Arts Groups: “Reflecting” Diversity Reinscribes Oppression

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Diversity in the arts: It’s the hot issue of the moment. And thanks to changing opinions on issues like racial inequity among funders and large organizations, there’s been a powerful shift in the nonprofit arts world around diversity. To be a hip, forward-thinking, progressive arts leader now, your organization, too, must have a robust diversity initiative—at least if you want to be competitive for all the new funds being directed at cultural equity projects. The most common refrain I hear from well-meaning arts leaders for the rationale behind their newfound commitment to diversity is: We want to reflect the diversity of our community.

Now that’s a perfectly lovely, wholesome, feel-good statement. This kind of “diversity” thinking emphasizes demographic data of staff and audiences; it chases that perfect ratio of 37 percent people of color, 51 percent women, 10 percent (give or take) LGBT, etc.—the perceived national demography of the country—to inoculate the organization from criticism of being “Eurocentric” or “exclusionary.” However, it’s also completely toothless when it comes to actually addressing the structural oppression which prevents people of color, LGBT people, poor folks, disabled people, etc., from being able to fully and equally engage with, and to operate in, the arts sector.

Simply “reflecting” society only reinscribes the systems of oppression that exist within it. Focusing on the numbers game of diversity encourages tokenism, “trickle-down community engagement” and still centers straight, white, male, cisgender people at the core of every programmatic and financial decision of an organization.

Instead of focusing on how to make our organizations reflect our community, what if we found ways for our organizations to be more accountable—or accountable, period—to the communities we serve? Accountability can take many forms: form an advisory committee made up of community members for artistic programming; pay the people doing your community outreach; open a dialogue with the public about your goals; ask the community to grade your performance/relevance; link cultural equity metrics to staff performance evaluation.

There are innumerable solutions to make organizations more equitable for people who are excluded from the arts. But the question I always use as a compass when figuring out if my decisions are creating more equity in the world is, “Who has the power in this situation?” If the answer is not “the people,” then I know I’m heading in the wrong direction.

This article was presented in its original form on The Clyde Fitch Report blog on August 8, 2016.

  • Kebo Drew

    Or we could just fund the organizations that are actually equitable in terms of representation and leadership/power. Say, all of the small people of color arts and culture organizations that anchor communities and become a force against inequity? Organizations run by, for and about LGBTQ people of color with an intersectional social justice lens? Otherwise, funding just goes to “big” traditional arts organizations to figure out diversity, without examining the cultural and capitalist forces that allowed them to become “big” in the first place. What is interesting about the “equity” lens is that some funders have eliminated funding for the arts without understanding that it is their problematic view on the value of art, as a luxury for the wealthy instead of a form of cultural resistance, cultural resilience and cultural renewal for communities that are disproportionately impacted by inequity and injustice (surely everyone has seen the research that shows that ethnic studies and culture positively impact the performance of children and youth of color in school?) People of color communities need art, it gives us the courage and hope to keep moving forward for justice. It’s not for nothing that both the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) both had groups of Freedom Singers that were seen as movement leaders. It’s not for nothing that activist and actor Ossie Davis said that art was the way that we show our humanity. If it’s truly to be about equity and not just diversity, it can’t just be about representation, or white savior models of exposing the “masses” to art. Bloomberg grantees in San Francisco recently had this experience with a so-called “expert” who completely dehumanized Latinxs in her quest to be representative.

  • What a great article. Food for thought for arts orgs and beyond.