March 4, 2020
“There is a saying that a lot of us feministas in South America like to say, ‘Felicidad es [mi] rebeldia’ which translates to ‘My happiness is my rebellion.’” —La Loba Loca, on putting Audre Lorde’s self-care theory for people of color into practice.
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Jessica Hoppe, a freelance writer, reflects on her experiences in the publishing industry as a Latina. She describes how, at first, she was willing to find stories about Latinx people that fit the image her white editors were looking for—stories that sensationalized her culture. And when sending pitch emails, she followed the advice she was given to emphasize her background as a mixed-race Latina. After being hired to “develop original, authentic Latinx content” for a website, she spoke up about the team’s lack of diversity—only to get fired.
As time went on, Hoppe realized that the rising mainstream interest in Latinx culture “isn’t translating into opportunity” for Latinx people. Rather, it’s “further commodifying” it by using Latinx stories when they’re sensational and “sellable,” but dropping them if they challenge assumptions or make readers reflect on inequality. Hoppe says these experiences left her feeling “completely dispensable.” She no longer markets herself “as a quota” and has become involved in #DignidadLiteraria, a movement that aims to hold the publishing industry accountable for its underrepresentation of Latinx authors.
Hoppe’s story is a lesson in the fine line between promoting diversity and using diversity to benefit those with privilege. As she puts it, “Diversity is leveraged as an asset to the dominant class—entertainment for white audiences and a social service for people of color.” When we promote diversity in our workplaces and schools, we should reflect on how our efforts impact the people we aim to support.
Consider how your diversity efforts impact marginalized people both in and outside your organization or school. You might conduct a climate survey to learn how your employees or students perceive your organization’s diversity efforts. And if you’re still working to address underrepresentation, look into creating focus groups with people outside your community.
A short film by Polish filmmaker Filip Jacobson follows two children, one blind, one sighted, as they play and wander in a field of dandelions. At one point, the sighted girl tells the blind boy, “When I close my eyes, I see black.” The boy responds, “And I see nothing.” Later, she asks him, “Why can’t you see?” and he says, “I will never be able to explain this to you.”
As he swings a toy in the air he asks her “Can you hear it whistle?” At first she can’t, but after a few moments, she starts to hear it. When the girl starts describing the green of the nearby water, the boy says, “Why do we need colors?”
She answers, “To describe the world.” The film ends with the boy responding, “Well, the point is, I can’t see.”
Learning directly from authentic sources about experiences different from our own is a potent way of building empathy. It also helps us make decisions based on real experiences rather than assumptions. By observing the interactions between the children in this film and hearing how the blind boy describes his experience, we gain a better understanding of his perspective, needs, and wishes.
Look for ways to learn first-hand about the experiences of groups you wish to support in your organization or school. Books, films, music, and other art forms are great places to start.
New York City’s Apollo Theater is famed for being the place “where stars are born and legends are made.” Now, the venue plans to deepen its impact on the arts by launching Apollo New Works, “a multi-collaborative project to help expose new voices of color to a wide audience.” The inaugural series will feature a wide range of artists and organizations, such as Ballet Hispánico, acclaimed violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain, and Talvin Wilks, an award-winning playwright, director, and dramaturg.
Author Ta-Nehisi Coates will be the Apollo’s first-ever master artist-in-residence.
Of the project’s launch, the Apollo’s executive producer Kamilah Forbes says, “Artists reflect the celebrations and challenges of society, and our goal for this initiative is to champion a group of voices and promote a new generation of storytellers in an effort to develop a more diverse American canon.”
Apollo New Works is shaping up to be a welcome respite from an art world in which artists of color are largely invisible. We look forward to seeing how people respond to the project, and hope that other arts institutions follow the Apollo’s lead.
The next time you plan a trip to a performance center or museum, consider the demographics of the artists represented. Might you be missing out on diverse artistic experiences? Whose art would you like to see more of? Take a moment to research smaller performance centers and museums in your area that may focus more on the work of artists of color.