“Slacktivism” and Other Nonsense

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SPEAK OUT.                                                                                                                                                    (If anyone has the original source for this please let me know.)

I don’t understand “that’s just slacktivism,” “there are bigger issues to discuss” and “you shouldn’t be discussing issues on social media; you should be doing something.” So much to unpack about the level of pure nonsense involved in this line of thinking.

1. Discussion of ideas is incredibly important. There are few things more important in the world, especially in the world of activism, than discussing ideas, educating others, spreading the word, (aka “raising awareness” or “creating public value”), and, one hopes, creating the support that enables action. Discussion *is* activism. The free and open exchange of ideas is one of our most cherished values. People who denigrate this, or pretend that any venue for this exchange of ideas has the power to devalue the exchange, are full of nonsense. The most important aspect of this is that these people know they’re full of nonsense. They engage in the discussion of ideas, big and small, both in person and online, all the time.

2. People who say things like, “Get off the computer and have face-to-face discussions in the real world” are laughably blind to the reality most of us live. Most of us can’t just leave our responsibilities behind, jump in a car or on public transportation, and head down to The Coffeehouse of Ideas every single time we feel like discussing an issue. We have kids, jobs, and/or mobility disabilities. We have workplace environments wherein these types of discussions are unwelcome or even impossible.

Most importantly, no one actually believes that online discussions are worthless. Everyone has seen the power of social media for spreading ideas, for good and for ill. While it’s a valid argument that in-person conversations are more effective in some ways, it’s a wagonload of nonsense to say that online conversations are worthless. People who make accusations like “social media posts are just slactivism” and “talking about an issue does nothing” are well aware that what they’re saying is not true.

3. What’s genuinely amusing about the people who make comments on social media like “posting on social media is worthless” is that they’re complaining about the worthlessness of posting on social media by posting on social media. They’re choosing an issue they care about– the supposed worthlessness of social media commentary– and using social media commentary as their tool of choice to publicly discuss it. Slow clap, people.

4. Creating false dichotomies like “There are more important issues we should be discussing”  serves no one. If we size queen every discussion we have, we’d never be able to discuss anything but the worst possible atrocities. “I got a parking ticket! I really can’t afford this ri–” “BUT WHAT ABOUT GENOCIDE?” I’ve seen people complaining about discussions of diversity in film by saying “We have a neo-Nazi about to become president! Why are we discussing movies?!” as if those two things are not related, as if we didn’t have a mountain of evidence showing that art creates empathy, as if we didn’t have a mountain of evidence demonstrating the importance of representation. Again, almost everyone who pulls this kind of nonsense knows what they’re saying isn’t strictly true. They understand the interconnectedness of issues, and they know that your single post about an issue doesn’t mean that that issue is the only thing you care about. Yet they still will say “Why are you discussing this when there are more important things to discuss; this is a distraction.”

5. “Why are you just discussing this? Why aren’t you TAKING ACTION?” I think we all know these people believe the world revolves around them, but evidently they also believe that we all go into cryostasis when they’re not directly observing us. Of course they know that discussing issues online does not preclude action about those issues or any other, and they also know that those who discuss issues are far more likely to also take action about them. They know all of this, but they will still tell you to stop discussing an issue.

And again, it’s genuinely amusing that people will engage in an online discussion to scold someone for engaging in an online discussion. If they’re so disdainful of people who discuss issues online, why are they discussing issues online? Again, they know what they’re saying is not valid. The validity of the argument is not the point.

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Refuse to be silenced.                            Source: curvemag.com

 

The point they’re trying to make is that you should be silenced. They are trying to silence you. The issue you’re discussing makes them uncomfortable, hits too close to home, or frightens them in some way. They are trying to assert control over what is deemed “important,” taking that authority for themselves, centering their worldview, and squelching different viewpoints.

Do not let them silence you. Now more than ever, we need to be openly discussing what’s happening in our culture. We need to be discussing issues both large and small and connecting the dots between them. We all need to be paying attention, but none of us can pay attention to everything all the time. We will all focus on different areas and catch different things. Our job is to understand how all these issues interconnect, not create false competitions between issues, or set ourselves up as gatekeepers of “importance.”

Our activism, our resistance, has never been more important. Pay attention. Never trust anyone who tells you to look away from anything. Connect the dots. Refuse to be silenced.

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Everything You Needed to Know About the “Alt Right” You Could Have Learned From Gamergate

Remember when Gamergate was happening? All those online attacks, threats, and harassment by the “alt right” pretending to be about “ethics in games journalism” but really just attacking, threatening, and harassing women and people of color for discussing the portrayal of women and people of color in video games? And everyone was like, “Oh; it’s just a minority of people doing that– just a fringe group” and “Well, some of them really do care about games journalism,” and “It’s just online harassment. Just ignore trolls!”?

Now people connected with the “alt right” are going to be in charge of the government. The man who was one of the unofficial heads of Gamergate, Milo Yiannopoulos, writes for Steve Bannon, at Breitbart “News.” Steve Bannon, Trump’s White House Chief Strategist, supported Yiannopoulos throughout the entire Gamergate debacle, and (just before his leave of absence to work for Trump) through the massive sexist and racist attack campaign Yiannopoulos led against Leslie Jones, the final straw that got Yiannopoulos kicked off Twitter because he finally attacked someone with enough fame and power to get people to pay attention.

Even those within Gamergate who insisted throughout that it was about “ethics in games journalism” still defined those ethics as keeping cultural criticism out of gaming. As video games became more and more complex, creating scripts and animation to rival major studio films, games criticism began to include the kinds of artistic considerations we within the arts are well used to. Critics began to consider the social context of games in addition to their basic functionality, sometimes critiquing games for their sexist portrayal of women, or for their lack of diversity. Even if it were about “ethics in games journalism,” Gamergate was defining “ethics” largely as “never talking about sexism or racism in games.” This is an important point, as there really are ethical considerations in games journalism, all of which Gamergate completely ignored in favor of sending death threats to a woman who creates videos about sexist tropes in games and an independent female developer who wrote a free game about her struggle with depression, among others. The “alt right” movement Gamergate considered personal attacks, harassment, and threats an appropriate response to arts criticism— led in part by Milo Yiannopoulos while he was supported and employed by Steve Bannon, soon to be one of the most powerful men in the world

One of the most important things to note about Gamergate is how often they threw around the term “free speech” to defend attacks, threats, and harassment meant to silence discussion around sexism and racism in the video game industry. One popular talking point at the time was the fact that Anita Sarkeesian had turned off comments on her video series critiquing the portrayal of women in video games, Tropes vs. Women, both on YouTube and on her website, Feminist Frequency, when the attacks, threats, and harassment began, which was characterized as an attack on their “free speech.” This is important to note– they felt so entitled to attack, threaten, and harass this woman that they claimed it was a violation of their free speech when she refused to personally create a space on her website for them to do so.

One of the most important things we can do as citizens is connect the dots between events. Steve Bannon paid Milo Yiannopoulos while he led attacks, threats, and harassment against people advocating for feminism and diversity AND claimed it was a violation of free speech when special space was not created for these attacks to occur. When Yiannopoulos was booted from Twitter for violating their ToS in leading the sexist and racist attacks on Leslie Jones, the movement howled that Yiannopoulos’ “free speech” was being violated. Bannon paid Breitbart writer Jack Hadfield to write an article for Breitbart claiming Yiannopoulos was a “free speech martyr.”

 

While women and people of color are the canaries in the coal mine of shitty American trends– if bad things are coming down the pike, they’re going to hit us first– it’s also important to note that Gamergate was, at its core, a fight over arts criticism. While people are quick to dismiss art as “just a game” or “just a movie,” art is where we, as a culture, decide who we are, who we want to be, what we fear, what we value. Art is where culture is made. So it’s no surprise to me that this “alt-right” movement in part coalesced and gained popularity around two movements angry about the inclusion of women and people of color in art and arts journalism– Gamergate for video games, and Sad Puppies/Rabid Puppies for SciFi/Fantasy.

Yet the response to these attacks and their alarming ideology at the time was a collective shrug of the shoulders. The most popular response was “just ignore the trolls.” This piece of advice could not have been more dangerously wrong.

We should have listened to women and people of color when they first began reporting these attacks. We should have responded robustly and clearly: No, this is wrong. Instead we shrugged our shoulders and told them, “Just ignore the trolls.”

We could have learned everything we needed to know about the “alt right” from Gamergate, and instead here we are, once again, telling each other to “ignore the trolls,” telling each other to discount Trump’s outrageous attacks on free speech when they’re on Twitter, as if they weren’t part of a larger world view that seeks to limit free speech (here, here, here, here, here), as if they weren’t coming from a man we’re about to put into the most powerful position in the world with Steve Bannon at his ear.

When Steve Bannon paid Milo Yiannopoulos to write articles that aided Gamergate and its horrific personal attacks against people who dared to openly discuss sexism and racism in the games industry, that should have been enough right there to make everyone terrified of handing Bannon any sort of political power. Now he’s about to have more political power– unaccountable political power, since he’s in an appointed, not elected, position– than nearly anyone else in the world, aiding a presumptive president elect who attacks free speech relentlessly. The “alt right” has openly fought against free speech for years. The question is, Have we learned anything from it? Or are we just going to keep saying “ignore the trolls”?

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Yes, Theatre Is Supposed To Be A Safe Space

. . . just not in the way Donald Trump thinks. Theatre needs to be safe from encroachment on our freedom of speech.

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Brandon Victor Dixon addresses Pence from the stage of Hamilton. Source.

Vice President Elect Mike Pence attended a production of Hamilton on Friday and was booed by the audience. At the end of  the show, the actor playing Aaron Burr, Brandon Victor Dixon, gave a very polite speech from the stage urging the audience to stop booing and telling Pence that they were grateful for his presence and that the diverse cast and crew were understandably anxious about whether they would be protected under a Trump/Pence administration, urging Pence to support “all Americans.”

For being asked to support all Americans in accordance with the campaign’s own promises, Trump has referred to this exercise of free speech as “harassment” and demanded an apology from the cast in several of his trademark childishly-worded tweets, some of which have been deleted by the time of this writing. (Pence, on the other hand, responded yesterday with something that basically might have been, “Of course I wasn’t offended. I’m an adult. So I’m going to do the adult thing and lie. The concerns of the Hamilton cast were heard, and we in the Trump administration will protect all Americans, not just straight white men.”)

Anyone could have predicted what it would be like for Pence to show up at Hamilton, a show that openly celebrates diversity (and is sold out until the end of time, which also means Pence, who sits at the head of a dangerously bigoted administration, used his celebrity to score some rare VIP house seats to watch a show created by the very people he and his administration openly seek to harm).

Trump’s response is alarming because theatre should be a safe space– safe from Mike Pence, Donald Trump, and their administration’s potential assault on American free speech.

As the President-Elect, Trump should not be demanding apologies from Americans speaking to their incoming government about their concerns. It’s a terrifying act when taken as a whole with Trump’s other actions.

Trump has vowed to “open up” libel laws as president in order to make it easier for him to sue news organizations and journalists for criticizing him. The fact that he has no idea what he’s talking about and can’t act on this vow means nothing, because there are plenty of ways his administration can use its power to curtail free speech. Trump already routinely sues people who criticize him, to the degree that First Amendment expert Susan Seager, writing in the newsletter of the American Bar Association, labeled him a “libel bully,” a charge proven by the fact that the ABA initially balked at publishing it for fear that Trump would sue them while President-Elect.

When Trump was a private citizen, his propensity to sue over every little thing was silly and laughable, but as President of the United States, it becomes a danger to our democracy. It’s one thing to be sued for criticizing a reality TV buffoon; it’s entirely another to be sued for criticizing our President.

Trump routinely threatens anyone who criticizes him, and this is a remarkable, particular danger for cherished American freedoms.

Trump blamed terrorist bombings on “freedom of the press.”

He threatened to sue Ted Cruz for running negative ads against him during the primaries.

He threatened to sue The Daily Beast for reporting on Ivana Trump’s deposition in their divorce case.

He threatened to sue the National Hispanic Media Coalition for calling his statement that Mexican immigrants are “rapists” “racist.”

He personally phoned writer David Cay Johnston, author of The Making of Donald Trump, and told him he would sue if he didn’t “like” what Johnston wrote.

He threatened to sue the New York Times for reporting about his taxes.

He threatened to sue Tony Schwartz, the ghostwriter who wrote Trump’s 1987 memoir The Art of the Deal, for discussing his personal opinion of the candidate.

He threatened to sue the Washington Post for running a story detailing the failure and bankruptcy of his Atlantic City casino.

He threatened Amazon with antitrust and tax investigations over his coverage in the Washington Post because Jeff Bezos founded Amazon and now owns the Post. Amazon stock dropped 6% when Trump was elected, as investors wonder whether the President-Elect will sink a business over news stories he deems unflattering, in direct violation of our constitutional protections. 

The above list is so short and incomplete it barely deserves to be called a “partial list.” Trump has repeatedly, relentlessly attacked “the media” in general and many journalists in particular for daring to write criticisms of him– even mild criticisms, even just, as was the case with Megyn Kelly, reading out his own words. His vicious attacks on journalists at his campaign rallies caused many of his supporters to menace, threaten, and verbally abuse journalists there to cover the event. It became so acute the Committee to Protect Journalists issued a statement calling Trump a “threat to press freedom.” MSNBC reporter Katy Tur, a favorite target for Trump, had to be given Secret Service protection at one of his rallies, as his vitriol from the stage against her personally for her journalism– he literally pointed at her from the stage, called her a “liar,” and demanded an apology– resulted in the crowd of thousands turning on her “like a large animal, angry and unchained.”

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A Trump fan calls for the lynching of journalists at a rally in Minnesota. Source.

When Trump famously mocked a disabled reporter (Serge Kovaleski) from the stage, it was over his journalism— specifically, his factual statement that during his coverage of 9/11, he did not recall anything that supported Trump’s outrageously false claims that “thousands” of Muslims were “celebrating in the streets.” Trump supporters have deluged Jewish journalists with antisemitic death threats.

During the campaign, Trump denied access to media outlets he deemed “unfair” because they did not violate journalistic ethics to portray him solely in a favorable light, only lifting the ban two months before the election. He has already begun denying access during this transition period.

Trump’s multiple threats to both freedom of speech and freedom of the press are gravely concerning. This is a direct attack on American free speech when it comes from the incoming government. Squelching free speech is always the first step in establishing a dictatorship, and his lawsuit antics are already having a chilling effect on coverage.

Trump’s demand for an apology from the Hamilton cast is a small thing, but it’s just one tiny sliver of his ongoing attacks against our First Amendment protections.

 

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We Didn’t “Fail.” Democracy Failed Us.

 

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Source: Damon Winter/The New York Times

In a shocking upset over predicted winner Hillary Clinton, an open racist, sexist, antisemitic, Islamophobic, xenophobic, journalist-hating confessed sexual predator about to go on trial for racketeering has been elected president of these United States. There have been approximately infinity think pieces and news stories and nuggets of punditry discussing “what the Democrats did wrong” to lose this election. But here’s the thing: HILLARY CLINTON WON THE ELECTION. Democrats did nothing wrong. Clinton got more votes than anyone else running, which, in any other contest on the globe would mean she won. She lost the presidency on a bizarre and outdated technicality.

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Journalists, pundits, and my fellow bloggers, the story isn’t “What did the Democrats fail to do?” it’s “Why do we continue to allow this antiquated ritual to deny the American people its democratically-elected choice for President?”

A majority of Americans wanted Clinton as their president, and due to a bizarre, outdated ritual, democracy failed them.

THAT’S THE STORY: DEMOCRACY FAILED.

What are we going to do about the fact that an antiquated ritual has (once again) robbed the American people of its democratically elected choice?

For all of you geniuses who thought Hillary was corrupt, you better hope you were right so she can move those levers of power, contact her rich Jewish banker friends, murder some people, or whatever your favorite Clinton fairy tale is, and get the electoral college eliminated before January 20. Since it would require a constitutional amendment (or at the very least the adoption of the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact in nearly all 50 states), she had better get cracking.

Obviously, it can’t happen before we all have to watch the candidate endorsed by the KKK sworn in to the highest office in the land. But we should get our act together and push for the elimination of the electoral college before it can do any more damage– and this isn’t even all the damage it can do. It won’t happen before Trump and Pence start dismantling everything that makes America great (or even livable), but it can certainly happen before 2020.

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Sex, Lies, and Hillary Clinton

In the mid-60s, Jan Kott wrote a truly horrible book called Shakespeare, Our Contemporary, in which he analyzes Shakespeare’s plays according to his specific point of view as a white European male who hasn’t quite grasped the humanity of the women and people of color around him, although, at the time, we just called that “Shakespeare criticism.”

When discussing the character Desdemona, a character whose complete faithfulness to her husband is the primary narrative linchpin of the play, Kott says, “Desdemona is faithful, but must have something of a slut in her.” He says that she must be a slut “in potentia” if not “in actua” because so many men desire her– because she inspired erotic imaginings in the men around her. SO SHE IS THE SLUT.

And while this kind of “my white male imagination tells me so” Shakespeare “analysis” we’re used to getting from the likes of mid-century scholars like Kott (and Harold Bloom, and so many others whose “analysis” of Shakespeare’s female characters is 100% flights of fancy) it stood out to me, even as a teenager when I first encountered this nonsensical “analysis.” It stood out to me that THIS IS AN ADMIRED BOOK OF SHAKESPEARE CRITICISM. This was the first moment I realized that the world of academia was going to be an uphill battle for me as a woman.

This moment– seeing a respected book of lit crit describe male desire for a woman who never sought nor wished for that desire as HER OWN FAULT for somehow being a “slut” “in potentia”– has come to mind again and again this election cycle.

Millions of our tax dollars have been poured out in a desperate attempt to pin something, ANYTHING, on Hillary Clinton. Nothing illegal has ever been found. Every investigation has exonerated her, and the Clinton Foundation is one of the highest-rated on every nonpartisan site that monitors charities. Obviously false scandals have been created by alt-right (and regular right) propagandists, and they’re shared around the internet as if they make sense. Scandal after scandal have been manufactured and debunked. Hillary haters are the hydra of American politics– chop off one false scandal and two grow back. There’s a never-ending supply of false scandals, and the factual evidence debunking them is dismissed as “irrelevant” or “bought and paid for.” As if the Clintons have an unlimited supply of money– oh, wait, according to the Hillary haters, THEY DO, thanks to Jewish bankers and the Evil Jewish Scrotillionaire Necromancer Lich Demon George Soros.

Hillary haters are forced, in the face of all the evidence exonerating her, to claim that the lack of evidence is the evidence. What is she hiding? It must be something! LOOK AT ALL THESE SCANDALS. Anyone who points to the facts is “bought and paid for” with all Clinton’s Jewish banker money, something I’ve been accused of myself multiple times. (I only wish someone was paying me to blog.)

And so we come back to Desdemona. SHE MUST BE SOME KIND OF SLUT. LOOK AT ALL THESE MEN LUSTING AFTER HER, reasons Jan Kott. EVEN IF SHE’S FAITHFUL TO HER HUSBAND, he continues, SHE’S STILL A SLUT, OTHERWISE WHY WOULD OTHELLO BELIEVE IAGO? Why indeed.

Kott blames Desdemona for the scandalous thoughts men have about her, and we blame Clinton for the scandalous thoughts we have about her.

“She’s too heaped in scandal,” “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” “There must be SOMETHING there,” “She’s clearly corrupt,” “One of the most corrupt politicians ever.” We dressed her in this outfit against her will, then condemned her for it.

Kott goes on:

Othello does not have to kill Desdemona. The play would be more cruel, if, in that final and decisive moment, he just left her. . . . Othello kills Desdemona in order to save the moral order, to restore love and faith. He kills Desdemona to be able to forgive her; so that the accounts be settled and the world returned to its equilibrium. Othello does not mumble any more. He desperately wants to save the meaning of life, of his life, perhaps even the meaning of the world. (123)

Kott– a respected Shakespearean critic– writes that killing a woman falsely heaped with scandal is the only way to “restore love and faith” and “the meaning of the world.” That men must use women as scapegoats for their own dark desires and imaginings and then kill them to restore order. Only dead can women be forgiven for “making” men have dark desires. This, again and again, returns to my mind as I see so many respected people– elected officials– calling for the murder of this woman who has borne the brunt of their imagined scandals, the congealed crust of hate and fear of powerful, independent, outspoken women.

And now I type the requisite sentences, the ones demanded of everyone who writes about Hillary Clinton and no other politician, ever: Do I agree with her every decision? No.

But we cannot productively discuss what kind of president she will be (and she will be president) in reality while we continue to make her the scapegoated center of 1000 false scandals. We cannot have productive discussions about foreign policy or ed policy– two areas we really need to be discussing right now– while the country is embroiled in a non-scandal about emails, or an alt-right created one about sex (take your pick).

Jan Kott is still taught. And respected newspapers are still running stories about Hillary’s emails, and the entire GOP is participating in a false story about voter fraud and a “rigged” election. The question is: Are we going to continue the Kott-like misogynistic scapegoating  of this woman, or are we going to get to work on the actual issues?

 

 

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“Artistic Freedom”: The Lie We Use To Defend The Indefensible

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“Leap into the Void,” Yves Klein (photographed by Harry Shunk), 1960

When I write about diversity in representational media (theatre, film, TV, video games), often the white anger (and there is always white anger) uses “artistic freedom” as its battle cry. “Artists should create whatever they want, without restrictions,” or “Total artistic freedom is sacred. Telling artists they must include diversity is wrong.”

The secret is: Every professional knows there’s no such thing as “total artistic freedom.” We always must work within certain parameters. At least half of the artistic process is finding artistic solutions to technical problems. 

The space you’re working in has physical constraints. The budget has limits. The contracts you’ve signed with the company, the playwright, the actors, the techs, all limit what you can add (or subtract) from the text, how long you can rehearse, even what can and cannot be done on stage. Props don’t work the way you imagined. An actor can’t perform the blocking you’ve set in the costume you approved. You discover three weeks before opening that the set you approved is over budget and needs trimming. The incredibly important piece of specially-designed tech hardware is stuck on a truck with a broken axle four states away and the earliest it will be in house is now Sunday afternoon. Maybe. When it shows up Monday at 10pm, it doesn’t work. Your lead actor’s visa wasn’t approved and she’s still in London. The suits show up to a late rehearsal or a shoot and demand a change. The studio has paid for product placement, and now you must work SmartWater into three scenes.

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Subtle. 

This? This is the tip of the iceberg. It’s a magical day when everything goes according to plan and no changes need to be made.

The idea behind “artistic freedom” is one of the best ideas ever: Artists should be able to engage with the world around them without constraints such as censorship. Artists with artistic freedom create better, usually more impactful and important, art under those conditions. But those conditions always exist within a given framework. Some constraints are practical (time, space, and budget), some are legal (the law, your contracts), some are ethical (best practices), some are artistic (imposed on the artists by the director or producer, or just by the basic parameters of the project), and some are social (updating outdated topical humor, avoiding lines, characters, or narrative tropes that would be considered racist, etc). Although not every artist recognizes or follows every constraint every time– sexual harassment is a huge problem in all these industries– artists as a whole work within these constraints without questioning them.

The social constraints we work within are never questioned, and usually framed in terms of audience response– a joke your audience won’t find funny, public controversy that could impact sales, or a scene that evokes a hostile audience response, which is entirely dependent on your social context. I’ve staged plays in Berkeley without an iota of controversy that later were picketed elsewhere in the country. Conversely, I’ve been sent plays whose entire plots centered around the Horrible! Revelation! that Someone! Had a Same Sex Affair! In College! My Berkeley audience would laugh out loud at the idea that anyone cared about your same sex college fling; such a play is unstageable here no matter how well-written because the premise is nonsense within our particular social context.

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Land that I love. (Source: berkeley.edu)

So when we talk about the need for increased diversity (or the need to examine how various types of people are portrayed) in the theatre, film, and games we make, why is that seen as a massive, impossible imposition on an artist?  We’re already working within a number of constraints and considerations, and, frankly, removing race as a primary consideration, instead using just type, talent, and skill set, doesn’t seem much of a constraint at all to me. All it takes is stating in calls (or instructing your casting people) that you’re open to actors of all races and ethnicities, and suddenly your hiring pool is expanded, not constrained.

That said, if you believe your work demands an all-white cast, no one is restricting– or can restrict– your right to use an all-white cast. No one can stop you from casting every lead with a white actor for the entirety of your career. So what, exactly, upsets people so much about calls for more diversity? Why is there so much angry backlash to discussing diversity in art? What people are upset about is that now consumers and critics are complaining about it. They don’t just want the freedom to use all-white casts, crew, and/or writing staff–they already have that. They want the freedom to do so without criticism.

This, by the way, is what they mean by “taking America back”– back to the days when shutting out people of color was completely uncontroversial.

Due to this desire to create all-white art without criticism, there has been an immense backlash, especially from the alt-right, about the very concept of using social criteria like diversity or the portrayal of women to evaluate art. They claim that this is a new development brought on by “political correctness” run amok, and that in the golden past, before feminism or Black people with twitter accounts, art was solely evaluated as art, and critical discussions of its social messaging were nowhere to be found.

This is, of course, bunk.

For centuries, art has been evaluated, formally and informally, using social messaging as part of the critique. In 472 BCE, Aeschylus was publicly criticized by Aristotle, who claimed Aeschylus’ play The Persians, about the Persian defeat at the hands of the Greeks at the Battle of Salamis in 480 BCE, was too sympathetic to the Persians. Playwrights in Renaissance England went to great lengths to hide their critiques of the  church or the government in metaphors that would get past the censors. When Paul Robeson played Othello in 1930, reviewers criticized the choice to cast a Black man instead of a white actor in blackface. One wrote: “There is no more reason to choose a negro to play Othello than to requisition a fat man for Falstaff.” There are literally thousands of similar examples from the past.

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Peggy Ashcroft as Desdemona and Paul Robeson as Othello in the 1930 Savoy Theatre production. 

There are, of course, nearly as many examples from the present as well. While the right (alt and otherwise) bitterly condemns using diversity and other social justice-based criteria in evaluations of art, they themselves do this all the time. The right’s response to Beyoncé’s 2016 Super Bowl performance is an excellent example. Her performance came under fire solely for its pro-Black social messaging, which many on the right took to be “anti-white” and, somehow, “anti-police.” Ads for Old Navy and Cheerios featuring interracial families came under fire from right-wing racists for their social messaging alone. Evidently “interracial families eat breakfast and enjoy Old Navy 30% off sales” was a bridge too far for them. In 2012, the wildly popular, highly rated video game Mass Effect 3 included same sex relationship options (as they had throughout the series), but really came under fire for including a bedroom scene that many homophobic players complained bitterly about. (Of course, those of us who played through the game knew you had to click through many conversations with that gay character, continually taking the obviously marked “romance” option, to trigger that scene, or go out of your way to seek it out on youtube. But that’s none of my business.)

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Steve Cortez from Mass Effect 3, who lost his husband to a Collector attack.

While some people do not wish to be told that people would like to see more diversity, they clearly have no problem telling us that diversity is, in essence, wrong.

There’s only one conclusion to draw here, and it’s not about “artistic freedom.”

For those of us who work in representational media, and must work within constraints both out of our control, like physics and budget, and well within our control, like personal artistic goals and vision, “artistic freedom” can be a touchy subject. We want as much artistic freedom as we can get, in part because we know that in reality, our freedom is constrained in multiple ways. Those of us calling for increased diversity (and equity) in film, theatre, TV, and games are simply asking our fellow content creators to consider diversity an important artistic criteria that exists alongside  all the other self-imposed artistic criteria we all have.

Making a commitment to diversity is actually reducing your constraints, because it widens your hiring pool. Once you make the decision that a role can be cast with an actor of any race, or a show can be directed by a person of any race or gender, suddenly your hiring pool becomes much wider. Making a personal commitment to diversity increases your artistic freedom because it gives you far more to work with.

There is no true “artistic freedom,” including the many constraints artists put on themselves as they strive to meet (or exceed) their artistic goals. Encouraging others to make personal commitments to diversity– and holding them accountable when they do not– increases the artistic freedom both of the individual artists who would be widening their hiring pool considerably, and the artistic freedom of the industries as a whole, that would have a wider variety of artists working within it, which we all know is a massive strength.

So don’t believe anyone who tells you that calls for increased diversity or using diversity as a criteria for evaluation is limiting “artistic freedom.” We know better.

 

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The Response to “Pussygate” Oozes Hypocrisy

After every horrific thing Trump has said and done– insulting Mexicans, Muslims, the disabled, a Gold Star family, the poor, journalists, women– suddenly his 2005 off-camera boast, caught by a hot mic, that he’s able to sexually assault women (“grab them by the pussy,” and “get away with it” because he’s “a star”) has his supporters among the GOP fleeing like rats leaving a sinking ship.

After every horrible thing he’s said and done, why is this suddenly the line that loses him almost all his support? It’s not like he hasn’t insulted women in the past. He’s openly attacked individual women throughout the campaign– Megyn Kelly, Alicia Machado, Elizabeth Warren, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Katie Couric, Angela Merkel, Carly Fiorina, Heidi Cruz, Meghan McCain, Ana Navarro, Bette Midler, and Cher, just to name a few. He has publicly speculated about dating his own daughter. When it comes to women, he’s never made it a secret that he’s a monster.

His outrageous racism, sexism, xenophobia, narcissism, startling ignorance, childish bullying, petulant tantrums, open hatred of freedom of the press, and contempt for anyone who doesn’t lavishly praise him have slowly eroded his GOP support, but his boast about sexual assault was the nail in the coffin of his candidacy, losing him the support of the RNC itself and many prominent GOP politicians, many of whom are calling for Trump to step down. What that would mean for the GOP is unclear since voting has already begun– tens of thousands of mail-in ballots have been filed so far.

Various scenarios, each more dubious than the last, have been floated by desperate Republicans in the past 48 hours. Trump could vow to step aside before swearing in and let Pence become POTUS (because what American really needs is a man who thinks women should be legally required to pay for funerals for miscarriages and abortions— now that’s respect for women!). Trump could step aside now and be replaced on some, but not all, ballots if the Supreme Court allows it (unlikely, since the problem is just that the GOP chose an asshole, not that he’s been incapacitated by illness or killed in a plane crash, although I would not put assassination past the RNC at this point.) The election could proceed as planned and the electoral college could just choose to vote for someone else, violating the law in states where the electoral college is legally bound to honor the popular vote, with Republicans speculating they would somehow magically be able to protect these electors from the law through the sheer force of national hatred for Trump. (“No way would they be prosecuted,” they argue, because Republicans have always been so adept at predicting the future.) But that presupposes Clinton won’t have enough electoral votes to win, which is becoming increasingly unlikely.

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Whether or not Republicans sort out how to rid themselves of the eternally squawking bigoted albatross they fashioned out of stale circus peanuts and bile and hung around their own necks, my point is that Trump viciously attacked women for months in this campaign– entertainers, politicians, private citizens, even foreign leaders– and no one cared. But when he threatened women in the abstract, well, now, that’s a different story.

America has centered a massive amount of its cultural mythology around “protecting women,” especially white women. But we only care about women in the abstract.

We use the “protect our wives and daughters” excuse to get all kinds of laws passed that directly harm real women. We pass laws that are solely designed to restrict access to safe abortions, and to close clinics that provide OBGYN services to women, putting their health (and the health of their babies) at risk. We restrict transwomen from access to women’s restrooms. We have a long history of creating laws to “protect” women in the abstract that restrict and oppress real women.

When Trump finally made an egregious attack on women in the abstract by boasting about sexually assaulting “women” as an abstract concept, politicians and pundits immediately denounced him and distanced themselves from him. When he went after real, living women, the nation collectively shrugged. When he was accused of sexual assault of a minor by a real, living woman, the nation collectively shrugged. When he went after “women” as an abstract concept, we drew the line.

People who drew the line at Trump’s boast about getting away with sexual assault are the very same people– on both sides of the aisle– who  belittle, minimize, and otherwise cast doubt on the testimony of real women who have been sexually assaulted, especially when they have been sexually assaulted by wealthy and powerful celebrities using their wealth, power, and fame as a cover for their actions. Sexual assault victims who speak out are routinely disbelieved and even attacked as “liars.”

We worry about the “promising futures” of young rapists, and give them laughably light sentences, especially if they’re white and/or athletes. Campuses ignore reports of sexual assault, issue slaps on the wrist to violators, or even punish women who report sexual assault. We routinely blame women for their own assaults for wearing the wrong thing, saying the wrong thing, drinking the wrong thing, or being in the wrong place, despite all the evidence we have the shows without question that none of those things matter. We refuse to adequately support processing rape kits.

Yes, what Trump said about his ability to sexually assault women and “get away with it” is horrific– just as horrific as everything else he said when he was still getting the full-throated support of millions of Americans and the GOP establishment. I’m glad many more people are finally understanding– or pretending to understand as the national zeitgeist shifts– why Trump is an execrable human being whose soul is best represented by a grainy image of a pile of rat droppings in a broken cooler half-buried in a toxic waste dump.

Women are people, not symbols of male honor in either protection or conquest. When women speak out about sexual assault, we’re not going off-script in your honor narratives about us for our perverse pleasure. We’re just– and you may want to take a seat for this– telling the truth. The tiny percentage of false sexual assault reports do not change anything. The vast majority of us are telling the truth, yet when we speak out, we are automatically mistrusted, disbelieved, looked at with suspicion. Our stories are minimized and dismissed. Our culture despises sexual assault in the abstract, but we revile the real women who speak openly about being sexually assaulted in real life. They’re disrupting male honor narratives by accusing real men of real crimes. If she’s assaulted, either men failed to protect her or she’s ungratefully rejecting an honorable conquest. There’s no way for men to preserve their honor narratives when real women are sexually assaulted. While men openly despise sexual assault in the abstract, they also openly revile real women who speak out about real sexual abuse. Even in the face of incontrovertible proof, they will find ways to blame the victim. If she’s a woman of color, the blame is intensified sevenfold.

So excuse me if I roll my eyes at all the Republican men clutching their pearls this weekend about Trump’s statements.

Men, especially you Republican men suddenly jumping off the SS Trump Is Human Garbage as it burns and sinks into the briny deep: The next time a woman speaks out about sexual abuse, especially if the abuser is wealthy, powerful, and/or famous, remember how publicly outraged you were about Trump’s comments. And remember that we will spare no mercy in decrying your hypocrisy when your first response to a real victim is to doubt and mistrust her. Do not think we will forget that you’re only interested in protecting women in the abstract.

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VOTE.

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Casting, Race, and Why Tim Burton is Alarmingly Wrong

 

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Tim Burton. Photo: Petr Topic/SIFA/Getty Images

Recently director Tim Burton was asked by Bustle writer Rachel Simon why his latest film, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, features an all white cast with the single exception of Samuel L. Jackson (who is cast, disappointingly yet unsurprisingly, as the murderous villain), Burton had this to say:

“Nowadays, people are talking about it more,” he says regarding film diversity. But “things either call for things, or they don’t. I remember back when I was a child watching The Brady Bunch and they started to get all politically correct. Like, OK, let’s have an Asian child and a black. I used to get more offended by that than just… I grew up watching blaxploitation movies, right? And I said, that’s great. I didn’t go like, OK, there should be more white people in these movies.”

“Things either call for things, or they don’t.” This is an alarmingly incorrect position to take.

By “things” one can only assume he means “films” or perhaps “film casts.” The idea that a film can, all on its own, cry out for an all white cast with a single black villain while the humble director, helpless, must obey without question is, of course, preposterous. “Things” do not “call for” anything– directors make specific decisions. You cannot abdicate responsibility for your casting by blaming it ON THE FILM YOU MADE, in which you personally made or approved every artistic decision.

If by “things” he means “the source material,” meaning that initially the book series was all white (adding characters of color later on in the series), once again he is abdicating responsibility for his personal decisions by pretending that he’s but a faithful reproducer of the source material. Where was this desire to faithfully reproduce the book when he was directing Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, for example? While Burton’s version is closer to the original 1964 Roald Dahl book than the 1971 film adaptation Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Burton still deviated in multiple ways from the book. Is whiteness the only inviolable aspect of source material?

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A PR shot for Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children released by Fox.

As directors, we make the decisions that bring the world of the play, the film, or the show to life. We create the worlds you see on screen and on stage. We can choose a diverse world that reflects the one in which we live, or we can choose an all white world that shuts out people of color, denies opportunities for actors of color, and creates the illusion that white people are the only people whose stories are worthy of telling unless something is specifically about being Black, Latinx, Asian, etc. When a work is just about “people”– when the story has nothing to do with race specifically–if you then think the work “calls out” for whiteness because you see white as “neutral,” you have, at the very least, a failure of imagination. But that failure goes much deeper.

The alarming aspect of Burton’s abdication of the very basics of film directing– the artistic decisionmaking– is that he imagined the work itself somehow told him he needed to create a group of wonderful white people whose major threat is a murderous black man. This kind of reinscribing of whiteness as superior, innocent, and good alongside blackness that exists solely as a dangerous threat to that whiteness is a trope that literally gets innocent black people killed every day. This isn’t “just a film.” There’s no such thing. Our culture is primarily impacted by the narratives of popular culture. Films are massively important cultural artifacts that have the power to shift an entire culture.

When police officers have a split second decision to make, why do they imagine seeing a gun in the hand of an unarmed black man, or imagine a black man reaching for a gun when he reaches for his wallet as instructed, or imagine a black man lying on the ground with his arms in the air is a threat, or imagine a black child with a toy gun is an adult threatening their lives, especially when police bring in European American active shooters alive routinely? When our culture pumps out narrative after narrative after narrative equating blackness with DANGER, that has a massive impact on the real world.

When we talk about police “retraining” we have to realize that no amount of retraining has the power to combat the massive force of our popular culture. There’s no police-specific training that can combat that without each individual officer personally committing to actively fighting those narratives in their hearts and minds every day of their lives– which, by the way, is something I think we should all be doing. Even then there are no guarantees that the narratives white supremacy relentlessly puts into their hearts and minds are all examined, understood, and held in check in that moment they stand before black people with their guns drawn.

As the people who literally build western culture every day through the choices we make as we create and release our art, we have a responsibility to the people whose lives are being violently stolen every day to do better. It’s an insult to their lost lives to say that the “thing” magically “called for” you to use an all white cast with a black villain.

It’s telling that Burton imagines that a lack of white people in blaxploitation films of the 1970s is somehow equivalent to his all white cast/black villain in 2016, as if the obvious race privilege of white people in the 1970s didn’t exist and the films at the time were racially problematic– yet magnanimously forgiven by Burton– for not including white people. As if we’re not now all aware of the massive social injustice faced by black people who are treated unfairly at every level of the criminal justice system, and who face police use of force– from small acts of violence to fatal ones– at far greater percentages than white people, and what it means in 2016 to make a group of innocent white children the heroes battling against a murderous black man. It’s astonishing, really, that anyone who makes his living from creating art– from understanding the value of symbols and tropes and narrative– could miss this. It’s alarming. These tropes, unchecked in our culture, are complicit in the deaths of far too many people of color, including children.

It’s telling that Burton says “oh, let’s have an Asian child and a black” in decrying the tokenism of shows– again from the 1970s (dude, that was 40 years ago)– like The Brady Bunch. Apart from the dehumanizing phrase “a black” (a black what?), Burton cannot imagine diversity as anything but tokenism, as if people of color do not exist outside of whiteness, as if including people of color is automatically tokenism, as if he can only imagine a single token actor of color in a film. Tim, why not cast people of color in lead roles? In lots of roles? In all the roles? Why not consider a diverse range of actors for every role and see who best fits the part when race is removed from consideration? Yes, sometimes race needs to be a foremost consideration in casting. If you direct A Raisin in the Sun (please no one ever let Burton do this), Mr. Lindner needs to be European American and everyone else needs to be Black. But in, say, Mrs. Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, race is not central to the narrative. Nothing would have been lost by hiring a diverse cast, and much would have been gained. No one is asking you to cast a single token Black actor, and yet THAT IS EXACTLY WHAT YOU DID in casting Samuel L. Jackson, making that even more egregious by casting him as the villain. But The Brady Bunch‘s dippy 70’s “we’re all one big happy melting pot” nonsense is “more offensive” to you?

I’m not going to criticize Jackson for taking the role, since I have no idea how much he really knew when he signed the contract, and his statement about it does read like, “I am under contract to do positive PR for this film.” He’s an actor whose job is to act. Who knows what he was told about how the film would be created.

I am, however, flat out astonished that someone of Burton’s level of talent with symbol, narrative, and trope would create such an obvious lie as “things call out for things” as a cover for his own decisionmaking. Then again, I’m not surprised at all.

This article is also available on the Huffington Post here.

Please also check out “An Open Letter to Tim Burton from a Black Fangirl” by DeLa Doll, posted to HuffPo yesterday. 

 

 

 

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Why the Hatred of Video Games is Ableist

Humans love games. Some of our earliest cultural artifacts are game pieces. The modern world has several massively lucrative industries around games. People will dump half a week’s salary into two tickets to a professional sports event (make that a whole week’s salary if you each want a beer). We take activities like cooking, fashion, singing, trivia, drinking, and even theatre and “gamify” them by creating gaming structures around them. If there’s one thing people love, it’s a way to score more points than someone else.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. I love games as much as the next human. But for a game-loving society, we spend an inordinate amount of time hating video games.

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Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, created by Bethesda Softworks

We claim they are dangerous to developing brains, cause people to be more violent, prevent people from forming healthy human relationships, are rife with sexism, racism, and homophobia, and we have the studies to “prove” it. Yet we romanticize sports and excuse its negative aspects– its shockingly high injury rate (including brain injuries); its continuous problems with sexism, racism, and homophobia;  and a culture of bullying and hazing that permeates and poisons athletics, particularly K-12 and college athletics– because we believe that games you play with your body are intrinsically, even morally, better than games you play with your mind.

Video game culture is no better than sports culture in any of those respects save injuries, but we treat it as if it is intrinsically, morally lesser, and that engaging in a game you play with your body is somehow morally superior to engaging in a game you play with your mind.

It’s an ableist position to take.

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Destiny NPC Cayde-6, voiced by actor Nathan Fillion. Destiny is created by Bungie.

We frame physical activity as the best of all possible choices for filling free time. An hour with a book or a video game is “indulgent,” but an hour of cycling or basketball is “healthy” and “making good choices.” We worship the body and what it can do, granting the highest cultural status to people with able-bodied, thin, athletic bodies. We even describe them using the word “fit,” as if people who are disabled, fat, or unathletic are “unfit.”

Because our culture worships the body and ignores– even denigrates— the mind, we’ve elevated physical games over every other kind of game and created a vast cultural mythology around pretending physical games are moral and good and healthy while video games are destructive, bad, and unhealthy.  People whose bodies allow them to play physical games have access to a level of cultural privilege denied to those who cannot. People whose bodies cannot play physical games but who still want to game have more options open to them than ever before, yet all of them are considered morally inferior to physical games.

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Facing off against a pride demon in Dragon Age: Inquisition. The Dragon Age series is created by Bioware.

But video games are violent! So are sports. The difference between violence in video games and violence in sports is that physical violence in video games is pretend and physical violence in sports is real. Violence during games is an ongoing problem at all levels of athletics. Sports has immense bullying problems; sports fans are notoriously violent during victories, losses, and even just in the stands. Even little league parents get violent. Off the field, college athletes are more likely to commit sexual assault than other students and less likely to be convicted.

If you wish to extend “violence” to harassment and bullying, and I absolutely do, it’s undeniable there are violent aspects in video game culture, but sports culture is no better; in fact, statistically speaking, it’s clearly worse. Yet we frame sports as inherently wholesome, marred by a few bad apples, and video games as inherently worthless, alleviated by a few wholesome bright spots, simply because we value the body and its abilities, look, and “fitness” more highly than the mind.

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Civilization V is a massive, complex strategy game from Firaxis wherein you must build and maintain your civilization from prehistoric times through the future.

But video games make people more violent! The problem with that notion is that violent crime has actually reduced since the introduction of video gaming, leading to the logical conclusion that video games do not “cause violence.”

The problem lies in the studies themselves. When you structure a study around video game violence, you don’t send researchers to sit in 2500 rooms for 100 hours each to watch 2500 people make their way through the Dragon Age: Origins narrative, wherein the player’s character is centered as a hero saving the world from monsters, or the Fallout 3 narrative, wherein the character must survive in a nuclear war-shattered wasteland and fight to realize the character’s father’s dream of bringing clean water to its people. The most common studies involve measuring aggression as relates to non-narrative contexts. The resulting data is completely meaningless. It would be like comparing the way people feel after watching a sophomore player on an underdog team score a game-winning touchdown in a bowl game and then immediately kneel down and propose to his girlfriend, the head cheerleader, and the way people feel after being forced to watch footage of sacks over and over and over without context.

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The Hearthfire expansion in Skyrim allows players to design and build their own homes bit by bit as they acquire the resources.

The idea that video games are somehow more dangerous, more prone to generate violent acts, than physical games is ableist nonsense that comes from romanticizing and valorizing the body while minimizing the mind. Sure, we talk a good game about the mind, education, and intelligence, but all our attention, money, and concern are focused on the body. We pay university sports coaches huge sums of money while we pay university lecturers below the poverty level. Schools REQUIRE students to participate in physical games and BAN playing video games on campus.

One of the most powerful cultural myths underpinning the hatred of video games is the longstanding fear of technology. We have feared and mistrusted every technological advance ever, from movable type to the internet. The absolute silliest argument is that analog games such as board games are healthy, but video games are dangerous, as if the screen itself has some kind of magical power to render the game’s benefits inert. This fear and mistrust of technology are themselves arguably aspects of anti-intellectualism– fear of what the “eggheads” have unleashed upon us. Fear of science, technology, and new knowledge have been encoded into our culture at every level, from the Garden of Eden to Faust to Battlestar Galactica. Pushing the limits of what the body can do is prized and treasured as a measure of humanity’s highest worth. Pushing the limits of what the mind can do in the form of new technologies, inventions, and discoveries is deeply mistrusted, with each new advance meeting a screeching wall of resistance based on its supposed “dangers.”

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The main antagonists in Bioware’s Mass Effect series are the Reapers, a sentient race of synthetic-organic starships.

The truth is, playing video games is as good, maybe even better, than playing sports. Video games– even violent shooter games– exercise your mind in the same way that physical games exercise your body.

Video games are elaborate puzzles, often within complex narratives with far more narrative content, and more complex narrative content, than a book or a film has room to hold. There are many games where the mythopoeia alone could fill several volumes.

Video games make players better problem solvers, as well as boost memory and cognitive skills. Gamers are helping scientists solve complex problems. An enormous number of modern games track a player’s in-game choices, changing the way NPCs (non-player characters) interact with the player based on the morality of their past choices. Two of many examples include Dragon Age: Origins, where NPCs on your team gain special skills as you gain their trust and friendship, and Fallout 3, where high karma results in NPCs giving you gifts and the in-game radio DJ, Three Dog, singing your praises on the air. As in life, often the morality of in-game choices is unclear, and players must live with the consequences of their actions long after it’s too late to go back and change their decisions. Many games tackle complex social and historical issues. The Bioshock series, for example, has been ruthless in its criticism of American nostalgia, juxtaposing gorgeous vintage imagery with the brutal reality of our racist, classist, and unregulated capitalist past, leaving the player to draw their own conclusions about the present.

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Bioshock Infinite (from Irrational Games) confronts America’s racist past in multiple ways both in the world-building and in the central narrative.

The idea that a teenager who plays video games after school is somehow wasting his time while a teenager who plays football after school is an American Hero reflects our characterization of the body and its achievements as the most wholesome, most moral, most admirable aspect of human life. This is ableist nonsense that reserves the highest moral position in our culture to people whose physical bodies meet or exceed arbitrary standards.

“Can play football at a mediocre level” is somehow framed as morally superior to “Has beaten the Heroic King’s Fall raid on Destiny.” While I can only dream of EITHER, in theory my disability does not prevent me from completing the King’s Fall raid in the same way they prevent me from playing sports, yet my human brain still craves the complex problem solving, action, and competition of game play.

There’s nothing wrong with playing sports, but let’s step away from the silly– and ableist– notion that playing video games is morally inferior.

 

 

 

 

 

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“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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