“Diversity” Is A Problem

In theatre and in academia, my two worlds, we talk a lot about “diversity.” In theatre, we talk about diversity in casting, we talk about diversity in programming, we talk about diversity in audiences. In academia, we talk about “attracting and retaining diverse students” and “the diversity of our faculty.” But there’s a massive elephant in the room that we continue to ignore.

Diversity is not enough.

Do not confuse “diversity” with “equity.” I have been in far too many situations where an organization hires a handful of people of color, plunks them into the lowest rung (either by title or by treatment) and then never thinks about them again. I have been in far too many situations where faculty believe they are “working to retain” students of color by designing classes with titles like “Keepin’ It Real: African American Performance,” taught by a fussy middle-aged musical theatre professor, instead of engaging the students directly to discover what support they actually need. I have been in far too many situations where highly skilled and qualified women are hired and then passed over for promotion in favor of mediocre– or even demonstrably unqualified– men. I have been in far too many situations where a white man who is new to the organization is suddenly and dramatically promoted and given plum assignments in secret, announced to the stunned women who were passed over as a fait accompli.

Diversity fails if it’s not combined with equity.

Too many white male-run orgs frame diversity as bending down to lift up women and people of color. Women dominate the indie theatre scene as artistic leaders. They’re already out there, creating art every day. People of color aren’t just creating art– they’ve created most of popular American culture.

It’s telling when you hear people say things like, “Black children in the inner cities have no access to art,” and “We need to find ways to help people of color access theatre.” When we discuss “art” or “theatre” in these contexts, we mean “white art” and “white theatre.” We mean the work white people have deemed “important.” If there’s one thing inner cities have never lacked, it’s art. Most of popular American culture originated with artists of color in inner cities. Hip hop revolutionized music across the globe. Graffiti became a global school of art. Both hip hop and graffiti are already studied and taught in universities globally alongside other important artistic movements like minimalism and abstract expressionism, both of which, I’d like to point out, were originally held in as much disdain as hip hop and graffiti have been. You don’t bend down to grant art to people of color. They’re not starved for art, waiting for a white savior to show up and grant them access. People of color are lapping white culture artistically.

The problem isn’t a lack of access to “art” for women and people of color. The problem is lack of access to funding and well-paid positions of power. The problem is equity.

If we’re discussing equity, we’re discussing important topics like the glass ceiling– how larger theatres across the nation give almost all the positions of power to white men and show no signs of improving over the years we’ve been discussing this. How universities still give the majority of their tenure track positions to men and the majority of their poverty-level adjunct positions to women, despite that Cornell study that measured hypothetical attitudes. The hard data is clear, and those numbers widen when you add race to the mix.

If we’re discussing equity, we’re discussing how grantors and individual donors give white-run arts orgs far more funding than they do arts orgs run by people of color. We’re discussing how the study I linked above had the audacity to suggest that lower-funded orgs run by people of color should be left to “wither” and close.

If we’re discussing equity, we’re discussing how large, well-funded, white-run theatres are given massive grants to do “community outreach” programs to potential audiences of color when the theatres run by people of color, who are already doing that work, are left to fight for scraps. That’s diversity without equity– funding a wealthy white org’s diversity initiative instead of funding a smaller Black org that’s been doing that work for decades. Funding doesn’t have to be either/or. Where are the grants that fund partnerships or co-productions between those orgs? Or between women-run smaller theatres that attract diverse young audiences and the larger theatres that say they’re desperate for those audiences? I would have brought my theatre company into a larger theatre for a co-production in a heartbeat.

The problem with diversity without equity is that diversity can be accomplished in ways that entirely preserve the white male power structure. We congratulate diversity in programming and we ignore the fact that nearly every LORT AD position in the US from the institution of the 501c3 in 1954 to this very day has gone to a man, almost always a white one. We’re making calls for diversity that amount to asking white men to please hire more women and people of color while we ignore the fact that theatres run by women and people of color are literally starving for funding.

Diversity alone is not enough without actively seeking equity at all levels of our industry. We need to commit to both diversity AND equity.

UPDATE 9/8/16: Please read Jason Tseng’s excellent article about equity in arts funding: “The Kaiser Games.”

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124 thoughts on ““Diversity” Is A Problem

  1. yassss #brownisnow 🙂

  2. Ermz says:

    Wow. This is fantastic and very true.

  3. Melissa this was an absolutely brilliant piece . we live in a society where we can’t survive until we stereotype one or the other regardless their color or their gender. the most awaited topic to be found on blog 🙂

  4. geoch1 says:

    Very interesting!

  5. sneezedoc1 says:

    Yes, excellent. I’m a white male, please don’t demonize me. I started the first mobile asthma clinic in San Bernardino and people of color fired me because I was too expensive. Before you think this is a white male thing you must realize this is a money thing. People with money ultimately make the decisions. For me, I just want to live in peace for the rest of my life. I’m tired of “trying”.

    • brianarbenz says:

      When you say “fired you because I was too expensive,” do you mean clients and patients stopped coming because your services were not affordable or that funders and local community organizers did not support you?

  6. Great post…. very true thing….

  7. jduff56 says:

    Is there any inherently non- subjective way of explaining why a non diverse play is immoral?

    • Tova Kopperud says:

      Will you please UNSUBSCRIBE me from all these emails from Bitter Gertrude?? Why do you have to make it so complicated to do a simple “unsubscribe”?


      On Fri, Sep 16, 2016 at 11:55 PM, Bitter Gertrude wrote:

      > jduff56 commented: “Is there any inherently non- subjective way of > explaining why a non diverse play is immoral?” >

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  8. 2376mylife says:

    It’s true…….

  9. Fantastic, thoughtful, compelling post.

  10. jennyoveson says:

    Great article! The same could be said for disabled women.

  11. jennyoveson says:

    Reblogged this on ~The Pink Lemonade Ladies~.

  12. My Views says:

    Unity in Diversity

  13. KickassBlogger says:

    This is so brilliant.

  14. nathaswami says:

    Very well said. I am a male. But not white. I have my own grievances. Many prospective brides rejected me because of my skin colour. My parents lamented, “We are unable to find a suitable match for you because you are born with a dark skin”, “I didn’t choose my skin colour”, I shouted back. (Both my parents are dark-skinned as most Indians are). Everybody has his own grievances – sorry, everybody has his or her own grievances.(In our country, parents choose a suitable match for their children)

  15. Thank you for writing this article! I’m trying to work up the courage to write such honest, intellectual, culturally relevant pieces. Keep up the important work!

  16. chuck says:

    I’m going to be possibly the lone dissenter here. I worked for 15 years for a fortune 500 company that pursued, and promoted for, diversity far more aggressively than any other I know of. They went in the opposite direction, rapidly promoting minority hires into middle management positions. Our “diversity training” program started off with high ideals, and good intentions. And at first blush appeared to be working. Several years into it, several of our rising diversity hires left or we’re terminated. The reason being that they were pushed too far too fast. They had not been afforded the time to grow and season in the business, and were promoted beyond their years or ability. No fault of their own really, just that they had become the victims of a numbers game that was expected to produce mature results in a very short period of time. As a white male, I was told, along with many peers, that we would never advance because we were the wrong color. Yes, this happened. Like so many of our diversity hires I left. I couldn’t stay when I knew I couldn’t better my station because of my color. Policies that seek to repair the past by using the same old tactics will only alienate, and drive away talent. Let’s seek color neutral policies, make our businesses stronger and promote based solely on ability. If we do that, there will be no ripples on the pond that we need to address later on.

  17. brianarbenz says:

    I saw a trend analogous to this when I worked for a corporate bank. They went heavily into reach-out to the black innercity, while at the same time a community development bank started in that part of town, geared to help small, neighborhood enterprises and keep money there. Many, including myself, were conflicted over which model would help the black community more. I soon realized that despite some genuine good intentions by the big bank’s people, they were co-opting and preying on black self determination.

    • Maybe you should concentrate on creating a community and not mainly on creating a club of people with the correct skin colour. People are people. If you believe you are discriminated against you will find proof of that regardless of if there is some or not. And you will start to discriminate yourself. That is as long as you arent some sort of saint.
      But if there is true discimination than try to prove it. And fight it on a single case base. It wont certainly get better when you instead become a racist as well.

      Chuck is probably the voice of reason here. Promote based on ability. Any other approach will hurt businesses and society.

      • LouiseP says:

        Absolutely, people should be promoted based on ability.

        However, ability isn’t assessed equally among people of different ages, races, genders, etc. The vast majority of people aren’t aware of it, but they have unconscious preferences and beliefs. Studies have shown this over and over again; it’s a robust finding.

        Take, for example, the study where the same exact resume got 50% more offers of phone interviews if the resume had a “white” name than if it had a “black” name. That’s just one study.

        If everyone involved in hiring — and assessing, promoting etc. — had absolutely no bias, then maybe promotion *would* be made based on ability. Unfortunately, it isn’t.

        The vast majority of people aren’t malicious when they assess job candidate, or people for promotion, and they don’t assess people differently because they’re doing it deliberately. They’re not even aware of it. But they do do it.

      • This is a great point. Thank you commenting. I think the only way to solve the problem is by getting people to think critically about their choices before they make them, which sadly, is a lost art these days…

  18. writegill says:

    “I have been in far too many situations where an organization hires a handful of people of color, plunks them into the lowest rung (either by title or by treatment) and then never thinks about them again.”

    I have experienced that in academia, of all places – thank you for raising this issue.

  19. New York Wedding Band says:

    Nice topic to share!

  20. philessatry says:

    I suppose there’s a quandary when one decries the lack of opportunity for women and people of color, yet expects those same white men who created the problem to “fix” it. It appears as though the only fix in this instance is for the harmed groups to create their own outlets.

  21. Michael says:

    Reblogged this on One step at a time and commented:
    As someone actively involved in the arts world, I have questioned this problem of diversity without equity. I’ve personally seen arts administrators convince themselves they are doing “good” work for the community by just performing art, while holding on to imperialistic ideas and using valuable resources for “community outreach” (read: low-income communities of color). In a similar vein, how can artists start taking important steps in realizing their role in the gentrification, and ultimately dislocation process affecting so many lower-income communities in Nashville and beyond. Thank you Bitter Gertrude for reminding me of this problem in a community that I have some influence in. I hope it strikes a chord with many organizations.

  22. Tom says:

    Brilliant. In this day and age, when we seem to be beaten over the head daily with news about racial tension, it’s easy to become polarized. I know many that are. I try to remain objective, knowing that there are many sides to every story and that I cannot possibly walk in the shoes of every character therein. To read this, in the context of a particular vocation, gets me thinking outside my circle. It is as encouraging as it is enlightening.

    “Most of popular American culture originated with artists of color in inner cities.”

    So very true. Thank you for firing some neurons in me!

  23. nafrobelle says:

    Nice! So many people are ready to accept insincere attempts to diversify theater and the arts. Only their ignorance allows them to avoid looking beyond the surface.

  24. AprilEsutton says:

    Very interesting reading. Anything an average person can do? Seems those in power are trying to control how much competition they have.

  25. jdholmes90 says:

    Beautifully written! This is important and relevant in so many arenas. Merely hiring minorities and women does not solve structural racism within an organizing nor does it make an organization more racially tolerant. If there is no equity, if there is no attempt to address internal issues of race within academia or any organization, there will be no change, there will just be tokenism.

  26. lovethyselfkimberlybillingslea says:

    Written with so much passion. Love it.

  27. Carlos says:

    I would argue that people with disabilities are in the same situation as you described in your blog post!

    • LouiseP says:

      I’m sure that’s true, in fact in my experience in the theater scene here in Seattle, it’s definitely true.

      But are you saying something like “all diversities matter”?

      • Carlos says:

        Louise, given what you are stating, yes, all diversities matter! All people matter. We’re all human beings. Let’s unite instead of fight. We’re better, together!

      • LouiseP says:

        But that’s the same as “all lives matter.” We’re talking about people of color, not people with disabilities. If you saw a fundraiser for prostate cancer, you wouldn’t go up and say, “Hey, colon cancer matters, too!”

        We’re all human beings, yes, but we have different experiences. We can’t unite until we realize that, and resolve the problems that keep us apart.

  28. The problem with this race based propaganda is that diversity is NOT about skin color at all. Shallow and condescending you turn a blind eye to the liberal regressive collective that has destroyed the black family and church. I was born, reared and live in a truly diverse inner city where blacks and browns have exactly the same access to education and art as every white person. The only systematic racism is against the white minority who are denied opportunity due to skin color. Whose zoomin’ who?

    • LouiseP says:

      You’re not alone, a lot of people feel that way.

      The thing is, people of color have been denied opportunity for decades, even centuries. But white people don’t notice that they get more opportunities than people of color. It mostly comes from the unconscious actions of many, many people. So when someone tries to right those wrongs, while people are suddenly facing a little bit of the discrimination that’s gone the other way, and far worse, for far long.

      Don’t get me wrong, I love white people, I am one myself. But compared to people of color, we truly are not denied opportunities.

      If you look at the theater, for example, to return to what Melissa was writing about, it’s overwhelmingly white. White playwrights, white actors, white directors, white stage managers, white characters, white plays, white audiences. But most people don’t realize it because that looks like normal to them. So then a theater that is run by and tells stories about Asians, for example, that looks like denial of opportunity if you don’t realize that it’s a small percentage of the theater scene.

  29. I think it was really good and true

  30. Applause! Diversity has to mean diversity of people in power, people with voice. It has to mean people with a diversity of styles and outlooks. It can’t just be a diversity of people who are acceptable to straight abled WASP men of a certain background (or people considered to be “partially” of that demo). I don’t understand why true diversity is so often looked upon as a chore, a favor being done for the historically marginalized. It’s at least as much a favor to those locked in that SAWASPOACB cocoon. I also don’t see why this is seen as something added on to the mission of a school or a theater, when it should be central to the missions of those institutions.

  31. inmymind84 says:

    I totally agree with you, where I have seen “Diversity” is has not been real, but rather a label to help organization think there are on the fore front of a movement.

  32. btryon1 says:

    I agree one hundred percent. Me being biracial people have said that I have best of both worlds and I am accepted because I am Caucasian and African American. I do not believe this is true. For one incident I have had in my life I have had a person approach me saying that I am not Biracial, I am “Black” and I am not up to standards of being claimed as “White”.

  33. Informative post! Indeed!

    – politicssquare.com

  34. You hit the nail on the head! This situation is everywhere

  35. Joan says:

    Hi: I generally agree with your position and have been making a similar argument myself. Would you mind providing some evidence for the following statement?:

    “I have been in far too many situations where highly skilled and qualified women are hired and then passed over for promotion in favor of mediocre– or even demonstrably unqualified– men. I have been in far too many situations where a white man who is new to the organization is suddenly and dramatically promoted and given plum assignments in secret, announced to the stunned women who were passed over as a fait accompli.”

    • Sure! But first I’m sure you wouldn’t mind providing me with evidence for the following statement: “I generally agree with your position and have been making a similar argument myself.”

      You’ll have to begin by defining “generally agree,” then detail how that “agreement” operates as both theory and praxis. For evidence that you’ve been making “similar arguments,” screenshots will be accepted as evidence, as well as links to published articles and posts. I will also accept signed and notarized affidavits from witnesses. When all that evidence has been provided, I will reveal to you the names and employment details of the people whose identities I’m protecting through my lack of specificity in that paragraph once you have signed a legally binding NDA, had it notarized, and delivered to me at your own expense. I will then agree to meet you in person in a public location in the Berkeley area and, after you have been swept for devices (and bought me coffee), I will provide you with all the identifying details that have been deliberately obfuscated here to protect identities.

      Another option would be to pay me my hourly rate for freelance research, and I will deliver to you corroborating statistics that speak to the systemic issues underlying my personal experience rather than just the details of my personal experience. I could get it done for you in an hour or two, so I’d probably charge you a flat rate of $300.

      A third option is to just do the research yourself rather than sea lioning random bloggers.

      Have a great Halloween!

  36. phoebedem says:

    Amen! this was really well thought out. I am highly interested in the topic of diversity, because we also benefit so much from working together, studies have shown the results are usually better when the team encompasses a diverse group of people, and just to break down barriers. This also includes diversity in sexual orientation, physical abilities, learning difficulties, and religions. I never thought of the ‘still asking for the white man’s to hire more women and people of colour’ aspect, but I’ve definitely aware of it now and will be more mindful of this in my approach to spreading diversity. Really enjoyed reading this.

  37. Good stuff. The truth. Relevant to us over here too.

  38. cswelch13 says:

    The title of this post is “diversity is a problem” as though you are talking about diversity in general, and then you proceed to talk specifically only about women and colored people? What about the disabled community that has been completely trodden upon for centuries in theatre and it’s not getting better. What about diversity of thought? What about diversity of religion? Diversity in theatre, and diversity in general is not a binary issue… that is to say, not just a gender and ethnicity issue. As a blind individual who has experienced discrimination in the performing arts world for my visual impairment as well as for my personal views and opinions, it is very frustrating to see the diversity issue treated in such a two dimensional way.

  39. jailynsherell says:

    This was great! It’s always great to hear an allied voice! I would love if you could check out my blog, where I talk about black women in theatre as well as some other topics! Thank you for this awesome post!https://skyhighhopesandheelssite.wordpress.com/

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