Given the appropriate outpouring of condemnation that’s overflowed my social media newsfeeds since White Nationalists, Nazis, Far Right, and other all-White racist hate groups converged on Charlottesville, VA last weekend, I wanted to highlight two maneuvers of mental gymnastics which help White people protect themselves.

Racists are Evil

I saw this image on FaceBook a lot Saturday and Sunday:

It reinforces what I read and heard repeatedly about the White people featured in it and their peers—“Racists are evil.”

So. Robin DiAngelo calls this mental gymnastics maneuver the “Racist/Not Racist” binary. It reinforces that the “people who commit these acts are considered racists; the rest of us are not racists.” Here’s the way Robin breaks it down in her book What does it mean to be White?

I like to shorthand this the “Good/Bad” binary. Because being associated with racism brings up all sorts of uncomfortable feelings for White people, and makes us feel like we’re associated with those hate mongering wack-jobs and no one wants to feel like that!

But friends, all White people are racist. This is the face of racism in the United States too:

And the sooner we start confronting that directly—which involves working through the endless swamp of discomfort—the sooner our life-long journey toward being a White Anti-Racist begins.

White Supremacists vs White Supremacy

Not gonna lie, I had a strong distasted for the word “supremacy” and the term “White Supremacy” for years. I avoided it completely. I used White Privilege, acknowledging my own. I would say White people in America are the dominant or majority group in a systemically racist country, and acknowledge I was White. But I would not say ever that I was part of White Supremacy.

Over time, I recognized I was holding my personal anti-racism development back because of it. Even though I was “woke” (as the kids say) I was still deeply rooted in the Racist|Not-Racist or Good|Bad binary. Supremacists and supremacy are the same when you’re stuck in the binary. “Supremacists” were bad. “I” was not one of “THEM.” I didn’t really categorize most White people as one of “THEM” either. And therefore, that phrase “White Supremacy” couldn’t be true.

It’s hard to admit that only a year and half ago did I realize the complex gymnastics I was engaged in to avoid confronting my own racism. I was othering “White Supremacists,” making them “bad,” differentiating them from me so that I could be “not racist” and “good.” It was a sign of my White Fragility.

To this day and for the rest of my life I’ll remain entangled in the “racist = bad | not racist = good” binary. But I know that I can see systemic racism more clearly after having accepted that there is White Supremacy in the United States. It means I see the dynamics for what they are: a legacy established by White people at the expense of People of Color that is still active to this day. That’s White Supremacy.

So let’s circle back to that “appropriate outpouring of condemnation” filling my social media newsfeeds. Please condemn the abusive and violent behavior that occurred this past weekend. But what actions can we balance our declarations with? Let’s make sure that we are not tolerating the open and obvious demonstrations of racism and race-motivated hate crimes in Charlottesville, as well as not tolerating the camouflaged or obscured demonstrations of racism in our workplaces and homes.

My dear fellow White people, we too are the face of racism.

We too are White Supremacy Culture.

Now let’s do something about it.


Get yourself started:

Code of Ethics for Antiracist White Allies

By JLove Calderon and Tim Wise

Sponsored by SURJ-Showing Up For Racial Justice

Excerpted from Occupying Privilege; Conversations on Love, Race, and Liberation

By their actions, they did not dream the American Dream, they willed it into being by a definition of their own choosing. They did not ask to be accepted but declared themselves the Americans that perhaps few others recognized but that they had always been deep within their hearts. 

Minutes ago I finished the wonderful book The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. The book examines the migration of Black U.S. citizens from the South to northern and western cities between 1915 and 1970. It’s one of the most rich, involving, relevant, scholarly, and smooth-reading non-fiction books I’ve read, possibly ever.

This post opens with the closing sentences of the epilogue from Other Suns. Before I go further, I need to honor Wilkerson, this book, and the lives of close-to six million Black people it chronicles. Thank you.

As an author–an artist of written English–Wilkerson’s words stuck me deeply, like deeply, because of their immediate, contemporary relevance. With tremendous respect to her and those she was writing about, I’d like to rearrange them a little here:

“By their actions, they willed into being a definition of the American Dream of their own choosing. They declared themselves the Americans they had always been deep within their hearts.”

Ponder this for a moment? As if you were one of the “their” and “they” referred to.

So the quote from Other Suns reminded me of this declaration:

The world is full of intellectuals, but it is in need of reckless imagination.

It was made by Pastor Michael Walrond (“Pastor Mike”) of Harlem’s First Corinthian Baptist Church during a keynote he gave at a Theatre Communications Group convening in 2015.

It was part of larger speech about artists being “cultural architects” positioned to “help people learn to see the best in themselves and help them see the power in who they are.” Cultural architects can help “reimagine this world and trust me, I tell people all the time, the wounded soul of this world is groaning for more creative beings”

Ponder this for a moment? In light of my rearranging of Wilkerson’s words.

Increasingly over the last year and half, more United States residents are experiencing feelings of dissatisfaction, betrayal, rage, confusion, discomfort, and, most importantly, a need to do something. An internal need to act.

And there’s been platforms and opportunities like Shaun King’s Injustice Boycott, Van Jones’ Love Army, the Women’s March, and the amazing Safety Pin Box through which people can take actions of all sizes and durations.

On an individual level, people are also seeking out more meaningful conversations with others that bridge rather than cleave. Worldview-expanding dialogue is happening more at the water-cooler, in coffeeshops, in our homes, and, yes, even on Facebook than before. People are seeking to square the country they thought they were living in, with the one they appear to be (or, let’s face it, are) living in, with the citizen they want to be.

Who is supporting the shaping of a definition of the American Dream of the people’s choosing? Who brings people in communion so they can investigate this “thing” that is deep within their own hearts? Who has the tools to foster the shaping and transmitting of declarations of what it means to be American? In a world full of intellectuals, who is fueling and compelling us forward with reckless imagination?

Artists.

Art.

Art connects people. Art highlights the vibrancy of our cities. Artists can and should play an integral role within their home communities and the country at large. Artists have the power to convene. The power to imagine-with. The power to rally, support, and advance.

The American deep within my heart is one who believes that art saves lives. It believes we should call forth artists, evoke the service of art; maybe even demand it.

The American deep within my heart believes our country should support the arts and humanities. Because we need it more than ever.

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For talking points about how to talk about saving the NEA, go no further than “How to Talk about Saving the NEA” by the brilliant Margy Waller.

Or, if you must go the TL;DR rout, here are bullet points of the article distilled by Jamie Bennett on Facebook:

  • We face challenges in part because there is a widely held view of the arts as something other people enjoy-especially rich, older, white people. And if that’s the case, it’s hard for people to see why the arts should benefit from public funding. So when our messengers are heads of major arts organizations housed in the intimidating temples of architecture in major cities, we trigger thinking of the arts as something for the elite. This isn’t true and it undermines our efforts to change the landscape of public understanding, build new supporters, and create political space for decision-makers.
  • When advocates talk about art as a transcendent experience, important to well-being, a universal human need, etc., they are reinforcing a focus on private, individual concerns, not public, communal concerns. While many people like these messages, the messages don’t help them think of art as a contributor to community quality of life.
  • A thriving arts sector creates ripple effects of benefits throughout our community, even for those who don’t attend.
  • People already believe these benefits exist – they don’t need studies or new data to get it. It’s just not the first thing they think about when they hear us talking about the arts. Our messages can build support by reminding people that they value the way the arts strengthen places and bring people together.
  • We can’t say the sky is falling-that undermines our efforts because most people won’t agree with us. We should advocate for good policy on immigration and health care, etc. because these changes could be incredibly devastating to the arts, artists and the communities where they live. *It’s not responsible to fight only for the NEA budget in the face of other damaging proposals.*

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


Before I started writing this blog post, I did the following:

Read the newspaper
Check Facebook
Check Twitter
Think about the other blog post I had to write
Check personal email account
Text
Start writing the other blog post
Check Facebook
Text
Read a few online articles
Make a cup of tea
Text
Have a Skype date
Facebook
Text
Email
Think about this blog post
Make a snack and eat it
Start writing this blog post

To rush to my defense: it was a Saturday and I was sick, my spouse was out of town, the house was clean, I canceled my work engagement. I didn’t need to do anything. And yet: an invisible force compelled me to compose two blog posts.

heart lightThe invisible force resulted from the value of “productivity”—being active and yielding a result, outcome, or accomplishment. I value productivity and I will prioritize productive activities vs. non-productive ones (like streaming crap television), even when I’m under the weather. It makes me feel good. Obviously this doesn’t mean I work in a streamlined manner, because I also value creativity and the creative process. I understand it takes time to knit ideas together. In order to produce two blog posts, my mind needed to wander and web. So I negotiated the intersection of productivity and creativity throughout the day, working my way toward my end goal of two blog posts.

Likely at this point you are asking yourself “What does this have to do with working agilely and engaging new and diverse audiences?!?”

Answer: everything.

No one who works in the arts, heritage, and culture sectors is walking around declaring “inclusion?—who needs that!? not my value!” (Or not openly.) Arts, heritage, and culture organizations tend to be ardent supporters of diversity and inclusion. Practitioners and employees want everyone to be able to celebrate and exchange, learn and be transformed from their experiences artistic experiences. However: most don’t have “inclusion” as a core value of their organization, stated alongside, for example “artistic excellence.” This means: “inclusion” will never have an invisible force compelling practitioners and employees to negotiate it with other values. When “inclusion” is an implicit or implied value, one deeply-held-but-never-discussed, it’s a sure bet that it’s not understood or shared in common, and almost never actively worked toward.

While one can’t simply fire up all cylinders and race to a finish line of becoming an inclusive organization from top to bottom, you can begin to prioritize diversity and inclusion focused programs. And definitely get involved with initiatives like the AMA’s Audience Diversity Academy that provide guidance, resources, and structure.

Structure is key. The Academy was designed to focus on exploring “small bites”—questions of diversity, examining organizational culture, creating new metrics for success and different ways of measuring them, tackling a long term, strategic and systemic problem with short term tactical experiments. The Audience Diversity Academy worked on diversity (the representation of people from diverse backgrounds represented throughout) and not inclusion (a mindset and practice—like yoga—of active, intentional, and ongoing engagement of the diversity of an organization, its culture, its programming, in order to create equal access, well being, and a sense of belonging for all.)  Being involved in the Academy provided its Fellows a first step toward defining the value of inclusion with their organizations, but it is only because they prioritized working on diversity. It is a muscle that needs exercise. Overtime, as diversity increases as an internalize priority for everyone, inclusion becomes a necessity.  

Defining, exercising, and building your values—not easy! Makes me think of the Important/Urgent Matrix: you draw an X-Y axis where Y = Important and X = Urgent, resulting in four quadrants: Important and Urgent; Un-important and Urgent; Important and not-Urgent Un-important and not-Urgent.
urgent-important-matrix (1)Handy in many ways, but I’m gonna put a different spin on it here. If we don’t have a value, with its corresponding invisible force, telling us a body of work should be done… that body of work defaults to the bottom of the “Un-important and not-Urgent” quadrant. What would it take to move it and keep in the “Important and Urgent” quadrant? Can you image how united that artful community would be? Anything might be possible.

watchman-train

Looking back, it was hardly coincidental that I picked up Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman shortly after DJT was elected to office. It was clearly the catalyst for my first steps of in-the-home activism.

atticus-finch

Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in the 1962 film of To Kill a Mockingbird

Watchman takes place in the 1950s, 20 years after To Kill a Mockingbird. Scout—now called Jean Louise—returns to her hometown of Maycomb, GA from New York City where she’s been living and working. She discovers [SPOILER ALERT] that her father, Atticus Finch, is not the morally upstanding, liberal-leaning, “everyone is equal” touting man she thought he was. Instead we learn that Atticus is in fact a more complex person, a more realistic character; we learn Atticus is a White man in a position of power attempting to maintain the status quo of White Supremacy in Maycomb.

(Slight divergence: Jean Louise’s recognition of Atticus’ true and full self instantly reminded me of my various “awakening” moments to systemic racism and other forms of oppression over the course of my life this far.)

It’s revealed in Watchman that Jean Louise escaped to New York City. She fled the tight confines of Maycomb and the South: those confines that she could see or feel directly. Despite being reared in the Deep South, Jean Louise was raised “color blind” (and thought her father was as well). She was “woke” to gender, race, and class prejudice and would bluntly call it out, but she was “blind” to structural oppression and participated in upholding it—as most citizens did and do on a daily basis. Other than railing against Maycomb citizens (royally pissing them off) and family members (hurting their feelings) Jean Louise takes little action to effect change. She kicks up dirt and runs away, again and again.

Finally, at the end of the novel her Uncle Jack asks

“Jean Louise, have you ever thought about coming home?….You may not know it, but there’s room for you down here.”…. You’d be amazed if you knew how many people are on your side, if side’s the right word. You’re no special case. The woods are full of people like you, but we need some more of you.”

She started the car and backed down the driveway. She said, “What on earth could I do? I can’t fight them. There’s no fight in me any more…”

“I don’t mean fighting; I mean by going to work every morning, coming home at night, seeing your friends.”

“Uncle Jack, I can’t live in a place that I don’t agree with and that doesn’t agree with me.”

It’s the next part that got me:

“…the time your friends need you is when they’re wrong, Jean Louise. They don’t need you when they’re right—”

“I mean it takes a certain maturity to live in the South these days. You don’t have it yet, but you have a shadow of the beginnings of it. You haven’t the humbleness of mind—”

“I thought fear of the Lord was the beginning of wisdom.”

“It’s the same thing. Humility.”

I came to understand that the rail-and-run technique was personally and professionally ineffectual about a year and a half ago. I paid a price for it, and have worked against feelings of self-righteous motivated activist since. But what I hadn’t done was gone home and sought to engage my family members. I had not yet tried to humbly interact with their true and full selves around the topic of race and our Whiteness.

Luckily, I these conversations were happening with my husband. So I asked if he would be open to gifting ) Robin DiAngelo’s book What does it mean to be White? to the four households in our immediate family (my parents; my sister and her partner; my mother-in-law; my brother- and sister-in-law). He agreed.

When holiday time came, each book was accompanied by a letter (the text of which I included at the bottom of this post). We asked that family members “exchange with us the gift of conversation around [the book’s] contents in the coming months.”

I can report that the books were received well and some family members have started reading them. I’ve already had more nuanced conversations with my parents—one of which hasn’t started the book—about race and Whiteness in 2017 than I have in my life. My husband reported having at least one reflective conversation with his mother, who I believe hadn’t started the book at that time but has as of today.

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, its actions thus far, and what I/we assume will be its actions moving forward. I propose, like Uncle Jack, considering dialogue in the home as well. The Powers That Be run strong, deep, and silent. Examining them openly as a family might be one of the cornerstones of change for the future.


Dear ____name____:

This holiday season, we want to share with you the gift of the book What does it mean to be White? and ask that you exchange with us the gift of conversation around its contents in the coming months.

Our lives are gifted with abundance. We have loving parents, siblings, siblings-in-law, a beautiful niece, and cuddly pets. All of us have places to live. We are all employed and/or have the means to eat, be clean and clothed, transport ourselves places, and maintain our health. We have strong support networks.

It is because our lives are gifted with abundance, with privilege, that we don’t want to take this for granted. We want to actively be responsible citizens at the national level, local level, and family level.

We’re all White and we live in an increasingly multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural country. This past year, we’ve clearly seen how deeply racism still runs in this country. And this past year has forced us to confront the reality that we (personally) aren’t addressing racism, our White identity, and Whiteness in all the ways we could be.

We want to talk with you about these highly important topics. We see this book as a way to begin to have the conversation. And maybe, this way, we can work toward effecting positive change in our country (and the world) by starting in our homes.

We love you all very much.

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.

norm_of_the_north_2016_7454243

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

norm-of-north

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.

photo-by-teresa-wood-from-dog-pony-dcs-workshop-of-toast

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.

A scene from late summer 2016:

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

I enter a Metro train at the rear and take a seat. I can see the entire car. It’s partially full, populated with the typical diversity of people that ride that line in the middle of the day–a mix of ages and races, suits and casual wear, obvious tourists and those who seem more like locals.

There are two female teenagers talking and laughing in the bank of seats directly in front of me. For two station stops they remain in their own world, focused on cracking each other up. But then their attention turns to a couple, an early-20s woman and man, sitting in the bank of seats immediately to their left.

“Hey. Hey!  HEY!”

One of the teens repeatedly tries to get the young woman’s attention.

After numerous “heys,” she switches to: “Is that your boyfriend? Hey! Is that your boyfriend? Hey, HEY! Are you two together? Are you dating? Is that your boyfriend?”

The male in the couple appears to realize the teen is addressing them. He nudges his female companion, they confer, and she looks at the teen. “Is that your boyfriend?” The woman shakes her head and he says “No.”

“Oh, you’re just friends,” says the teen.

“Yes. Just friends.”

The teens burst into laughter.

They start again: “Hey. Hey. Hey, do you speak English?” The young woman and man attempt to ignore, but it’s difficult. Impossible. The teens’ volume increases and they were already loud enough to draw all of us in at the start. Most everyone on the train was listening, watching. After repeating “do you speak English” five or so more times, the woman responds “no.”

The teens crack up again.

Then they start in a new direction: postulating how the couple must talk.  It’s basically unintelligible except for phrases like “ching-chong-china.” A middle-aged woman a few rows away whips her head around and stares coldly at the backs of two teens’ heads; she rises and moves further away on the train.

Finally, a woman in her mid-50s who had been sitting to my immediate right the entire time approaches the teens and says something in a low voice just before exiting the train. The two are quiet for a moment, but then laugh and continue with their mockery of the way people of Asian heritage speak.

I exit the train two stops later having said nothing.

The teens were African American. The young couple was of Asian heritage; possibly Southeast Asia. The older woman, who spoke to the teens, was African American. I am White.

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.

I witnessed this entire scene play out some four months ago and did nothing. I recognized immediately my inaction was the result of White Fragility and I tampered the urge to overcome it. In the moment, I actually assumed that no one on the train was expecting me to do anything because I am White and everyone else involved were People of Color. I feared becoming the object of the teens’ focus; I didn’t want to be teased and harassed. I just wanted it all to go away or for my stop to arrive as soon as possible so I could get off the train. So I burrowed into myself and took no action.

This was a Huge Fail.

Let me say that again.

A. Huge. Fail.

But what it doesn’t mean is I am a Failure or a Bad Person.

I learned a lesson that day about how vigilant I needed to be, to hold myself accountable in the moment. I cannot allow me to talk myself out of taking a just course of action. Interrupting behavior(s) can be done gently, with strangers. If I end up in an uncomfortable/undesirable position as a result, I will survive it. It will be nothing compared to what People of Color encounter and endure on a daily basis. But I know if the White person on the train doesn’t say something next time, she won’t the next time, or the next time, or the next time, or ever.

And I also know if I didn’t share this story, it would allow me to hide it instead of learn from it.

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?