism. When the dust settles will this simply be a topic that you spoke about at a meeting or will you really be an act of change? If Ashely didn’t put the signs up would racism be gone? And to Ashley, thank you again for speaking with me, I believe in your cause, and I understand it. Even if it does make me shift uncomfortably in my seat, its the uncomfortability that I must confront not the person speaking.
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