Systemic Privilege Revisited

In Systemically Privileged, I floated an idea. I discussed the difficulty I’ve had over the years in describing the kind of nonprofit arts organization most in need of developing authentic community connections. My suggestion to myself went as follows:

Recently I have begun to experiment with a new label. The issue here is the historic preference given to presenters of a particular cultural tradition in the context of a rapidly diversifying society. Eurocentric arts organizations receive (and have received) the lion’s share of resources (financial, human, “infrastructural”). The system favors these institutions. “Systemically privileged” reflects that preferential treatment. It also names the issue in a fairly straightforward way. So, for the time being, I’m going to give this a whirl: systemically privileged arts organizations.

The post was fairly widely read and elicited a couple of very thoughtful responses. One, from a frequent contributor, Carter Gilles, questioned me on the difference between a label and a description. He buys “SP” as a descriptor but not as a label. He says, “The danger with using a description as a label is that we have captured only one of … many aspects.”

Another commenter, Edward Brennan, said, “’Systematically privileged’ comes across as a desire to shame the organizations and the donors into different actions. . . . The point is, the desire for the label appears to be confrontational. You want people to confront something and you want them to change. By desiring someone to change, you are saying that something about them or their organization is currently unacceptable.”

It’s often the case that respondents point things out that I had missed. My desire for a means of referring to these institutions is almost entirely pedagogical. In a workshop setting, how do I differentiate them from others, for instance culturally specific arts organizations? So I hadn’t given any thought to the label/description question. Indeed, in looking back at the post I see that I used them interchangeably. Although, to be honest, I’m still unsure about the functional difference between them. I’ve never thought of a label as needing to incorporate every aspect of a thing. To my mind, any label is necessarily selective. Otherwise it would not be a label but a treatise. For instance, “presenting organization” does not encompass a group’s educational activities.

Whether I call it a label or a description, I’ve often found it useful to present an idea that forces rethinking of assumptions. I’ll never forget the diversity workshop where I first heard the label/description “temporarily able-bodied.” As a professor, I had in my office an “upside down map of the world.” It had the entertaining effect of disorienting students and, when they said, “That’s upside down,” I’d get to engage them on the how a cartographer’s position on the globe influenced what we think of as up and down.

In the arts, Barry Hessenius in Barry’s Blog, once observed that if there were underserved people there must also be those who are overserved. (In typing this in WordPress, underserved is accepted. Overserved is highlighted as a spelling error!) My own phrase “European aristocratic cultural tradition preservation society” similarly highlights an issue in our field. (And, yes, I know that that one is pretty highly charged. I use it sparingly.)

I suspect that for many people the real issue about “systemically privileged” is its perception as being confrontational. Mr. Brennan even suggested that its intent, among other things, was to shame organizations and donors. I guess I can see that if it’s assumed that I’m antagonistic toward these organizations. But that is by no means the case. My background makes me a passionate supporter of the potential for good these organizations represent in a rapidly changing world. In particular, my concern is their long-term viability, a viability that, in my view, can only be maintained by fairly rapidly changing perspective. I would, certainly, like them to change, in small ways at first, for their own good. In response to Mr. Brennan’s comment about my desire for change, it’s not that I think things about arts organizations are “unacceptable.” Rather, with passionate concern for their future, my belief is that things as they are are “unsustainable.”

But while I’m on the subject let me point out that for many, other labels/descriptions we use are equally confrontational–mainstream, traditional, and legacy, for instance, all suggest a centrality, a Northern-hemisphere-as-the-norm understanding of the cultural landscape. What I am willing to cop to is the thought that at this moment in time, perhaps a little discomfort is not a bad thing in moving us to consider reframing our place in the cultural ecosystem.



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  2. I think you hit the nail on the head with ‘systematically privileged’ and I think you’re being far to conciliatory when you say “perhaps a little discomfort is not a bad thing.” Discomfort may be the only thing that forces leaders of failing institutions to change, and it may need to be radical, disruptive, revolutionary discomfort. Arts is worth saving from out-of-touch cultural sector elites who hole up in mahogany-paneled conference rooms disparaging the little people for not wanting to be told what’s good for them anymore. Audiences for systematically privileged arts institutions have been shrinking steadily for decades. Somebody has to confront the leaders of these ailing institutions about their privilege, their inefficacy, their diminishing relevance, and about the resources that are being diverted from healthier, more diverse, more sustainable, more fully engaged providers of art and creative opportunity.

    Or not.

  3. I think Trevor makes an excellent point. We NEED to make this challenge. And yet I think this is a much different question from the *form* this challenge needs to take. The “out-of-touch cultural sector elites” DO need a wake up call, and Trevor is right that being conciliatory might actually undermine our efforts. The problem I see is that deciding on a label is a big thing, with consequences in remote and possibly unwanted areas.

    If it were something like a surgeon’s tool that we confronted only the out-of-touch elites with, then I’d be all for it. Unfortunately it is far less scalpel and much more bludgeon. A label is something that gets stuck with the thing labeled, no matter the circumstance, no matter the intention. It may be entirely appropriate in browbeating leaders of failing institutions, and yet seriously unkind to the people doing the actual work of production, let alone the audience who enjoys it. Or more appropriate to some institutions so labeled and yet less specific to others it gets applied to. Labels have the advantage of generalization and sloganeering. They do not have the advantage of nuance……

    So my point about the difference between a description and a label is that labels stick while descriptions are interchangeable and serve nuance. You can describe many aspects for different purposes, and under those circumstances the descriptions might all be *true*, and yet a label is at a disadvantage in being true for some large or small part, and yet nevertheless applies universally and despite the limitations on its truly describing. If a label is a shortcut to how we refer to something, be careful is is not a disservice in unintended areas. We need to be aware that the need for labels is at least sometimes a rejection of the need for nuance.

    • An analogy: A net cast into the ocean collects everything not small enough to slip through the gaps. Everything. Intended or not. A single line cast with a certain size hook and certain bait is far more discriminating. Even more specific is wading into the shallows with a spear and actually *aiming* directly at the catch.

      Each has a purpose, and its own effects. A label has the characteristic of something industrial, “One size fits all”. Descriptions can be that large and general, which is why they make such good labels, but they can also be more discrete. Descriptions have more uses than simply gathering up the members of a class or category. Descriptions can be used to point out *differences*. And quite often we need to be careful of the differences.

      Another analogy: A label is like a lawn mower. It treats everything at ground level the same. Grass, weeds, volunteer flowers, they all get cut down to size. The need for lawnmowers is related to our intention to NOT discriminate. We mow lawns in proportion to how much (little) we care about the differences between what we are affecting. A world with only lawns simplifies things, and yet it is not a tool for justice to much besides grass, if even that……… A label has a use, sometimes *good* uses, and yet they rarely serve an overall justice.

  4. As Adam Smith says, “man naturally desires not only to be loved but to be lovely.” This came to mind when Doug wrote:

    “I guess I can see that if it’s assumed that I’m antagonistic toward these organizations. But that is by no means the case. My background makes me a passionate supporter of the potential for good these organizations represent in a rapidly changing world.”

    I understand Doug’s desire to be loved and lovely. I know he wants good things for the arts, I don’t doubt that I just don’t believe that his labeling is a good path, nor a lot of what I see he writes in support of it.

    Further, I am also sure that most of the people who work for ballets/symphonies/museums/theaters in question also want what Doug does-greater inclusion. Generally speaking, I think there has been great movement in that direction. I believe that they also wish their missions to broadly coincide with that of broader inclusion.

    They also want to feel that what they are doing is basically okay. Basically right. They want to feel valued for what they do, and that the institutions that they work for hold some value. They want to feel that their livelihoods reflect in a lovely way upon them.

    I think that the desire to be “loved and lovely” is especially intimately tied up in cultural institutions. I think people often get into it because they think this is a way to do good. To do something that matters. They are not doing good through getting money and then giving it away, They believe they are doing good through their work. It is not just work but a vocation- a calling.

    People care about labels. They care about how they are viewed by others and this is an intimate loop with how they view themselves. From personal pronouns, to profession titles, to large groups either ethnic, nationalist, or even the trekkers vs. trekkies people care. They also care about the adjectives assertive vs bossy, helpful vs a toady. I think about women who rightly complained when in newspaper articles they were referred to as female scientists vs. scientist.

    If I were working for, or in charge of a ballet/symphony/museum/theater. How would I feel about my livelihood being reduced to a Systemically Privileged Arts Organization? Would that make me feel loved or lovely, that I had made good life choices? If people were teaching that this is what my organization was, how would that make me feel?

    In thinking about this response I re-read Privilege 101 by Sian Ferguson

    a few points came to mind-

    The first is that privilege is alway systemic, it is also always in relation to oppression. Ie to privilege one group is to oppress another. So, no need for systemic.

    Second, a privileged group has power over those who are oppressed by the nature of their privilege.This is not an individual choice, it is part of the system.

    Third, “Privilege describes what everyone should experience”.

    This to me is where you fall off the rails. It is the talk of these organizations being “the big dogs” ” at the top of the food chain” For Doug it doesn’t appear to be about everyone receiving “preferential treatment” it is that the Ballets and Symphonies should be reduced to being treated like marginalized organizations. Juggernaut-worthy is nota term of respect, and not trying even remotely to make someone or an organization feel loved or lovely.

    The entire line that if there are underserved well these organizations must be the over-served both describes a zero-sum game that arts funding shouldn’t be, and entirely ignores the rest of society in an attempt to place blame at the hands of these organizations.

    Next,Privilege isn’t about guilt. But it seems like for you it is, when it should be about recognizing a bad power system and working against it Although people aren’t responsible for having privileges, they are responsible for what they do with them. What you do, how you push back against privilege and oppression is what matters.

    This, in my mind leaves space and direction for how to be loved and lovely if you have privilege. But it is not a space I see you leave for those organizations.

    So privilege is something that a person or organization experiences and what they do with that experience, how they handle it, how they push back matters.

    Let me tell a tale.

    You work for a symphony (no I don’t). It has already gone bankrupt once and has been reformed so that it is no longer salary but by performance. You now make far less than you once did and you can no longer afford your house. Other jobs aren’t available because even if you wanted to go into say education there aren’t jobs there for what you spent years of schooling for.

    Now someone comes to town, calls your organization a systemically privileged arts organization that is an overfunded juggernaut. That the funds your organization receives should therefore go else where. Ones not so European, not so white, not playing dead white composers.

    You know your symphony years ago changed hiring practices and that now it is close to gender neutral in the orchestra and more diverse than most large corporations. That they have tried outreach and changes to promote more diverse composers with questionable effect. Again more than most organizations. You are sorta proud of that.

    How do you feel? Loved? Lovely?

    These are not lives that can be tossed around with-I know they feel pain but they don’t know what real pain is. Their pain is real, their hardship is real. It cannot be reduced to claim against the hardship of others. It is not a game and not a trade. One persons pain doesn’t justify or invalidate the other. (see Ferguson).

    I feel passionate about people making art. Not the arts, the artists. People like this. The people who work for those Ballets, Symphonies, Museums, and Theaters. As well as those doing other forms of dance, other forms of music whether it be a struggling hip hop dancer or a country singer in a bar.

    Are ballets and the rest privileged? Yes. Should they work for inclusion? Should they work for more women and minorities in CEO positions? yes. Should they attempt to use their clout to spread funding wider. Maybe say if you want to give so much to us, you have to give a matching grant to this other organization. Maybe more cross organization activity. Not going with the Rich White Person Gala. Ad space for other arts organizations in facilities in addition to corporate donations.

    Raise up. Don’t demonize. Don’t destroy people.
    Change the system.

    I don’t think your labels do that. I think you care. I think your heart is in the right place. But I think this is a break people eggs to make political omelets strategy and is dangerous in that it will lead the guy in the symphony already on edge to go self-protect at all costs and that your strategy will be ultimately ineffective.

    I think it is the road from liberal musician to Trump supporter.

    I think that it is not designed to make people feel lovely or give them a way to. And unloved people who don’t feel like they have a chance to be lovely are the most dangerous people on earth. (see in-cel or many muslim terrorists.)

    Further, There is nothing abstract, nothing purely pedological about privilege/oppression and the fight against it. The social justice component is integral to the entire theory. Maybe greater readings into feminist theory might help. I am not an expert, Everyday Feminism I found to be a great start.