Diversity: Not Just for White Guilt Anymore

Posted by Robbie Q. Telfer, Jul 29, 2011 3 comments

Robbie Q. Telfer

An important principal to the Encyclopedia Show is diversity. I had mentioned earlier diversity of artistic genre – we try to get not only poets, but solo performance artists, visual artists, creative nonfiction and fiction writers, musicians, comedians, live animals, experts on the topic, jugglers, etc…

Demographic diversity is also extremely important to us. We have youth perform in every show, as well as people coming from as many different communities as possible – and in hyper-segregated Chicago, that might mean more. A larger goal of our show is to replicate all human emotions, so we’re trying to bring in all humans.

The key to diversity, though, is not to tokenize people from outside my demographic (white guy), but to try honestly to understand the values of the different communities I am pulling from and featuring only excellent representatives.

It makes for a bad show if you don’t care how the non-white guy’s pieces turn out just because you feel guilty about institutionalized racism. Also, tokenism is infantilizing and deeply insulting.

Benevolent racism can be just as damaging as its other forms because it says, “We don’t expect anything from you anyway, so as long as you conform to our rules, we’ll feel like we’re fighting racism.”

Benevolent racists are probably also the first to feel justified in their disappointment when minorities transgress the unspoken rules the majority has written and continuously altered throughout time – it sets up racists to continue being racists by thinking that they’re not racist.

It is worth it to us to work a little extra hard finding the best contributors we can from all backgrounds, and I feel that other white producers who grow comfortable in their homogeny are lazy. Artistic greatness lives in every community.

That said, it is difficult as a white guy with white guy interests to diversify our audience. We’re trying.

There are a lot of pitfalls in live event productions, and many of them are much simpler than the high-minded, lofty ones I’ve outlined above. However, I feel that if you have your over-arching philosophies down, your ethics sound, and you make sure you have good people filling key roles, the small stuff takes care of itself.

However, should we, or our constituent shows in the Encyclopedia Show community, ever think the show and its structure is more valuable than the human-artists who fill it, then I hope we’d have the good sense to hang it up and move on to something else.

Good ideas are important, but they need people to make them come alive.

A church is just a building if there’s no congregation.

3 responses for Diversity: Not Just for White Guilt Anymore


August 02, 2011 at 10:15 am

I am glad to learn of a theater leader who takes racism, institutional racism, and unintentional racism seriously. It takes some measure of privilege to start a new theater company, and it also takes a lot of hard work, which can serve as an obstacle against understanding the privilege.

I'd like to hear more from you about how young white theater artists can start to take the blinders off, and acknowledge our race (or class or gender or other) privilege.

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August 02, 2011 at 6:48 pm

i can only speak for me, but i continue to learn about my own white privilege through trial and error and the kindness of my friends. but further, i think society has done a good job maintaining racist (sexist, homophobic, classist, etc...) structures while making its populace feel like they are not racists. to call someone a racist is very taboo, and one should truly mean it when one does. it's for this reason i wish we had a word for unintentional racism that we could call people and they could hear it. because, you know, i'm racist. i don't want to be, i have done a lot of work not to be, but the dominant narrative is very powerful and you have to want to overcome it in order to, as you say, "take the blinders off." i think a job for us artsy folk is to subvert the dominant narrative as strategically as possible.

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Greg Brisendine says
August 15, 2011 at 2:43 pm

Well written, thanks for this. This made me think about differentiating the message from its intended audience. Specifically this came up for me when you say that not caring how the white guy's piece turns out. There seems to be value in identifying the message(s) along with the intended audience to best understand the interplay of diversity.

Without rambling further, the example that comes to mind is that if I am white, gay, and in my mid-40's, I may find myself reflected in someone who hits any of those facets. However, I would likely find a message about aging from a 22 year-old gay man way less compelling than that same message from a 50 year-old African American woman.

So then (in my muddled consideration of this extraordinarily well presented topic), perhaps the question to consider is "diversities" in addition to "diversity".

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