Tokenism. There’s that word again. This time thrown into a conversation about the lack of racial diversity in Canadian art institutions by a well meaning, white, gallery worker. Firstly, yes, it is insulting to be made to believe your employment is based on your skin colour, so thank you for your concern. But no, fear of “tokenizing” is never an excuse for the startling lack of diversity of your arts organization. Neither is “we just hire the best person for the job.” That is unless the job is maintaining the status quo and the de facto exclusion of people of colour as producers of culture in Canada. There are exceptions, but comprehensive surveys of the arts in Canada reveal that Indigenous people and people of colour are under represented, underpaid and denied positions of authority in Canadian arts institutions.
So here are six steps to help you avoid tokenizing, hire the best person for the job, and help undo the deeply embedded institutional racism of the Canadian arts establishment.
1. Look at who you serve.
Your mission statement no doubt has a lot of nice words about what your organization does and who it serves. Put it aside and take a look at who actually comes to your exhibitions, openings and events. If your exhibitions audience is predominantly white, you serve white people. If there are only a few people of colour at your openings, you likely only listen to white people. If your events only attract a narrow socio-economic range, that’s the range you serve. Simple.
2. Look at who you are.
Who do you hire, who holds positions of authority, who’s on your board? If there are people of colour in the organization, do they hold junior or senior positions? Are they full or part time, contract or permanent? The perspectives that are welcome in your organization is in large part dependant on who makes up your organization, from the top down.
3. Own up
Do you like what you see? If you do, great, own up to it. Put it right in your mission statement and front and centre on all your grants. “We are lead by people of European descent and serve a predominantly white community interested in experimental, electronic music from a European lineage.” Looks like a winner to me.
If you don’t like what you see then you have to change how you do things. Years of hiring “the best person for the job” have left some of the most important jobs undone. Culture in Canada does not belong to a clique of white people from similar backgrounds. Excluding the voices of Indigenous people and people of colour leads to elitist institutions with an ever shrinking support base. Hell, it also leads to a lot of boring predictable art.
How to manage the necessary change is different for every organizations but here are some pointers:
• Recruit and hire differently: If you’re not getting good applications from POC with your current hiring process you’re using the wrong process. You have to make an effort to tap into different networks. Consider recruiting on specialized job boards, getting other POC to share the job posting and asking specific people to apply.
• Identify and create opportunities: Find ways for POC to contribute, gain experience, and advance within your organization.
• Write it down: Be up front about the value your organization places on being more representative. Write down and broadcast your intentions internally and externally.
• Support your POC staff: Don’t put your POC staff in the position that they are the only voice for racial diversity and inclusion. It’s everyone’s responsibility.
5. “If it’s easy you aren’t doing it right.”
If you are serious about change within the arts and your organization know that it takes time and effort. A cultural consultant friend always tells his clients, “If it’s easy you aren’t doing it right.” Changing the makeup of your organization will reveal the depth of white privilege and often provoke white fragility both within and outside your organization. Efforts to take down the systemic barriers to participation and achievement faced by racialized communities will often be met with accusations of “reverse racism” or comments like “isn’t that tokenism?”
6. Stick with it.
Lastly you have to play the long game. There will be conflict and bad hires, successes and failures. Think CanCon. There were a few Barney Bentals and Rough Trades before we got to Arcade Fire, Tanya Tagaq and a Tribe Called Red. We don’t even call the latter three Cancon any more. Just good music.