“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. gwangung says:

    A. Frackin’. Men.

    Can we hear a “Hallelujah!” from the congregation?!

  2. You get it. Thank you

  3. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately (and will likely write something similar for my column tomorrow), especially since I also work in the same theatre-land. I see several White-owned/operated theatres announce they’re doing “diversity programs”, but Af-Am Shakes just had to leave their longtime home of the Burial Clay Theatre in SF. (Thankfully, they found a new place, but the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre is still a “name-only” org and hasn’t put on a new show – not counting staged readings – since 2012).

    I’ve also done a lot of work with the SF Opera, who are about to put on “Aida” (y’know, that opera that specifically calls for Black performers, particularly the title role?) with set and costume designs by RETNA (the LA-based artist, also a Black man)… yet it’s using the Whitest cast that has ever been culled for that show: http://sfopera.com/aida It’s all the more baffling when you consider their recent (2008) all-Black production of “Porgy & Bess”.

    Diversity – easier said that done.

  4. Fabulous analysis – spot on

    >

  5. Louise says:

    THIS.

    “large, well-funded, white-run theatres are given massive grants to do “community outreach” programs to potential audiences of color”

    And most of the time, the white people running those theaters have no idea that they’re white. They never truly engage the audience they’re trying to reach, and they don’t know why.

  6. Amazing post! This is so true.

  7. wonderful and right on the money

  8. Deborah Duncan says:

    t is so hard for us to see our own assumptions. When the mirror is held up it can seem so obvious, but until then we are blind. We do this with race, age, gender, wealth, body type, etc. etc. There are so many ways we reinforce the status quo.

    The barriers set-up to minorities’ voting perpetuates the perception that “those people” aren’t good citizens & don’t deserve to vote. Poor men are vilified for being irresponsible for abandoning their families when the structure in place require it for families’ survival, Gleeful pointing at “black on black” crime should illustrate the fact that In the US the norm is “white on white” crime, but no one points that out.

    We are a part of our culture and it is very hard to change. We must educate ourselves and give each other a hand, or gently hold up a mirror.

    One of the biggest barriers is shame. We have to get over the fact that when you are brainwashed to believe and behave a certain way, you are not behaving out of malice, but fear and ignorance. We can learn, we can modify, we can grow. We can even learn to love.

  9. Great piece, Melissa!

    There is a difference between diversity and decolonization. Diversity presupposes that whiteness is still the baseline, and that a variation from whiteness is simply added to the mix. Therefore, diversity simply insulates whiteness.

    On the other hand, decolonization removes whiteness as our point of departure altogether. We do not need diversity, we need decolonization.

    I invite you to check out my reason blog which critiques the idea of “empathy” as white supremacy by another name: https://zoneofnonbeing.wordpress.com/2016/09/07/empathy-white-supremacy-by-another-name/

    • I read your piece! This is brilliant: “So empathy is not about “understanding” other people – it is about restoring, recognizing, and reflecting upon whiteness. Empathy for black people often requires that blackness be re-framed in terms familiar/favorable to white people, or ignored altogether.”

  10. sylvia kratins says:

    Again. You did it again. You said the thing that needed to be said. Thanks!

  11. Reblogged this on academichustler1975 and commented:
    This statement is powerful!!!!

    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.

  12. Ishida says:

    Equality is rare in most societies may it be Western or Eastern. In life however both genders are granted life and both are needed to reproduce when human society deny the balance of life then why do men still exist?

  13. wordsznerd says:

    Reblogged this on living with linguaphilia and commented:
    Here’s another angle on diversity in the arts from Bitter Gertrude. It discusses the difference between diversity and equity, which is part of what I was trying to convey in my previous post.

  14. TShavaunSam says:

    Wonderful and insightful…Thanks

  15. That was an awesome blog:) If you understand these things so well it gives me hope that others do too!

  16. When nature gives both genders and all races equal opportunity to breathe air why men of human societies deprive all they do not like? Do they not value life?

  17. Tareau Barron says:

    Great post. Very enlighten. It shows you that in every walks of life there is this “dominant white man mentality.”

  18. naturally_nu says:

    True. I think we somewhat agree. I would say that diversity IS enough and includes equity, but the definition has been widely limited to only what the eye can see.

    Diversity is in thought too. It’s like a white person buying a bag of skittles, calling themselves diverse, but never opening the package. They’re proud of their purchase, maybe even leave it out in the open for all to see they get down with skittles…nope, no discrimination here. Yet, they can’t describe the taste of the rainbow. If it wasn’t for the marketing around them displaying images and insight of the content within the packaging, they’d have no inkling about it. But they’re “diverse” alright. Not.

  19. MM's says:

    Reblogged this on MM's Blog.

  20. chubbysmom says:

    Well thought out and well written. I know a woman who is a well accomplished VP in large company responsible for projects of billions of dollars and she would joke that she initially got hired to fulfill the “token Asian female”. In a way though I think it made her feel that she had to prove herself and climb the career ladder.

  21. David says:

    Good morning. If you think there is such a thing as equity and fairness, and recognition for talent and contribution, forget it. You are living on the wrong planet. Those in power favor those who keep them in that position. Those that bolster their position. Their fan club if you will. All to the detriment of the “free market”. In theory, you should rise based on your talent and talent alone. Life is way more complicated than that. If you do not have the connections. If you are not liked for whatever reason. Well, I guess you know the answer to that … . You will suck the proverbial hind tit. Male, female, a person of color, whatever. You will suck the hind tit. We all suffer under the same burden. Perhaps the degree differs? I give you that much.

  22. mindhowyougo says:

    Reblogged this on is there an echo in here?.

  23. Jatney says:

    Melissa this was an absolutely brilliant piece to recognize the falsified image of diversity. I have recently been taking some notes out of my head to write a piece on my struggle as a foreign graduate student attempting to survive financially, and even just staying in the country! Visa fees, and extra fees included in everything a foreign person does! Another example is my pursuit to buy a small one bedroom apt, here in australia my stamp duty alone is close to 30k being a foreign buyer… instead of the 5k… thanks for the read!

  24. allyfornia says:

    I agree. Glad people can understand this

  25. eyeworld14 says:

    Well written !✌
    Please give a look to my blogs also

  26. Such a brilliant analysis – thank you.

  27. truefaith101 says:

    From a Christian’s point of view:

    God made us all different for HIS perfect reasoning, and It is not right to view a person’s credentials based on his race, or his gender or his religion.
    It’s also a direct attack to GOD to treat others wrong using racism as your attack. We are told in GODs word to love everyone including our enemies. The biggest problem with our world and our country is we have as a nation (speaking for the USA) we have moved away from GOD and HIS principles. Many people in our world look at the bible as “something too ancient” to apply to today’s society. GOD does not change, as it says so in HIS word. Therefore neither does HIS HOLY WORD.

    Sadly too many in this world do not believe in GOD, or the bible!

    Until we can get back to GOD and HIS principles for daily living, and stop with all the “self proclaimed rights” we will continue to see more hatred and more racism from all races break out.

    “It’s not about Black lives or white lives matter, or Latino, Mexican, Persian, etc
    ITS ABOUT HUMAN BEINGS MATTER.”

    I have a mixture of race in my family, and a mixture of race that are members of the church I am a member of, and in my workplace and the friends I hang around. I do not see my friends for the color of their skin, that’s ignorance. I do not see the people in my church as anyone other than my sister or my brother in CHRIST.

    I see the people I come in contact with as a human being that GOD created and nothing less.
    And I am a southerner too, but regardless of where I am from, I belong to one GOD and the only GOD and regardless of if HE accepted or not by this world, I will continue to proudly proclaim who I belong to.

    You can always tell when you have experienced a real CHRISTian. He/she loves all, just as JESUS does

  28. mtinewsman says:

    “… a white man who is new to the organization is suddenly and dramatically promoted and given plumb assignments in secret…”

    Did you mean “plum” instead?

    plum
    informal [USUALLY AS MODIFIER] A highly desirable attainment, accomplishment, or acquisition, typically a job.
    ‘he landed a plum assistant producer’s job’

  29. Everyone so concerned with people of color, women’s issues, etc. Yes, these issues are OF COURSE important but the seemingly constant complaints of racism and sexism won’t be solved by just clamoring for equality. We must also lead by example. Race doesn’t exist. We are all one people, I honestly do not see color in my friends, regardless of what color their skin might be. Are THEY black or white or brown or man or woman? No. Their BODY is. They are so much more and should be treated as such; the way we want to be treated. but alas…..

    Keep it up and make people actually think! 🙂 Thanks for the read!

    • LouiseP says:

      A lot of us say we don’t see race or color, and it’s probably because we’re taught that “seeing color” means “racist.” But it doesn’t. Cause think about it, what if someone said to you, “I don’t see your gender, I just see you as a person,” or “I don’t see your age, I just see you as a person.” That would sound weird, because we’re able to see gender *and* see people, and to see age *and* see people. It doesn’t mean we’re sexist or ageist.

      There’s nothing wrong with seeing someone’s race or color. If you look at me and don’t see that I’m white, you miss or ignore and important part of my experience and identity. That’s even more true with people of color.

      • I don’t think it would sound weird because there is one small word in there that makes ALL the difference, the word ‘as’.
        “I see you AS a person.” Well what is a person? A person has no color, no taste, no odor, no skin, nothing. A person is not a body, but a BEING, that is an energetic entity that can experience the world THROUGH a body. Their BODY may be different than ours but are they? They hold no more or less value than you or I or anybody.

        So yes of course we can see black bodies, white bodies, or female bodies, or old and young bodies. We can learn to appreciate those bodies for their physical beauty and uniqueness and use physical description to help ourselves and others differentiate between the two for the sake of communication but this sight is purely physical. This physical sight alone can sometimes lead to the logical conclusion that one type of body is better/worse at certain things than others.

        It is when we begin subconsciously believing that we ARE the body, when we become so personally identified with our body that we forget that we AREN’T the body that we begin assigning this differentiation in value to the person as well.

        When I look at you I make two observations: (these observations being based on your profile).

        I first observe your physicality. I (physically) observe your body is female, your body’s skin color is white, your body’s age is older than my own, etc.

        Upon interacting with you I can continue my observation into a higher sphere and notice that you like or dislike certain things, we have certain things in common and certain things different. I can listen to your experiences and tell you mine; we can relate and discuss things of interest and lift each other up or pull each other down.

        In conclusion you are absolutely right, there is no wrong in seeing color, age, sex, or anything else in the physical realm. Equally then there is nothing wrong with observation that in this physical realm women are more apt to certain things than men and vice versa; Yin and Yang. Wrongdoing and injustice only begin when we identify ourselves and others not as BEINGS but as BODIES and therefore judge their value not based on who they are but on whatever car (body) they (their spirit) happens to be driving.

        Thank you for the conversation and I hope I was able to add to it! 🙂
        Thank you for helping me reflect. 🙂

      • wangsen992 says:

        That’s an amazing comment. Surely seeing the gender or race difference is critical, but to me the discussion of seeing is still limited to the superficial level. I very much agree with you that we human can be viewed as a duality of body and mind. While the physical bodies differ, the inner personality holds true humanity. However, there is still something I would like to add to the discussion.

        At the mind level, there are still huge differences and these differences are correlated with our physical differences, due to geographical, cultural and many other contextual influences that are different across various regions of the world. What matters here, in my opinion, if true “equity” is to be achieved, is to really reflect on the judging criteria about all these differences.

        We human, not sure why, are prone to give ranks to things. This creates proud and prejudice, sexism and racism. Assume there is such as judging criteria, in which quality can be clearly identified from mere differences of traits or features, there would be true equity. But if the criteria is dynamically changing, what shall we do?

        I think this equity thing is such a complex problem which can be traced all the way down to the philosophical ethics problem: what is good? what is bad? What is right? What is wrong? Only with establishing a solid foundation, judging criteria can be well grounded, equity based on the foundation is achievable.

        I hope my opinions are clear and I think it’s exciting to be able to talk about these things here!

      • wangsen992 says:

        That’s an amazing comment. Surely seeing the gender or race difference is critical, but to me the discussion of seeing is still limited to the superficial level. I very much agree with you that we human can be viewed as a duality of body and mind. While the physical bodies differ, the inner personality holds true humanity. However, there is still something I would like to add to the discussion.

        At the mind level, there are still huge differences and these differences are correlated with our physical differences, due to geographical, cultural and many other contextual influences that are different across various regions of the world. What matters here, in my opinion, if true “equity” is to be achieved, is to really reflect on the judging criteria about all these differences.

        We human, not sure why, are prone to give ranks to things. This creates proud and prejudice, sexism and racism. Assume there is such as judging criteria, in which quality can be clearly identified from mere differences of traits or features, there would be true equity. But if the criteria is dynamically changing, what shall we do?

        I think this equity thing is such a complex problem which can be traced all the way down to the philosophical ethics problem: what is good? what is bad? What is right? What is wrong? Only with establishing a solid foundation, judging criteria can be well grounded, equity based on the foundation is achievable.

        I hope my opinions are clear and I think it’s exciting to be able to talk about these things here!

      • LouiseP says:

        What’s more, given that our society as a whole treats people differently based on their appearance, we can’t *not* see race.

        If you have an African-American friend, for example, your friend has almost certainly experienced far worse treatment at the hands of police, shopkeepers, AirBnB hosts (have you been reading about how AirBnB hosts have been discriminating against people of color?), to name just a few — worse treatment than your white friends. If you look at people of color and don’t keep that in mind, you miss an important part of their life and experience.

  30. Well said! It feels wonderful when someone, somewhere ,summons courage to voice out the ills in the society. Every society need people like you, keep it up.

  31. eleanorepovey says:

    Reblogged this on Eleanor E Povey.

  32. Great analysis of what is really needed to address the problem and a better way of framing the language.

  33. This article is interesting to me, especially being an African American female. As I’ve considered many of these examples, it saddens me that this is indeed a reality. Also, I must note that this article sheds light on the mentality of many individuals, practically the wording used here, gives me goose bumps…. People of color. This statement was used oftentimes in the past and it’s weird even today. Yes more inner schools, predominantly black, lack resources and opportunities as others. This is an ongoing issue and we all must take advantage of the chance to impact change, change in mindset, change in character, and change in expectations.

  34. Vinny Idol says:

    Excellent article. The art world and acacademia, are macrocosms of the american society. America touts diversity and advancement for minorities and women. However, they reward both groups with titles and salaries; without real power or imfluence.

  35. Rex says:

    Diversity is campaigned company wide and this is a another side of the concept we usually misunderstood. Spot on.

  36. Thanks for sharing this! You’re right that women and people of color don’t need pandering to, they need the same chances in life as the more privileged get by default.

  37. Really amazed by your opinion. Today the world only mentions about the diversity in it. No one actually cares about its after effects. A well provoked thought I would say!

  38. ep3blog says:

    I have always thought that diversity is very important but you putting the equity with that really makes it all come together. I totally agree. Equity is very important

  39. writetomenu says:

    Yes!
    Diversity and Equity are two different terms.
    For instance in all fairy tales the good angel is always white and one who represents bad is a shade darker.
    Black is not evil. Evil has no color.
    Amazing piece Mellisa.

  40. George says:

    Hi Im not really familiar with the world you write about but I understand what you are saying. However one of the difficulties about this subject is that no-one that I have talked to is able to describe a world that is diverse and equitable. Can you describe the place you are trying to reach? What does a just and equitable world look like?

  41. ILIV says:

    Yep, it is not enough.

  42. ILIV says:

    You’re also correct in saying that it’s usually a formality of hiring people of color and the intent usually ends there.

  43. ÅŘJÉÍTHEPÓĘȚ says:

    oooh the truth in this,. is beautiful I’d say

  44. Thank you for such a brilliant piece, you couldn’t have said it better “Diversity is NOT enough”

  45. Remmssite says:

    It’s Great, nice one

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