Deborah Roberts ‘What If’

Step inside Deborah Roberts’ installation What If (2021) at the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens and step inside the mind of a racist.

“Black girls are different, just look at them,” a voice is heard to say through headphones provided as part of the piece.

Vile tropes regarding Black girl’s and women’s physical attributes, sexual desires, names and clothing are repeated, scornfully. The incorporation of headphones as opposed to ambient sounds forces the poison directly through the ears into the listener’s brain.

The voice actors reciting this excrement are, presumably, a white woman and a Black man. Their images are never seen. They don’t represent specific people, but rather stand in for group think. Inclusion of a Black man highlights that these noxious perspectives don’t exist solely in the white world.

What If resembles a voting booth or religious confessional. There’s only room for one inside. Participants enter, sit, then pull a curtain to secure their privacy.

Here, individuals are left to confront their own thoughts. That’s what the mirror facing you effects. As you listen to the bigoted opinions, you stare yourself in the face. Your reflection demands an answer regarding whether you think these thoughts.

Do you have sins to confess? Have you heard yourself thinking these thoughts?

Bars are placed over top of What If. Who is being imprisoned? Black girls and women by the stereotypes of society or the racists holding these thoughts by their vulgar viewpoints?

Black women’s names – 400 of them – are spelled in felt along the wall opposite the entrance. Each one memorializes a Black woman who has gone missing.

“They create the problem, that’s why they’re so disposable… especially in America,” the audio recording states.


That’s my perspective of What If as a white man. Deborah Roberts is a Black woman. After engaging with the installation, I later learned her intent was to give people an idea of what it’s like to “live within these women’s skin, experience what they experience, in a moment that cannot be heard by anyone else.”

What If has two separate sides. One side features the audio recording, the other a video highlighting struggles faced by Black women.

According to museum text detailing the artwork: “The title paraphrases a line from the 1996 courtroom drama “A Time to Kill;” recounting the horrific crimes committed against a Black child by two white attackers, the attorney concludes, ‘Now imagine if she was white.’”

Experience Deborah Roberts What If for yourself at the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens as part of the exhibition “Deborah Roberts: I’m” through December 4, 2022.

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