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How Do We Address Diversity and Inclusion in the Arts?

This piece was originally published in Meanjin.

In today’s creative landscape, artists and institutions are having to account for more than just the skill or talent their work displays. Now, the question of how representative their work is of the broader Australian population is an equally important consideration.

Where before the arts were often the realm of the privileged and the white mainstream, today there is a renewed and much needed focus on diversity and inclusion in the arts. There is a growing sense of responsibility among arts institutions and leaders to broaden our artistic sector in order to accommodate the breadth and depth of perspectives represented in what is shown, performed and published.

This is the key topic explored in June by Diversity Arts Australia (DARTS) at the day-long Beyond Tick Boxes symposium, which examined cultural diversity and the creative sector in Sydney. While the original scope might have been focused on the city, the report released this month summarising the symposium shows that many insights have a national application.

The report Voice, Agency and Integrity—A report on Beyond Tick Boxes: A symposium on cultural diversity in the creative sector includes the findings from a session on the key barriers to arts inclusion of diversity in Australia. It highlights systemic racism, tokenism and a lack of culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) decision makers as the major barriers.

Importantly, the report makes it clear that it is the insidiousness of these issues that needs to be addressed. It calls for action from major institutions and organisations, not just individual artists.

The report says, ‘Attendees at the Beyond Tick Boxes symposium repeatedly described experiences of systemic discrimination among the “gatekeepers” who control whether or not a culturally and linguistically diverse artist gets to communicate their work to an audience.’

I am a debut author—my memoir No Country Woman directly examines race and identity in Australia. In promoting the book, I have had the privilege of speaking alongside other writers of colour about some of these issues.

Something that became immediately clear to me was that many of us feel pressured to only talk about race and diversity when we are given a platform. This is an immense responsibility considering that we are a small cohort of diverse writers.

Crucially, the issue is not so much being expected to speak on these issues (I did write a book about race, so I definitely don’t feel hesitant about speaking about race politics!), it’s that because such a limited number of voices in Australia are given these platforms, whatever I say can be assumed to be representative of the entire CALD community. This is what tokenism looks like, and it’s not an easy issue to solve.

At a panel at Melbourne Writers Festival in August this year, I spoke alongside Maxine Beneba Clarke and Michelle Law. During our discussion, we agreed that the arts community in Australia needs to embrace multitudes within diverse communities. To truly be representative and inclusive of diversity, we must allow artists of colour to speak from their experience without expecting a particular narrative, and we must allow for disagreements between them.

I am a writer of colour, yes, and I have written about race. But I have also written extensively about popular culture, about animal welfare, about any number of other topics that I am rarely invited to speak on. There is an assumption that I will always speak on diversity because I am from a culturally diverse background, but this attitude in itself feels like a pigeonholing of my interests.

It is also highly likely that my views on race politics will be different from other artists of colour, but the arts community is uncomfortable with any differences of opinion within minority groups because we don’t allow for this complexity in marginalised people. Again, this is because of tokenism—if we only make space for a handful of writers of colour to speak, we need them to be speaking for everyone else. That’s the easiest way to be ‘representative’.

While reading the Voice, Agency and Integrity report, it really struck home that part of the problem is that we spend too much time arguing for what art shouldn’t be created. White writers shouldn’t write about minority cultures; white artists shouldn’t appropriate the techniques of diverse cultures; white performers shouldn’t engage with minority issues; diverse artists should only draw on their own, specific cultural background.

Instead of focussing on the ‘don’ts’, I want to see more lobbying for what arts institutions can do to proactively and positively combat these issues. This means asking mainstream publishers to actively seek to publish diverse voices, regardless of whether they’re writing about race specifically. It means promoting artists of colour, performers of colour and curators of colour to have decision-making power in our major institutions.

It means realising that there is an appetite for diverse stories and diversity in the arts, and that we should feed that appetite through the promotion of diverse artists, as well as white artists who can use their platforms to promote inclusion as well.

It means being guided by what artists of colour create, share, and want to talk about, instead of imposing what we assume needs to be discussed in order to be inclusive of diversity.

This is not an easy task ahead of us, but symposiums like Beyond Tick Boxes are an immensely valuable step in the right direction. The test will now be to see the ideas and insights raised at the symposium put into practice.

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