The Great Diversity Fake Off - by Katie English
A few weeks ago I was walking through Halifax town centre, minding my own business when someone snarled something unintelligible at me. A couple of steps further and I heard ‘It’s genocide, white genocide’ being shouted. When I got home, curiosity got the better of me so I looked up ‘white genocide’ to see if it’s any different to any other kind of genocide. Turns out it is. White genocide is a neo-Nazi conspiracy theory that non-white people are essentially eradicating white people through immigration, racial integration and various other things that send shivers down the spine of any right-thinking fascist. Now, both my parents are white but much beyond that the family tree starts getting a bit stubby and, depending on what you look for I could look a bit mixed race as I have very curly hair and a fairly ambiguous face. In the past I’ve been questioned on my ethnicity by complete strangers, to which the frustrating answer ‘Dunno, does it matter?’ comes.
All of this is to set the scene for the way I feel about the dreaded tick box in terms of diversity in the arts. The box where your ethnicity, sexuality, disability and other personal details that have nothing to do with your ability to do the job are displayed for all to see. Speaking from an arts point of view, although the same goes for many sectors, I know that the call for diversity is desperately needed – the vast majority of people working in and around the arts are white, middle class and (for those in charge) male which is hardly representative of society in general. However, I have a really hard time understanding how keeping tabs on who is applying for or getting, funding or jobs actually help anyone in the long term unless it goes alongside active encouragement for people of all backgrounds to apply in the first place.
While the statistics are useful, the tick box itself is so flawed that without positive action to establish why the demographic is so skewed, it simply appeases the moral compass of the funders without actually moving things forward. Many funders work on the assumption that if an opportunity is made available then people will A. know it exists and B. feel confident in applying for it. Incredibly, we still live in a society where people are judged daily on their appearance, paid differently according to gender or race, and social mobility is close to non-existent. All of this puts a bit of a dampener on applying for an opportunity in something as closed off as the arts and this needs actively addressing before any tick box comes into play.
Whether or not we like to admit it, applying for a fund or project specifically for a particular ethnicity, gender, disability, sexuality and so on comes with an implied pressure to draw on a particular life experience that people might not necessarily want to overtly draw on for their artistic work. Why shouldn’t, for instance, a black woman want to compose a piece of music that just sounds nice and is hers, rather than feeling as though she has to write something that overtly expresses her day to day experience as a black woman? A white composer can feel free to write a piece about their life experience, or not, but will never have that pressure put upon them by someone else. On a personal note, I shy away from projects aimed at women as my music and printmaking isn’t a reflection of being a woman, it’s just my work and is what it is, which never feels as though it deserves the specific status of ‘by a woman’.
The tick box also makes the massive assumption that everybody knows their ethnicity whereas in reality there are many reasons why people might not. The person who was adopted when little, the child of a single mother who doesn’t want to acknowledge the father, the white girl with inexplicably curly hair and a stubby family tree! Over time people of various ethnicities have changed their family name to avoid hostility or had new names thrust upon them by others, which can make it nigh on impossible to trace family history. Where do these people go if on the surface they don’t have that anchor? Just tick the ‘prefer not to say’ box, that’s ok, you don’t have a proper identity so can just get lumped in with the leftovers. But there’s a big difference between preferring not to say and not knowing, and not knowing in itself can forge a large part of your identity.
I’ve written about class in the arts before, and how making funding more accessible to less affluent people would help diversity (while socioeconomic diversity is being talked about more, it’s still not big on the diversity agenda). A disproportionate amount of people working in the arts are from middle and upper classes, which in itself contributes to a certain demographic. Encouraging more working class people to get involved, and making it possible for them to work around day jobs etc, would go a very long way to getting a more diverse workforce as by default you’re getting all sorts of people with all sorts of backgrounds involved. Again, this needs active encouragement to make people feel confident that they will be welcomed and valued in their field, or the familiar ‘it’s not for me’ mantra will soon surface.
Now at this point, I’d love to come up with some kind of coverall, foolproof, bias-proof amazing system to get a more realistic version of actual population vs who gets noticed but sadly, until society sorts itself out, it’s not going to be that easy. Cronyism is still a massive issue with many opportunities unofficially earmarked for the friends of those in charge, and seeing the same names crop up time and again can put off potential applicants as it feels as though it is impossible to get involved without an ‘in’. This in itself is disheartening but when we consider that most of the people making these decisions are white, middle-class men, it gets really frustrating. While not practical for some things, research has shown that blind auditions for orchestras have vastly improved diversity in gender, ethnicity etc as the players are judged purely on their ability to do the job, which should be a given but sadly isn’t. It disposes of any bias against someone based on appearance, as well as any tokenism, and gives people the confidence to actually go to the audition in the first place because they know those biases won’t be there. Making people define their ethnicity, gender, disability and so on sets them apart and although it’s done in a well-meaning way, it just falls short as it draws attention to the very thing we are trying to get past. Although we’re far from being post-race, gender etc as a society, shouldn’t the arts be showing the way, rather than perpetuating these divisions?
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Image credit Teresa Neal
About the Author
Katie English is a multi-talented artist, composer and musician