Monday, March 18, 2013

The Unbearable Whiteness of Being

Good morning.
“And the beat goes on............................”

Following an exchange last month among several bloggers, myself included, centering on the issue of diversity, Roberto Bedoya, Executive Director of the Tucson Pima County Arts Council in Arizona, challenged the participants in that exchange (Ian David Moss, Clay Lord, Nina Simon, Doug Borwick, Diane Ragsdale and myself) with this invitation:
“ to share with us some of your good thinking and deep reflection on your understanding of how the White Racial Frame intersects with cultural polices and cultural practices.”  
Whew!  That's a big question.  Questions such as this may easily make some white people uncomfortable (even phrased as gently as Roberto has done), and can be seen by others as accusatorial, and the response is invariably that “I don’t feel guilty.  I am not part of the problem.  I did not create these circumstances.”  True. Liberals (of which I am proudly one) may think of themselves as part of the solution.  And they are. And yet that very attitude is likely part of the problem, because it masks our ability to see the problem dispassionately.  And there is always the issue of what constitutes tokenism.  Talking about race, let alone racism, is treacherous territory, and no matter the authorship - questions arise as to presumption in offering any thoughts, qualification to comment, and motive behind the thinking.  Like the line in the Buffalo Springfield song:  "Nobody's right if everybody's wrong."

The previous thread of the original back and forth blog postings ranged from the philanthropic role in the promotion of diversity, whether or not certain foundation practices were coercive, to the value of insisting that mainstream grantees actively seek diversity expansion.  Roberto's question is, I think, a much larger inquiry than those (important) considerations and sub-topics.  So I make no pretenses about presenting any cogent argument for how we go about addressing any of those issues, nor do I make any attempt to wrestle with the issue of how and what art is valued or what the proper role of the funder is in the whole diversity issue.  Roberto's question is basically how has (does) current systemic racism and its antecedents intersect in the formation and application of cultural policy - or does it?

Though I have thought about this for the past few weeks, read a lot and done some research, and then thought some more, much of my thinking is just a gut reaction - shooting from the hip as it were. My hope is that even a few kernels of truth may lie within.

First, what is the white racial frame?


The White Racial Frame is a construct created by sociologist Joe Feagin and he defines the white racial frame as:
 “an overarching worldview, one that encompasses important racial ideas, terms, images, emotion and interpretation. For centuries now, it has been a basic and foundational frame from which a substantial majority of white Americans – as well as others seeking to conform to white norms – view our highly racialized society. ”
Feagin argues that this white racial frame is deeply embedded into the very foundational fabric of society and is far more pervasive and insidious than mere racial stereotyping and the resultant racist bigotry scholars usually focus on when considering racism in modern society.
“This dominant racial frame is taught in thousands of different ways - at home, in schools, on public playgrounds, in the mass media, in workplace settings, in the courts, and in politicians speeches and corporate decisions.  As a result, in its turn, this dominant racial frame both rationalizes and structures the racial interactions, inequalities, and other racial patterns in most societal settings.”
In his book, Feagin goes on to add:
the white frame “...has been part of a distinctive way of life that dominates all aspects of this society.  For most whites, thus the white racial frame is more than just one significant frame among many; it is one that has routinely defined a way of being, a broad perspective on life, and one that provides the language and interpretations that structure, normalize and make sense out of society.”  
In short, his thesis is that the white frame through which life in America - all aspects of that life - is viewed and lived is that white is good and anything other than white is not as good.  So it is often a preference for things white - which preference is the result of a host of factors ingrained into the psyche of the white race over a long period of time; a subtle, perhaps imperceptible, conditioning of thinking and attitudes - a rejection of things not white.  This conditioning of attitudes has, over time, become embedded and institutionalized into the fabric of everyday life - from business and industry to education and religion; from fashion and the media to the military and politics.  It is no longer necessarily manifested in blatant racism and bigotry, but it still exists.

Second, Roberto’s inquiry asks by inference whether or not one accepts Professor’s Feagin’s thesis:

I have no doubt the Professor is right.  America is a White Anglo Saxon Protestant nation and that reality permeates layer upon layer of how we interact with everything. From the legal system to the advertisements we see on television, there has been a demonstrable preference for white over color.  There are the historical shameful travesties of slavery, internment and other incontrovertible forms of abject racism, prejudice and bigotry including the prohibition against interracial marriage, the “separate but equal” educational system, the prohibition of property ownership in white enclaves (via restrictive mortgage covenants), the “back of the bus” and “separate drinking fountains” tools of separation, and the disenfranchisement attempts of the Jim Crow laws.  No matter that the laws have changed, no matter either that there have, arguably, been monumental strides in at least a segment of the population rejecting the frame of reference - the systemic frame itself continues (witness only last year’s attempts in several states to disenfranchise voters of poverty and color by attempting to impose unnecessary and cumbersome rules of identification - theoretically to avoid voter fraud - but that canard fooled no one).

And yet the most insidious forms of discrimination are the ones that are less obvious, yet every bit as onerous - from employment to promotion, from incarceration statistics to poverty levels; from racial jokes at the water cooler to unsubstantiated belief in, and fear of, the culture of people of color, if not the people themselves.  America remains, despite its better instincts and even progress in its self-judgment - a still racially divided, and still racist, country.

I would add that the frame's WASP character is also straight male dominated and that is another one of its key underpinnings.  Nonwhite, female, gay, or otherwise have been excluded from the towers of power.  I think this frame is largely true of Western society in general. America and Europe together have for several centuries controlled a disproportionate share of the world’s wealth and economic power.  They have controlled business, industry, the media, energy, economic distribution and more importantly perhaps, governmental response to societal needs.  Dating back to the conquest and occupation by the early colonists well into the jingoistic foreign policy of the last century, the West has exported the white frame across the planet.  And at their hands it isn’t hard to reason that anyone not a white male protestant in the mold of how they define worth and value - women, people of color, gays - has been negatively impacted in so many ways as to be uncountable.

The impact of the white racial frame is in evidence in countries across the planet, even outside the West.  Consider this Associated Press article posted just yesterday:
“In Brazil, whites are at the top of the social pyramid, dominating professions of wealth, prestige and power. Dark-skinned people are at the bottom of the heap, left to clean up after others and take care of their children and the elderly.  Nubia de Lima, a 29-year-old black producer for Globo television network, said she experiences racism on a daily basis, in the reactions and comments of strangers who are constantly taking her for a maid, a nanny or a cook, despite her flair for fashion and pricey wardrobe."People aren't used to seeing black people in positions of power," she said. "It doesn't exist. They see you are black and naturally assume that you live in a favela (hillside slum) and you work as a housekeeper."She said upper middle-class black people like her are in a kind of limbo, too affluent and educated to live in favelas but still largely excluded from high-rent white neighborhoods."Here it's a racism of exclusion," de Lima said.”
Indeed the racism of exclusion exists even here at home.

Yet the white racial frame is not the only operable racial frame in the world.  Clearly, there are other operable frames across the planet, as there are different racial frames operating within America. Having travelled and lived in Asia over the past 15 years, I can attest that the Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Thais and all the other nations have their own racial frame that narrows their lens - and allows them to see themselves as superior in ways both general and specific.  Is the need to be superior to those different from us a baseline human need?  I don’t know. Then too racial frames embody class, education, and other socio-economic considerations.

A principal difference in the white racial frame may be that other racial frames within our society are probably reactionist to the dominant white racial frame.  Yet each feeds off the other.  For every group in the world - others can too easily be categorized as “those people”, with “their agendas” - posing a threat to their own world view, compromised as it may be.  We are all “those people” to some other group, as they are to us.  Is that learned behavior based on “frames” or is that something in the DNA.
“There is a blue one who can't accept
The green one for living with 
A black one, tryin' to be a skinny one 
Different strokes for different folks 
And so on and so on and scooby dooby dooby."  (Sly and the Family Stone, Everyday People)
One of the questions inherent in Roberto’s inquiry is how all those other frames interact with, are influenced by, and in turn exert influence with each other.

In 1992, the Harvard-based political scientist Samuel Huntington suggested that future conflicts would be driven largely by cultural differences. He posited in l993:
“It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in the new world order will not be primarily ideological, or primarily economic.  The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural.  Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations.   The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics.  The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.”  
He went on to map out a new world order in which the people of the world are divided into nine culturally distinct civilizations (religion seems inexorably bound up in his classification). His argument was that future conflicts would be based around the fault lines at the edges of these civilizations. He published this view in a now famous article called “The Clash of Civilizations?” in Foreign Affairs.  While racial framing isn't part of his formulation per se, it seems inexorably intertwined with his civilizations.  Certainly it is bound up as a source of the frictions.

The white racial frame dominates in large and small ways. Here is small example:  All over Asia, one of the best selling products is whitening cream, for having white skin is thought to be desirable. (In an ironic twist it is almost laughable to see westerners in tropical climes adding bronzer to their skins to appear darker, while natives use whitening cream to appear whiter).  It is white western music and movies, fashion and design, education systems and so much more that has shaped the other frames.  Some of those frames have sought to be more white, others have rejected it as, at best patronizing, and at worst genocidal.

Religion and education have played a primary role in maintaining the frames. Fundamentalist Evangelical Christians, Islamists and the Taliban all have in common that if you reject their interpretation of their scripture, you are a heretic.  In America and the west Christianity is the white man’s religion - even though there are more Christians around the world of color than white people.  We have a black president, and we have a Pope of color too.  And does that “progress” put an end to the lie that racism still exists?  Not likely, for symbolic gestures are rarely anything more than harbingers of what change might come, not emblematic that the change has arrived.

American movies, television, fashion, music, and celebrity are all pretty much all about the white frame - as being the preferred frame.  Both domestically and what we export abroad.  And it is embraced.  In part, I think because it has been around and repeated for so long.  Why are there so few Latino actors and movies and television with Latino themes? Because Latinos will not watch them, or buy the products they advertise?  Or is it because whites will not watch them?

Part of the white frame is obviously about control of the money, but it is also more about control of the decision making processes.  It is about, as Nina Simon pointed out, privilege, but it is also about position.  Whites control the decision making positions, the apparatus and mechanisms that determine the direction of all things.

So in terms of America, I think bias, prejudice and both bigotry and racism (even in the pejorative sense of the term) still exist and are still embedded within every layer in the very structure of the fabric of our society.  Not always obvious, not always blatant - but they remain.

And while I also think that a racial frame is present in virtually all societies, the West and the white frame has been dominant so long, that the impact on other cultures has been striking.  Colonialism coupled with the missionary movement to convert the heathens gave way to the exportation and rapid acceptance of the white culture as portrayed in the media.  

In short, I accept the existence and logical impact of a white racial frame.  Though I do not think it is universally practiced, nor do I think everyone is oblivious to its application.

The White Frame as applied to the cultural community:

At the heart of Roberto’s question is whether and how this white frame impacted and influenced (and continues to impact and influence) our world - the nonprofit cultural universe.

Does a white racial frame impact the cultural field.  Of course, how could it not?  To suggest euro-centric art doesn’t lie at the heart of our ecosystem as a favored component is naive.  Yet to suggest that diverse people of color have no interest in that art is to ignore the great artists across the country and the globe that practice to near perfection the traditions of that art, as well as those audience members who love those art forms.  That said, it is difficult to pinpoint how the obstacles created by that frame to the embrace of true diversity are manifested.  In a thousand ways no doubt, a thousand times every day.  Though I am sure there are echoes of the blatant nature of racism still alive in some individuals in some places within our sector, I have never, ever run across an arts organization that wouldn’t genuinely and dearly love to have a more diverse base - whether as audience, artists or supporters.   And in 15 years in this field, I have never heard anyone, anywhere utter a racial slur, or make any comment that might even remotely be interpreted as bias, prejudice, or worse. Indeed, for the most part our struggling organizations would welcome purple people if it meant an expanded audience.  But that begs the question - which is how has a white racial frame - the systemic, endemic way we think about all things white - prevented (and prevents?) us from moving towards a more diverse base.  And the answer is likely that those manifestations are cloaked and hidden and difficult to identify much less observe.

Do subliminal vestiges of that white racial frame remain within each of us, and thus within the matrix of our decision making process?  Is it so embedded within the very fabric of our histories and that which has shaped our world?  Probably.  Are racism, homophobia, anti-semitism still alive.  Yes.  Does that impact every layer of what we do and how we do it?  Has it, over time, wormed its way into how we make decisions (conscious or unconscious) about what art is, how it ought to be supported, what its role and value is?  Does it constitute a default cultural policy (if not obvious and stated, then at least the framework in which our policies are implemented?).  I think, reluctantly, yes, though I am quick to acknowledge that in some instances it may have led to positive decision making (positive in the sense of promoting real diversity).  But I do not have at my finger tip concrete negative or positive examples.  And research is virtually nonexistent.

Is there also a wider diversity racial frame, born out of reaction to and defense from the white racial frame that acts in much the same way the white racial frame operates; one that is subtly at play that keeps the “other than whites” from being audience members, supporters or participants in the white frame cultural world.  Quite possibly I think.  And frame lines themselves may not always be as clear as we think.  There are rich black people, gay bigots, and likely a thousand other shades of gray.

To argue that the white frame is the cause of the lack of diversity in cultural policy determination is then problematic, yet to suggest it has played no meaningful role would be folly.

Is the dwindling audience for the arts (white arts? all arts?) the product of irrelevant content, inconvenient access, excessive cost, changing technology and changing tastes, and simply far more appealing alternatives in the marketplace?   I don’t know for sure.  And one must consider whether or not technology and the mere passage of time has blurred once definitive lines.  In what ways, if any, do twenty something millennials of color have more in common with their white counterparts than they do with their parents?

The simple answer is that this white frame, this underlying belief that things white are preferable to things of color has doubtless had an effect on our decision making process.  Very likely in ways we haven’t and still don’t fully see or appreciate.  If the white frame accurately portrays the white (dominant) societal preference for things white, then the long legacy of that kind of thinking surely must have played (and continues to play) some role in the development and support for the arts in America too - at least in some overall sense - for audience preference, financial support and even access to creation. I think the white racial frame has impacted and influenced our decision making and how, over decades, the nonprofit arts universe has grown and been shaped.  I think part of this process has been intentional (though not necessarily malevolent), and part of it has been by omission to deal with the ramifications of those actions.

Again I would caution that to link correlation to causation is risky.  I must say that, based on my own experience, I think our field is one of the least prejudicial, biased or racially insensitive (if not racist) microcosms to be found on the larger playing field. I believe the quest for broad diversity in all things in the arts is genuine.  I believe in the integrity and essential decency of our people.  Still it is undeniable that the state of the arts ecosystem nowhere near mirrors the diversity of the country - on any level.

Are things changing, getting better?  Sure, but this kind of change is slow, very slow, and I suspect if you are a member of a group arguably harmed by the white racial frame, the change that has happened is minuscule at best.  It is easy to suggest the victims of a racial frame ought to lighten up a little, have a sense of humor about it all; that political correctness has run amok.  But if you are the victim, you may find that offensive.  I do.

I think most of the change in correcting the most heinous of the negative ramifications of the frame (in the wider sense beyond the arts) has come under the rubric of equity and fairness, for one of the tenets underpinning American society that may have the capacity to confront the white frame is our deep belief in, and commitment to, individualism and fairness - which (at least the lip service) for us is almost a religion. It is that systemic belief that has moved a majority of Americans to now favor same sex marriage.  It is that thread that I think may move our cultural policy away from too much emphasis on the integration of diversity into the white frame and allow for the diversity to flower on its own terms.  I acknowledge it may be an artificial construct, but I am a practical person, and it seems to me to offer the best chance to maximize change.

Arguendo, you can’t legislate morality.  But you may be able to legislate - if not equality - then equity.  Not a solution, but perhaps a step in the right direction, one that over time can have real meaning.  Can you legislate or otherwise impose a neutral frame that will undo the past?  And if you could, how long would that take to take effect?  How is it enforced?

As the demographic composition of the nation and the whole of the Western World is changing, for the first time a real threat to the white frame is perceived and we now bear witness to the desperate attempt by those for whom the white racial frame is core to their identity to cling to the throttles of the old power machine.  In par, the gridlock and deadlock of the American political society is the result of this (hopefully) end stage battle.  One that will likely go on for a long time as even the white majority numbers dwindle and whites become a minority.  Still the white class will cling to the reigns of power, prestige, privilege and position and will, I venture, like the Boers in South Africa not go quietly into the night.  How precisely that works in our field, I am unsure.

In a subsequent post of his on Doug Borwick's "Engaging Matters", Roberto offers his definition of cultural policy:  "I define U.S. cultural policy as a system of arrangement that affects the allocation of resources and the articulation of value."  I think that is very elegantly stated. And therein lies much of the problem - for the subtlety of the white frame's manifestations, and its longevity in application, make it very difficult to identify the points where it is apparent and amenable to fix.  There are no quick fixes.  I have no doubt the frame does intersect in both areas of Roberto's cultural policy definition - affecting the allocation of resources and the (unstated anyway) articulation of value.  The reality of past support allocation suggests that white art is the default policy in American arts, and by extension, is a clear articulation of value.

On the other hand, I generally think in terms of a policy as being slightly more specific - meaning (as Webster's defines the word) an overarching plan; "a definite course of action selected from among guide and determine present and future decisions."  In terms of cultural policy then, to my mind anyway, we really don’t have a clearly articulated cultural policy, no real consensus plan.  What policy exists lies mostly in the legacy and tradition of what came before, and how we support things.  Our priorities are those things on which we spend the most current time, energy and resources; and that is really a patchwork quilt of individual organizational or interest group goals and objectives (most of which change with increasing frequency).  The issue of diversity and any analysis of how a white frame, or racism itself, have intersected with, and had an impact on, this defacto policy has been given short shift in the past.  That alone is probably a condemnation of the “between the lines” policy that does exist.  Perhaps if we made some concerted effort to draft various planks of a national cultural policy - discuss and debate them - then we might be able to more successfully understand the role the white frame has played in the arts environment as it exists today, and take whatever steps we might to counter the negative results of that frame.  Yet clearly a manifesto supporting diversity is, of itself, nothing more than words where action is called for. A policy needs guidelines for that action.  Say what you want, criticize if you will, but at least, for example, the Irvine Foundation's approach is closer to that definition of a cultural policy than the absence of any plan in the wider nonprofit matrix - which absence masks itself as real policy when it is not a policy at all.

Now What?
Which is why I believe that if we want to address the negative consequences of this frame in terms of the health of the arts ecology, then we ought to focus on directly supporting diverse art by diverse people.  Not to the whole exclusion of other pursuits necessarily, and this is just my bias.  But it is all well and good to have as a goal expanding the diversity of the audience for white art, but that is a whole different goal than expanding the diversity of the audiences (and support) for art in general.  There simply isn’t enough research to tell us all we need to know about why more people of color don’t embrace the mainstream euro-central art that lies at the heart of the white frame - let alone why more people of all colors are turning away from the arts (all arts) - or even if such a proposition is accurate (and there is I think substantial evidence that, despite conclusions to the contrary, the arts are alive and well and even growing.  All the arts.)  Or why fewer younger people aren't embracing it either - again a claim which may be simply wrong.  Because maybe they are  - but just in ways that don't fit our classification categories.    I don’t know whether or not it is the content of the art, the racial context, or the themes that do not resonate with the diverse audiences we are talking about.  I don’t know whether the issue is really one of age, or class, or education, or economic status or whatever -  more than race.  I don’t know if its the relevance of the art to the target group.  Maybe it has nothing to do with any of that, and the issue is rather cost and convenience.  But that too begs the question.  The question is what do we do to expand the diversity of the audience, the pool of participants and creators, and the pool of supporters for art.  Any art.  All art.

What then do we do?  How do we at least try to contain the spill over of past conditioning, so that it isn’t an obstacle to equity and fair play?  So that it doesn’t perpetuate division, exclusion, and marginalization?  Isn’t a frame - white or otherwise - a condition that cannot be changed by coercion, cajoling, pleading, or entreating?  Doesn’t it lie deep in the heart and soul - even if unbeknownst to each of us?  If just being uncomfortable in the juxtaposition to other cultures is a byproduct of the frame, how do you change that?  And if you don’t change it, is that uncomfortableness a factor in the perpetuation of the frame in an endless cycle?  Is today’s clash of frames cultural, racial, religious, economic, one of privilege and position, or all of the above?  Is the frame a monster in itself having little now to do with the relationship between individuals, or is it the unspoken core at the very essence of those relationships?

Is awareness the first step, or merely a meaningless sidestepping apology?  If unconscious, is there mea culpa?

So I think we need more research, more dialogue, more introspection.  I think we ought to be spending more time and effort in identifying and supporting diverse art makers and organizations dedicated to their support, rather than trying to get more diverse peoples to become part of the white, euro-centric arts tradition.  Not that expansion of diversity for white art is not a lofty and legitimate goal.  It is.  But getting more people of color, getting younger people, to embrace mainstream white art does very little to really expand the diversity of participation in or access to culturally specific art.  If, for example, you want more Latinos to go to the theater, I think you need to support more Latino actors, directors, playwrights, and companies.  And you need to support Latino audiences’ access to the art those Latino artists make and the organizations that are their nurturing ecosystem. Grow that niche within our whole first.  Expanding the Latino audience for the white euro centric theater only perpetuates that strain as the dominant one.

In the days of my Berkeley youth in the 60's I was much more sure of my conclusions, and it was much easier for me to see injustice and miscarriages; to know what was right, what was wrong, and even how to make it better; so much easier to point the finger.  But now - well now I am older and it's a little harder to be so specific, so sure, so much the firebrand.  Not harder to see things, just harder to put them all into focus.  As Bob Dylan sang in "My Back Pages":
"Good and bad I defined these terms
Quite clear, no doubt somehow
"Ahh, but I was so much older then,
I'm younger than that now."
This issue is far too complex for me to come up with any definitive answers as to how we move forward. And my conclusions may be legitimately suspect.   I wish Roberto had included more diverse people to ask the question of, and perhaps down the line he will -- and that will add to the dialogue.  It would be informative, I think, to have the impressions and thoughts of more people of color on this question.  There is much more I might say, but I am unsure it would add much at this point, and I fear I may be rambling (ok, I'm sure I am rambling) and that I haven’t really answered Roberto’s inquiry.  I am sure the white frame has, and likely continues to have, myriad intersections with how the arts are supported and valued.  It is axiomatically far more difficult to pinpoint where and how, let alone assign responsibility, or to even understand where the harm always happens.   It is difficult to even know which questions are the right questions to ask - let alone where truth may lie.

I hope people will continue to talk about the issue of race, of racism, of equity, and of how to promote real diversity; of gender and identity and position, power and privilege.   There is a large pool of thinkers superior to me out there in our universe - smart people of good will who can help us to see this more clearly.  There are no necessarily easy nor right answers.  This whole discussion ought just to be a beginning as we grapple with it and all its implications. And I suppose, trite as it may sound, that the best place to start is within ourselves.  I know this:  bigotry, intolerance, prejudice, bias, racism and all the other forms of discrimination still exist and still cause irreparable harm.  I am thankful to work in the arts, for I think the arts have been one of the forces to change all that.  We're not perfect.  We need to do better.  We're trying.  We don't have to be perfect, but we do have to try harder.

In terms of just “fairness” it seems to me it is important to address even the possibility of the negativity of the white racial frame by focusing more on supporting diverse cultural art at its source - the artists and the organizations that support their art.

Have a great day.

Don’t Quit