Diversity and the Arts: Can the US Escape Whiteism?

What we do about the one is related to what we do about the other.


Years ago, an Asian theater company asked me to help diversify their subscription audience based on a grant received from a famous foundation. The company defined itself broadly as well as specifically: a typical season contained one play related to each of six Asian countries (Japan, China, India, Vietnam, etc.). The mix changed each year.

When I asked what the problem was, the harried marketing director (and they’re all harried because of mission-disconnected tasks like this) replied:

We only have a couple thousand subscribers
— and they’re all Jews.

I laughed, but the marketing director was deadly serious. On a single ticket basis, he could get people of Japanese descent to see Japan-centric plays, and those of Indian descent to see India-centric plays, and so on, but he could not encourage members of any group to see all the plays. The vast majority of the company’s subscribers were, indeed, Jewish.

We talked with board members, the artistic staff, the managing director. The issue came down to longstanding enmities among and between several Asian countries. Thousand-year historical conflicts kept people whose ancestors came from one country from seeing plays about people whose ancestors came from “enemy” countries. We also consulted a rabbi, who reminded us that American Jews almost entirely descend from people who fled other places. He opined that, as a result, when Jews are asked about their ancestral nationality, culture or religion, the answer is generally “Jewish.” I’ll never forget the rabbi’s smiling, parting words about this Asian theater company and why Jews were the main subscribers:

To Jews, it’s a travelogue!

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This brings me to the word Diversity. This oft-used and simple word is #7 on my list of Fraught, Flinch-Worthy Phrases in the Arts. It’s a word that causes eyes and doors to open (if ever-so-slightly), jaws and minds to clench shut, and knees to jerk so fast as to cause hip dysplasia.

I’d like to ask you to think about your definition of non-diversity. Is it:

  • Average build?
  • Moderately healthy?
  • Clean-shaven?
  • Unblemished?
  • 30 to 60?
  • White?
  • Christian?
  • Male?
  • Right-handed?
  • Relatively amiable?
  • 100 IQ?

If so, might diversity then include:

  • Black. Yellow. Red. Brown. Blends thereof?
  • Geriatric? Juvenile?
  • Giant? Little?
  • Amputee? Physically disabled?
  • Wheelchair? Cane? Crutch?
  • With service animal?
  • Bald? Hirsute?
  • Fat? Skinny?
  • Muscle-bound? Frail?
  • Left-handed?
  • Nine-toed? Six-fingered?
  • Widowed? Divorced?
  • Criminal? Ex-felon?
  • Bearded? Mustachioed?
  • Blistered? Blotched?
  • Diseased? Cleft Palate?
  • Dyed? Kinky-haired? Carved?
  • Tattooed? Branded? Freckled? Pimpled?
  • Toothless? Bandaged? Pierced?
  • Billionaire? Homeless?
  • Asymmetrical? Wrinkled? Ugly? Malodorous?
  • Muslim? Jew? Buddhist? Hindi? Atheist? Part of one of 4,200 world religions?
  • Bipolar? Depression-based disorder. Anxiety disorder?
  • Foreign?
  • Sad? Manic?
  • Catatonic?
  • Homosexual? Bisexual? Pansexual? Non-binary? Asexual? Transgender?
  • Female?
  • Circumcised? Sterilized?
  • Genius? Imbecile?

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Historically, diversity is something America fights, or accepts begrudgingly with remorse and reservations, or fights anew when it challenges economic dominance. In a country born of the original sin of slavery — to keep labor cheap; to ensure high profits for the richest one percent (sound familiar?) — this shouldn’t be surprising. What is surprising is how we keep being surprised.

America’s original sin.

From December 1860 to April 1861, racist states Louisiana, Alabama, Florida, Tennessee, Georgia, Texas, Mississippi, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, and Arkansas voted to secede from the Union because the abolitionist Republican, Abraham Lincoln, was elected President. In 1948, States Rights Democratic Party nominee and generally accepted racist Sen. Strom Thurmond won Alabama, Louisiana, South Carolina and Mississippi in his bid to become President. In 1968, American Independent Party nominee and generally accepted racist Alabama governor George Wallace won Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi in his bid to become President (receiving just under 10 million out of 73 million votes cast). In 2012, more than 25,000 citizens in each of Louisiana, Alabama, Florida, Tennessee, Georgia and Texas signed petitions to allow their states to secede from the Union because African American Democrat Barack Obama was elected President.

Let’s call these kinds of events not just history, but the history of American Whiteism. Those who enable these events? Let’s call them Whiteists.

Whiteism is as American as NASCAR, the Grand Ole Opry and biscuits with gravy. As the Whiteist character in Randy Newman’s song “Rednecks” points out, hideous treatment of minority populations, especially African Americans, isn’t just a Southern crime:

Whiteism also can be found everywhere in America. Remember what President Bill Clinton’s rowdy advisor, James Carville, once said:

Pennsylvania is Philadelphia and Pittsburgh
with Alabama in between.

Whiteists vote at an embarrassingly high rate and seem to comprise about a third of the voting electorate. It explains Trump’s approval rating never going below 36%, no matter what racist filth projectile-vomits from his diseased brain. The ridiculous border wall is the Whiteists’ beloved symbol for Whiteism.

The dependence on either one or both political parties on Whiteists was why, for example, non-Southern Democrats held their noses and placated them for decades following the Civil War — they couldn’t win without them. Since the Nixon administration, non-Southern Republicans have done the same placating for the same reason.

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Donald Trump ran on a Whiteist platform in 2016, obviously. To the usual litany of Whiteist hatred, he doubled down against African Americans (to whom he wouldn’t rent) and added Mexicans, Jews, the LGBTQ community and all other swaths of people who seek and have sought to come to America for a better life, just like your forefathers and foremothers did. As reported here on the CFR, he continues to attempt to end birthright privileges. Don’t ever forget the dangerously false comparison of “some very fine people on both sides” following the White Nationalist riot in Charlottesville in 2017.

What we do about Whiteists is not unrelated to what we do about diversity in the arts — the choices we make and the approaches we take when, as in the situation that I was being asked to address, the overwhelming majority of subscribers to an Asian theater company happened to be Jewish. Hear me out on this.

koch brothers
The Koch brothers.

Politically, we have to deal with people like the Koch brothers, who blend their Whiteism with a clever and dangerous plutocratic corporatocracy. The next time Whiteists want to secede, do we let them? Do we progressives secede? Can we secede regionally and create a passel of new progressive states, like South California, Jefferson, Cascadia (Western Washington), Multnomah (around Portland, OR), Puerto Rico, Columbia (making the District a state), all to strategically ramp up the number of thoughtful Senators in Congress and to overcome the successful gerrymandering of the Whiteists? Good but improbable ideas all.

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America’s whole history is intertwined with Whiteism, from European domination by means of communicable disease to disingenuous treaties to unilaterally imposed will. In the 19th century, Whiteists claimed the rights of land control under the weird and religious banner of Manifest Destiny. There are still people in America who blithely celebrate Columbus Day with a parade, even though Columbus not only never set foot in North America, he was a vicious, genocidal brute who wiped out entire indigenous populations across the Caribbean and Central America.

So, can the US escape Whiteism — and can we, in the arts, achieve our goals of diversity? Sure: with a free education system that promotes critical thinking, a significant financial commitment to fixing America’s infrastructure, the institution of a fair and progressive tax system, and creating a healthcare system that doesn’t discriminate along socioeconomic lines. All of which are easy to enact. All of which are unlikely to be enacted.

Why is that? All you have to do is answer the question, “Who does Whiteism serve?”

Just follow the money. When power — financial, political, social — is concentrated, it behooves those few who hold it to keep it. Distribution of power lessens the impact of those few, who will fight (mostly successfully, I’m afraid, and without conscience) any attempt to level the playing field. As it turns out, the “Illuminati” controlling the world is comprised of plutocrats promoting Whiteism. Influential politicians (only one of which is living in the White House), judges and law enforcement live comfortably in their back pockets. Diversity in the arts. Of course. But escaping Whiteism must be the endgame.

Will the US escape Whiteism? Probably not. Can we create a more tolerant environment for each of us? Yes, we can. And we should. As long as the Whiteists don’t find out about it.