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Challenging the norm

Last week, during a discussion about an exhibition in the Dalton Gallery at Clinton Junior College, one of the artists said something that snapped me to attention.

Juan Logan, who shared the panel with his spouse and co-exhibitor, Susan Harbarge Page, was responding to a question from the moderator, Tom Stanley, chair of Winthrop University's Department of Fine Arts. All three were participating in a panel discussion before an audience of students and arts advocates.

The artist, an African-American, recounted his response to a critic who once asked him when he was going to stop doing "black art." Logan shot back: "When are you going to stop making me a 'black artist'?"

In a culture where we claim that all God's creatures are made in the likeness of God, what's it mean to accuses someone of "making" you black?

Logan's comment brought to mind a frequently uttered comment of TV satirist and pseudo conservative commentator Stephen Colbert: "People tell me I'm white."

The humor comes, not from Colbert's bloodlines (he's whiter than Wonder Bread), but from the irony that his racial credentials would be questioned.

Unlike Dave Chappelle or Bill Cosby, Colbert's repertoire doesn't depend on exploiting ironies of racism. Colbert's humor derives from his self-identification as the social, political and spiritual norm of America. He's in the club; everyone else belongs to "those people."

"Those people" is an elastic concept. If immigration is the topic, "those people" are Latinos who entered this country illegally and are disdained by us who depend on them to mow our lawns, clean our motel rooms and produce much of the food we eat.

Sometimes "those people" are Americans of a different religious orientation. Certainly, Christian evangelicals often are lumped together as gay-bashing Bible thumpers, and comments made about their faith during Mitt Romney's recent unsuccessful run for the GOP nomination marginalized American Mormons.

The ongoing presidential campaign is historic if for no other reason than that for the first time, two of "those people" stand a chance of becoming president. Never before has a female or black been taken seriously as a potential occupant of the Oval Office.

More than one loyal Democratic family is torn by the competing candidacies of Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. That they are both stars in that party's firmament and that their platforms align on most topics make it difficult for advocates of both candidates to stake out a clear case against the other.

What does stand out is that one is a woman, the other African-American. Those are the salient facts underscoring almost every aspect of the campaign, from news analyses dissecting poll results by race, age, gender, etc., to insinuations about Clinton's "likeability" or Obama's middle name.

The message is clear: These politicians represent a deviation from the norm. Presidents are supposed to be white males.

In first grade, we learn that George Washington was our first president. To point out that he was the first white man to be president would strike most Americans as strange because that seemingly straightforward recitation of fact would challenge assumptions we took in with our mothers' milk.

Of the three major candidates left standing in this endless presidential campaign, John McCain included, each has a remarkable story to tell. Each is a U.S. senator, who can boast of a distinguished record of public service and a history of fighting hard for what she or he believes in. That any of them would be a significant improvement over George W. Bush is beyond dispute.

Wouldn't it be reassuring if, as a nation, we could stop "making" them candidates of a specific race or gender? That would require rethinking the norm.

Which brings me back to the art of Mr. Logan and Ms. Page. His work on display at Clinton Junior College repeatedly uses a silhouette of a woman's head -- a black woman -- transposed against fabrics reminiscent of Southern gentility; hers consists of photographs of people in Klan robes and headgear, which are disturbing because the fabrics and people wearing them are not what we associate with racism.

As artists should, they challenge our norm.