“Attacking institutionalised racism, using the tools of institutionalised racism to do so”
“Attacking institutionalised racism, using the tools of institutionalised racism to do so” – Thus spake Ekua Bayunu, Chair of the Sustained Theatre National organisation.
The subsequent discussions were intelligent, informed, focused, professional and illuminating. A group of about 16 artists and practitioners from 6 different regions (representatives of others couldn’t make it largely because of the snow down south!) came together to report on and discuss both the development of new spaces and the provision of artistic work across England. Rather wonderfully, we even had two people (from West Midlands and the South East) attend by Skype, which, on the whole, worked pretty well.
Ekua is an immediately impressive Chair. She has a natural authority enhanced by significant experience as a black practitioner in a difficult world over a long period. She is passionate but never allows emotion to skew her assessment of issues as they arise. She thinks very quickly but her approach to everyone was courteous and considered, even in the face of nonchalant provocation. If she thinks a case is being over-made, as it were, she will say so and cut it back. Equally, she is unblinking in her analysis of the context in which BAME artists are working, as evidenced in her statement above. Although, in CidaCo, we have been champions of BAME artists from the start, and, indeed, it’s been a characteristic of my career, I had never perceived our work in the stark terms Ekua used – it came as a shock but, I think, rightly so. We all contribute, willingly or otherwise, to the generalised concept of racial equality; we all accept the need to increase our relevance to BAME audiences; we all count the number of BAME practitioners who attend our courses and projects, and we all report them as required to our various funders. I’m really not sure that any of us, and I include myself in this, understand the depth of the issue we give an unthinking nod to in our equality practices. Institutionalised racism is alive and well even in the arts and I am ashamed.
Sitting in that meeting, listening to the issues that arise for those practitioners, it is not difficult to recognise the exploitation that is still going on. Even dressed in a cloak of pragmatic respectability, it becomes clear that, sometimes, apparent solutions arise from a deeply racist exploitation, a racism so embedded that the very promulgators of the action do not realise and would be deeply shocked at such a description. Of course, money has a lot to do with it. The good intentions of people can be corrupted by the need to make small money go far. The consequent ‘pragmatic’ solution is seen as a triumph, whereas in fact it can result in the belittling of the very people the money was intended to help. The particular needs of the minority groups, only lightly respected by the dominant culture, are quickly overlooked in the development of expedient solutions that serve a wider constituency. It would seem that a commitment to support the cultural organisations of racial minorities is only possible by supporting the mainstream organisations as well. Interestingly, this was recently confirmed when a funding officer, ironically motivated by a desire to do good, gave the hint: “if you are applying for capital, don’t go for more than a million: if it’s over a million, it has to go to Council: Council works directly to government and diversity is not on the Government’s agenda”.
Let us pretend that that is an apocryphal story. It doesn’t matter. It could only be invented in a set of circumstances that would lend credence to such a story. The fact remains that we are still far from respecting the minority cultures that enrich this country. But in this first part of the 21st century, those cultures are finding their voice; they are finding their way around the labyrinthine processes that serve so well to keep out all but the favoured few; small concessions have been grabbed as toe-holds, and, slowly but surely, minorities are using those concessions to demand more equal treatment. The arguments are becoming more evidence-based, more focused and will become irrefutable. The world is changing and this is one of the better changes. But time is against them – the cuts in funding are only just starting to bite. There is more, much more to come – analysts estimate that, to date, only 10% of necessary cuts have been made by Govt – there is 90% more to come and by 2017, we will be living in an unrecognisably different world. If minority arts organisations are even to survive, they have to move faster. In the way that Africa has leapfrogged technologically over the West, ignoring the desktop and going straight for mobile technology, so BAME artists here will have to leapfrog the Arts Council and go straight for more creative and financially savvy means of generating income. There’s no point in trying to catch up – it’s now essential to get ahead.
PS: The Northern Region, i.e. covering 3 previous Arts regions (the North east, the North West and Yorkshire) have had to appoint just one Diversity Officer instead of the previous 3. I would guess that the Northern region, in its entirety, probably comprises more of an ethnic minority population than the rest of the country. Was it genuinely impossible to find anyone, nationally even, from an ethnic minority to take up that Diversity post?