Diversity and Inclusion in the Arts Are Not Enough

The vision for diversity and inclusion.

If you’re reading this, I’m going to assume three things about you.

  1. You care about women and people of color being involved in theatre. It bothers you when a show, season or organization is too male and too white. It doesn’t reflect the world you live in. It doesn’t reflect a world you want to live in.
  2. You need to hear from the people most impacted by how race and gender work in theatre. You want the truth, not what they think you want to hear because they don’t want to piss you off and lose an opportunity, a working relationship, or a friend or loved one.
  3. You are motivated to do something with the insight you gain.

When we talk about race and gender in theatre, the words “diversity” and “inclusion” are not far from people’s lips and keyboards. In other words, the not-really-hidden question of where all the women and people of color are and how to bring more into the fold.

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I know people are sincere and mean well, but there’s one big problem with “diversity” and “inclusion.”

Put simply: it’s not enough.

Let me tell you why: It asks the wrong question.

The vision for diversity and inclusion.

The vision for diversity and inclusion.

Whenever people talk about diversity and inclusion, the underlying question seems to be, “How do we get Them to join Us?”

Now, there’s nothing wrong with wanting more women and people of color involved with what you’re doing. Don’t get it twisted. I always want more women and more Brown and Black folks involved in every aspect of theatre. And I’m always super-excited about other Brown and Black women finally getting opportunities that match our talents.

The problem with, “How do we get Them to join Us?” is that it assumes that simply having more women and people of color is all that needs to happen to achieve racial and gender equity. It also assumes that organizations and institutions run by dominant groups — yes, even the Shoestring Budget Theatre Company — have what women and people of color want.

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The real question needs to be: How can We work in solidarity with Them?

Working in solidarity requires building trust with people who have few reasons to trust you. That takes showing accountability to people even when it makes you look bad. It takes switching from assuming leadership to being of service. It takes learning what needs to be learned and changing what needs to be changed in order to do all that. It’s not glamorous.

The difference between diversifying or including marginalized people and working in solidarity with us is the difference between, “How do I get girls to like me?” and, “How can I be a friend and ally to women?”

Focusing on the Symptom, Not the Cause
Now, tell me if any of this sounds familiar. Have you ever been to any institution, any department, any organization and asked where all the women or people of color are? I bet you heard things like this:

  • “We tried to get more women and minorities involved, but they’re just not applying.”
  • “We have all these programs and initiatives, but we can never retain diverse talent.”
  • “We want more women, but none of the qualified applicants ever follow up.”
  • “Of course we don’t have a race or gender problem. We’re an Equal Opportunity Employer.”

What’s so sad about this is that these people really are trying. They are not going out of their way to discriminate against people. They really do want a more diverse institution. They really do want a more inclusive organization.

And yet, nothing changes. Why?

Yes, we can add some Brown and Black faces on our stages, in our audience, or on our board of directors. But if all the power and resources remain in white hands, how much can really change?

Sure, we can add more female directors and put a few women in leadership positions in prestigious organizations. But if men retain control of all the decisions about the deeper levels of an institution–its structure and its mission — how much can really change?

I’ve talked before about how we must work on the roots of our organizations and institutions if we want to see meaningful and lasting change. Simply adding more women and people of color to an organization mistakes position and personnel for power and progress.

intersectionality

If all the women are white, and all the people of color are men, where does that leave women of color? (Image by Shawn C. Harris)

Ignoring Intersectionality
Intersectionality is a term coined by Kimberle Crenshaw to describe the ways that race and gender discrimination combine in the lives of Black women. However, even without this vocabulary, Black feminist and womanist thinkers and artists like Audre Lorde, Alice Walker and bell hooks have constantly talked about how racism and sexism operate in the lives of Black women and other women of color.

In a nutshell, intersectionality says that discrimination never works in isolation. They compound one another. It’s never just race or gender. For Black women and other women of color, it’s race and gender.

However, discourse about gender tends to default to white women, discourse about race tends to default to men of color. As a result, women of color are often rendered “invisible in plain sight.”

That invisibility even shows up in our language. We talk about women and people of color as though they are separate categories rather than as identities people can hold simultaneously. We address racism and sexism as though they rarely or never overlap, even though women of color exist and can tell you how often and how strongly they reinforce one another.

Despite people’s good intentions, what tends to happen as a result is that the most advantaged members of a marginalized group move forward at the expense of the most disadvantaged members of that group.

We’ve seen this in civil rights and Black Power movements where so much went into uplifting Black men while the issues facing Black women went ignored. We’ve seen this in the feminist movement where affluent white women made strides while poor and working-class women of color barely inched forward. We see it now in the LGBT rights movement where issues primarily facing affluent white cisgender people receive the most support while trans women of color face the greatest degree and intensity of violence and discrimination in relative obscurity.

diversity experiment

The higher up you go in an institution’s leadership, the more it might look like this. (Image by Shawn C. Harris)

Try an experiment. Pick any woman-run theatre company, any theatre arts program for women, any kind of women in theatre initiative. Pick any theatre company, any theatre arts program, or diversity initiative for people of color. How many people who make the real decisions — who gets what resources, who determines the mission and goals of the institution, who creates the structures that make an organization works, who hires and fires, who defines the organization’s identity — are women of color?

See what I mean?

So, What Would Be Enough?
If diversity and inclusion aren’t enough, what is there to do?

Programs and services alone won’t do it. Simply hiring more women and people of color won’t do it.

So what has to happen?

What we have to do is transform how our institutions and organizations work. To use a computer analogy, we don’t need new software programs. We need a new operating system.

Crossroads Theatre Project has been my way of trying to do that. As a playwright, I can create write plays that give substantial roles to other women, people of color, and LGBTQ people that allow us to bring our full selves to the process of making theatre. It’s a small measure, but it’s part of my belief in being change I’d like to see.

None of this is easy or simple. Change is slow, and it’s hard to persevere. But if our results are to match our good intentions, this is what we have to do.

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  • Antonio C. Cuyler

    Ms. Harris,

    Thank you for sharing this post. I have been thinking about the question, “is diversity and social justice enough” for several years. I’m beginning to wonder if the change we seek is possible. History has taught us that privilege creates barriers to access and opportunity and births inequity. Yet those who have privilege, do not want to sacrifice it for the greater good. We also must become more inclusive in our discussions of diversity and social justice by including people with disabilities and the economically disadvantaged among us.

  • jai

    Antonio’s words in themselves are stereotyping the privileged which I assume means those with money. His statement is the type that lead to the type of discrimination women and people of color experience today. To make broad derogatory statements about “the privileged” is as bad as making similar statements about any group If Antonio is himself a privileged person, he can reliably judge one member of that group, but to speak of the members as a whole is discriminatory.

    It is time we apply the MLK statement about “color of skin being irrelevant in comparison to the quality of character” to financial classes as well. No one should be judging anyone else. Moral superiority is an individual issue, not applicable to social or ethnic groups.

  • heather

    I am an American Sign Language Interpreter, and I am working with many theatre companies in my town to grow their Deaf audience base… but the most successful show I have seen was one with a Deaf character and a hard of hearing actor playing that role.

    People want to see THEMSELVES on the stage – someone they can relate to. Increasing these roles can only increase a theatre’s audience – they should welcome that business with open arms.

    Thank you for posting this article.