The following issues of REFRAME will be featuring works that were presented at the ArtChangeUS Launch in New York City in anticipation to the ArtChangeUS: Bay Area REMAP event at YBCA on April 15-16, 2016. First in this series is Eleanor Savage’s “A Call To Action” that was presented in the Roundtable discussion Shifting The Paradigm on Race.
A Call To Action
By Eleanor Savage
October 26, 2015
When Roberta Uno asked me to be part of an ArtChangeUS panel responding to the question of how we shift the paradigm from diversity, inclusion, and representation to equity, desegregation, and transformation, I struggled with how to answer. I am an artist, racial and social justice activist, and I work for Jerome Foundation, an independent foundation that funds the arts. I don’t honestly feel that the arts and culture community as a whole is operating from the standard of diversity or equity. The paradigm I experience daily is still racism, segregation, and exclusion of people of color.
As evidence of this, I collected some typical comments that I and other program officers in the funding world hear in response to efforts to address diversity or equity:
- What am I supposed to tell the white artist who won’t get funding because you’re imposing a quota requiring that we fund artists of color?
- We sent the grant/event/job announcement to all of our mailing lists – If they don’t apply, how are we supposed to get more people of color?
- I don’t have time to give individualized help to grantees that don’t know how to prepare applications/can’t work with our online grants system/can’t “get it together”.
- We are open to everyone. There just aren’t any qualified (black, native, latino, arab, or Asian) artists/staff/board members in this community.
- Our priority is not diversity—it’s artistic merit. We don’t believe we should sacrifice quality.
- We don’t have a problem with racism. We are colorblind.
- Bringing up racial issues is divisive and unnecessary. Telling people their behavior is racist is mean.
- We’re an arts organization not an activist organization. We don’t have enough time to do everything we’re already doing.
- I’m editing out your references to race and diversity in this board memo because it will upset the Directors.
- How do we even know that people of color aren’t being supported? Where’s the research to prove it?
- I’ve got a lot to learn before dealing with racism. I don’t know how to do this. If we do something wrong, we’ll be worse off than if we don’t do anything at all.
In looking at the messages inherent in these comments, both the racism and the resistance to moving away from racist practice is loud and clear:
- In order to have diversity or equity, something has to be sacrificed—space for white people, artistic quality, organizational focus
- There’s no proof that inequity exists for people of color
- It’s too hard to find people of color
- Including people of color equals excluding white people
- The effort to include people of color costs extra money and time and is a burden to white organizations
- Racism doesn’t exist so we don’t need to work on it
I challenge us to stop acting from places of fear, passivity, apathy, complacency, discomfort, and resistance to, denial of, and antagonism toward the reality of racism. These kinds of behaviors are as much a part of what keeps racist systems in place as overt violence. I encourage us to keep our own list of the daily experiences of racism.
We need to acknowledge racism exists and we need to take a stand against it. We have to learn how to acknowledge it, interrupt it, challenge it, be in conversation about it, act against it, and change the systems that perpetuate it. For white people who define as anti-racist, we can’t position ourselves as separate from covertly and overtly racist people. We have to be responsible and accountable for shifting the paradigm of racism. We have to create space for anti-racist learning that is not punitive. This work has to come from a place of love and compassion.
For the last couple of years, I have been asking people, “Where do you see racial equity happening?” There’s usually a long silence and few answers in response. We are still so rooted in systemic racism that we can’t even imagine what a different paradigm might look like. We need a vision for what we’re moving toward, not just what we’re working against. Artists and the arts have much to offer in helping create this vision of equity—what it looks like, feels like, and sounds like.
I offer these suggestions in answer to the question of “How do we move from this racist paradigm.”
- Admit that systemic racism is a reality. If you don’t know what this means, there are many resources available.
- Stop perpetuating racism. Racism is not just acts of extreme violence. This system is perpetuated by the unintentional and unexamined ways we go about our day-to-day lives.
- Learn the early warning signs of whatever your avoidant behavior is around dealing with racism and start taking action instead of maintaining the status quo—learn how to interrupt racism and how to practice anti-racism.
- Practice anti-racism with the same reckless abandon that we practice and participate in racism.
- Envision/imagine what racial equity is.
- Adopt racial equity as a value and implement clear goals for living it. Grantmakers in the Arts (GIA) has a strong statement that was developed through years of work. This organization offers an important model for how to begin this effort. Take a look at GIA’s Racial Equity Policy as an example.
- For white people, examine your relationship to social and economic power and stop equating justice and equity for people of color as a loss for white people. This is a fear tactic perpetuated by racists. Ending the violent and dehumanizing practice of racism is a win for all people. If you don’t understand this, get some help from other white people.
- For funders, start building relationships with artists of color and people of color led organizations instead of trying to diversify white organizations.
I challenge my fellow white people to take immediate action on racial equity and by racial equity, I mean an end to systemic racism, and by systemic racism I mean an end to the daily dehumanizing and destructive attacks against people of color.
Eleanor Savage is a senior program officer of the Jerome Foundation and member of the Grantmakers in the Arts Racial Equity Forum.