Friday, May 20, 2011

Thoughts on the NEA Grants: An Analogy

I regularly teach a course on the history of the Harlem Renaissance, and early in that course we read an essay by Beverly Tatum that comes from her book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?. In it she offers a few definitions that are useful in exploring the issues raised by the Harlem Renaissance, and that I think, by analogy, might be useful in discussing the issues raised by the way the arts are situated in the US.

Prejudice is defined by Tatum as "a preconceived judgment or opinion..." Prejudice happens interpersonally -- it is a specific attitude held by an individual.

Racism is defined by Tatum, following the idea of David Wellman, as a "system of advantage based on race." Tatum elaborates, "This definition of racism is useful because it allows us to see that racism, like other forms of oppression, is not only a personal ideology based on racial prejudice, but a system involving cultural messages and institutional policies and practices as well as the beliefs and factions of individuals." [italics mine]

Cultural racism, which supports the system of racism, is "the cultural images and messages that affirm the assumed superiority of Whites and the assumed inferiority of people of color..."

To be privileged is to benefit from a racist system, even if you personally are not prejudiced yourself. "In very concrete terms," Tatum writes, "it means that if a person of color is the victim of housing discrimination, the apartment that would otherwise have been rented to that person of color is still available for a White person. The White tenant is, knowingly or unknowingly, the beneficiary of racism, a system of advantage based on race. The unsuspecting tenant is not to blame for the prior discrimination, but she benefits from it anyway."

I believe Tatum provides a useful way of speaking about issues surrounding the inequities we see in the geographical distribution of arts organizations and by extension, arts funding (e.g., the NEA grants analyzed in previous posts). What we have in the arts world (and, I would argue, the US culture in general) is "ruralism," a system of advantage based on location and population density, a "system involving cultural messages and institutional policies and practices as well as the beliefs and factions of individuals."

When we discuss white privilege in my Harlem Renaissance course, it raises peoples' hackles. They don't feel privileged. Many of them are barely scraping by economically, struggling to get an education while supporting a family and working two jobs, and so to suggest that they are somehow privileged offends them. But Louis CK does a great job using humor to make the point:

Similarly, artists in one of the states or cities who are getting a larger share of the NEA pie don't feel privileged. I mean, let's be honest, we're talking about grants that are mostly in the $10,000 - $20,000 range, not multi-million dollar no-bid contracts to Haliburton. It's almost absurd to be talking about privilege when it comes to the arts -- it's like two homeless people arguing over who has the heavier blanket. But that said, there are 17 states who don't even have a blanket. So yes, NYLACHI, you are privileged, and as Louis CK says above, to deny it makes you, well, an asshole. The system makes it easier for you to be an artist if you live in New York -- there's just no way to deny it. It doesn't make it easy to be an artist, because being an artist anywhere in this damn country is hard as hell; it makes it easier.

Tatum then goes on to define three approaches to living in a racist society. You can engage in active racism, "blatant, intentional acts of racial bigotry and discrimination." Say, refusing to hire black people where you work. You can engage in passive racism, "the collusion of laugh­ing when a racist joke is told, of letting exclusionary hiring practices go unchallenged, of accepting as appropriate the omissions of people of color from the curriculum, and of avoiding difficult race-related issues." Or you can be actively anti-racist, working against the racist system. Tatum provides a wonderful analogy for this:

I sometimes visualize the ongoing cycle of racism as a moving walkway at the airport. Active racist behavior is equivalent to walking fast on the conveyor belt. The person engaged in active racist behav­ior has identified with the ideology of White supremacy and is mov­ing with it. Passive racist behavior is equivalent to standing still on the walkway. No overt effort is being made, but the conveyor belt moves the bystanders along to the same destination as those who are actively walking. Some of the bystanders may feel the motion of the conveyor belt, see the active racists ahead of them, and choose to turn around, unwilling to go to the same destination as the White supremacists. But unless they are walking actively in the opposite direction at a speed faster than the conveyor belt—unless they are actively antiracist—they will find themselves carried along with the others.
The same is true with ruralism. You may have no strong prejudices about people in rural areas whatsoever, but when you accept an unfair system of advantage as being "just the way it is," or when you try to find reasons why the inequities in the system don't really exist or are somehow justified,, you are a passive ruralist. When you say things like, "Well, rural people are just too stupid/conservative/uneducated to appreciate the arts," you are an active ruralist.

I am reminded of Spike Lee's film, Bamboozled, which we watch near the end of my Harlem Renaissance class. In the scene where Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayons) has his first meeting with the all-white writing staff for his new African-American minstrel TV show, he expresses his preference that he would have had at least some black writers included in the mix. The white writers, feeling defensive, conjecture about the lack of African-American presence. "Maybe they couldn't find any people with experience," one says. "Or they wouldn't work for the pay," offers another. "...or they refused to work on the show." To which Pierre acidly adds, "Or maybe they couldn't put their crack pipes down long enough to apply."

I would suggest that the rationalization of the privilege that results from the centralization of the American theatre is similar to that exchange. And again, I would suggest that not only the NEA but all foundations funding the arts and all the regional theatres across America, should actively seek out rural artists, actively and intentionally support rural artists, and become active anti-ruralists. Only then will we even begin to have a truly national arts scene.

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