Arts Groups: “Reflecting” Diversity Reinscribes Oppression

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% people of color, 50% women, 10% LGBT, etc. — the national demography of the country — to inoculate the organization from criticism of being “Euro-centric” 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.

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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: 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 an innumerable solutions to make organizations more equitable for people who are excluded from the arts. But the question that 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.

Reflecting Diversity

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  • Margot Haliday Knight

    The language may be dated but I still strive for what Jerry Yoshitomi dubbed being “operationally affirmative,” that included conducting a fearless inventory of EVERY aspect of a cultural organization’s administration and programming.

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  • 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 organizations that anchor communities, and organizations run by, for and about LGBTQ people of color with an intersectional social justice lens? Otherwise, funding just goes to “big” organizations to figure out diversity, without examining the cultural and capitalist forces that allowed them to become “big” in the first place.