Plaque honoring Stephen Schwarzman, after whom the New York Public Library's flagship building is named.

Plaque honoring financier Stephen Schwarzman, after whom the New York Public Library’s flagship building is named. Photo by Flickr user vagueonthehow.

Young whites poring over books, memorizin’ but never learning
And I wonder how the fuck they’ll justify genocide.
“I…I was in the library, honest to God, I didn’t even know.”
—From “The Library,” by Felipe Luciano of The Original Last Poets

On March 7 of this year, my friend and I attended a screening of the film Right On!, a seminal creation of the Harlem spoken word poetry movement of the 1960s. Featuring 28 performances by a group called The Original Last Poets, Right On! is essentially a double-album-length music video that presaged MTV by over a decade. The film’s monologues-with-a-beat offer a brutally honest window into black urban life and identity in the midst of the civil rights era. According to the movie’s producer, as relayed by the marketing copy accompanying the event, it was “the first ‘totally black film’ making ‘no concession in language and symbolism to white audiences.’” It was intense, confrontational, and not quite like anything I’d seen before. I loved it.

“The Library,” quoted above, is not even close to the angriest number in Right On!’s hit parade. But watching the images of what is now the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building at the New York Public Library pass by as Felipe Luciano’s fellow Last Poets mockingly intoned “The Liiiiii-bra-ree,” I couldn’t help but revel in the irony of my location: the Museum of Modern Art.


As it turns out, Right On!’s run at MoMA was the world premiere of a digitally restored version of the film. Lost to the public for many years, Right On! had been little more than a fading memory until the museum’s To Save and Project festival of film preservation undertook the challenge of bringing it back to life with support from donors Celeste Bartos and Paul Newman.

The work of restoring and presenting Right On! to the public is the sort of thing that institutions like MoMA routinely cite in grant applications as proof of their commitment to diversity. Yet MoMA could hardly have been a more iconic symbol of the white establishment to serve as a setting for the Poets’ time-lapsed performance. Forged from Rockefeller privilege, MoMA was founded to promote the artistry of European modernism, and the most famous works in its collection are nearly all by dead white men. It has $1 billion in net assets, pays its (white) director a seven-figure salary that places him among the best-paid nonprofit executives in New York, and charges among the highest admission fees in the country for an art museum. It was the first target of Occupy Museums. The very room where the Right On! screening took place, The Roy and Niuta Titus Theater 1, first gained notoriety within the filmmaking community for its D. W. Griffith retrospective in 1940, which surely must have included the racist and Ku-Klux-Klan-reviving Birth of A Nation.

Remarkably, the Poets themselves made an appearance at the opening night of the run. I can only guess that it was a heart-warming spectacle of racial healing and harmony, as Luciano didn’t respond to my request to interview him. All I know is that the following night, the night I was there, I counted two black people in the audience.


Earlier this year, Talia Gibas analyzed Holly Sidford’s manifesto “Fusing Arts, Culture, and Social Change” for Createquity. “Fusing” has become a rallying cry for cultural equity advocates who believe that philanthropic resources are unjustly concentrated in venerable institutions with white European roots like MoMA. The study analyzed the flow of philanthropic dollars to the arts using data from the Foundation Center, and found that less than 10% of arts grant dollars went to serve marginalized communities, including African Americans.

Interestingly, the restoration of Right On!, undertaken by MoMA with the support of individual donors, not foundations, would not have registered as a project serving a marginalized community under Sidford’s methodology. And by excavating a treasure of the black cultural canon from functional oblivion with (from all appearances) the full cooperation of the creative individuals involved, one could argue that MoMA is doing the African American community a wonderful service, fulfilling its role as custodian of heritage in a truly inclusive way. But it’s also not hard to see the transfer in setting from underground movie theater in heady 1970 to establishment art museum in 2013 as a particularly insidious kind of cultural appropriation. It was a striking experience to watch Right On! from the comfort of MoMA, of all places. It was, in fact, like being in a museum, as if there were a glass wall between the movie and me allowing me to appreciate it as a cultural object while preventing me from truly entering its world. The raw, unfiltered power and emotion directed at the camera was boxed in and partially neutered by the time it reached me on the other side of the screen, sitting next to my white college friend and the many white people in the room who could have been my friends if I’d happened to come across them in a different context. As unmistakable as the film’s point of view was, it was easy, too easy, to compartmentalize it as an artifact of a different era, a time when revolution was in the air and the evils of racism were upfront and obvious.


I’m not sure there is anything that has claimed as high a brain-energy-expended-to-public-output-generated ratio for me as race this past year. Way back in February, some of you might recall, I inserted myself into a discussion about race and the arts that had been started by New Beans’s Clayton Lord, then Director of Audience Development for Theatre Bay Area and now VP of Local Arts Advancement for Americans for the Arts. At the time, I noted that “virtually all of the recent discussion…in this particular corner of the blogosphere [was] happening among well-meaning white liberals who just can’t help themselves from occupying public space with their opinions.” I wasn’t the only one who noticed. Roberto Bedoya, head of the Tucson Pima Arts Council in Arizona and a longtime follower of this blog, thanked me for pointing it out and challenged me and five other bloggers—pale pasties, all of us—to “share with us some of [our] good thinking and deep reflection on [our] understanding of how the White Racial Frame intersects with cultural polices and cultural practices.” Piece of cake, right?

You can read the responses from Clay, Doug, Nina, Barry, Diane, and Roberto himself at the links provided. As eager as I was to participate (I promised I would, after all), extracting words from my brain these past months was like squeezing blood from a stone. The topic of race offers a white liberal like me a frustratingly narrow range of socially acceptable rhetoric. Like any self-respecting contrarian, I have no interest in saying what’s already been said, but at the same time I felt woefully underprepared to confidently take the conversation in a new direction. It took a long time, a lot of background research, and many discussions with family, friends and social and professional acquaintances who consciously engage with issues around race before I finally felt comfortable airing my views in public.

If there’s one positive and concrete suggestion I can offer in the wake of that learning process, it’s that we do what we can to create an open environment for talking honestly about race relations in all of their kaleidoscopic, maddening, shame-inducing complexity. The dialogue that Clay and Roberto have started is a great first step in that direction, but we need to keep it going if we truly want to achieve more than symbolic progress towards a more racially just sector. And the more I learn, the more strongly I suspect that in order to keep that dialogue going in an authentic way, we are going to need to take it into some very uncomfortable, challenging territory – for white people and non-white people alike, for anti-racism advocates and white privilege apologists both.


Several of my fellow bloggers who responded to Roberto’s prompt made valuable points about the need and opportunity to be more inclusive and welcoming in our institutions’ programming and audience engagement practices. And certain artistic works undoubtedly have the power to hold a mirror up to ourselves and question the assumptions of our environment, as Right On! was able to do for me. But I feel that this conversation is missing something crucial if we neglect to expand the frame outward, to grapple with how our country and society’s dysfunctional relationship with race informs and warps our lives more generally.

Art and arts organizations are not capable of solving racism on their own. It’s not that the arts have nothing to say about race or that diverse cultural expressions aren’t important, but in the absence of a clear and shared understanding of the underlying factors that perpetuate racism, I fear that arts-centric interventions can all too often end up being little more than a band-aid – a way to reassure ourselves that we’re doing something important and valuable when in reality we’re really having very little impact at all. I believe that the sooner we as a field start framing our efforts not around “what can we do as artists and arts administrators to promote diversity?” but rather “how does racial injustice manifest today, what are its root causes, and how can we as human beings most effectively be part of the solution?”, the sooner we’ll actually have something to be proud of.

For example, I’ve now been a part of several organizations that have struggled with the fact that their staffs are mostly white. One of the most visible commitments to diversity that an organization can make is to have strong representation of people of color among its staff, board, and leadership. Not surprisingly, then, managers typically have these considerations at back of mind when entering the hiring process, and sometimes even explicitly consider race as a factor in their decision. And yet they get frustrated when they are unable to find competitive candidates of color at a rate that would, as advocated by Robert Bush, make them “look like the people [they] serve.”

Simple statistics, however, quickly start to illuminate some of the reasons behind this frustration. Virtually every arts administration job I’ve ever seen requires a Bachelor’s degree as a minimum condition of employment. I’m willing to bet that most arts administrators don’t realize that fewer than a third of American adults over the age of 25 have one. More to the point, however, black and Hispanic adults are 40 to 60 percent less likely respectively to have graduated from college than whites. So if having a Bachelor’s truly is a requirement for doing the job well*, then “success” as it relates to representativeness actually means matching the proportion of people with college degrees, not the general population.

Of course, if you have any conscience at all, the above rationalization is unsatisfying. It openly admits and does absolutely nothing about a basic racial equity issue: access to opportunities based on educational attainment. But therein lies the rub: if we actually care that the disparity in college graduation rates is causing our application pool to be less diverse, that is if we care enough to do something about it, our daily work may not be the most appropriate forum in which to take action. What’s needed to close that gap, in all likelihood, goes way beyond the arts.

(*This is, of course, an important question to examine in its own right, but in the interests of not biting off more than I can chew with one article, I’m going to sidestep it for now.)


The stark disparity in college graduation rates described above can be seen as one manifestation of the so-called “achievement gap” between white students and black and Hispanic students. This achievement gap is present from a very early age, though not necessarily birth. One contributing factor to the achievement gap, though undoubtedly not the whole story, is the vast differential in the quality of the schools available to white students vs. students of color, especially in urban environments.

America’s cities are highly segregated geographically, in part a vestige of real estate redlining practices and white flight following the Second Great Migration in the mid-20th century. Even today, there is evidence that white homebuyers are willing to pay more money not to have to live in a neighborhood with lots of people of color. As a result, by some measures school systems in the United States are even more segregated today than they were when Brown vs. Board of Education was first implemented in the 1960s. Meanwhile, school systems are governed by local rules and jurisdictions and, crucially, paid for via local property taxes. Ever wonder why people move to the suburbs to send their kids to good schools? Well, that’s why. On a per-capita basis, suburbs are much wealthier than urban cores and therefore can afford schools that are less crowded and feature more amenities for their students.  People who don’t follow the education field may not realize that public school systems are struggling in large cities all across the country, not just where they live.

There is no magic bullet for fighting racial inequity; in the Atlantic Cities recently, for example, Emily Badger makes the case that establishing universal preschool is the best single thing we could do, but even the rosiest projections offered in that article make clear that such a measure would hardly erase the achievement gap. Nevertheless, as educated professionals, one action we could take that might actually make a difference is to locate ourselves in areas where our tax dollars will go to support these struggling school systems. And yet, many of my white peers are doing the exact opposite: explicitly shopping for real estate by school district, trying their best to ensure that their kid(s) will be less likely to end up in a bad situation – and, incidentally, a lot less likely to be surrounded by kids of color.

It’s awfully tough to ask someone to choose between fighting for racial equity and forgoing the best possible education for their child. I believe that sacrifice is a virtue, but I am not enough of a romantic to count on it as a large-scale strategy for social change. Perhaps the real enemy here, then, is not the racism-perpetuating behavior, but the system that sets up the incentives that encourage it. In this case, that system is the funding of public school systems based on local property taxes. If we really want to attack this part of the problem at its core, perhaps we should be advocating instead for a system that runs schools locally but funds them nationally, presumably through an expanded Department of Education. What can arts organizations do to push forward that outcome? And why is hardly anyone else talking about it?

Let’s take a step back for a minute and remember how we got here. We were wondering how a hiring manager could get her staff to better reflect the diversity of her community. Now, 900-some-odd words later, we’re talking about advocating for a giant expansion of the Department of Education, universal preschool, and in the meantime intentionally sending our kids to substandard schools. Does it make sense now why, despite all of our conversations about race and privilege, nothing ever seems to change?


I like to think of myself as a technocrat – as I get older, I find myself becoming less and less interested in what sounds good and more and more interested in what works. On this blog and at my day job alike, I advocate for “evidence-based decision-making.” I champion logic models and theories of change as tools for taking apart complex systems. I push for a big-picture, strategic approach to everything, most of all to gigantic social clusterfucks that take lifetimes to unravel.

I don’t do these things for giggles or to increase my SEO ranking. I do them because I genuinely believe in the power of analytical thinking to help us make sense of the world. Using good research methodologies can tell us useful things like the fact that even your mom smoking crack while she’s pregnant with you doesn’t screw up your life anywhere near as much as being born into poverty, or that educating parents on how to parent better might just be a way to fix some of these problems.

In order to really be able to use research, you have to keep an open mind. You’re not going to learn anything if you’re not willing to let the research surprise you. And sometimes those surprises can be an unpleasant source of cognitive dissonance.

I think this is where I have the greatest difficulty with the “discourse” around race as I’ve most often experienced it in this country. Some months ago I wrote on this blog about the phenomenon of “mood affiliation,” a term coined by economist Tyler Cowen to refer (as I interpret it) to a tendency among participants in debates to ally themselves with a certain “side” and subordinate new facts or information to the preferred interpretation of their “team.” A more widely recognized name for this sort of thing is confirmation bias.

I feel like there’s a whole lot of mood affiliation that goes on in conversations about race. The population subgroups that are active in these conversations place a high value on coordinated action and messaging. That means that, if you consider yourself an anti-racist and would like for others to perceive you that way as well, there are very real social and even professional risks associated with taking certain positions on issues that may not be clear-cut at all. Something like stop-and-frisk may not be good policy (it’s not), but we need to be able to ask the question of whether it actually works before dismissing it on moral grounds – and, more importantly, be prepared to answer the question of what if it does? Alas, stories about race become politicized so quickly that it becomes much more difficult to take an unbiased, critical look at the situation than it is to rely on whatever position one’s identity group has rallied behind.

For that reason, what I crave the most is to see conversations about race imbued with the complexity and nuance they deserve. I’m not talking about the throw-up-our-hands-and-declare-defeat kind of acknowledgement of complexity, but the okay-let’s-get-into-the-weeds-and-figure-this-shit-out kind. In order for that to happen, critiques that question conventional wisdom about race are going to have to play a bigger role. Critiques like these:

  • How important is race relative to other forms of difference? Race gets a lot of attention, but is it the most relevant lens through which to view social justice in the present-day United States? I’ve noticed that the idea of comparing injustices to each other gets a lot of pushback from anti-racists; the phrase “oppression Olympics” gets thrown about a lot. And I understand how, from an advocacy perspective, this line of thinking is counterproductive and can be used as a rhetorical device to turn underprivileged groups against each other. But from a policy perspective, asking these kinds of questions is essential. Policy always involves making tradeoffs among finite alternatives – taking one approach can often mean not taking another, so you have to choose priorities and emphases carefully. There are lots of unearned inequities among different segments of people in this life, many of which have established places in national dialogue and many of which have not. Did you know, for example, that height is significantly correlated with earning power? On the strength of a study conducted for his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell even claims that “being short is probably as much, or more, of a handicap to corporate success as being a woman or an African-American.” I’m not sure I’d go that far, but I do think it makes sense to try to identify and target leverage points that trigger lots of injustices at once. One of those leverage points might be socioeconomic class, given that economic security touches so many areas of life. In no small part due to the legacies of historical discrimination, race and class today are closely intertwined: white families are on average an astounding six times wealthier than black and Hispanic families. But this means that a strategy to address class inequities, which can benefit from some existing infrastructure in the form of progressive taxation, will have the benefit of addressing many (albeit not all) of the racial inequities as well.
  • Can we stop talking as if there are only two sides to this story? Too many of the mainstream narratives about race in the United States are stuck in mid-twentieth-century paradigms of black vs. white. The classic archetypes of the oppressor and the oppressed make for good movies, but the racial groups that feature in conversations about race today are insanely reductive visions of reality. Hispanic/Latino makes lots of sense as a language-based subculture (superculture?), but it’s not an actual race even though we often talk about it as if it is. Arab Americans are considered Caucasian by the Census, but try talking to them about white privilege while they’re going through US Customs. Most African Americans are actually mixed race, and first-generation African immigrants often have little in common with descendents of American slaves beyond their skin color. There are Jewish Venezuelans and white Africans and black Dutch. People of color are not a monolithic group, and don’t always like each other; there is a long and ugly history, for example, of East Asian bigotry against black people. Nor do they face the same challenges: whereas the college graduation rates for African Americans and Hispanics are 20% and 14% respectively, Asians have been north of 50% since 2005. We are prone to equate gentrification with “white people taking over the neighborhood” but ignore the role that people of color play in that process.  Even within the arts, we oversimplify the racial identities of our institutions, casually applying the adjective “white” to orchestras for example, in spite of a huge influx of Korean, Chinese and Japanese instrumentalists in recent decades. The anti-racist movement is fond of pointing out that race is an artificial social construct—maybe we should all start treating it like one?
  • What is the role of assimilation in defining racial power structures? White people are not a monolithic group either. In the United States alone, there used to be bitter hatred towards ethnic Germans, rampant discrimination against Jews, and immigration restrictions erected against Italians, to name a few. What we think of as “white privilege” today was WASP privilege 100 years ago. What lessons can we learn from the dramatic cultural shift that has taken place in the meantime? And how much of a role has intermarriage between white ethnic groups (see below for more) had in making that shift possible? Moreover, does talking about white people as one group – since no white ethnic group would constitute a majority on its own – serve only to solidify the sense of whiteness as the majority default? In a long piece for the Grantmakers in the Arts Reader, Heinz Foundation arts program officer Justin Laing criticizes “the normativeness of White people’s arts and culture experience that is often implied when ALANA [African, Latino/a, Asian, and Native American] work is referred to as ‘culturally specific’ or ‘ethnic arts’ or ‘folk arts,’ as though White artists’ and arts organizations’ work is less specific, ethnic, or folksy.” Laing goes on to write, “This false idea, Whiteness, is maybe the most damaging of all of the race-based fallacies because it plants deep within us the idea that White people are both separate and the standard; it’s a particularly harmful idea in our field that treats the best of White culture as classical not only for Europeans but also for the world.” To what extent does the diversity conversation in the arts perpetuate the very inequities we’re trying to dismantle?
  • How is demographic change going to affect the way we think about race? The United States will be a majority-minority country within 30 years. Four states – California, Texas, New Mexico, and Hawaii – along with the District of Columbia already hold this status. The vast splits between racial and ethnic groups in recent presidential elections remind us that in a democracy, having a baby is not just a personal decision, it’s also a political act. Of course, just increasing the numbers of brown people won’t necessarily lead to the end of white hegemony – see the early-20th-century South or mid-20th-century South Africa for proof of that. Perhaps more important, then, is the increasing trend toward multiracial families via adoption (especially by increasingly visible gay parents) and widespread intermarriage, both of which are and will continue to be facilitated by the growing numbers of non-white individuals in the U.S. Could this blurring of racial categories smooth over old tensions to the point that no one cares about them anymore? I wouldn’t discount the possibility, especially when you consider how much the drive towards acceptance of gay marriage has been driven by loved ones coming out as gay. The elevation of a mixed-race President may not signal a society that has moved beyond race, as some have over-optimistically claimed, but it may yet be a harbinger of America’s post-racial future.
  • How committed are anti-racist white people to ending white privilege? This is an important point that I really don’t think we ever talk about. Merely recognizing that white privilege exists and feeling bad about it is not a recipe for change. Real change, all else being equal, must involve actual sacrifices on the part of those in power, with the white majority being the party in power when it comes to white privilege. Power is not necessarily a zero-sum game, but relative power is – and the privileged position in which white people find themselves in the United States is a result of the exercise of asymmetric power dynamics in the past. My questions for those who fancy that they would like to end white privilege are as follows: why don’t we ever talk about giving large swaths of land back to the Indian tribes who once occupied them, and whose value system is so rooted in the land itself? Why don’t we ever talk seriously anymore about reparations for slavery, the reverberations of which are still very much being felt today? (Such reparations would be hardly unprecedented, by the way.) Wouldn’t such things represent much more meaningful change than reminding oneself to make eye contact when one sees a person of color coming the other way?
  • Would we be better off as a society if we were actually less conscious of race, not more? Even if that’s not the right or a realistic goal for the short term, is it what we should be working towards in the end? If so, how would that change how we approach conversations about race? In a 60 Minutes interview with Mike Wallace eight years ago, Morgan Freeman famously called Black History Month “ridiculous” and called for its dissolution. Wallace asked how we can get rid of racism otherwise, and Freeman responded, “Stop talking about it! I’m going to stop calling you a white man, and I’m going to ask you to stop calling me a black man. I know you as Mike Wallace, you know me as Morgan Freeman.” I imagine that many people reading this are familiar with the concept of priming in psychology – the idea that subtle stimuli can (often unconsciously) affect our behaviors and performance. There’s even a significant literature exploring the racial dimensions of priming; for example, one study found that simply identifying their race on a pretest questionnaire cut black students’ performance on GRE questions in half. Well, what happens when we continually prime white people to believe that they’re racist, and people of color that they are victims of racism? Does that in any way exacerbate the problem?

Introducing this sort of complexity into the equation may come off as an invitation to chaos. But think about it this way: would we be satisfied with a map of the world that just had the seven continents on it and a vague notation of which direction they are relative to each other? No, we do what we need to as a society to have hyper-specific geographic markers down to a few hundred feet, all connected, continually updated, existing within an ecosystem of other information like traffic patterns and mountain heights and vote totals.

I believe that the frame for our discussion must be both that large and that fine-grained in order to make real progress. On the large end of the scale, what do we care about most? Is containing racism, rather than ending it, acceptable? And if ending it is paramount, then is equality of opportunity sufficient for ending racism, or is equality of outcomes necessary? At the micro scale, who benefits and who suffers from racial constructs, to what extent and in what ways? In each case, down to the individual level, how much of that benefit or suffering is the product of socially-constructed and mutable ideas of race and how much is tethered to immutable realities of race? And what of those inequities are solely attributable to race rather than tied up in other kinds of disadvantage/privilege?

What can I say, it turns out that understanding and dealing with race is really hard! But I truly believe that only the hard work of identifying what our true values are and articulating how we resolve dilemmas when they come into conflict with other values can help us resolve the large-scale questions. And only the hard work of mapping out all of these intimidating complexities as they play out in individual lives will enable us to make the changes to our societal rules and behaviors that will end up serving the most people the most fairly. In fact, I don’t see how anything other than hard work, strategically focused, will make any difference at all. So let’s get to work.


(I am deeply grateful to Talia Gibas, Selena Juneau-Vogel, Daniel Reid, Hayley Roberts, F. Javier Torres, and Jason Tseng for their incisive comments on an earlier draft of this article, and to many others for their conversations and perspectives that helped expand my world these past nine months.)

Further reading:

  • thanks for this- tremendous food for thought, and alongside the David White interview recently published at Brooklyn Commune, great context for a lot of conversations going on…

  • Roberto Bedoya

    “Right On!”
    As a follow prompter of the “hard work” of being in the complexity of race discussions…. of getting that “blood from the stone”, I appreciate the richness of thought and soul in this post. Thanks-man.

  • Jason Tseng

    I think there’s a lot of good stuff to chew on here. I think you’re totally spot on criticizing the “feel good” politics of most “diversity” initiatives being pursued by many arts organizations and advocating for finding solutions to undoing racism as citizen artists. The reason why so many of these programs, well-intentioned as they may be, feel so empty is because “diversity” as a goal is a fairly empty one (see for more in depth analysis on the difference between diversity, equality, and equity/justice). The “why” behind “diversity” is pretty shallow. Because we want more variety? We want different kinds of voices? These goals aren’t rooted in anything but a murky congealed soup of neoliberal racial anxiety. Arts groups shouldn’t be trying to “diversify” their audience, they should be trying to undo the systemic racism in the Art-making system.

    Ian, you make a great point that many of these systemic roots operate outside the control of arts organizations. Things like income inequality, lack of educational opportunity, or mass incarceration are all things that are largely outside of the direct control arts leaders. But by framing the conversation on racial injustice around only the socioeconomic macro-policy sphere, it also downplays the ways in which the art-making systems themselves reproduce racism. From decisions on funding to curation decisions, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that there is a clear system of privilege which favors white or european artists over art from non-white artists or art from the global south. So if arts leaders focus only on fighting racism outside the arts, we’ll arrive at a situation where artists of color who enter the field in spite of all the systemic obstacles presented to them because of their race, are then forced to contend with an arts community that refuses to acknowledge the inherent systemic racism in a white-centered cultural canon.

    Sure, it’s important for arts leaders to consider how they can address larger macro-issues of racism, but to ignore the ways in which your own institution favors artists based on race is a mistake, and one made far too often. We can’t wait for justice to happen. We have to actively create justice in our own spheres.

    • Amen. The role “authenticity” and high standards play in justifying exclusionary practices in classical music prevents a high standard of relevance-making from taking shape. We need to get beyond “dumbing down” in ways that complement traditional concerts.

  • Gary Steuer

    Ian – thanks for your thoughtful and honest post. I agree – we all have to start to be immersed in this “hard work.” This is not just a conversation to be had amongst people of color – bit all of us who care about art, community, inclusiveness, society. Bravo for keeping the dialogue moving forward – in all its complexity, pain and joy.

  • As someone currently teaching a course on the Harlem Renaissance and, on my commute, listening to the sermons of Martin Luther King, I must say that the technocratic complexity should not supplant the power afforded by moral precepts. MLK did not require statistical proof that racism was a violation of the foundational thought of both the US and the Bible, and that grounding is what gave his leadership power. So many liberals will agree that racism is wrong… And then they follow it with a “but”: but we need a college education for this position; but my subscription audience won’t come to Africam-American plays; but shifting arts funding to support and develop African-American artists will lead to hardship in prominent mainstream arts orgs. This is the “remunerations” argument you mention as being ignored. We’re down with being anti-racist as long as it doesn’t actually change the status quo. However, I think making things more complex actually allows a great deal of cover for this duplicity. “See how complex it is? Let’s just wait until we’re sure.” I think more impatience is in order, the kind displayed by August Wilson at the TCG meeting, or WEB DuBois promoted in the Harlem Renaissance. Maybe a bit more Malcolm and a little less Martin.

    • Late to this post, but I want to echo a lot of what Scott says here.

      For me, I’ve grown impatient with waiting for white people in theatre to catch up with what anti-racist activists, artists, and audiences of color have been talking about and organizing around for decades.

      The principles and strategies for pursuing racial justice in theatre are there, but is there a commitment to transforming arts institutions and the institutions that create artists? Does that commitment reach the deeper levels of arts organizations? Does that commitment include supporting and developing the leadership of people of color for whom anti-racism is a part of their artistic values and/or identity?

      These are fundamental questions. These are things people have to be on board with before even trying to act or organize. Is the commitment there? Is this something people are actively going to work on?

      Speaking for myself, I want to work with the people who already have the commitment but might need help figuring the best way to go about doing it.

      • Thanks for joining the conversation, Shawn. I think the points you bring up are pretty central to what I was writing about. I respect the impatience that you and Scott are expressing, but at the same time I think we need to consider why there hasn’t been more progress in the past 20-30 years, if, as you say, “anti-racist activists, artists, and audiences of color have been talking about and organizing around” the same things “for decades.” Why the message isn’t getting across? Having been on both sides of this, as someone who didn’t think about race that much for a long time and now as someone who is considerably better educated on the subject, I suspect that there are some very real ways in which anti-racists are failing to pursue optimal strategies to get broader traction for their ideas. I’ve come around to a deeper understanding of race and how it plays out in the world around me very much in spite of anti-racist rhetoric, not because of it. I’m not trying to suggest that there’s no value in organizing, pushing people to confront uncomfortable topics, etc. – far from it, and I appreciate those elements of the anti-racist movement quite a bit. But too much of the activity that goes on seems to be preaching to the converted, and there needs to be another side to the strategy to reach the audience of skeptical or naive white people who are standing in the way of change. For example, I don’t think that an emphasis on confronting one’s own implicit bias and admitting complicity in structural racism as a white person is a frame that invites non-allied white folks to engage seriously in the conversation. The biggest barrier to change that exists today is the fact that a huge proportion of white people simply don’t believe that white privilege exists – they think that the civil rights movement solved everything and that affirmative action, etc. is evidence that inequities don’t exist anymore (and if anything have tipped in the opposite direction). Engaging people like this with impersonal approaches like statistics, logic, etc. is going to be much more effective than making it about them. Because to them “racism” means saying the n-word and joining the KKK, and by gum they aren’t racist! When it does come time to make it about them, though, the other thing that’s really important and that I rarely see is a willingness to make it a real two-way conversation and learning process rather than a mission (whether explicitly expressed or not) to “educate” the white person to his/her blind spots.

        You say in your comment (and the links you provided) that this, essentially, is not work that you’re interested in doing any longer and that you prefer to work with the already converted. More power to you for that, and I appreciate that you’re honest about it! But absent a revolution – another conversation entirely – the movement is still going to need a way to get to those who are standing in the way of change. And I think that’s going to require some new tactics.

      • @Ian:

        I get what you’re saying, but again, people are already doing the things you are saying needs to be done. Just to name one example (with which I have a personal relationship) The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond has been doing that for over 30 years.

        I would argue that it’s because of the efforts of anti-racist activists and organizers (who may or may not call themselves such) that we are seeing the little bit of progress that we see (and by that I mean everything from desegregation to anti-discrimination policies, etc.). The lack of substantial progress is not a failing of anti-racists (and I am deeply uncomfortable with any statement which insinuates that people of color don’t really know what they’re doing with this anti-racism thing and need white people to guide them for their own good), but a symptom of the immensity and complexity of institutional and systemic racism.

        Speaking from my personal experience, the major contributing factor to progress being made at an institutional level the bones of an organization’s structure has been white people who Get It (TM) bringing other white people onto the same page*. While the ability to communicate effectively is important, the determining factor, I’ve found, has been perseverance. It’s the consistent, concerted effort by one or more people to keep anti-racism on the agenda, that has had the biggest impact.

        That kind of thing doesn’t happen overnight. It usually takes years for it to take root, let alone take off. Which is where the commitment comes in.

        (* Of course, this does not mean that I’m saying that people of color need to take a back seat in anti-racism and allow white people to lead the way. No, no, no, no, no! As a matter of fact, I can tell a lot about how far an organization has to go by the way that it develops and supports the leadership of people of color–but that’s for another post somewhere else.)

        • Shawn,
          You’re probably right that my previous comment didn’t give the anti-racist movement enough credit. You guys are the ones putting in the work, after all, and that deserves a lot of respect from a latecomer to the party like me. That said, I do think that an outsider’s perspective can often be helpful as a reality check, which is a big reason why I wrote the post. With no disrespect intended or offense taken, I would suggest that associating my constructive criticisms with an insinuation that “people of color…[need] white people to guide them for their own good” is not a very productive or accurate way to make use of what I’m trying to offer. For one thing, the anti-racist movement includes white people too, and my objections are aimed as least as much at anti-racist whites as POCs. Although I haven’t been to an Undoing Racism workshop myself, I’m pretty familiar with PISAB at this point – several of my colleagues have undergone the training, I’ve read a lot about it, my wife went to a workshop that was similar, etc. So I basically get the idea, but I have trouble getting on board with the framing for a lot of reasons articulated in the post. I’d say the biggest issue I have is with the lack of humility/vulnerability in public speech (I do understand that this is a component of the workshops and I’ve experienced much more of it in private conversations). So much of the rhetoric I hear, from my perspective, feels like it has this undertone of “God, these white people are so stupid, why don’t they get it already” rather than “Hey, racism is really complicated, I’m trying to figure it out and don’t have all the answers, I wonder if any white people would like to join me in that process?” Again, strictly from an uninformed outsider’s perspective, it seems like the anti-racist movement is trying to reach white people largely by appealing to their guilt whereas I feel it would have a much wider reach (and bigger impact) if it appealed to their desire for self-discovery.

      • @Ian:

        Re: appealing to guilt vs. self-discovery

        I think that, for me, my difficulty with what you’re saying here is that you want to position yourself kind of outside perspective to provide a fresh look on things, but what I’ve consistently been trying to say, here and elsewhere, is that there is no outside perspective on anti-racism because there is no outside perspective on institutional racism. So, if there is no outside perspective on anti-racism, what does it mean for someone suggest or assert a certain role for themselves without being invited to do so?

        Don’t get me wrong. This is not just about well-meaning white people. It also goes for people of color who set themselves up as leaders of a community that didn’t vote for them.

      • @Ian:

        To answer your question re: self-discovery and vulnerability in the public discourse more directly, I think that’s asking a lot more than you probably realize. This is not a shortage of empathy or imagination on your part, but some experiences have to be lived through to be able to fully grasp the risks and costs of opening up that way.

        • That last point is super interesting to me, although I guess not that surprising. I would love to get more detail, if you feel comfortable elaborating in this forum. If not, I understand.

          re: no outside perspective – I think I can get on board with the idea that there is no outside perspective on institutional racism, but I do not agree that this means there is no such thing as an outside perspective on anti-racism. I view anti-racism as a pretty discrete social movement involving specific people and specific organizations, or at least that’s how I’m talking about it here. Maybe you’re using the term more broadly than I am?

      • @Ian:

        I’m definitely applying the term anti-racism extremely broadly, to include any and all efforts to undo racism at the individual, institutional, and societal level.

  • @Michael, Roberto, Gary – thanks! It’s gratifying to know that people are getting something out of this.

    @Jason – valuable feedback, as always. Regarding the emptiness of diversity, in diversity’s defense I will say that there is a not-insignificant literature on the benefits of diversity to organizations in a business context. The corporate world ultimately got on board with diverse hiring/recruitment practices not because it was the right thing to do, but because they were able to be persuaded that it made teams more productive. So it is possible to be interested in diversity for “real” reasons that are nevertheless not equity/justice-focused. I agree with you though that justice is the more interesting frame for the conversation. Regarding racism in art-making – definitely. I think this plays out in different ways for different actors within the arts ecosystem. I find the point about curation to be particularly relevant given that the article opens with a scene from a museum. I don’t really disagree with you in substance, just emphasis. I worry that the impulse to attack racism in one’s own domain is too obvious and therefore detracts attention from domains where action on racism would be more impactful, but that doesn’t mean I see no opportunity at all for attacking racism within the arts.

    @Scott – a fair point, as I acknowledged to you on Twitter. I struggle with this one. First of all, I would disagree with your premise that I’m “making things more complex.” I think things are complex; all I’m doing is pointing it out. You’re welcome to argue that race is actually quite simple if you want – I’m eager to see that case! In the absence thereof, though, the second thing I would say is that pushing for action in a complex environment without dealing with the complexity is not likely to be successful in overcoming inertia. The situation is complex precisely because it is multidimensional, with many motivations at play and little agreement on desired outcomes or consensus strategies. In that kind of environment you’re going to have trouble getting traction on anything, no matter how clear things might seem to you. I’m no expert on social and political movements, but it seems to me that it takes a deep understanding of what the barriers are to change and a clear strategy for overcoming those barriers in order to make progress. Complexity is not the same thing as obfuscation. To me it is not about delaying, it is about giving hard problems the respect they deserve.

  • Ann Sachs

    Thank you once again, Ian, for addressing this subject in such a comprehensive manner. To me, CreateEquity is (pardon the cliche) the gift that keeps on giving. Cheers.

  • “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

    That is a clear statement about a complex issue, which is why it had the power to motivate human beings.

    “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and …not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

    Another clear goal that motivated a nation.

    So I believe we need a concrete, simple goal toward which to strive.

    • I couldn’t agree more, Scott. What would be your proposal for a simple goal like that?

  • I think people from th various underserved communities ought to set goals, and the one that is most compelling we should get behind. Here is mine, coming from my involvement with underserved rural communities: that the percent of NEA arts funds should reflect the percent of people who live in small and rural communities. Or: that at least 10 arts training programs specifically focused on leading arts orgs in small and rural communities be set up in universities across the nation. Or… you get the picture: something dynamic, exciting, simple, and concrete.

  • Pingback: Great blog: race, art, meaning | Pittsburgh Coalition on Racial Justice()

  • Ian, I appreciate your thoughtful writing and want to support your efforts as a black classical musician. Obviously, these are very difficult conversations to have, not only because most stakeholders have trouble stepping outside of their own perspective, much less remaining there, but also because the English language remains bifurcated such that the people don’t understand (trust) the academics, and vice versa. The only language that really speaks across this gap is action, and then only in the moment. Any interpretation (sharing) of past action is just that… spun left or right.

    I’ll share my example (spin) with you: I run a chapter of Classical Revolution, reading and performing in bars/clubs to share fine art music with the casual community who avoid concerts. It’s been voluntary, very meaningful and great spontaneous fun and we won our first major grant to expand. As an arranger and composer, at times I’m able to play actual symphonic music and my own neo-romantic works for new listeners, plus create some meaningful audience interactive moments to draw community into the act of refreshing and shaping tonal music. It’s a winner most of the time, but only in the moment. Later, some blacks find this too disturbing to return. To see a black man enjoy classical music so much touches the “Uncle Tom” nerve… and they miss the points… how classical can just be another form of self-expression… or how a black person can be so individuated to appropriate other cultures as whites do.

    Identity politics, particularly “oppositional identity” in the case of many blacks, surface 75% conservatively… such that we can hardly have a constructive conversation among ourselves about it. Those who approach psychology or conjugate all of their verbs are automatically deemed suspect.

    I will be following you and hope we can find the holy grail picture that unites our humanity beyond words.

    • Rick, thank you for this honest and generous response. Your comment that “the English language remains bifurcated such that the people don’t understand (trust) the academics, and vice versa” resonates with my experience quite a bit. There are many ways in which language issues confuse more than clarify contemporary dialogue about racism, not least of which is the proper definition of racism itself. Academics and anti-racists define racism in a completely different way (emphasizing its structural/institutional qualities) than popular/mainstream culture (which emphasizes bigotry between individuals). It’s incredibly confusing if you don’t take the time to unpack it, and something I hope and plan to write about more.

  • John Carnwath

    Thanks for this thoughtful piece, Ian. There’s one item I would add to you list of issues that need to be discussed with more nuance and complexity: If you want to understand race, you need to study the racists, not those who are discriminated against. Since race is a social construct, we can only learn about the effects of racism by studying those who are discriminated against. We’re not going to find anything within the population that is discriminated against that will explain racism itself. It’s the racists who are projecting race onto others, so that’s who we need to study.

    As the theatre director Timothy Douglas pointed out when I interviewed him for an article earlier this year, when issues of racial discrimination in the theatre come up, the white majority invites some people of color to a panel discussion and asks them what needs to be done. But they don’t have the answer. The panelists can share their experiences with racism, but that’s not going to fix the problem. The problem lies with the oppressors not the oppressed.

    So I’d like to see a more nuanced study of racists. Because racism isn’t a monolithic thing either, just as race isn’t monolithic. As you mentioned, Ian, there is racism between different minority groups, and I’m sure that’s quite different than the racism held by the white majority. And I’m willing to bet that the racism that exists some place in a rural Maine, where few if any people of color live is a different racism than that which you’ll find in Chicago or Alabama. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure racism exists in all three of these contexts, but I suspect that the racism that grows out of a lack of experience with other racial groups is quite different than the racism that is passed down from generation to generation in an area where there’s a long history of racial or ethnic conflict. And I imagine the solutions to overcoming those forms of racism will be quite different. Further, I suspect that even the most well-intentioned liberal white folks harbor some degree of racist sentiment. So I’d like to see a more nuanced conversation, that distinguished between degrees and types of racism.

  • Ian,

    I received a link to this blog last week from a TAAC Board colleague and frankly, I’d never heard of Create Equity before. (I admitted in that short Arts Journal/Enegaging Matters piece I wrote that I’m not a writer/blogger) However, when I saw your name attached to it, I did check it out a bit further, then saw that you referred to me/that piece under suggested readings. I’m surprised and flattered that you did, so I had to read what you wrote about race/the arts (and you eloquently framed it to class/education/societal inequity).

    You’ve obviously done some reading, thinking, discussing and research on this subject, and I’m pleased to see a young white male tackle it with passion, verve and even insight. You are right to posit the outcomes that we might want to see/achieve, but racial inequality is so multi-layered and nuanced – as you’ve expressed – that, for me, in this stage of life – its hard to look at from a macro place. I suggest that we keep chipping away at what we can chip at, because even though we have a long way to go, in my life time thus far, we come a llooooonnnnggg way!