Thursday, August 07, 2008

Racism vs. Institutional Racism

Hi all,

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I had a lot more to say on the topic of race in the arts. Turns out in writing this, I have even more to say. (I believe I promised three follow-up blog entries after this one.) Stay tuned...



Why make a distinction between the actions of an organization and the culpability of its members or, indeed, its leader? Because it is essential that we not confuse racism with institutional racism. They are not the same thing! Our tendency to conflate these concepts is one of of the two biggest barriers in having any constructive dialogue about race and the performing arts. (I’ll discuss the other barrier in a separate post.)

So what is institutional racism? The term was introduced by black nationalist Stokely Carmichael in the late 1960’s. Though it was initially coined to describe the systemic exclusionary policies of government agencies and universities, it is equally applicable to the performing arts. Carmichael defines institutional racism as "the collective failure of an organization to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin".

Note the most important word in that definiton: collective. I’ll come back to this in a moment. First, I like to provide a concrete example of institutional racism in the theatre – one that clearly illustrates the difference between individual and collective racism.

In 2003, there was a global initiative called the Lysistrata Project. To protest the Bush Administration’s illegal invasion of Iraq, theatre artists around the world were encouraged to stage local readings of the classic Aristophanes anti-war comedy. There were several readings that took place in Toronto, one of them was a rental at Factory Theatre where I worked at the time. I remember going to see a rehearsal and being quite shocked to see sixteen Caucasian performers on stage.

What’s so shocking about this, you might wonder? Well, there was nothing in the artistic vision of this particular rendering that situated it in a culturally specific time or place. In other words, there was no reason to justify casting (or excluding) performers from a specific background. Given this, it’s not just strange to see an all-white cast, it’s a near-statistical impossibility. On this note, I’m going to put on my math geek hat. (It’s an embarrassing little beanie hat with a propeller on top. I rarely don it publicly for obvious reasons.)

Let’s create an idealized model where we’re casting our version of Lysistrata and we bring in an equal number of Caucasian and non-Caucasian performers. In our Platonic model, there is no talent gap so, statistically, there is a 50-50 chance that any Caucasian performer will be cast in our play.

But wait, you say. Even though the number of non-white citizens in Toronto is approaching fifty percent, there are way more Caucasian performers. Fair enough. Or, rather, unfair but undeniably true.

Also, is it right to assume there is no talent gap? Whoa. Talk about a powderkeg issue. Let’s leave that one alone for now; I’m going to dedicate yet another post to address it.

So, given the one undeniably true fact and the one contentious yet-to-be-debated supposition, we’ll readjust our odds so that a Caucasian perfomer has an 80% chance of being cast over a performer of colour. What do you suppose the odds are of having an all-white cast of sixteen? Even with the odds overwhelmingly tilted in the white actor’s favour, the probablity of having sixteen out of sixteen performers being Caucasian is just 2.8%.

Now let’s bring the Caucasian’s likelihood of being cast down to just 70% (still pretty good odds). The chance of casting sixteen Caucasians drops down to a tiny 0.33%.

Finally, let’s go back to our crazy, bong-induced Utopia where Caucasians and non-Caucasians both get cast exactly 50% of the time. The probability of seeing an all-white cast of sixteen are now a miniscule 0.0015%. That’s one time in 65,536. Even the Harlem Globetrotters’ opponents won more often than that. Hell, if you offered me 65,535-to-1 odds, I’d even bet on the Leafs winning the Stanley Cup.

So how did this happen? There must have been some nefarious agenda to shut out performers of colour to buck such incredibly low odds. And yet, there definitely wasn’t. I personally knew most of the sixteen performers. Some were (and are) very good friends. To call any of them racists would have been preposterous – certainly as preposterous as labelling Jackie Maxwell a racist.

So if the individuals in the collective were not racist how did this blatant act of exclusion occur? Here’s where we see the difference between racism and institutional racism – remember our Black Panther friend Stokely Carmichael?

In the case of this particular Lysistrata production, it was fairly obvious how the collective was formed. The links between artists were clearly delineated: X went to theatre school with Y who was at a summer festival with A, B, and C who was going out with D and so on and so on.

Two points can be gleaned. The first: Like tends to like. Nothing surprising here – we have a natural tendency to surround ourselves with the familiar. If we as artists always work within our tribes or divide ourselves according to race, there is no logical reason to assume that we will easily break out of our comfort zones and collaborate with one another. (A little corollary which I’ll expand in yet another post: it’s for this reason above that I’m slightly troubled by the way many mainstream theatre companies are choosing to “add diversity” to their programming. At Warehouse Theatre or Cardamom Theatre, the season typically looks like: White Show, White Show, Brown People, White Show, White Show. This cultural apartheid just perpetuates the Like tends to like cycle. More on this another time.)

The second point is much more important: A group of people who are individually virtuous and full of good will can sometimes do collective harm. This does not necessarily make them bad people.

This concept simultaneously liberates and implicates. It says that while no one person is to blame for institutional racism we all bear a collective responsibility to (if I may borrow Yankee-speak) make our unions more perfect.

For example, I’d like to assume that no one reading this is a proponent of torture or illegal detention. And yet, there’s a growing amount of evidence that the Canadian government – in the name of its citizens – has been guilty of extraordinary rendition and the suspension of habeas corpus. So as citizens, that sort of does make every single one of us torturers. Does that make us all evil? I can’t answer that. I’m not even sure it’s helpful to answer that. I only know that collective wrongs get amended by collective good will. Branding individuals as being good or evil can actually get in the way of creating collective good will.

This is why I am so adamant about not confusing the institution with the individual. If you think that the Shaw Festival is a racist institution, fine, make your arguments to support your claim.

But calling its artistic director a racist is an entirely different matter that you’d best not put in print unless you have real evidence. This is evidence: a letter to the country club chairman asking to kick out all the Jews, an “I [heart] Rush Limbaugh” bumper sticker, a KKK discount card (10 per cent off lawn crosses!). Merely running the Shaw Festival – whatever you may think of it – does not constitute evidence that an individual is a racist. If that’s all you’ve got, it’s a shameful and harmful claim to make in public.

More importantly, these kinds of careless individual attacks work at cross-purposes with the ultimate goal: making the arts more just and representative. A less temperate individual than Jackie might have used Bobby’s letter as a rallying cry to justify the perpetuation of an antiquated artistic vision. (Just think back to the Refugee Hotel incident or the Kimberly Glassco lawsuit.) A lot of exclusionary practices can be shielded under the rubric of artistic prerogative. If anything, we should be thankful that she has chosen to take the high road in responding to these charges.

I’ll finish by reiterating my point in the previous post: we don’t need these counter-productive distractions. Let’s find our common ground. To culturally diverse artists, I’d like to reassure you that many of the artistic directors of our larger institutions are aware that they do a poor job of representing minorities. We not only have a right, we have an obligation to question their programming decisions. But let’s stop giving them hateful labels – especially the ones who are trying to make a difference.

To the artistic directors I ask, what are you doing to override systemic discrimination in your organizations? Have you consulted with anyone in the diverse sector? Is the composition of your staff and your board diverse? Making change is tough. It’s a lot tougher if we don’t treat each other with respect.

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