The Arts have a diversity problem

A few days ago I was reading the New York Times when I stumbled across this article: Justice Department to Take On Affirmative Action in College Admissions. You see, ever since the creation of affirmative action there has been this idea that suddenly minorities will be stealing white peoples college slots. Just so you know, the data doesn't seem to reflect this. In fact a 2012 Pew Research Center study shows 58% of the 18-24 college population is white and 65% of 25-29 years olds who have a bachelors degree are also white. However we (and I by "we" I'm talking about us fragile white guys) view any push towards increased representation as taking away a college spot for us. To paraphrase the famous feminist scholar Michael Kimmel "what makes you say it's your spot?" Side note, if you haven't seen his Ted Talk it's worth the 16 minutes.

Of course when we're talking about representation, the arts are even worse then higher education. If you remember from a previous blog performances of classical music are almost exclusively White European Men (the majority of which are dead). The good news is there are organizations and performers who are trying to change this. However, for meaningful change to happen I think we actually have to better define what being diverse really means. Here are a few of the common solutions to increased diversity that I see groups doing:

  • Programming works by People of Color, LGBTQ+ community, and Women.
  • Holding competitions for these same under-represented communities.
  • Providing youth/outreach concerts for low income schools in the community.
  • Creating diversity committees within the organization to work on the problem.

These are all great places to start but at the end of the day I wonder if they will make any real impact at all. In so many ways it feels like the tokenizing of diversity. I know this feels like I'm bashing these groups, and I'm really not, but this idea of what diversity actually looks like has been something I've been wrestling with a lot lately. You see it's more then just presenting these communities to people it's actually making making art accessible to these communities. 

A side note that might clarify these ramblings. In 1954 the landmark case Brown vs. Board of Education was settled to desegregate schools. Of course this was a major win...except it kind of wasn't. Once black and white students were integrated it also meant black teachers could teach white kids. Guess what happened. Hundreds of black teachers were fired (all sorts of reasons were given but it really came down to white parents not feeling "comfortable" with black teachers teaching their kids) . Now our teaching force is 82% white. Why does this matter? Studies show that Black teachers are far more likely to refer black students to the gifted program then white teachers, and that if a black student has a black teacher, especially in the critical elementary school years, they are exponentially more likely to go to college and succeed. If you want to listen to a great podcast about the unexpected consequences of Brown vs. Board check out Malcolm Gladwell's podcast Revisionist History

You see for diversity to change are actions can't just be isolated tokens we must actually work to change the systemic issues that keep under represented communities out of the arts. When 90.2% of orchestras are White it doesn't matter how many latino composers they perform it won't change the system permanently. So what can we do?

  • Don't just perform music of under represented communities, work to employ artists of the same communities. Employ Soloists, Conductors, Executive Directors, Youth Outreach, who come from these same communities.
  • Hold those same competitions for under-represented communities but maybe find out what the obstacles that we put in place are that prevent them from applying.
  • Don't just do youth outreach concerts but go provide a day, a week, a month, a year of free lessons to kids in low income schools.
  • Perhaps offer non-auditioned youth choirs with no formal "uniform"
  • Don't just have a panel at your conference on diversity make it focus of your conference.
  • Perhaps most importantly go talk with people from under represented communities to find out what the obstacles are that we can help remove. How can we actually provide more access.

You might be saying my organization can't do this, we don't have the resources, we don't deal with youth, etc. Part of my point is this is a problem that can't be solved by a handful of groups, or even a committee. Diversity is all of our problem and it is a problem. All the studies show the more diverse work forces, communities, schools, and organizations are the more positive the outcomes for these places are. 

While I sit here and provide these "insights" you should also know that I suck when it comes to changing the systemic issues at play with diversity. Especially in higher-education. It's what I'm going to be spending a lot of time on this year (and for years to come). Every decision I make on diversity will always be followed with "and what's one more thing I can do to make change the system?"