Over on Facebook, my co-worker Sam Hurwitt reports an audition listing in San Francisco that requests “No obvious ethnicity” for a role. His friends, when asked, guessed that statement meant everything from “mixed” to “white” to my favorite: “‘whitable’ or ‘passable’ or ‘non-threatening ethnic looking person’.”
The Bank of Canada recently released a new $100 bill as part of an overhaul of their currency.
Per this article:
An earlier, uncirculated version of the $100 note, illustrating the theme of medical innovations, showed a female medical researcher with distinctly Asian features. But later focus groups raised questions about her ethnicity, prompting the bank to erase the Asian features in favour of a Caucasian-looking woman.
When The Canadian Press broke the story about the erasure last August, spokesman Jeremy Harrison said the Bank of Canada was striving for ‘neutral ethnicity’ in its depictions of people on bank notes.
Harrison referred to ‘the Bank’s long-held principles for bank note design, one of which is to avoid depicting any particular ethnic group when including people as representative images of a theme on a bank note.’
Is it truly possible to “avoid depicting any particular ethnic group?”
In July 2011, I wrote a post on how we make meaning in the world through experiencing art which I later refined into this section from my essay “Sowing New Beans” that appeared in Counting New Beans: Intrinsic Impact and the Value of Art:
Noam Chomsky, a linguist and political theorist now known more for the second appellation than the first, outlined a concept in the late 1960’s that he called “universal grammar.” He was investigating how languages are created and acquired, and he settled on this idea that all of us, from the moment we’re born, carry in us common, innate, fundamental rules of grammar and we use that inherent understanding to gradually build up our language comprehension and production.
I often think of art in this way—as the manifestation of something fundamental and internal, built from blocks we all carry with us even if we don’t know it. The experience is held within us and activated when we attend a performance or see a painting, and it transforms us into something we were not before.
I’m having trouble with the idea that art is universal lately.
The goal of the Bank of Canada, as evidenced by the spokesman’s statement, was to move from depicting a singular ethnicity to depicting something larger—in other words, to move from an attitude of multiculturalism (the celebration of difference) to an attitude of universalism (the celebration of our commonality). All of this in an effort to celebrate Canada as a diverse, open and tolerant society. They had to decide whether to celebrate the inclusive homogeneity of the “all” or the multivariate heterogeneity of the “everyone,” and they chose the former.
“Universalism” in its theoretical form is about celebrating the essential humanness of all of us, the idealized harmony in which we could all function if we recognized how close we are to each other, really, and not how far. The issue, of course, then becomes whether, as a practical matter, universalism simply disintegrates into something much more minor, which is the representation of the dominant culture as the universal culture—which is to say the deracination of an Asian scientist into something that looks suspiciously like a white scientist. And yet, we are all so very similar when you look at the science.
In her essay “Relations,” Eula Biss writes:
“When we were young, my sister and I had two baby dolls that were exactly alike in every way except that one was white and one was black. The precise sameness of these dolls…convinced me that they were, like us, sisters.
“There is no biological basis for what we call race…Race is a social function. But it is also, for now at least, a social fact. We may be remarkably genetically similar, but we are not all, culturally speaking, the same…”
She goes on to quote Albert Murray, who called American culture “incontestably mulatto,” and then tells a story of a segregated restaurant in the South where “a sign on one side of the room advertised ‘Home Cooking’ and a sign on the other side advertised ‘Soul Food’ and the customers on both sides were eating the same biscuits and gravy.”
“For all their traditional antagonisms and obvious differences,” she quotes Murray, “the so-called black and so-called white people of the United States resemble nobody else in the world so much as they resemble each other.”
In response to my recent posts, Ian David Moss (along with Diane Ragsdale and Barry Hessenius—thanks to all!) made a comment and then filled out his thinking in a post on Createquity. Ian makes an interesting argument that my earlier comments about considering requirements that arts organizations in diverse communities cultivate more diverse audiences are “weirdly paternalistic.” He points out that “educated white people in the United States” is a cultural group, and asks what efforts to “change patterns of cultural participation” really accomplish except to attempt to sustain specific institutions. He goes on:
To make the value judgment that the current picture of theater attendance is ‘wrong’ inadvertently calls into question, I fear, the validity of the existing aesthetic choices and preferences of people of color…I worry that strong funder incentives to racially diversify audiences inadvertently encourages institutions to value people of color for their skin rather than for what’s underneath, and to reinforce visible markers of diversity…In my more subversive moments, I sometimes wonder if some of the motivation behind the drive to diversify audiences for traditional European art forms comes from a place of wanting to assimilate people of color so that we can all be one, big, happy family—on white people’s terms.
I fear Ian is being more cynical here than he may have need to be. Wouldn’t it follow that encouraging institutions to value people of color “for their skin” (though I think that’s entirely too simplified) requires those institutions to also value what those people, you know, want to see. I’m not, for example, advocating herding people unwillingly into a room and forcing them to watch Tartuffe. If they don’t want what’s on offer, then they won’t come, right? The shift that Ian advocates–the interpolation of forms and stories that people of more diverse groups (of all types, including but not limited to different ethnicities)–would happen by necessity. Currently, I would argue, we spend almost no time functionally thinking about diversification—we instead simultaneously assume (1) our work is universal and (2) they just don’t know it. In that mode, I’d suggest that getting people to think about it, even for so functional a reason as continued relevance and sustainability (i.e. “my organization doesn’t die”) is perfectly acceptable as an outcome, and ultimately does encourage shifts in work. If we start from zero, and step one is utilitarian, then ultimately mightn’t we get to someplace that is more inclusive and truly universal? Like the old therapy of smiling until you feel happy, relying on muscle memory to jumpstart the emotion. This sounds, perhaps, sort of tawdry, but we must start in order to get anywhere.
Interestingly, I also think that part of what Ian is saying here centers on a difference between true universalism and the sort of lip-service “white” universalism that most arts organizations have been operating under for a long while now. True universalism, interestingly, seems to cycle through its seeming opposite–multiculturalism–recognizing our commonality by first recognizing our difference. In his essay “Reflections on Art, Culture and Universalism,” Eugene Kamenka puts it this way:
Multiculturalism, to be serious, involves the recognition that different cultural traditions highlight and examine with more knowledge and sensitivity particular aspects of human capacity and human experience. They broaden our knowledge, our sensitivity, our imagination. They help to make us better people…The ideal we work toward is that of making all human beings multicultural, of having them appreciate and respect for its virtues more than one nation, one language, history and tradition—more than one ‘culture.’ This assumes that behind the ‘cultures’ of the anthropologist, there lies a universal culture.
In America today, we like to recognize difference, for better or worse. Liberals, especially, currently revel in the heterogeneity of their base, and the strong social movements of the day are to protect and expand the rights of two minorities—gays and mostly-Hispanic immigrants. Republicans, wandering through the last election cycle with blinders on, used fearmongering largely based on the “otherness” of people who weren’t white and straight to turn out that narrow constituency, and are only now understanding that that might have been a great idea a decade or more ago, but isn’t so much a good idea now. As more voices have shouted more loudly to be heard, we have set aside the melting pot, brought out the mixing bowl, and increasingly allowed ourselves to all just be who we are and bump up against each other as such. At least that’s what we like to believe. When our government talks about diversity now, it talks about accommodating the differences among peoples, not about assimilating those peoples into one common America.
The reality, of course, isn’t as tidy or true as that. This is especially the case in our cultural institutions, where the idea of universalism has had, for a long, long time, a strong foothold. We present the individual story on stage as artifice in order to talk about the universal story. And for the most part, the fact that those individual stories have largely been performed by a certain type of folks for a similar certain type of folks hasn’t been a hugely addressed issue. In part, I think, because of our strong philanthropic base, relatively weak governmental funding base and the inherent, longstanding inequalities in the whole social fabric of America (and our ability to pay lip service to them without really addressing the underlying disparities), American arts and cultural institutions are only now feeling some of the pressure that has been felt by similar institutions in England and Australia for more than a decade. Like endorphins temporarily masking an injury, our lack of reliance on funding sources that actually foot to public opinion (be that public funding or public ticket sales) has allowed us to feel fine until it wears off, and now we’re stuck with a broken bone that we’ve been damaging more by believing it was all fine.
We have not been truly seeking universalism–the universal truth for all–anymore than we have been truly seeking multiculturalism. What might have once been telling the truth of our world has somehow turned into something less than that. We have responded to the pressures of this world by making our circle smaller, clustering our planets close around our sun and assuming that that meant we were warming all the bodies in the galaxy.