An Open Letter to Arts Organizations Rampant with White Supremacy
By Nana Chinara
CC: Gina Gibney, Gibney Dance
When a Black femme confronts you for actively promoting and wielding white supremacy culture, you listen and course correct. Instead, I was met with a stay-in-your-place defensive response. White violence always begins with lack of transparency, power shielding, refusal for accountability, defense at naming harm, etc. It is this ocean of everyday unchecked white violence that actively drowns Black life, from microaggressions to modern day lynchings. White folks — you actively foster environments that lead to Black harm. Gather yourselves and check yourselves at every dynamic you participate in — not just in response to another hashtag, but from the source.
The above image is Gina Gibney’s response to me laying out the white supremacy culture steeped in my recent experience. Her sign off of “I walk my talk” boldly discards the perfectionism, lack of transparency, power wielding and gaslighting I experienced. I have redacted the staff members’ names as Gina is the C.E.O., thus has the authority to sustain white supremacy culture within the organization.
I am currently Gibney Dance’s Community Action Artist in Residence (CAAIR). Gibney has provided tremendous support in growing my organization, Chinara Rituals. Yet, I find myself surprised and deeply hurt by their recent actions. Gibney secured a $27,000 Regional Economic Development grant from New York State Council of the Arts; a matching grant that would provide a salary and project funds to sustain my work in Black queer and trans communities under my current residency. In the wake of the pandemic, Gibney chose to no longer match the grant, and to terminate this life changing residency opportunity.
Below you will find my initial email, in which I requested accountability for mistreatment during this grant process. Instead, my concerns were quickly dismissed by Gina’s ego. Ultimately, this is not about Gina Gibney. It is about the larger context of harm and lack of accountability in white led / white dominant organizations. This refusal of actionable accountability actively powers white supremacy.
The decision to terminate the opportunity came just 2 days after I put my foot down and asked for greater transparency in the NYSCA process. To start off, when Gibney staff found out they received the grant in December, they celebrated around the office; yet no one notified me. I inquired about the grant status in January and was given no details apart from the acceptance. Gibney had not shared the grant amount. I took it upon myself to look that up through NYSCA’s website.
Considering that Gibney used a Letter of Intent and project budget I provided them in support of the grant to secure it in the first place, I grew aggravated at the following months of continued lack of transparency. Months went by without me receiving any information, contract, parameters, etc. To be clear: it’s not that they had no information. They chose not to invite me into the process and share information (read: power) with me, until they had all the pieces. They had enough power to withhold information, and chose to do so until they felt powerful enough to share it without losing that power. Perfectionism at its finest.
Yes, we all are experiencing a pandemic, but we are not experiencing the same pandemic. I am a young Black queer femme artist surviving violence daily, while watching this disease target my community more than any other. Gina, and Gibney are an institution with an 8-million-dollar-budget and the cloak of whiteness as protection and privilege to stay afloat, while several Black businesses have already closed for good.
Gibney did receive a contract from NYSCA and the grant funds in February. The grant had a March 1st start date. Yet, between February and April 1st, I still had not received a contract or any information. After months of asking for information, I finally shared my frustrations on April 27th about the lack of transparency (read: white supremacy culture at a majority white institution) in the process. Process is everything when it comes to any artist. I am process based, it is the communal, anti — capitalist, anti — racist, leading-with-care way. One day later, they scheduled a Zoom call, without any response to the frustrations in my email. On April 29th they told me I will no longer be receiving this opportunity, after months of power imbalances and lack of transparency from the start.
Gibney then launched its #HereforArtists fundraising campaign, received $250,000 in COVID Relief fund loans, and made several choices to honor artistic fees for commissions. They made a choice to not offer me any compensation nor accountability about the process.
Had I received a contract, I would have been more protected in this pandemic. In response to our current apocalypse, I did not ask Gibney to give me the full funds of the grant and simply to disregard their financial situation. I did ask for compensation and accountability around the process as I solely held the bulk of its impact. I do not know what Gibney has done with this NYSCA funding.
I will never be silent in the face of white supremacy, whether its impact is personal or with the people. Never. White dominant arts organizations — your lack of accountability to communities you “serve” is unacceptable.
It is time for you to do the work. Lose the ego, ignore the clout, and do the hard, gritty, uncomfortable work to uproot white supremacy in all areas of your life and organizations. Suggestions:
- Teach each other how to undo Anti-Blackness, Transphobia, Xenophobia, etc.
- Call each other in. A white affinity group is not enough. Start talking white Accountability and Reparation.
- If antiracism is not in your mission or your work — you are not an arts and social justice hub. Read that again.
- With that, stop hiding behind your use of “equity” and “social justice”, without doing the work.
- Share your power as much as you share the names and images of Black artists involved with your institution.
- Drop the ego.
- Pay your front line staff — who are artists — a living wage, not minimum or one dollar up from it, especially when you have an 8-million-dollar budget.
- Listen to your Black staff. Pay attention to high turnover rates of staff of color. Pay people for doing labor in their exit interviews and advocacy efforts while educating you.
- Stop Gaslighting. Instead, open up your processes and lead with transparency.
- When a Black person tells you — actually when several Black people have told you — that you have white supremacy in your culture, LISTEN. Do not defend yourself. Change.
- Get trained — People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond’s Undoing Racism Training is great for that. Get trained once and then get trained again, from somewhere else.
- Move beyond theory. Don’t stop at the training.
- Create abundance, rather than promote false scarcity.
- Give your power away. If you thrive and rely on artists being dependent on you, you are not serving artists — you are promoting an abusive relationship with white supremacy and capitalism. If you are a non profit organization — focus on creating a future where you are no longer necessary.
To be defensive in the face of racism is to actively choose your white comfort and denial is to actively engage in white supremacy. To actively uphold white supremacy culture is to be an active white supremacist. Period.
At this point, I have zero desire to keep working with Gibney. I write this letter for all to read, including other Black artists, because I will not participate in protecting white supremacy. Because organizations who do not listen with care, and mainly with clout, are unacceptable. I have missed so many warning signs, because I was caught up in accolades and success. That is my doing. This is my undoing. I will no longer choose my own benefit if it means that I participate in upholding power and white supremacy by ignoring the flags. That makes me complicit too. As I actively work to undo this, I return to my values: My community.
Thank you to all the Black femmes who have warned me, taught me, held me, and supported me in this journey and beyond. You know who you are. And thank you for holding me accountable always.
I return to my personal mission: to create, build, and practice healing and liberation in Black queer and trans communities through performance. I’m turning my attention to where it belongs — creating, making, and shaping the worlds I want to live in. My ask is that any Black queer, trans, nonbinary folks continue to make community with each other and connect with me — let’s build together! Let’s care for one another and co-create.