December 8, 2010

what doesn't work

One of the things that I often get asked when it comes to anti-oppression in radical, collective, and other non-hierarchical spaces is something along the lines of, "What should we be doing? Tell us what to do! Help us be less racist/sexist/homophobic/classist! We feel really bad about not having enough women/minorities/gays/poor folks in our organization. Tell us how to fix it!"

I'm not going to get into how incredibly fucked up and entitled it is for anyone with a particular privilege to demand that of anyone who does not share that privilege. If you still can't wrap your head around it, read this and get back to me.

I can't fix people's problems with race, gender, sexuality, or class on someone else's whim, and I certainly can't shit out viable solutions just because someone asked me to. It's not on me to do the heavy lifting of solving these problems just because I point out how they affect me and those who share certain things with me. What I can do is speak from my own experiences about what does and doesn't work. I'm going to limit myself to institutions and organizations that are - at least in principle - progressive.

Honestly, there is no One True Way To Undo Racism/Sexism/Homophobia/Classism. How that plays out is different for every group and their analysis of the problem. However, to save you a bit of time and heartache, I'm going to tell you what doesn't work.

1. Using one person or group as a buffer between your organization and underprivileged individuals.

I've seen this a lot. Instead of examining and transforming the ways that the systems and procedures you have is place are stacked against women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and working class/poor people, there's a separate little group or task force where people who don't fit the dominant group are sort of guided in that direction so that the organization as a whole does not have to deal with them.

This is fucked up for a few reasons. First of all, it forces that person or group into the role of gatekeeper even if that is against their intent and best interests. Secondly, different people have different needs and different reasons for being involved. Sloughing them off onto a person or group just because they share a specific trait may set them up for failure and/or disappointment because that person or group is not equipped to really give these individuals what they need.

2. Creating programs and initiatives based on symptoms instead of systemic problems.

"Oops," some folks say. "We put diversity in or mission statement but we don't do a lot of work by people of color. I know! Let's serve fried chicken and malt liquor at our shows so more Black people will come!"

"Oh no!" some would say, "It's a total sausage fest in our group! Hey, let's make pink flyers so women (and flaming homos) will come!"

You get the idea.

You have a group, organization or institution finally noticing that something is rotten in the state of Denmark but instead of addressing how they set things up to exclude people and transforming how they do things, they tack on some sort of diversity initiative.

What's wrong with it? Well . . .

Instead of basing your actions on what we have to say for and about ourselves, you're going by what you think we want. Instead of asking us what would make your organization more attractive to us, you keep focusing on what you want out of us and setting yourself up as the one we have to prove our worth to. You're still putting us in the position of having to beg to sit at your table instead of you creating a space where we feel invited to do so. This is the same shit we have to deal with everywhere else.

Those are the top two that come to mind. I'm sure you can think of others.


  1. In other words......

    Get off your asses and actually do the work.

  2. @Neo:

    Stop that!

    *whisper* White people are looking at you!

  3. Tokenism is another one, but maybe that falls into your category #1. I'm talking about inviting one person of color onto the Board, and then expecting that person to bring lots of diverse audiences to the organization.

  4. I haven't seen this in theater, but I've seen it in classical music. Expecting to build an African-American audience through a special 3-concert series with African-American soloists on the program (oh, and one of the three concerts is jazz, which means you really only have to find two black classical soloists) also doesn't seem to work, though it might attract donors. I'm guessing there must be something similar at some theater, somewhere.