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Enough Already with the Statements of “Solidarity,” Arts World

By Kaisha S. Johnson

“I can’t believe what you say because I see what you do.” — James Baldwin

I’ve gone from awe to agony to anger in the course of three days. According to my spiritual goddess guide Audre Lorde, those uses of anger can be a powerful source of energy in serving progress and change. I’d say that my anger is more than a valid emotion in this moment. But actually, my ire hasn’t manifested from the state-sponsored murder of yet another Black man and the social unrest that has ensued since. That elicits its own rage. I’m angry at the arts field’s response to it.

As if moving to some syncopated symphony, arts organizations and cultural institutions across the country are parading out statements of “solidarity” in these moments. I’ve stopped counting (and reading) the endless emails I’ve received from arts organizations touting how they stand in solidarity with Black people. Statements which proclaim they’re shutting down their operations and programming — galas and town halls and education programs are “going black.” How cute. Now, all of a sudden, historically and predominantly white arts institutions want to be “in solidarity” with Black folks? I know what solidarity looks like. And it ain’t this.

Much of the past ten years of my life leading Women of Color in the Arts (WOCA) — an organization dedicated to amplifying the voices of women of color arts leaders — has been sitting in rooms of mixed company and talking about how systems of oppression, specifically racism, sexism, and white supremacy, impact the arts sector — from leadership and organizational culture to artistic trends and philanthropic cycles. I’ve had endless exchanges with the predominantly white institutions that dominate our field and let me tell you that not only have they shown me that they are not in solidarity with Black people — they have shown me that they are against us. Some of those exchanges have looked like:

  • A highly visible city institution, whom requested my help in their endeavor towards creating better “equity practices” for their organization to be accountable to communities they serve, back steps when it’s time to actually walk the walk. After hours of exchange, a written proposal, lots of free mental and emotional labor, and putting together a team of experienced and capable Black women, suddenly there’s not enough time, money, or community buy-in for the organization to realize the initiative. And this is after they’ve solicited and received the grant money to actually do the work.
  • A well-endowed foundation approaches WOCA, unsolicited, with a desire to support our work and bestow upon us with a “gift” because what we are doing is “important.” But this gift comes with some strings attached — dozens of hours of paperwork, an endless drain on mental energy, and an extension of administrative capacity that they know this one Black woman-led organization does not have. When I question the process with a suggestion of a more equitable way of engaging with Black-led and often under-resourced organizations, I hear things like “accountability to the board” and this is “just the way our process is.”
  • A prominent presenting organization contacts me, with some urgency, to help curate some “diverse” programming, most likely to course correct on some fucked up policies they’d enacted. After much assessment and deliberation, and hours of work connecting with artists and their various communities, the recommendations I make are ultimately sidelined, with an explanation of “We thought we’d be able to do this now, but we’re just going to hold off until Black History month next year.”
  • An influential state arts council calls me to serve as a grant panelist for one of their multi-million dollar funds because they want to create a more “equitable” grantmaking process and would really like to secure a more “diverse” group of panelists. Attached to that invitation to “serve” is a note saying that I would be asked to read at least 60 applications, provide detailed notes and present on each one, and do this in-person over the course of two days. For free. When I write a letter to the director, bringing to their attention that this request is, in fact, antithetical to the practice of equity — asking Black and brown folks, those that are more likely to be underfunded and understaffed themselves, to give of their time in this way — I am met by literal silence. Until the following year, when they reach out again — seemingly with a case of institutional amnesia — asking if I am able to serve, and if not, could I recommend some other experienced arts leaders of color because they can’t seem to find any.

I could go on and on. I’ve been working in the arts for over 20 years and I’ve just named a few experiences from my past two. These aren’t just anecdotal; these are lived experiences that could make up a tome of empirical data. These examples demonstrate how white supremacy culture shows up in everythingThere’s no room for solidarity in white supremacy culture. Capitalism doesn’t allow it. Patriarchy doesn’t allow it. Paternalism doesn’t allow it. Power hoarding doesn’t allow it.

While I take great pleasure and pride in helping arts colleagues of all racial and cultural backgrounds better understand how pervasive and pernicious white supremacy and racism is in our field and within our organizations, it isn’t about “changing hearts and minds,” as some racial equity practitioners would have you believe. Honestly, I could care less about changing hearts and minds. I’m about systems change. And, yes, while I understand that people create systems, I don’t have the time or energy to change any one individual’s psychology. I can tell you that Black lives matter all day long and we will still be denied that job, underpaid for that performance, locked out of that board room. We will still be choked out in public view. I’ve lived on this earth long enough to know that the only person I can change is me. Part of my work is to help facilitate critical dialogue around history and facts, and, activate critical thinking so people can better understand systems in order to make their own informed decisions of how they choose to participate within, or outside of, them.

Sometimes that lack of participation leads to being “called out.” Frankly, I don’t subscribe to this generation’s call out culture; it can be ineffective in creating systemic change. However, it may be the only vehicle one has, so I get it. But, it often reduces racism or sexism or white supremacy to one bad person, or a group of bad people. It causes media outlets to release videos of Amys or Karens doing bad or “racist” things. It causes predominantly white arts organizations to release statements of solidarity so they also don’t get named as a Karen or Amy. They do this in lieu of actually doing the work to end those systems which oppress and that they actively participate in and perpetuate.

Racism and white supremacy are embedded into the very fabric of this industrial complex we call the non-profit arts sector. Because what we do here is just a reflection of what we do out in the world. I don’t need any solidarity statements. Black people are dying at disproportionate rates at the hands of the cops and COVID-19. Soon there will be no need to so fiercely protect that theater or performance space because there won’t be any people left to grace its stages or fill its seats.

This here is not a call out. I say all of this because I love you. I love you, arts world. And according to my other spiritual guide James Baldwin, “If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see.” So stop with the platitudes of solidarity. And stop ending your public statements with “We see you and we stand with you.” You don’t see me. But I see you.

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