Commentary: Talking about racial inequality and arts funding

Janet Brown, Grantmakers in the Arts blog, 6/20/12

On June 11-13, 2012, thirty individuals met at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture in Pittsburgh for a GIA Thought Leader Forum on Racial Equity Grantmaking. They were all there because they were experienced arts funders working in social justice. As we planned the event, it became more evident that we could not talk about how grantmaking could be more racially equitable until we had talked about the inequities in our communities based on race. We often seek simple programmatic answers to systemic issues in this funder business. So instead of bringing in a facilitator to help us find solutions, GIA hired the People's Institute for Survival and Beyond. PISB does workshops on "undoing racism" around the country and have for the past thirty years. They didn't come to help us change our grantmaking programs. They came to help us understand systems that have created the world in which we operate. Not simple, not without finger-pointing and blame. As with most difficult conversations, it became personal for those in the room, because we cannot separate who we are from what we do. We talked race for two days. We didn't come up with a list of how to solve the problem of inequities and racism in our communities. We decided we needed to walk with this conversation for a while and then revisit how we will proceed. For funders, this was a brave and unusual step. For an old programmer like me who likes results and action, it was unsettling. But we did it. I left Pittsburgh and travelled to South Dakota to see my family. South Dakota has a very poor history of white and Native American relationships. I found myself having a different kind of conversation with my friends and relatives there -- a more honest conversation about race and privilege and institutionalized systems. Then I started hearing from others who were in Pittsburgh and discovered they were having the same experience. These individuals were looking at professional challenges and opportunities differently and sharing those observations with colleagues, family members and friends. So stay tuned. I don't know where this is going and I don't have the answers. But I know we have to create a common vocabulary for what we are trying to change before we can change anything.


Commentary: Reflecting on race, inequality and classical music

Stefan Aune, The Violin Shop blog, 6/12/12

We recently featured a blog [post] on the Vienna Philharmonic, an orchestra known for its consistently sexist and racist hiring practices. Various representatives of the orchestra have contended, in response to allegations of discrimination, that the orchestra performs an essentially European art-form -- classical music -- and thus should be composed of individuals (men) of white-European ethnicity. To contend that this is the case in 2012 is clearly absurd, but has that ever been true? A quick look at the history of classical music will show, in fact, that white-European men have never been the exclusive creators or performers of classical music, and the fact that they constitute a majority has everything to do with cultural inequalities and nothing to do with inborn characteristics. I won't go so far as to argue that members of the Vienna Philarmonic are white supremacists. Nevertheless, it has long been an argument of white supremacists and racial separatists that "classical music," the music of "white people," is inherently more sophisticated, complicated, and valuable than the musical traditions of Africa, Asia, South America, or the Middle East, thus proving the innate superiority of the "white race." Obviously I reject that contention outright. Classical music is an ethnically diverse landscape, period. The racial politics of classical music is not perfect -- nothing is -- but performers, soloists, conductors, administration, staff, and audiences come from every conceivable background. In the last analysis, racial and gender inequalities throughout the history of classical music are a question of access rather than innate ability. Our priority should be making music of all traditions accessible to everyone. Venezuela's ground-breaking "El Sistema" music education system is testament to the fact that if you put instruments into the hands of children they will grow into incredible players.


FROM TC: An underprivileged community in Scotland has adopted "El Sistema". You can read about its impact on local kids in this article from yesterday's issue of The Guardian.


Creating artwork to respond to research about racial inequality

Deborah R. Meyer, The News-Observer [Raleigh, NC], 6/16/12

Dan Ariely had a craving. The founder of Duke University's Center for Advanced Hindsight wanted to incorporate meaningful interaction with artistic people into the work he was doing. So Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioral economics, hired artist Catherine Howard to begin curating shows at the center that would exhibit works by artists responding to his research. "We started out last fall putting out a call for artists to join us either online with live streaming or in person for a presentation by Dan of his current research," Howard said. "Then Dan took questions and heard comments." The first show explored the research Ariely was doing for his book, The Honest Truth about Dishonesty. The second show is called "PoorQuality: Inequality." Howard said the works in the show reflect various perspectives on Ariely's research into the ways people react to the state of inequality. She moderated a session introducing the theme this past February. "The artists were asking, 'How we can change how people react? How can we make the world more equitable through the artwork as a medium? How can we make this information impactful?'" she said. Howard ultimately chose 32 pieces from artists around the world. The show includes video, sculpture, book art, painting, installation, photography and collage. Suzanne Broughel participated in the February event, watching it on a computer at the City University of New York's library. "My work talks about economic racism. For a curator to team up with an economist is brilliant," said Broughel, who grew up in Yonkers, N.Y., and was one of a few white kids in a predominantly black school. For her piece, she wanted to illustrate the wealth gap between black and white families. "It is so difficult for us to talk about race," she said. "That is why I am so interested in the nonverbal. Maybe it will ease the conversation a bit. Maybe someone will not have their defenses up when they approach the work. They might be more open to thinking about it."


Commentary: Navigating the racial stereotypes of children's books and films

Stephen Marche, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, 6/17/12

"Dad, why do the pirates have a gorilla?" I was introducing my 6-year-old son to Asterix the Gaul. The pirates in the Asterix comics don't travel with a gorilla, of course. One of the pirate crew is a grotesque caricature of an African who does indeed more closely resemble a gorilla than a person. Freeze-frame on this parenting situation. What am I supposed to do? I figure I have three options.

1) Explain that the gorilla is supposed to be a black person.

2) Try to explain the history of French colonialism... [or]

3) Say, "I don't know why the pirates have a gorilla" and flip to the next page.

Naturally I chose 3 -- the cowardly choice. There will be time enough to explain the cruelties of history later, I figure. Nonetheless I am left with the queasy knowledge that I had better come up with a solution soon, because my lies and obfuscations are washing ever thinner, and the summer movie season is coming as well, with new Ice Age and Madagascar installments. Their ethnic typologies and attitudes resemble a sort of preglobalization New York. Besides, much of the great old children's material is either racist to the core or at least has seriously racist bits. Learning to negotiate around them or through them is something that every parent has to do, unless you want to waste your children's precious young lives sticking strictly to "approved literature." Every father who loves the original "Star Wars" trilogy eventually runs into the fiasco that is Jar Jar Binks. And what about Watto? The conundrum is how to explain to your kids that Jar Jar and Watto are stereotypes without first introducing the stereotypes that you are hoping to negate. Stereotypes are part of what children want from stories, which of course connects to what we all want from stories: simplification. We want all stepmothers to be evil. We want all huntsmen to be heroes. And apparently, for the most part, we want characters' ethnicities to be equally simplistic. Who knows what the consequences are or whether there are any? Is it because children like the simplification? Or are our minds simplified by exposure to these early stereotypes? We all need to grow up, I know. Me, the moviemakers, the audience. The only person who seems mature enough for the situation is the 6-year old. All he sees is a gorilla with some pirates. 

Please consider the environment before printing out this email.  Thanks.
YOU'VE COTT MAIL is a free service for professionals in the arts.  Emails are sent most weekdays. 
If you are not already on the distribution list and would like to sign up, please click here:

Join Our Mailing List      Follow me on Twitter     
Click here to view an archive of recent past editions of "You've Cott Mail."