At the first event in a workshop series called Building Equity in the Arts, almost 20 people of mixed backgrounds spent three hours last Thursday night in open dialogue about how they experience racism in the arts. For those readers who instantly shudder at the thought, you are right—this was not a comfortable evening, because talking about race in America means acknowledging systematic inequality, injustice, violence, grief, and the guilt of white privilege.
By the end of the event, however, sharing the pain and discomfort we all feel (in our different ways) about racism had made us into a community. We may never again have exactly those people in that space meeting together, so it was a community for just a few hours, but it was real. And we delved into some deep, important issues: recognizing structures of injustice, acknowledging our own responsibilities to combat racism, the effects of the “white savior complex,” and much more. The part of the evening that seemed to be most impactful for many of the attendees was the introduction of the “Poisoned Tree of Structural Racism,” an interactive visual art project to which the whole group contributed while educating each other about how racism pervades all of society, with the arts being no exception.
The downtown event, “Mapping Racism in the Arts” was a dynamic and hybrid production in so many ways. Collaboratively imagined in consultation with Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council staff, the event was designed and facilitated by activist-artists etta cetera and Bekezela Mguni. They were familiar with theory as well as action, used multimedia art to inspire discussion, varied the format in which people shared their thoughts and emotions, and included activities with different goals. We were invited to think about racism as it affects us personally but also to think about how to take our learning back to our organizations. The varied nature of the activities models a type of inclusion to which we can all aspire, in which we not only recognize that diversity (meaning differences) exist all around us, but also intentionally create expanded opportunities for all peoples to participate in our communities.
This is why the Coalition for Racial Equity in the Arts, facilitated by GPAC, wants to make regular and routine space for talking about structural inequities that affect all of our lives but make us uncomfortable to think about. If we never address “the elephant in the room,” then we never stop being strangers and we all suffer. Art is a reflection of “the real world” and we need to communicate, express, share, and together better understand what it means to be human.
Poisoned Tree of Racism, from "Mapping Racism in the Arts" program on October 16