I’d like to think that we’re in a different world now than the one that gave us black-square saga. At this writing, it’s been over one year since cultural institutions posted a single black square to proclaim solidarity with global Black Lives Matter protests. Their audiences immediately saw through their hollow gestures, and rightfully accused them of being performative, of capitalizing on the police murder of yet another unarmed Black person. Then demands for receipts pushed the floodgates open: exactly how, materially, did Black lives matter to those cultural institutions riding the wave? How many Black people were on their staff, let alone in decision-making, leadership and board positions? Did they adequately compensate those Black people?
Then, BIPOC employees already inside many of those cultural institutions began to air out their own experiences of workplace racism. I’d worked inside one, too, but until June 2020, my experience of the interpersonal violence of institutional white supremacy felt isolated and alienating. When those personal stories snowballed, though, I saw that scores of us inside cultural institutions experienced much of the same—though of course, it varied in kind and in degree, contingent on our identities. The accounts shared on Twitter, Medium, Instagram and Zoom panels felt like they read from the same script. People who’d been silent (or silenced) until that point became bound up with their collective experience of systemic racism, and demanded accountability from their current and former employers. The response to these stories revealed that the white audiences of cultural institutions had been completely oblivious to the tolls of representation on BIPOC workers.
Those accounts of institutional hypocrisy emphasized to me what those of us on the inside had already known: cultural institutions leverage the public optics of representation to their benefit and yet, in private, they foster toxic workplaces that exploit those of us being included. When cultural institutions show they’ve increased representation in the people they hire, and that they’ve improved representation in the people they exhibit and publish, they might convince their publics that they’re changing. But how much do the optics of these public diversity efforts reflect the inside? How were they going to protect us when we were brought into a burning building?
Fixating on representation distracts us from the absence of transformation. Last summer, many BIPOC workers took enormous personal and professional risk to share their traumatic experiences, and yet so much of the discourse ever since has insisted on representation as the silver-bullet solution to systemic racism. The examples are too many, too pervasive to list, and to me, it feels like déjà vu. For years before last summer, we’d already been seeing demographic changes because we’d already been pushing for more of us to get inside the door. At this point, our presence inside cultural institutions is the absolute bare minimum. Representation alone is not enough to celebrate anymore.
I think about these oft-quoted Angela Davis lines: “I have a hard time accepting diversity as a synonym for justice. Diversity is a corporate strategy. It’s a strategy designed to ensure that the institution functions in the same way that it functioned before, except that you now have some black faces and brown faces. It’s a difference that makes no difference at all.” In another lecture, Davis said that, “Diversity without structural transformation simply brings those who were previously excluded into a system as racist [and] misogynist as it was before. […] There can be no diversity and inclusion without transformation and justice.” This is precisely what’s been missing in most mainstream conversations about systemic racism in the past year.
It’s important to remember that representation is profitable for cultural institutions—and that’s not avoidable. Representation is the de facto answer to system racism in an optics-obsessed industry that emphasizes the work that's public-facing and profit-yielding. This is dangerous because the appearance of diversity can obscure the reality that visibility alone does not equate to power. Representation is a shallow answer to systemic racism because it doesn’t address the hostile work environments maintained by white people who are afraid for their jobs, who will willingly abuse their power to silence us while protecting those who exact harm. As long as representation remains driven by economic incentives, anti-racism initiatives will continue to happen on terms set by white leadership resistant to accountability and a fundamental redistribution of power.
I’d like to think that a global protest movement that brought abolition, anti-racism and liberation politics to the forefront of our discourse compelled enough seismic shifts for a different world. Yet some of us continue to be seduced by the symbolic victories of strides in representation when we should be demanding so much more.
This isn’t to say that representation doesn’t matter—it does, and we’ve seen its significant and cumulative consequences over generations. But it’s not a means to an end. To continue to propose demographic solutions to systemic racism, without attending to the structural underpinnings, is fundamentally misunderstanding what the problem is. If we are to materially change how we practice diversity, equity and inclusion work in cultural organizations, we must destabilize the investment in the optics of representation—otherwise we’re just rearranging furniture. We need to shift the emphasis from recruitment to retention by nurturing equitable work environments. We need to reframe diversity and inclusion as a moral imperative rather than a driver of profit. We need to implement structures and work models that prioritize the wellbeing of BIPOC employees and that adequately compensate us for our material and emotional labour. We need to implement harassment policies that protect us from microaggressions, and to instill consistent anti-oppression training that goes deeper than just teaching white people the basic definition of “implicit bias” and “white supremacy.” For our cultural institutions to dismantle systemic racism, we must move beyond the fixation on window dressing and towards sustainable structural transformation. This is the only viable path to collective liberation for all.