By Angie Cheng (facebook)
Text from: Volume 1— 2018 Cahier des routes: Diversité
To understand terms like inclusivity and diversity we need to acknowledge that they are used as a distinction of what we consider the ‘norm’; white cis-gendered heterosexual and the ‘others’.
As you dive into making considerations and implementations for ‘diversity’.
It is my hope that this is not an exercise in checking off boxes but an honest desire to open ones field of vision, seek out blind spots and to remedy them with change. Meaningful adaptation to the changes you wish to implement is a process. To continue this process requires you to develop and integrate the ability to ask questions and being open to being questions as an ongoing practice, as our society continues to change, new information is offered and new blind spots are discovered. There is no universal checklist, but a set of skills to develop that you integrate as individuals and institutions.
As an active member of the dance community, an artist of colour and a member of the comité inclusion et vivre d’ensemble; a consultation committee for the RQD and the dance community here in Montréal. I am offering my personal thoughts, views and desires through my experience in dealing with cultural appropriation, systemic racism and my active seek for changing dynamics, accessibility, and representation in our artistic community and society at large.
In the fall of 2017 an incident of cultural appropriation in a performance occurred here in Montréal. One that I privately and eventually publicly addressed. I was sad and disappointed with how the whole event was allowed to happen and how the event subsequently unfolded, but was eventually confronted. The affects of this incident have lead to a realization of how poorly equipped we are in the dance community and art sector to recognize, confront and deal with the systemic issues and power dynamics that exists within.
The performance, which I watched occurred September 08 2017. The issues were pointed out before this date on August 14th, the question of cultural appropriation was brought forth, on FaceBook and in person to the artists by multiple people. Warnings were not heeded and the performance went ahead. Afterwards I wrote a personal letter to the artists. After the producers public response and my careful consideration I felt it was necessary for me to make my personal letter public. ( see attached letter) I had hoped my transparency, would help people speak up and spark a much needed conversation amongst the wider community and dialogue with those involved.
I never questioned the integrity of the artists, if they were good people, or that they would intentionally go out and hurt anybody. But they made poor choices, by actively ignoring multiple warnings and offerings of conversation. We have to be willing to listen, and acknowledge when we make mistakes and accept responsibility.
What I witnessed was definitely not cultural appreciation, and beyond cultural appropriation. Mimicking another culture and people for comedy is without a doubt, racist. Racism exists without explicitly bad intentions.
These issues belongs to all of us. Not just to one culture or person that an incident address’. To strive to be better, to learn, to understand and to respect our differences we must stand up for each other, how we behave affects everyone.
We need to recognize that issues such as systemic racism exists, and it is present in our artistic communities and structures within it. We are so quick to deny it and push it away in fear that it means that as individuals we are racists.
When speaking about systemic racism what we are actually looking at is how racism is weaved into the fabric of how things function in our society. Power dynamics and systemic beliefs work in the background without you even recognizing it as such because this is how it was built. We need to question and understand why hierarchies and why long held beliefs in persist, where do they come from what are the histories?
These systems of beliefs were constructed and established over time and contain values that were acceptable during a period in the past and have been passed on, but with our growing knowledge and the shifts in values, these systems need to be dismantled and adapt to change. I was confronted in my belief that my community was progressive and inclusive through this event. Now I am more aware and unable to unseen the ongoing systemic issues that we face.
Even if we are beliefs are progressive and inclusive, even if we see ourselves as the disenfranchised it does not excluded us from having blind spots, and having the capability in participating in systemic racism, sexism, elitism and other exclusionary acts of othering and forms of oppression. The debate kept circling around wether the performance was racist, cultural appropriation, intentions, censorship, artistic freedom and cultural exchange. Many would go on to question me about this, telling me that I was exaggerating and I was given many reasons defending why it was neither. But to look a bit deeper, the troubling questions went beyond what this performance was, but why when the issues were brought up time and time again, they had the power to not listen and not take into consideration the concerns of the people voicing it. Again what is the power dynamics at play?
What are the ingrained beliefs that are behind these choices? Where does the belief of one’s freedom of artistic expression alone is allowed to override responsibility and respect. Can we recognize the position of privilege? In instances of being called out for inappropriate choices and behaviours I have witnessed the resistance to change through words and actions of defensiveness, co-opting languages of diversity and inclusiveness with out the actual work, elitism, tokenism and asking for the free labour of the members of the marginalized groups to be educators.
The problem with this is the huge effort used to avoid a difficult conversation and taking responsibility is diverted from actual work to change. Everyone is afraid of being called out, of being named something that they don’t identify as. The fear is real when it comes to believing that privileges are being taken away. We have a certain image of what privilege looks like, but we fail to see that it goes beyond that construct, and intersectionality makes it possible for different people to be in positions of privilege in different situations.
We struggle to recognize the positions of privilege when we exercise the ability to not have to listen, to look within and re-examine to understand the consequences of the choices made.
To look at statements like Art is for everyone, art is freedom, beware of censorship, the benefits of cultural exchange and great historical arts wouldn’t exists, without cultural appropriation; to take these statements as arguments and defences without looking deeper and asking more questions we ignore valuable voices that are missing. Is art for everyone? Who is making it, being given platforms for present it and who is attending and see it, has access to it? Who is allotted freedom and given the opportunity to practice this? Censorship is assuming that the power dynamic is equal or greater to be able to be implemented, is this configuration true? An exchange is when there is mutual benefits of equal value. What historical arts have been chosen to be remembered and which have not been archived and documented? Who makes these decisions?
So many people want clear rules to abide by, but that is not the answer. There is questions to be asked, work to be done. Acknowledgement of the truth, the power dynamics and inequalities. Take the time to recognize the privilege or imbalances in the situation. Do the research and the work.
Review and reconsider your, positions, values and mandates. Are they still relevant if so how are your understandings of them? How do you adhere to them? Is it practiced and held within the whole institution? If not, what are the differences? What are the changes? What is no longer relevant? Representation throughout and why it is needed. Are you gatekeepers to opportunities and can you create opportunities for a wider spectrum of perspectives? Which then lay the ground works for outreach between artists their works and the public.
I seek opportunities of representation of the diverse members of our society, I caution you to be mindful and be careful of tokenism or the mentality of a saviour when doing so. True exchange and outreach mean not to commodify, or to pander which requires clarity within the individual and the institution of their values and whom they serve. Communicating honest capabilities and delivering them. It may seem daunting to tackle change on multiple levels simultaneously but if we understand that they are all interconnected, it can be approached as goals over time. Offering space benefits not only the underrepresented but enriches the community and moves us forward.