There are many action steps I’m being encouraged to follow and public places I can convene in to demonstrate my dissent with the current administration… I propose…considering dialogue in the home as well.

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By age three or four, children in America across all racial groups understand, implicitly, that it is better to be White.

This research-backed statement, shared by Dr. Robin DiAngelo during a public lecture I attended last week floored me. I hope it hits you similarly, if you haven’t encountered it before.

How or where could they be getting this messaging from, many of my fellow White citizens might be wondering? Certainly we aren’t teaching this to our children. (Except those of us who are, but let’s leave that aside for today.)

Instead of diving didactically into research, I thought I share some on the fly analysis I did a few days seeing Dr. DiAngelo while watching a 2016 animated film with a White friend and her six year old daughter. The movie, which I’d never seen before was Norm of the North. (NOTN from hereon out).

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I’ll preface this by saying:

  1. I’m not a identity analyst expert.
  2. I watched the film once. I did not go back and fact-check numbers.
  3. I start with race but move to gender and color markers, and American English dominance.
  4. I hated this movie generally, as did others.

 

White People

The plot of NOTN revolves around the possibility of condos being built in the Arctic. We see early on that people are visiting the Arctic, but not living there: cut to shot of around six tourists, bundled up, taking pictures of the animals. All the tourists are White. The condo plot line is introduced: the owner (the antagonist of the film) and lead marketer are White, as is the entire film crew shooting a commercial. A family of three featured in a flashback are White, as are the other tourists in the group they’re with.

The setting of the movie transitions from the Arctic to New York City. All the people on the streets this New York are White… except… wait! There’s a quick panning shot and I caught two people who I thought were meant to be people of color… and then I definitely saw the first person of color in a quad of characters reacting to seeing a polar bear (Norm). He was a lighter toned Black male.

At the condo company’s advertising agency, there are a collection of actors waiting to audition to be the polar bear mascot; if the actor is not wearing his polar bear costume’s head, not only is it a male actor it is White male actor.

The Sushi restaurant that Norm is taken to has an entirely a mostly White clientele, but the chefs and owners are Asian (presumably Japanese). [UPDATE: in searching for images, I ran across one from this scene and saw a POC in the Sushi restaurant.] The two city council members are White. The reporters are all White.

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Not only is she sassy, but this Black female talk show host has a pink set!

The talk show host who welcomes Norm onto her show is likely modeled after Opera and so is a Black. (But being the only Black female in the movie she is also “sassy.”) There are a few other mass-of-people-on-the-streets shots in which the same Black male (or what looks shockingly like him) as the reaction shot early in the film appears. And at some point there’s a Latino character in a limo but honestly the movie was so bad that I was taking notes on this blog post and lost track of who he was. He, like the other characters of color were incidental.

And that’s it.

While, yes, the “evil” antagonist in the movie is White too, all the good-hearted human protagonists who help Norm on his mission to save his home are White.

And let’s top this all off by noting that the primary character of the entire film was a shinning white, aquamarine-eyed polar bear.

What message do you think that all sends children? In no way is the answer: it doesn’t.

Polar Bears and Lemmings

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Lemmings on bottom, polar bear on top.

In the first ten minutes of NOTN, we see a range of Arctic wildlife: caribou, orcas, and seals. The two animals featured prominently in NOTN are polar bears and lemmings. Polar bears are the leaders, they are special, fewer in number, grand, powerful, smart, and they have names—individual identities. Lemmings are prolific, short, workers, executers, comic relief, and they are referred to as “lemmings”—group identity only. Polar bears save the day. Lemmings assist with the saving, sure, but they also urinate in an office aquarium, fart extensively, and are intentionally jumped on top of to flattened and then pop-back into shape. Polar bear bodies are respected. There is no respect show to lemming bodies, even by lemmings themselves. Polar bears are White. Lemmings are Brown.

What message do you think that all sends children? In no way is the answer: it doesn’t.

Primacy of English

Norm the polar bear is able to save his Arctic home because he is “different”—he can communicate with people. (He also does a dance called the “Arctic Shake” but I digress.) Norm’s special ability is identified for him in his youth, show to us in flashback. Norm and a few polar bear friends encounter a human family (White, blonde) and Norm speaks. The little girl reacts to what he says, to his surprise. “You can understand me,” Norm asks. The little girl, in close-up, laughing (mockingly I might editorialize) at him replies affirmatively “you’re talking human.” The turn of phrase was so abnormal from the mouth of a child: you are talking human. This is the phrase used by an obviously American child character speaking English, to another American-sounding English speaking character. Albeit, a polar bear.

What message do you think that all sends children? In no way is the answer: it doesn’t.

Pink

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This is one pink bedroom. With soft pink lighting too!

The little girl who tells Norm he’s “talking human” is wearing pink, as is her mother. The condo marketer, the human female protagonist, is dressed in a full pink snowsuit. Her daughter’s room is entirely pink. The antagonist has a receptionist who is wearing a pink-purple dress. I developed a love for pink in my thirties; however: the use of colors for gender markers, particularly the wide-spread insidiousness use of pink, is deplorable.

What message do you think that all sends children? In no way is the answer: it doesn’t.

And so my question is…

What are we doing to counter these messages? NOTN is one bad movie to which, with hope, you have not been subjected. But there are countless good ones that contain similar messages leading toward the development of prejudices and unconscious biases early in life, and reinforcing them throughout. How can we heighten our awareness, maintain vigilance, and initiate conversations with our children, youth, teens, friends, spouses, parents, colleagues, and associates? We need to take advantage of every opportunity, even stinking rotten tomatoes like Norm of the North, to interrupt messages (and behaviors) we don’t want to continue. 

I’m working with the Arts Marketing Association UK’s Audience Diversity Academy (#ADA) as a mentor for their pilot round (July 2016-January 2017). One of my responsibilities is blogging. Here’s a post I wrote. To access posts from all the fellows and mentors, click here.


I approach my work with an experimental state of mind and tend to forget, as we all do, that not everyone shares my world view. In a session with one of my academy fellows, I was reminded how intimidating the word “experiment” can be. That word alone was holding her it back. It was her kryptonite. Every time she heard “experiment” she thought “laborious and detailed,” “precise and sterile,” and “complicated, boring, and HARD TO DO AND NO ONE WILL WANT TO DO IT INCLUDING ME.”**

And it doesn’t matter if you pair “experiment” with terms like “agile” because the predominant narrative or implicit bias is the one around “experiment.”

So step one is to change the narrative; step two is to put yourself in the experimental state of mind.

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Audience activity from dog & pony dc’s workshop of TOAST; photo by Teresa Wood.

CREATIVE (& FUN)

Picture a cartoon chemist in her lab. She’s wearing big owl-eyed glasses that hang from a beaded chain around her neck and a white lab coat. The light-filled lab is packed with colorful liquids in glass flasks connected by tubing. The chemist carefully pours solid-colored liquids from two different test tubes into a beaker and it yields–a rainbow colored result! And then explodes with sparkling smoke and leaves her hair all wackadoo. “That wasn’t what I expected,” she exclaims and makes notes on a pad. She’s smiling, because experimenting is creative and fun. It’s a creative and fun activity that’s designed to teach you something. This is the change in the narrative that my academy fellow needed to make first and foremost. Whenever you see, hear, or say “experiment” replace the word with “learn something in a creative and fun way.” “Creative and fun” is also the fundamental principle for the “experimental state of mind,” especially for all of us working in the arts. Why would we want it any other way?

(And “fun”? It’s a flexible term, obviously. But I’d wager we can agree that completing a written survey via email or paper with likert scale questions is neither fun nor creative.)

NO THING IS TOO SMALL

For the academy, the AMA created a great form called a “progress record” for the fellows to track their experiments. (Forms–not commonly considered creative or fun, but incredible handy none the less.) When shaping an experiment in the context of systemic change (like diversity) and asked to track progress, suddenly there’s an overwhelming feeling that the experiment needs to be long, interconnected series of events with a (positive) growth outcome. This is not the way to exist in an experimental state of mind. Get zen and think small. Remember that an experiment is a planned activity from which you hope to learn something. Any intentional divergence from the status quo could be considered an experiment. The way you facilitate one meeting could be an experiment. The types of questions you ask during that meeting could be an experiment. The method you collect answers can be an experiment. It can feel a bit silly when you’re working systemically and long term, thinking tactically and practically IS the experimental way.

ALWAYS WINNING

When you adopt the experimental mindset and the emphasis is on what you’re taking away from each of your activities the emphasis is always on what you learned. You line up the experiments, one after another. What did I expect? What happened? What did I learn? What will I do differently next time? Then repeat! This means the emphasis is on the quality of the learning not the execution of the experiment. I believe that’s why experimenting in the arts is often labeled “working scrappy” and can bring about a little experimenter shame. Eff-that! Trying to be perfect is antithetical to the experimental state of mind. It means you already know the answer; it means people might mess up your experiment. Our experiments in the arts around audience and diversity all have people at the center and therefore must be inviting. (See point #1 about creative and fun.) More importantly, we should not ever expect to know what the answers will be. Experiments begin with a question or a hypothesis, and we should expect to–even be excited about–discovering our previous understanding was completely off base. That we were wrong. This means we were “failing.” Hooray! Now we can “fail forward,” learning from our experiment and, we hope, make improvements. Learning is winning.

To wrap up, the experimental state of mind is not for everyone. Some of us come from a fixed mindset rather than a growth one. Fixed mindset folks like established routines and avoid challenges; nothing wrong with that at all. Those of us who are looking for change could stand to adopt some experimental practices. Remembering to think small and look for opportunities to experiment everywhere, emphasize the learning no matter to outcome, and permit yourself to be creative and fun will flip the script of what creating experiments is all about. Now what are you waiting for–get to work!

 

** On the other hand: some will think that if you’re only doing an “experiment” it’s not real or valid work. That it can’t amount to anything, build a foundation, or propel your forward. Not so at all. It’s the foundation of a growth-mindset environment in which you are working responsively to the world around you.

Getting out of your box

December 21, 2016 — Leave a comment

I’ve been thinking about boxes lately. Like in terms of the old adage “think outside the box.”

Each of us has our own box that we operate out of, from which to “think outside.” Those boxes can be of vastly different sizes. To travel to an edge, scale the box wall, and get outside of it can vary in time. This is why some of us are able to (and comfortable with) making that journey more frequently and with greater ease.

I wonder if we have “risk boxes”: how much does it take us plain_box_group_webto get comfortable with the idea of being involved with uncertain situations and then actually start taking chances of different degrees of unpredictability and instability.

I also wonder if we also have “normalcy boxes”: how much of journey do we need to make to have our conventional understanding of the world challenged and then start looking through other lenses and accepting other frameworks.

No matter what type of box, until we acknowledge there’s a “beyond the box” we’ll forever remain inside our current box. And the interior of that box will grow in size, making the distance to its edges longer.

While I want to analyze the other racial dynamics at play, the only one that matters is the big one, the one I recognized immediately and then ignored: White Fragility.

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Show of hands: who would be significantly unsettled, if not be completely terrified, by the idea of handing over your organizational social account to stranger for a day? Login, password, the whole kit and caboodle?

I’m not saying this is you, current hand raiser, but I was reminded that this is still viewed as a highly risky digital-based audience engagement strategy. Why? Because in the end we in the arts are more concerned about maintaining control than we are about engagement.

13698055_10209328921352477_3418008333301346286_oLast week I had the pleasure of running a session (twice) at the Arts Marketing Association U.K. conference I cheekily call “Eff-Up the Pop-Up” (first iteration developed at NAMP). It’s targeted toward arts managers interested in interacting more meaningfully with current audiences and/or audiences “inclined toward coming through the door.”

The session was developed on these assumptions:

  • We get stuck in habits of practice.
  • We don’t approach our work creatively, like artists.
  • We interact with audience as a monolithic whole, not as collection of individuals with different behavior patterns.
  • We adopt audience engagement programs and practices, and deploy them regularly, without analyzing whether they’re right for the artist, artwork(s), types of engagers in our audience, or the impact we want to have.
  • We want to be in control more than we want to engage.

I shared with attendees that our jobs are to consider how we can develop a sweep of activities that would more intimately entangle the art, audience, and artist (which includes the producing or curating organization). Every artwork presents us with a new opportunity; we need to consider how to develop a number of new entry points for different types of engagers to entangle themselves. We can do this by “effing-up” strategies used before, but keeping in mind who we want to engage and the impact we are interested having this time around. But what we can’t do is control the outcome, we can simply create the platform (or platforms).

I gave an example before we moved into the practical “effing-up” section of the workshop. And this is where unconscious prioritizing of “maintaining control” surfaced.

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My words illustrated by Carolyn Sewell

My example: I gave a 30-min talk for CreativeMornings/DC in February 2015 around the theme “Climate.” My thesis: changing the climate in the room, in a theatre. During my talk I was allowed (after much conversation with the organizers) to engage the attendees in a basic participatory experience. It involved Rock-Paper-Scissors and Thumb Wars, and the Prologue to Romeo & Juliet. (My colleague Wyckham Avery and I have since gone on to refine and use this in multiple workshops–it’s so much fun!) But if we look at this from a work of art framework, this was participation embedded within the performance itself (my talk). Not an activity designed to more intimately entangle the audience with me, CreativeMornings/DC, and theatre.

So I created an engagement program that was an “eff-up” of Twitter take-overs. It was an expression of my interests in integrating audience into performance,  creating performance on social, and changing the climate. I handed over dog & pony dc‘s Twitter account to the 150-ish people and told them it was their’s for the next 24-hours. From my speech notes:

We are inviting you to the task to interrupt a ritual, take a picture, and post it. Invest in make believe, take a picture, and post it. Challenge our followers to do something that involves one of these tasks. The agency is yours. Do with it what you will. We trust you.

Like any live performance, the great CreativeMornings/DC Twitter experiment was ephemeral. You can’t document continual changes to profile and cover pictures and organization description, but this Storify captures some of what occurred.

That was the example I gave at my AMA conference session about how to “eff-up” an audience engagement strategy (Twitter Takeover) that’s also a commonly deployed marketing strategy. (See here. And here.  Two random Google search results.)

Questions from my AMA session attendees arose immediately: How could I do this? Did anything go wrong? What if something bad happens?  Me: Like what? Them: Like someone says something inappropriate? Me: Like someone posts a video [raises middle fingers and fake says string of expletives]?

This is what stops us, right? Fear of something going terribly wrong. And, to a small extent, rightfully so. There’s this story which I read a few weeks before giving my CreativeMornings/DC talk in 2015 full of people posting “innocent” but IMHO foolish statements and pictures on social, and then be severely and continually punished. Or consider the confused reaction on social of Beyoncé fans after Lemonade was released. Poor Rachel Ray was never “Becky with the good hair” but she definitely got a lot of shade thrown her way. However: these are examples of the Twitteratti or fans gone wildly  negative, not examples of arts organizations intentionally and creatively using social to involve digital engagers.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not advocating for anyone to do what dog & pony dc and I did. It was right for me/us on that day.

But engagement is a two-way street. If you aren’t trusting your audience, they aren’t going to trust you. If you aren’t providing agency to most or all of them, seeking to actively engage them how they prefer, then only the few who are already engaging will continue to do so. The rest will never move from their current relationship level with you.

You, like some of the AMA conference attendees, might look at my CreativeMornings/DC Twitter experiment example and say “I could never do that.” Well 1) maybe that’s not the strategy for you; 2) maybe you could in a different format. But don’t make it an end stop, make it a point of departure. An inspiration.

Seth Godin recently wrote about the difference between objections vs. excuses. He suggests that people make objections because there’s something in the way of them saying “yes” and if they can get around it, then s/he can progress. “An objection is an invitation, a request for help in solving a problem. Excuses, on the other hand, are merely fear out loud.”

To Godin’s differentiation I respond: right on! If we are committed to engagement, committed to breaking out of our habits of practice, we have to break our habits of maintaining total control. So object, and then seek a creative solution with others that provides agency to your audience. This is what’s going to move us all forward toward more intimate entanglements between art, artist, and audience.

Which version have you seen more often?

My first encounter with Peggy McIntosh‘s concept of “the invisible knapsack” was in 1999. I was 23 years old. I had just moved to Washington, DC a few months prior to work at Arena Stage in the education department (a two person plus an intern office at that time). We were to work closely with Living Stage Theatre Company, seek alignment between the “two organizations” (not really separate since Living Stage was a part of Arena but that’s another story). The entire staff at Living Stage and the education department went through an intensive, multi-day anti-racism/anti-oppression training with the great Rebecca Rice and Erika Thorne. I contextualize because it was a gift I thank the universe for every day.

It was the first time I became aware of the reality of systemic racism, White supremacy, and the backpack of privilege I carry with me everywhere.

walking-backpacks-canvas-rucksack-backpack-for-school.jpgW.E.B. Du Bois described the concept of “psychological wage”in his 1935 essay Black Reconstruction in America. It was a mindset, a status boost, that allowed White laborers to feel superior, to feel better-than Black ones in the workplace despite being on the same employment level. Du Bois would go on to identify the colonial activity of Europeans and subsequent “White supremacy” across the world. While the term “white-skin privilege” was used during the Civil Rights era by activities, it wasn’t until Peggy McIntosh, a Women’s Studies scholar at Wellesley, wrote her essay “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies” in 1988 that the term gained traction.

McIntosh, a White woman like me, was “taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group.” But in methodically going through and identifying the daily, seemingly mundane effects of her White Privilege–her mind was blown.

My mind was also blown when my knapsack was pointed out in 1999… and I journeyed through a series of extremely typical responses people of privilege do when confronted for the first time (in this case White people confronted with White privilege and systemic racism):

  • What?!? No!
  • Sure, but not me? I’m not like that.
  • All White people!?!?
  • But I’ve had friends who are not White. I’ve dated non-Whites. I’ve….
  • Does this mean [enter Black friend’s name] won’t be my friend anymore?
  • Not me.
  • Oh my, me? Me? 

And this was not a five-minute journey. And there was crying. Because of course there was. There was a lot of guilt. There were long periods of knapsack removal and ignoring attempts. There was a long stretch of extreme over-compensation in which I was the most obnoxious “righteous not-listening person because ‘I am a person in-the-know’.”

At this point, I think I’m in a phase of perpetual “working on it.” But that’s a wobbly phase. The knapsack, it is invisible and therefore so easy to forget. There’s no ridding myself of it. There’s no emptying it. Somedays I am back in my “not-listening person” state and bless the patience of everyone around me as I swing my knapsack around and point screaming at all the knapsacks on everyone around me. [shudders at self with embarrassment, then gets over it]

The point: privilege is a knapsack society packed for us and slapped on our backs. The first step on the journey is acknowledging it’s there.

Is that your bag? Yup.


Not familiar with McIntosh’s article? Follow this link for a commonly excerpted version.

A privilege is an advantage, or right, or opportunity, or pleasure, or immunity granted to a particular person or group of people. “Privilege” is the holding of a set of advantages, rights, opportunities, pleasures, and/or immunities as a person or group of people. By definition it means there are others who do are disadvantaged, left out and behind, uncomfortable, pained. By definition it means there is imbalance and inequality (according to yesterday’s post, does it imply those who are “unlucky” according to “the system’s standards”).

Another definition of privilege I’ve encountered, from Facebook of all places, is this: “Privilege is when you think something is not a problem because it is not a problem to you personally.”
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Phoenix Calida defined and broke-down “privilege” thusly:

Privilege simply means that under the exact same set of circumstances your in, life would be harder without your privilege.
Being poor is hard. Being poor and disabled is harder.
Being a woman is hard. Being a trans woman is harder.
Being a white woman is hard, being a woman of color is harder.
Being a black man is hard, being a gay black man is harder.

This does not mean that having privilege, unearned advantages, in any area automatically makes life “better.” But it does mean “all things being equal” doesn’t exist. The starting line will always be ahead. Less metaphorically, it means that anyone holding privilege is more likely to have power or being in positions of power. They are more likely to share this power with people “like them.” And power-sharing, whether it’s investment tips, a role in a play, or the benefit of the doubt when stopped by the police for a minor traffic violation, increases the “betterment” for only some.


Are there definitions of privilege you’ve found useful? Please share. In this case: sharing knowledge to all –> empowering all to affect positive change.

Fairness & Privilege

February 1, 2016 — Leave a comment

Challenging myself this month to more openly reach out to my White, non-disabled, Hearing colleague with my writing. Seeking to share my perspectives, as jumbled as they may be right now at the point in the journey I’m on, and encourage more dialogue about diversity, inclusion, access, and equity. A fool’s errand? An out for my ramblings? Possibly both. I hope you’ll humor me. I hope you’ll join me.  – rg

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G7417224cd87375308aebd27ee55cf597.jpgrowing up with a sibling, the desire for equality burned in heart, I saw personal injustice everywhere, and the phrase “that’s not fair” lived on the tip of my tongue, ready to be unleashed on the adults around us.

But, looking back on this behavior, I am embarrassed. I know despite any challenges we may have faced how “lucky” we were to have been raised in a two-parent household, to never go hungry, to always have a roof over our heads, to have access to high quality medical care, to have been able to attend college, for her to be able to attend graduate school. This “luck” is a result of the privilege we inherited from our ancestors, who happened to be White non-disabled U.S. citizens. Yes, my father’s parents are Jewish and, yes, my sister and I are both cis-gender female. This does afford us less privilege than, say, a Christian Anglo-American cis-gender male United States citizen. And yet, we are doing just fine by comparison. Consider a handful of stats:

  • Young black boys/men, ages 15-19, are 21 times more likely to be to be shot and killed by the police than young white boys/men
  • In April 2015, the unemployment rate for White U.S. Citizens was around 4.7%.  At that time, ABC News reported that the unemployment rate for Black citizens had landed at a “seven year low of 9.6%.”
  • Repeated studies have been released over the past few years demonstrating managers’ preferencing job candidates with names who sounded “more White” than “more Black.” Managers have also expressed less preference for a candidate with the exact same qualifications when the candidate was identified as female rather than male.

As I continue to educate myself, and hopefully in the process broaden my perspective, develop a deeper understanding of what “fairness” actually means in this world, I continue to revisit the many privileges I possess. And, I humbly hope, position myself to advocate for greater equity. Because right now, things sure as hell aren’t fair.