Written by Michael Zarathus-Cook
Diversity is not enough. Up till now organizations in the performing arts have gotten away with pandering to the optics of diversity mandates — look at all these black artists we occasionally engage — but leaders in the industry must take heed of this incredible groundswell of activism and answer the question: does your organization foster a culture of inclusivity? Flying the diversity flag allows you to pepper your roster of programs with perfunctory placements of BIPOC artists while fostering a culture that perpetuates their exclusion and accentuates their otherness. What we have to wake up to is that diversity has always been a way to avoid the harder work of inclusivity, the harder work that isn’t merely tolerating minority artists and audience members, but actively encouraging and reminding your colleagues and donors that the performing arts needs them. That it’s their culture too.
I’ve been following the #operaisracist thread for a while and the stories are heartbreaking. They run the gamut from outright racist words and actions from members of the industry to the more subtle, harder to call-out, dog-whistles of exclusion. They are particularly jarring because they prove that the exquisite palate cultivated by the art-form is compatible with the exclusion of others on the basis of race. Black opera singers in the Toronto community too have been coming forward with stories of their experience of racialization in opera: Andrew Adridge in a recent Q&A with Ludwig Van Toronto, Khadija Mbowe in a tell-all about her time trying to get into the opera program of a certain university that won’t be named, to name a few. The very public call-out of the National Ballet of Canada by Nicholas Rose, one of their few dancers of colour, is a reminder that it’s not just an opera problem. The performing arts has long been seen as a thing wypipo do, and more often than not, minority artists that venture to make a career in it are reminded of that by the subtlest manoeuvres in speech and allegedly inadvertent actions.
The last few weeks has been a reckoning with race on a global scale—if, somehow, you didn’t know, now you know. While this isn’t exactly the place to debate the specifics of systemic racism in Canadian institutions, we do have to recognize that the protests we’ve been seeing are spurred both by the urgent need for a radical assessment of police forces and how they interact with BIPOC people, and the more subtle, culturally diffused, day-to-day racism that is discharged not by a trigger pulled prematurely, but through words and social indications that remind the racialized peoples of this country that they are irrevocably on the outside looking in.
In a recent interview with the CBC, RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki seemed genuinely concerned about the question of systemic racism in her institution, trying to escape the question by adding that she’s been faced with over a dozen contrasting definitions of systemic racism. There are a lot of people like her who either can’t agree on the definition of systemic racism or insist that the video-taped actions of a couple ‘bad apples’ do not equate to a racist system. Wherever you stand on the question, there’s at least one definition of systemic racism that I think we can all subscribe to: an institution that fails to discipline and expel even a handful of its members with repetitive racist behaviours, can be reasonably accused of systemic racism precisely because its failure is systemic. This is just as true in the arts. If your organization is unable to respond swiftly and decisively to instances of racism on all levels, we are left with no options but to perceive this as a systemic failure, regardless of the performative allyship of the people at the top.
Inclusivity here means, more or less, giving the perspectives of minority artists a seat at the table. Diversity, on the other hand, often results in a situation where black artists in a mostly white environment have to bear a constant I’m just grateful to be here smile. Grateful because you were so kind to extend the invitation after all has been said and done, after the decisions and mandates have been drafted and approved. The spirit of inclusivity means that BIPOC artists aren’t merely displayed as examples of your organization’s ‘openness’, but also that their experiences have a legitimate voice and presence in your boardrooms and conference calls. A “space” for black artists in the industry is great for the optics of diversity, but it doesn’t really get us anywhere in terms of inclusivity and a race-neutral environment.
Every aspect of how your organization operates should be proud to include these voices, not just the part that faces the public. The problem with conceiving diversity as an issue to be solved only on stage was perfectly put by one of AtG’s frequent performers, Jonelle Sills, in another Ludwig Van article where she shares her belief that “we could combat bias if people with different experiences were involved in every department of the arts industry”. The diversity schtick is for the most part a corporate solution to what is essentially a human problem, a problem with how people perceive and interact with each other on an individual level. Inclusivity extends to your audience members as well, that’s what corporate diversity can’t do: bring results on and off stage. Diversity allows you to keep the others at an arm’s length from the core identity of your organization, all the while singing the blues of their plight. That’s the ‘hard work’ that we all need to do now—how much does your organization rely on a fragile whiteness in order to sell tickets?
So what’s the goal with all of these conversations we’re having? That’s a question seldom posed throughout all this. We have to be able to clearly articulate where we’re trying to get to with ‘race relations’, else we risk having these conversations being hijacked by confusion and perhaps by even more malicious intentions than ignorance. As far as I am concerned, and in the arts in particular, the goal is race neutrality: we have to get to a place where an artist’s successes or failures can not be credibly attributed to their race. I don’t believe it’s possible to sustain a reasonable conversation with someone who instead wants a more race-conscious society as the ultimate destination. This is not that same thing as being ‘colourblind’, in fact one of the difficulties in talking about race is realizing that it will require a certain amount of race-consciousness, and the active exorcism of otherwise subconscious racial biases, in order to get to race-neutrality.
Another thing we need in order to get there is unity. Calling all white people racist is not a unifying argument—neither is dismissing every complaint about racism as ‘playing the race card’, that is an argument that smacks of privilege. The race card is about the only card a lot of minorities are dealt, your sensibilities are hardly the victim here. It can’t be said too often: race, as an identity, was patented by white people a long time ago, this was not our idea. In fact I wonder how much of black pride is a resistance to an insistent whiteness.
Despite this frustration and anger—my ears are hot as I write this—we have to take this moment as an opportunity to swing the doors of our arts organizations wide open. An opportunity to evict the skeletons in our closets. Yes that includes calling your BIPOC artists and colleagues and asking them about instances they felt racialized in your organization. And to my fellow BIPOC members in the industry, as much as I am reticent to suggest that fixing this is somehow still on our shoulders, calling all your white friends racist is also not going to get us anywhere. The tone of discourse matters and, it must also be said, white-guilt is a finite resource. I am more willing to trust the intentions of someone who sees our plight as a matter of personal significance to them—Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, after all—than this performative self-flagellation on social media that’s being packaged under the dubious moral terms of ‘allyship’.
Inclusivity is not only a matter of race-relations, a seat at the table means nothing if the experiences of other minorities are left out of sight and mind. How often do the values and productions of your organization reflect the humanity of Trans individuals, for example? Or of indigenous communities in Canada? Or are the now-routine pre-show land-acknowledgements proof that the performance begins even before the show starts? The point isn’t for you to be in constant worry about who it is you’re leaving out—that’s what corporate diversity will do to you—rather this is an opportunity to include these voices at the table so that they too can be a part of the process of deciding what and who is represented.
Class, too, is a barrier in the performing arts, my own personal experiences indicate as much. The pathway into the industry that other people find via their social privileges and ample education and encouragement, I arrived at purely by accident. Eighteen years old and living in a homeless shelter up the street from the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, I needed a source of hope, and whatever was happening in that building seemed promising. I faked enough courage to eventually walk in and ask an usher if there were any volunteer positions vacant. Gianmarco Segato, Opera Canada’s Editorial Director, was looking after the COC’s gift shop at that time and added me to the team. A couple weeks later I watched my first opera. The sense of being included that I got from Segato and some members of the team have been the exception, not the rule, in my time in the industry, and was just enough to encourage me to stick with it. In my interview with the COC’s Artistic Director in an article for The Dance Current last year, the lack of education and outreach by the performing arts community to public schools and communities that aren’t traditionally exposed to the arts, was one of his more salient points. I’m grateful for the accident that brought me to the arts, though I can’t help but think of the wonders that an earlier and formal introduction would do for giving people like me a sense of belonging, being included, in the tremendous project of the performing arts.
Like many BIPOC individuals in this industry, I didn’t get the invitation. We often have to set our own table close enough to the action and dare someone to ask us to budge. And that’s what any up-and-coming black artist needs to keep in mind: tenacity is needed, timidity is not an option, we belong here, this slow revolution needs our continued assertiveness too. Though I must add that it’s tiring to persist with the strain of tenacity while you’re also trying to do everything else your profession demands. Why do we have to be twice as good, just to get what good otherwise gets? Perhaps this awakening to the racialized experience of minorities in society was what the early days of the Me Too Movement felt like for most women: a collective realization of what you’ve been feeling and saying for a long time, a collective confirmation that, despite the routine gaslighting and dismissals, you’re not crazy.
Like every other company, there’s room for improvement on the issue of inclusivity at AtG. But this company’s mandate overlaps with a genuine desire to grow in this particular direction. I remain grateful to the active invitation to join the collective by people like Amanda Hadi, Jonathan MacArthur, and Jenna Simeonov. But in the performing arts, people like them and companies like this are unfortunately in the minority. Actively recruiting voices and faces of minority artists shouldn’t be a thing that’s against the grain.
About the Author
Michael Zarathus-Cook was the Media Manager for AtG’s 2018/2019 season, and a music writer for Blue Riband, The Wholenote Magazine, Opera Canada, The Dance Current, Schmopera and more.
Thank you Michael, for writing this incredible article for Against the Grain. To our BIPOC audience: we see you, we hear you, and we are working to be better.
Michael is forgoing his fee in place of a donation to an organization relevant to the BLM movement.