There are plenty of six-letter words that start with N: "normal," "nipple," "nephew," "nannie," and "nobody," to name a few. But we all think of the same word when we see an image like the one on the T-shirt above. With the seemingly limitless number of shootings targeting young black men in America, the sentiment of anxiety and loss is not limited to hellish, militarized locales like Ferguson, Missouri. Death among black youth is leaving a track record that no one—except maybe some reactionary whites in suburban St. Louis—can possibly be proud of. It's also instilled an impressionable fear in those whom police violence impacts the most: young people of color.
Today, even if black youth are able to escape state-sanctioned death, you can't blame them if they feel destined for prison, as one out of every three young black males will go to jail at some point in his lifetime. Nwoko, a student who grew up in the country’s most segregated city—Milwaukee, Wisconsin—created this piece as a response to the relative silence that surrounds modern racism. What started out as a canvas that sold for $700 is now known as "the shirt white people can't wear.” I called her to chat about the shirt and its jarring imagery.
VICE: So you’ve been getting a lot of heat for this, huh? How do you feel now?
Nwoko: I was just relieved that it made people talk. Because that’s one of our biggest problems—people don’t want to talk about it. This piece is about that realization. There are a lot of people who want to say racism does not exist, and I was one of those people.
How did you get from thinking racism is nonexistent to making a shirt about it?
I’m black, and my family is white. I was born in Milwaukee, adopted at birth. Most of my life I didn’t feel strongly about race. In my family, the philosophy was race doesn’t matter. I never felt different until people outside of my family or people from school told me I was different. I was rejected by my peers, but I was more accepted by my white peers just because I talked “white." Like, "Are you white or are you black, because you talk white? You’re white. Oh, your family’s white? You’re white.” It’s been a shocking realization. Some people have the privilege to be able to ignore it, but when I walk into the room, people see a black person. When I talk, people hear a white person. I think that all comes from there being only one idea about what black people are.
What does it mean for people to see a black person?
Most of what I’m taught about who black people are is negative. Especially the way that black people are portrayed in the media, it’s just something I can’t believe. I don’t want to believe that people assume those things when they see me, before they even know who I am. I’m a woman, but I have short hair, I wear baggy clothing, and I’m almost six feet tall. I’m confused for a teenage boy a lot of the time. If I pull up next to somebody and they have a stand-your-ground bumper sticker, I’m scared. Stand-your-ground means that you can shoot somebody because you fear for your life, and if someone is racist they might really fear for their life if they see me. How many bullets need to be put in my chest before I'm not scary anymore?
Hangman is a game that I learned in childhood, and it’s actually a really morbid game. We play it on the chalkboard at school. In that way it says something about innocence. My research that I’ve been doing has sort of been a loss of innocence. The image of lynching and the N-word brings history and the present into one image. The hangman piece is a litmus test. It’s like, make of this what you will. For the white people who are outraged, it’s like, you need to re-examine your own reaction. That’s what I hoped this piece would do. N-I-G-G-E-R is the N-word. That’s as far as we go. We don’t say the N-word loudly. It’s like, don’t talk about it, don’t let anybody know that you talked about it.
The picture started out as a painting. How did it become a T-shirt?
I screen-printed the image onto white T-shirts because a friend wanted one. When he wore it, other people wanted one. Really it was just a supply-and-demand thing. But as I was screen-printing them I was thinking, Who is going to wear this T-shirt, and what are the reactions going to be? What does it mean when a black person wears it vs. a white person vs. a Latino person vs. an Asian person? Who is willing to wear this T-shirt?
The original canvas by Nwoko
Are you willing to wear it?
I don’t think I’m willing to wear this T-shirt. I think activist is an honorable title, but I'm not there yet. Up to this point, I’ve basically had a white mentality. I did not want to be a part of it all; I didn’t think that the message applied to me. I thought the message was extreme. I think that there’s this big division between people who want to talk about race and people who don’t. There are people who think that the big solution is to not talk about it. I recently heard Morgan Freeman say that.
Morgan Freeman said that?
Fuck, it makes sense. I worked in the film industry for a short time, and I could not believe how they typecast people. Morgan Freeman has played a lot of roles, like in Shawshank Redemption, where his race was not the role. He says, "Stop talking about it. I’m not a black man, you’re not a white man—I’m just a man." I think that’s where we need to be, way down the line, but we can’t just go there. I was there, I developed this denial to the fact that I was black, and it protected me, but only for a while. I don’t think the solution is to forget the history, or to keep it in mind all the time, either. I think the solution is to learn how to talk about it. I am still learning.
Why do you think people are so afraid to talk about race?
It’s a double-edged sword. Women have similar issues, like any group that feels oppressed. If you say, 'Don't assume I’m underprivileged because I’m black,' that’s one thing. If you say, 'Hey, you need to respect the fact that black people still experience oppression,' then that’s another thing. It’s hard to talk about these issues without contradicting yourself or being perceived as contradictory.
How do you think living in Milwaukee impacted the piece?
Milwaukee is not special. The majority of Its public schools, whose students are predominately people of color, have white teachers. What you learn about black history and black culture up through high school is really not much. Even our parents sometimes forget that they have to teach us things about our culture. It’s hard to talk to kids. Now that I’m older, my parents and I are having great dialogues about race, but as a kid, part of me is glad that they didn’t.
How have white people reacted to the piece?
So far white people have had far more negative reactions than black people. The negative reactions with white people came more from the the T-shirts than the painting. The T-shirt is getting the phrase of “the shirt white people can’t wear." It means something different when a white person wears it. Not because it inherently means something different but because of the assumptions that surround it.
But we all think of the same word. I’m glad we all think of the same word, because it means we share the same history. It means that the history is very much relevant today. Especially with the number of shootings on black teenagers. It’s modern-day lynching. When you play Hangman, the idea is if you guess wrong, you draw a body part. I think this piece is just a consequence of society. It’s like, I didn’t mean to hang that man, I didn’t mean to. It’s just that no one else would spell it out for me.