Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Diversity Conundrum: Which Came First—The Teacher or the Learner?

My mentee for the year, Alicia Akins, continues her thinking on diversity with this guest blog post. Don't miss her first post, and continue the conversation in the comments below.

While the furor over the need to diversify the arts continues, it remains unclear exactly who we need to target, and how we will know when we’ve gotten it right.  Even the question of how to go about it is shrouded in mystery and approached with apprehension. Is the golden ticket the mere presence of more people of color?  If we can just identify and recruit underrepresented people to join our institutions and charge them with the task of increasing diversity will we have begun to find our way?  Unfortunately, it takes more than a one-man diversity and inclusion department to build a culture of true openness.  It cannot be a contrivance to win funding or increase numbers, where “others” get brain space during work hours and then we return home to our monochromatic neighborhoods and friend circles. 
I recently came across the post “White, Low Affect, Respectful” and was shocked by the suggestion that perhaps if the symphony ran on CP time, it might attract more African-Americans.  I was also immediately put off by the "respect" label, because of the implications for non-white groups—our mores are not less respectful, simply different in a way that members of the majority may find disrespectful or uncomfortable. There are dangers to changing the essence of the cultural experience to draw a different demographic.  As a classically trained musician who loves attending the symphony, making them as Ms. Lee suggests would dampen the experience for me as well.  But at the same time, I never know when to applaud or cheer at street battles, in opera (which I've played in pit orchestras) its okay to have intermittent applause.  Education is critical. The education shouldn't merely be focused on cultural connoisseurship, as one of the comments on my previous post suggested, however. It should be based on early wide exposure and careful, unbiased explanation of the proper conduct for different occasions.  Language is critical here though so we don't end up raising cultural snobs who think elitism is ok (a point I will get back to). This is not simply about being politically correct either. In describing classical music concert requirements where one must come on time and not disturb others by talking, it sets up the alternatives already as lesser. Those are experiences, by contrast, where "lateness" (a negative) is ok as is “disruptive” (another negative) behavior.  But instead, if you are taught that at classical concerts its important to show up at the beginning to get the full experience, but at other kinds of events you can show up whenever you would like or that at classical concerts outside sound competes with the music whereas at a jazz show or a gospel concert participation enhances the experience and is not rude, but expected, then you honor the traditions of each.  I'm sure everyone has had that concert experience where a person (usually white in my experience) starts clapping between movements, or even worse before the end of the piece and it comes from unfamiliarity and lack of education (which **gasp** afflicts white people as well).  But the solution is not just to teach young people how to behave at the opera, but to present both the full range of behaviors acceptable at varying events and to present the full range of artistic complexity and expression found in many kinds of arts not just the elite Western ones.
Javanese music obeys laws of counterpoint that make Palestrina seem like child’s play and if one listens to it without being prejudiced by one’s European ears, one will find a percussive charm that forces one to admit that our own music is not much more than a barbarous kind of noise more fit for a traveling circus.
                            Claude Debussy 
And how might something like that happen?  With great difficulty given that most music education and arts education programs require only one non-Western course requirement.  If students are required to go to concerts (as I was) or exhibits, they usually seek out what is familiar already, not something new and difficult to understand. If future teachers shy away from learning about arts of different cultures and classes then their students don't stand a chance. If teachers don't know about gamelan or about jazz or about funk—or mixing beats—then how will they teach it? Professional credit is given for attending courses and conferences for teachers, but are they encouraged or even required and given credit for learning about the full spectrum of arts represented within their communities?  Do most teachers feel that if there are no minorities in their classes they can skip doing the whole diversity thing since they don't have to worry about anyone feeling left out?  

This comes back to a point I made in my previous post: white people need their understanding of the arts to be diversified as much as minorities or other underrepresented groups.   White people (and even black people as well) feel cultured enough if they can parrot off a list of famous European artists or composers.  There is much greatness missing from that list, much of the human experience not found in their canon, and many important voices silenced. Greatness unobserved does not cease to be great.  The Traditionalist commented on the need to recognize and not dilute greatness and I couldn't agree more, but to imply that one must simply look to the high arts to find it is both arrogant and egregious in my opinion. High art in many cases is designated as such by those in a privileged position.  I agree fully with the second commenter that the arts are human which is why they cannot possibly be restricted to the European works (and others based on the European aesthetic) which a privileged minority have declared exceptional.  Greatness, in my opinion, lies in complexity and inspiration, and I've been fortunate enough to find it in street battles, black spirituals, and Bruckner. Education certainly is needed to those who would argue that the Golden Gate of Kiev is more inspiring than an individual’s search for eternity.  In my own experience, my appreciation for music from all times and places has not diminished my appreciation of classical music only strengthened my appreciation for music in general. And despite finding myself working in a museum now, I have spent considerable time thinking about how an interest in one might feed the other.

How might we go about making the changes, personal and institutional, needed to orient ourselves to changing demographics and the threat of irrelevance?
Learning a new language
In many ways, learning to diversify is like learning a new language. There’s dissonance, misunderstandings, and it's a process of minor continual improvements with the understanding that you won’t ever really get it perfect just better. You can express more and be better understood. Your words will always be yours, you’ll just be able to direct them toward more people.
Trial and error:  Everything is hard in the beginning. Not everything will come out right. But with each attempt, you hopefully improve.  For example, my roommate has been in Laos for half as long as I have but is far more comfortable speaking with people than I am.  She arrived and started using everything she knew, even if it wasn’t perfect.  I, on the other hand, refrained from speaking until I was certain that I had it right. She made far more mistakes than I did, but also learned far more quickly. Diversity is likely to be an issue we will stumble through, but one that my kids will have gotten a handle on and my grandkids will take for granted. Change takes time and happens in small steps.
Change of thinking: It would be nice if in any language all I had to do was learn the new words and plug them in to sentences in place of their English equivalents, but this isn’t true. Its not just about getting the vocabulary right, there’s a system that dictates what words go where and the correct timing and register of words.  These systems have deep roots that you may not understand, but can still adapt to.  In Japanese, it kills me to put off talking action until the end of a sentence, but Japanese grammar does not allow for anything else.  What dynamics are at play—particularly ones of power—that may work against the words you’re saying? Your message doesn’t exist in a vacuum, think about systems at work, too.
Improves with quality of relationships: People can tell when you’re being fake with them.  I remember when I was living in China, I had learned a few Chinese “oldies” that I could sing at karaoke with friends and also took lessons on a traditional Chinese instrument.  I had done both of those things simply out of genuine curiosity but the fact that I had taken the time to go beyond talking points in my knowledge of China earned me a lot of respect.  Learning new cultures and forms of expression is never easy.  But the same cultural dissonance you feel when you enter the worlds of people whose education, opportunities, and culture have led them to a set of interests different than your own is the same dissonance that you’re asking them to overcome. If the cultural distance seems uncomfortably far for you, chances are its uncomfortably far for them, too.
Immersion works best: When I learned Chinese, from the second day of class on instruction was in Chinese and as expected in the beginning I understood nothing.  But I learned far more quickly than those who tried to learn from the comfort of their own home environment. One of my best friends is one of the most diverse people I know which incidentally has made me more diverse.  When I talk to her about things from black culture, I’m often surprised that she knows even more about them than I do even though she’s Asian American.  She learned from having a diverse group of friends she met during a summer spent living with other minorities as part of a program for future diplomats.
Where does diversity come from?
Diversity isn’t icing on the cake, you can’t throw it on top of a finished product. It must be worked in early in the process.  You also don’t necessarily get a more diverse organization just by diversifying the kinds of people working there or visiting, but by having people with a diversity of experiences that can more easily tease out latent connections between people, ideas, and cultures. Both the personnel and the programming need to be intrinsically and inherently diverse.

What if museums looked to recruit staff who themselves were diverse and had broad exposure to different cultures and ideas rather than just those that would make their hallways a more colorful place but otherwise fit the same profile as the rest of the staff? Because of personal experience, I don’t assume that just because someone is a minority that they are diverse. I look at their friends. 
What does success look like?
I think the answer to how diverse is diverse enough depends in part on the organization. How will we know when we have got it right?  I offer a few suggestions on ways organizations may be able to gauge if they moving in the right direction.
  • Diversity should be organic. There should be less resistance and resentment over the need to be more inclusive coming from within the organization and there should be widespread buy-in. Initial changes should be internal, not just in the recruiting of underrepresented staff or adding new programming. Ideas should come from across the institution not just from diversity and inclusion departments.
  • When businesses want to be truly innovative they have policies that support that.  There should be increasing institutional support for diversity education for all staff.  Whether that means sending them to different kinds of conferences, giving all staff 10% of their work time to investigate a new culture outside the mainstream, or forming strategic partnerships where everyone must be involved, policies—not just staff and programming—should support the goal of being more diverse.
  • Do your research.  If you have an event or program where you’re reaching out to a certain group, be sure to talk to them about why they came, what they thought and what connections they made.  Have dedicated evaluators get rich feedback that can be used to improve future planning. Understanding the real barriers is key to overcoming them.
  • Think long term with partnerships. No high culture hit and runs. Follow up and realize that engagement is a two way street.
  • Build advocates not just audience.  Who is your target audience already listening to and influenced by how can you build a relationship with them?
  • Learn—not just about how to do the diversity thing to stay afloat, but about being diverse.


Richard Kooyman said...

Well said Linda. The field of arts management is filled with terminology like: engagement, diversity, participation, community, and placemaking, coupled with vague definitions and applications of these terms. This is a result of neo-liberal politics that aims to control cultural production or at the very least remove all public support for it and change the focus of art from artists, art, and the aesthetic experience to some extended ideal of social and economic good.

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