If you are still talking about diversity, you’ve already failed

For more than a decade we have tried to tackle discrimination with surveys, but the trouble with diversity monitoring is that as we are attempting to confront exclusion, we become concomitantly exclusive. IAM’s editor Maria Roberts on why she believes the language around race is holding us all back.

I have a problem with diversity – It’s one of the most overused words in the arts, along with vision and universal. It’s one of those words that has been around so long and wedged into conversations to such a degree that it has become a compost heap of tokenisms.

I worked in diversity in 2005 when it was about activism – diversity in 2016 seems more like an afterthought, something the business suits have caught onto and want to wax lyrical about when they get the chance. “Diversity” is slowly giving way to intersectionality, a colder but more accurate word that describes the ‘interconnected nature of social categorisations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.’

For me, there’s the overwhelming sense that when you slot the word diversity into English, you are speaking from a privileged, White, patriarchal perspective. I say, let’s choose better words: let’s globalise our vocabulary, just like we globalise our social media strategies.

Even the language we use hints at division: when, as an English speaker, you use the term ‘diversity’ at an international conference with a global audience, the impact is even worse (I shudder, I really do).

And this poor choice of language is most often used under the guise of a data collection (aka Equality Monitoring Forms) – arts companies are forever being told they need better data – but data collection around race, gender and ability, even though it means to be helpful, is ever so slightly insulting.

Take Arts Council England’s (ACE) Equality, Diversity & the Creative Case A data report 2012-2015 no matter how ‘well meaning’ it is, I guarantee that in another decade the language within its pages will be seen as terribly out of date and terribly reductive.

Why my irritation? The word diversity has stopped being about inclusion, and started to be about separating people into categories. When it comes to arts and culture, there’s a kind of eugenical mysticism to the word ‘diversity’, as though art for everyone is a gift bestowed upon those in need from an educating deity above. Naturally, the deity here in the UK is a white man, with grey hair, a beard, and holds a BA in Classics.

For me, diversity is not about having the first Black Hamlet on stage because you can, it’s about realising there are many more Hamlets and big stories across the world and they are all valid on your stage. We need more original stories, fulfilled by a wider range of actors, musicians, and singers.

For more than a decade we have tried to tackle discrimination with surveys, but the trouble with diversity monitoring is that as we are attempting to confront exclusion, we become concomitantly exclusive.

Racial surveys allocate collective nouns that simply don’t fit together (or even make sense) in order to formulate some kind of faked group census that shows progress. It’s the equivalent of admiring a garden pond, when you should be studying a mountain lake. And if you look at your data, how much of all this data collection and box ticking has actually worked? A percentage increase here, a percentage decrease there? You might have created some sort of equilibrium in your staffing levels, but when you look out across the people in your pews, can you really say the same there?

Why those tick boxes make no sense at all:
I’ll speak from an English perspective as I’m a White, British, third-generation Irish (formerly considered an ethnic minority), Catholic (former religious minority) Woman. Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick.

But what if my grandmother were Indian? Am I 75 per cent White and, therefore, White British? Or am I an ethnic minority because we celebrate Christmas Day and Divali? What if I want to class myself as White and not as an ‘ethnic minority’ – that’s my right, who are you to decide exactly who I am?

When you use the term ‘Black and minority ethnic’, as seen on the ACE (Arts Council England) monitoring forms, who exactly are you talking about? More importantly, who do you think you are talking to? We simply cannot ask people to be accepting of those boxes.

Maybe a better question would be:

Do you class yourself as an ethnic minority? Yes | No

Add to this a box that allows you to tick:

I hold firm with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s assertion that all humans belong to the same species and there is no such thing as “race”.

When we use the term disabled – a group that seems to fare worst in the debate on all levels – everyone is clumped together: man, woman, White, non-White. So is diversity about income, anatomy, race, religion, money, geography, ability and colour? What about the variations?

Do we need many, many, many more boxes? Should we include eating and drinking habits, the technology we own, and the education we hold, because these are cultural and economic indicators after all.

Take my data profile: I work in the arts, I go to the theatre and I have boobs. What is it about me that has the most relevance here? My job is my job. At home, I’m a mum. At home, I’m the more womanly version of me. At work I’m a different sort of woman to the other me, I’m determined and driven. Personality-wise, I am sexless at work. I’m also different to my female friends. In fact, we are all very different to one another.

What is more interesting about me is that I actually consume and work in the arts at all, because I come from a large family that does not.

Back to Arts Council England’s (ACE) Equality, Diversity & the Creative Case A data report 2012-2015. Although I take this report as an example, I doubt it is alone in its shortcomings. What’s truly obvious in this report is the lack of data and analysis on men employed in the arts – made obvious as the unspoken 50-something per cent that also have jobs. [Men matter. Stop ignoring men. Stop sidelining men. Talk about men.]

One dubious question on the report that stands out is: “What percentage of each job level is Black and minority ethnic?’

The people on the other side of the gate need to ask, Why, after all these years, do you still operate in a way that makes me feel marginalised? My taxes, my lottery tickets, support your work, and I hold you fully accountable for your actions.

An average of 47 per cent of participants from MPM’s (Major Partner Museums) thought this question too strange / divisive (who knows?) to answer – and so they refused to tick a box! Indeed, a box to explain their choice to not tick the box would have been very insightful.

Seemingly, ACE want this data because they consider it to be rich data, but a whopping 47 per cent of people in MPM’s disagreed because they consider this data connected to race to be poor data.

That’s because this type of data collection is worryingly unemotional, whereas identity is a worryingly emotional subject matter.

Furthermore staff and audiences want to belong: they don’t want some sniffy ACE gatekeeper to give them permission to enter hallowed ground – only to measure them up for national dress on the other side. The wrong people are asking the wrong questions. The people on the other side of the gate need to ask, Why, after all these years, do you still operate in a way that makes me feel marginalised? My taxes, my lottery tickets, support your work, and I hold you fully accountable for your actions.

If you are lacking “an eclectic and interesting crowd” then you need to sit down at your next management meeting, look at one another and admit ‘We have tried and we have failed.’

Experience the desperate weight of that truth, sigh and move on. Don’t pat yourselves on the back after programming a good Black History month, or for making waves on International Women’s Day, or linking in with the Paralympics. Be smarter than that, keep making progress day in day out.

Ask, What can we do better? Not, how can we be more diverse? Ask, Is our programming too narrow? Ask, If Bollywood can pull in the crowds worldwide, why can’t we? Ask, How can we be braver? And ask, How can we get communities to believe in us? What can we deliver? And more importantly, listen to the experiences and opinions of those who will give you the answers you need to hear.

Never quote ACE’s agenda – because your ambition should be to provide an exciting programme that will appeal and reflect the people around you – not to sell an extra 10 per cent of seats to Black and ethnic minority attendees whilst asking people to tick boxes.

The people who won’t tick boxes will thank you for it.

Twitter @IntArtsManager 

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