Dallas — In a couple of months I’ll be welcoming another class of students for my UMASS Arts Extension Cultural Equity in the Arts class, so I’ve been thinking a lot about Dallas and our ongoing, seemingly never-ending struggle to achieve equity in all aspects of culture. It seems that we take two steps forward just to take three steps backwards on this issue, primarily because we fear the idea of speaking openly and truthfully about race and the fraught racial history of this city. We spend a lot of time talking around this issue rather than doing the work necessary to get at its root i.e. structural racism and its ugly after effects.
Recently, I’ve observed a series of occurrences that suggest there’s still a lot of work to be done around how to achieve Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI). DEI training could be beneficial for many Dallas arts organizations, including our Office of Cultural Affairs. The latest of these was a recent article in Dallas Morning News announcing the creation of a Women In Theater (WIT) initiative that will dovetail with the Festival of Independent Theaters (FIT). I was immediately struck by the optics of this initiative as illustrated by the photo that ran in the paper which was very white in its composition. It resurrected a beef I had with the feminist arts movement back in the ’60s and ’70s, specifically The Women’s Caucus for Art, given that I am a visual artist. Back then, I thought this might have been an organization that would address my concerns as a woman artist. Unfortunately, it quickly became evident that the reach of this organization wasn’t going to stretch much further than the white founders of the organization and women artists who looked like them, and that diversity and inclusion were a foreign concept to them.
Although both diversity and inclusion are important, they represent the need for two very different strategies for their desired results. Diversity is the easiest in that its basically a numbers game. Some “colored or otherly abled or LGBTQ faces” in the room for particular events or discussions satisfies an organization’s desire to have program diversity. This is what many arts organizations try to pass off as being culturally sensitive. Inclusion, on the other hand, requires some structural changes in that the people of color get invited onto the organization’s board of directors in numbers more than a token number, are hired in positions of power and are used for more than simply “community outreach.” Inclusion requires relationship building with the target ethnic population an organization is hoping to attract because, due in large part to that racially fraught history I mentioned, trust is a big problem for artists and arts administrators of color when it comes to working with or for white institutions/organizations.
So when I see a new initiative that purports to address women working in our theater community and issues important to those women, I can’t help but wonder what kinds of relationships with women of color were established prior to inaugurating this project? How many women of color were on the ground floor of this project, in the formative stage, the seeding of it? This is where the power sharing comes into play because once a concept is established and an organizational structure is created, the balance of power cannot be equal for those entering into a project afterwards. Inserting people of color into a project after goals have been set and policies determined means they come in at a disadvantage, following rather than leading. Real inclusion means the voices of people of color have the same weight as their white peers in shaping a project because their perspective and concerns carry equal importance.
This is typically where I see a breakdown in a commitment to DEI because this is the hard work of dismantling white supremacy. This is the hard work of identifying implicit racial biases every white person has when it comes to people of color, and, yes, every person of color has when it comes to white people. This is the hard work of speaking honestly about racial differences and experiences and how those two things may affect an organization’s programming. These things are at the very heart of cultural equity work because you can’t achieve equity when the power balance is skewed.
It should come as no surprise that in 2018, artists of color no longer see a need to be tokens in Dallas arts organizations. There is little patience for the lip service given to DEI that so many organizations here engage in because the exhaustion that comes with trying to be heard in an environment where your voice is either marginalized or worse, totally ignored, is no longer tolerable. We as a cultural community are either going to recognize the need to get on the truth train or we’re destined to ride into the next decade still struggling with 20th century problems.
» Vicki Meek is a former arts manager, a practicing artist and activist splitting her time between Dallas and Costa Rica. ART-iculate explores issues around race, politics and the arts. You can also keep up with Meek's musings in her blog Art & Racenotes.
» ART-iculate runs on the last Wednesday of the month.
- April: Vicki Meek ART-iculates
- May: On Dallas and Cultural Equity
- June: Equity vs. Diversity
- July: An Arts Super PAC?
- August: Too Big to Fail?
- September: It Isn't Us Against Them
- October: Another Missed Opportunity
- November: Neighborhood Arts Center: Not a New Idea
- December: Save Our Summer Programs
- January: The Creative Community in the Trump Era
- February: Being a Black Artist in a White World
- March: Expanding Our Cultural Horizons
- April: Intercultural Self-Determination
- May: A New Cultural Plan
- June: Working for Good
- July: Into the Forest
- August: Saved by Art
- September: Immersed in Cultural Equity
- October: The Artist as Citizen
- November: Understanding Your Roots
- December: No column