[Guest post–second on this topic–by Roberto Bedoya, Executive Director of the Tucson Pima Arts Council. Mr. Bedoya reflects on the need to consider the impact of unconscious racial perspectives before we address diversity policies in the sector.]
Before I offer my commentary, I want to give thanks to my peers for responding to my prompt. This inquiry into the perplexities and complexities of whiteness that we see working in the cultural sector from our various perches has triggered much thought and feeling within me and I suspect with the others as well. I deeply appreciate Barry, Clayton, Diane, Doug, Ian and Nina’s efforts to walk down this path of investigations and a special thanks to Doug for his invitation to me to participate in this field reflection.
My prompt was “ to share with us some of your good thinking and deep reflection on your understanding of how the White Racial Frame intersects with cultural polices and cultural practices.” And to that end, the thrust of my commentary will be on US cultural policy.
So let’s me begin with a definition:
The scholar Joe Feagin defines the white racial frame as “an overarching worldview, one that encompasses important racial ideas, terms, images, emotion and interpretation. For centuries now, it has been a basic and foundational frame from which a substantial majority of white Americans – as well as others seeking to conform to white norms – view our highly racialized society. ”
And what are the characteristics of whiteness – its good, bad and ugly, I ask myself. There are many writers who have written eloquently and with great rigor about whiteness: Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Tim Wise, George Lipsitz, Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Renato Rosaldo, David Roediger, Peggy McIntosh to name a few authors in my library that inform my thinking. And at the core of their writings is an examination of identity, bias and privilege.
The examination of whiteness in other sectors of our society, e.g. law, health care, education, has been animated and substantial. Yet, in the cultural sector it has been anemic. And I wonder why – are we lazy, fearful? Are we too comfortable with the status quo that believes whiteness as stated in my previous blog “…is the default frame that defines cultural value and worth; it is used (mostly unconsciously) to analyze, classify and quantify both what is understood as the norm and the notions of “other” – of diversity” and so be it.
I take no pleasure in examining deficiencies when there’s no analysis of the causes behind it. So a study of the racial composition of audiences for dance, theater or the visual arts that folks find alarming because of its lack of racial diversity demands an examination of the racialized hierarchies that shape audience participation and in turn cultural polices. This is not a tidy examination but it is necessary. Coupled with this examination is an analysis of privilege – who has it or doesn’t have it; who has access, legitimacy, power or doesn’t have it, adds to the complexities of this undertaking.
A starting off point for me is this examination of the white racial frame is “possessiveness”. One of the scholars on whiteness that I admire is George Lipsitz who writes about the possessive nature of whiteness and it relationship to racialized hierarchies. He states “I use the adjective possessive to stress the relationship between whiteness and asset accumulation in our society, to connect attitudes to interest, to demonstrate that white supremacy is usually less a matter of direct, referential and snarling contempt and more a system for protecting the privilege of whites by denying communities of color opportunities for asset accumulation and upward mobility. Whiteness is invested in, like property, but it also a means of accumulating property and keep it from others.”
What is asset accumulation in the cultural sector… the new wing of a museum, the positive reviews of a performance season, the new donors, the poems the third graders wrote about their neighborhood, the award letter from a foundation? Are cultural investments a continual investment in whiteness? What are the cultural policies in place that enable or deny asset accumulation? How do we understand the assets one has or an asset one has that is managed by another? Beginning in the 70’s the articulation of “first voice” by communities of color as part of a cultural agenda of self-determination fed the development of artists and arts organization that understood their assets and began to build upon them… yet the support system today for these artists and arts organization is weak. Is this weak condition a by-product of a tension related to the possessing of assets or asserting one’s assets? In addition to this point about assets, today’s conversations about social capital and its relationship to authenticity and asset building must take a look at the possessive nature of whiteness and ask if the articulation of social capital is complicit with whiteness or a counter-frame to it.
In regards to the racial diversity conversation, I ask myself whether “diversity” policies that began during the civil rights movement morphed into a possessive investment in whiteness that promotes a blindness to racialized privilege systems that impact and define audience and cultural validation methods.
For many of my peers the diversity conversation today is about equity. The equity mandate is interwoven with social justice practices that are addressing racialized hierarchies within the cultural sector. Additionally, within communities of colors there is a strong feeling that we are beyond the politics of recognition (which has produce Black History Month… etc.) and must now engage in the politics of distribution, with fairness and equity at the center of policy-making and cultural decision making practices.
As I was gathering my thoughts for this blog, last week Justice Antonin Scalia called the Voting Rights Act “the perpetuation of racial entitlement” – a comment that shocked me and illuminates a line of thinking of white racial resentment at play in our society…when did the right to vote become a racial entitlement? Let’s push out this line of thinking … are our cultural policies that support the expressive life of our multi-racial nation being characterized as racial entitlement? I feel that is the case in the “post-racial” conversations I encounter in our sector. I was recently reading about the work of the Native American visual artist Tom Jones and I came across this quote of his “I question if a denial of one’s cultural background is generated by mainstream Western art norms or if it is a form of identity genocide.” Are the post-racial conversations occurring in our sector a form of “identity genocide” and who has the privilege to carry on this conversation? I live and work in the politically toxic state of Arizona where racial profiling of Latinos by police officers is sanctioned by the State and Mexican-American studies has been eradicated from the Tucson schools. Even prior to the programs’ dismantling the works of Sandra Cisneros, Leslie Marmon Silko, Rodolfo Acuña and Shakespeare’s Tempest (cuz that Caliban dude…he’s trouble!) were banned in those classes. This is a story of identity genocide and the ideology of whiteness at play through governmental, education and cultural policies.
I define U.S. cultural policy as a system of arrangement that affects the allocation of resources and the articulation of value. I am mindful of these arrangements and ask where the ideology of whiteness is in this system? I know that there are many folks asking this question when they advocate for a healthy and robust support system for the arts that is equitable and just. Given the thinking of Judge Scalia and the policies of the state of Arizona as an example of the possessive nature of whiteness as it relates to one’s civil and cultural rights, it also reveals how our society is not immune from racial biases that embrace and support a politics of dis-belonging.
I feel that it also enters into the social imagery of the nation, of the phrase “We the People” and who belongs or dis-belongs to this “We”. So often in US public and cultural polices, regrettably, the meaning of “We” is reduced to a privatized “me and my friends” meaning of the word. Does “We the people” operate to reinforce whiteness as a privilege system that works to keep power in the hands that already have it, based on racial hierarchies? The democratic ideal of “We the People” as a secular “We” that includes people one doesn’t know is often lost in cultural policy discussions and actions. I am aware that I am asserting my democratic ideal of “We the People” and one thing I know about this “We” is that it is multiracial as well as the inclusive gender, sexual, and class formations of “We”.
I have asked a lot of questions in this blog and probably troubled the water for some, in the spirit of critical witnessing to the ways of whiteness. To end with a suggested course of action, a counter-frame to the white racial frame, let me suggest that artists and arts leaders support the ethical imagining of the meaning of “We” that includes people you don’t know. This can be done to support the development of one’s ethical identity that is anti-racist, that is grounded in an ethos of belonging, that understands systems of support as the equivalences we make among us that is fair and equitable. It can also be done so that we as policy actors and as individuals embrace and support the multi worldviews among us, that animate our pluralities as we move forward in our passions to advance humanity. Onward.