Sunday, September 25, 2016

Place is More Than Space - Feeling Uncomfortable Where You Feel You Don't Belong

Good morning
"And the beat goes on..............."

A place is more than just a space.  It is defined and influenced by a host of external variables - ranging from its purpose, history, location and geography, its environment (furnishings, decoration), and its political and cultural tone as influenced by its occupants, users, guests, and more over a period of time.  One of the variables is how inviting the space is; is it welcoming and nurturing, or does it convey the opposite message of exclusion or even danger?  A space / place can be nurturing and inviting or it can be foreign and distant - and the same place / space may well be different things to different people at different times.  Perception counts.

I came across a posting by Solange Knowles, Beyonce's sister, and an artist in her own right, in which she explains why 'Black People Are Uncomfortable in 'White Spaces' entitled "Do You Belong, I Do".  In the article she recounts an unpleasant, distasteful and arguably racist experience at a concert - which she puts into the context of prior similar experiences to illustrate how spaces / places (in this case an essentially white audience for a white band), and environments of those spaces / places (at least in certain cases) can be intimidating, threatening and uncomfortable for people of color; if not overtly than by the tone of the ambiance.  I have no doubt that she speaks for millions who will recognize her experience. 

When I was nine years old,  I had a Japanese friend in grammar school.  I went to a very diverse grammar school in an area of Los Angeles that was essentially lower end middle class, and my classmates and friends were Black, Latino, Japanese, White, and more.  Anyway, David (my Japanese friend) invited me to go with him one day to a Church Bar B Q event.  When I arrived it struck me to discover that virtually everyone there was Japanese.  I had never before experienced being the racial outsider. I shouldn't, of course, have been surprised, but in my insulated world, I hadn't before experienced cultures where I was in fact the minority interloper.  At nine years old stuff like that doesn't matter so much and I had a great time.  But I remember feeling just slightly out of my element -- for a moment anyway.

Flash forward ten years, and I remember when I was in college going to see a Smokey Robinson concert at Winterland (a SF venue that hosted Bill Graham promoted rock acts ranging from Janis Joplin to Otis Redding to the Band's The Last Waltz.)  It didn't dawn on our group of five that the audience would be essentially African American with few white people in attendance.  Smokey Robinson and the Miracles were, after all, enormously popular across all strata of the rising boomers. We felt his music was our music.  But indeed, in the audience of perhaps four hundred, we were five of maybe twenty white kids.  We became very aware that we were in unfamiliar territory, that we stood out (obviously), and it made us a little uncomfortable and ill at ease.  No one harassed us in any way.  We got a few looks, but in fact, we were pretty much ignored.  Still, we felt like we didn't belong.  And we left early.

Over the past twenty years, more often than not as part of being involved in the nonprofit arts, I have , on several occasions, found myself in African American churches.  While on those occasions I was among just a handful of white people, I never felt awkward or ill at ease.  I think that is in part because on those occasions we knew where we were going, what to expect, and that we had been invited.  The hosts always made us feel welcome.  That made all the difference I think.

There are many places that feel foreign to us culturally, and make us feel like outsiders, thus making us uncomfortable and ill at ease.  We tend to avoid those spaces when we consciously can.    That's true for all groups - and people of color doubtless feel uncomfortable in many spaces that are defined as white, much as white people may feel uncomfortable in spaces that are predominantly occupied by people of color.  And those feelings of being uncomfortable transcend color, as I am sure people with disabilities may feel uncomfortable in spaces that clearly make no accommodation to them.  I know too that LGBTQ people still feel uncomfortable in places where they perceive they are held in contempt by prejudice and bias. All of this is, of course, sad - yet the reality.

For those to whom these spaces are "home", many times they simply cannot hide their feelings of territoriality when they perceive those who do not belong are trespassing on their space.  To them it may simply be an unconscious protective reaction, but to the outsider it sends a clear message that 'this is somewhere you don't really belong'.  That attitude, of course, even when subliminal and unintended makes a place even less comfortable to people from the outside.  And even when those spaces and the people to whom they belong try to be genuinely welcoming, it can be difficult to overcome the "feeling" of exclusion perceived by groups to which the space is foreign.

But there are many reasons beyond racism or cultural prejudice that can make us uncomfortable.  People often find the unfamiliar uncomfortable, and I suspect that some of our arts venues suffer from that same problem,   I can imagine on some levels that Euro-centric arts culture performances, held in places that are dedicated to the art form, can be uncomfortable to some people - unfriendly, foreign, and, in a way because the experience of these / spaces is perhaps completely new to some, even intimidating.  Perhaps those feelings are unreal and unwarranted, but that doesn't alter the fact that people may feel that way anyway.   Different neighborhood, decor, dress, behavior, food, how to react and more  - let alone an unfamiliar art form - can all contribute to feelings of being uncomfortable though no such feeling was intended to be created.  Places / spaces have a history and legacy to them because of the art form presented in them, and they may be off-putting to those unfamiliar with that.  Not to everyone of course, but to many.

People may attribute their lack of interest in sampling a new art form as it "just isn't their cup of tea" as it were, and that's legitimate, but being uncomfortable in the situation may play an undisclosed role in the decision making.

So the question becomes, does a given place / space have the problem of making people who aren't part of those places uncomfortable?  And what can we do, if anything, to address that challenge and make our spaces / places more inviting and friendly so that they are comfortable to everyone? How do we make people who may be unfamiliar with certain art forms, to whom a great part of the experience is foreign and may make them uncomfortable, feel invited to sample what is offered and welcome when they arrive?  How does any legacy art form do that?

It certainly won't be easy to transcend generations of walls and barriers and the growth of great divides between people - legitimate and imagined.  But there are encouraging signs of change, and nowhere is bridge building likely to be more a part of the situation than in the arts.  While culture may divide and separate, it also unites and binds.  And art has the power to make the uncomfortable safe and welcoming.  We can start with an awareness that people's feelings of comfort and belonging are critically important.  Perception, not intention, is sometimes everything.

Apart from the racial issues inherent in this kind of inquiry, and despite the wider, deeper questions of acceptance, inclusion, exclusion and barriers and obstacles created by forces both in our control and way beyond our control, the simple issue of people feeling comfortable in trying something new and going somewhere foreign, is a BIG, BIG issue that we need to consider in any dialogue about audiences, places, support and diversity. And the issue cuts across the whole spectrum.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit