Diversity Does Not Mean Equality: Arron Gill

Leader of Tomorrow Arron Gill reflects on how the concept of diversity is being framed in conversations.

At first, I was excited: a national group of artists of colour coming together over a few years to train, exchange, and learn critical artistic leadership skills. Yet quickly we understood that before we could wilfully gain these skills from our meetings with key leaders across the sector, we would have to build methods of resilience because the framing of diversity across the sector is seen as an issue for us to deal with.

We’ve met three key leaders across two organisations and each time a conversation about running buildings and about power has swiftly become a lecture on diversity, including teaching a room of 25 artists of colour about the American Civil Rights movement and the teachings of Gandhi as a method of how we can bring change to the industry.

This has got to change. Influential artistic leaders often frame the concept of diversity in such an abstract way that the barrier becomes only an issue of ‘knowing what you want, and then getting it’.

Honestly, who is buying this? These sorts of answers immediately make invisible the material and institutional racism that permeates the sector and makes assumptions about specific ethnic groups. This was also combined with a ‘we’ve done our part, the rest is up to you’ message, and in this case the ‘we’ve done our part’ was in reference to Peter Bazalgette’s 2014 speech announcing the Creative Case for Diversity.

When this attitude is so prevalent it limits peoples’ capacity to produce and present art how they want to. Something that I think we need to do is denaturalise the dominant relations in both society and the arts, as this problem can’t be solved in isolation. We need to re-frame narratives that cannot be hijacked and that fracture the dominant culture.

There are a few pieces of work that immediately spring to mind - works that, yes, are centred on race and its intersections but also demand us to ask the ultimate question, what does it mean to be human?

The first piece is Simone Leigh’s ‘The Waiting Room’. Simone’s work pays tribute to Esmin Elizabeth Green, who died on the floor of Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn, New York, and investigates the US healthcare system by presenting an alternative, female, African American orientated version of healthcare. The exhibition fractures our idea of medicine to include strategies of care, community acupuncture and wellness classes, disobedience, herbal medicine, movement studios and meditation rooms. She does this by centring the experiences of women of colour in her work, to not make a point about diversity, but to re-frame the narrative.

I’m secondly drawn to the writings of Oscar Zeta Acosta, particularly the novel ‘The Revolt of the Cockroach People’. Acosta writes, “somebody still has to answer for all the smothered lives of all the fighters who have been forced to carry on, chained to a war for freedom, just like a slave is chained to his master. Somebody still has to pay for the fact that I have to leave friends to stay whole and human, to survive intact, to survive the species in my own buffalo run, as long as I can. What it is to be given, to or as, something to hold, always in common, has really got a hold on me. It’s not mine, but it’s all I have. I who have nothing, I who am no one, I who am not one, I can’t say it and I can’t get over it, I can’t grasp it and I can’t hold it. It opens everything and in that exhaustion of what it is to acquire, acquire is set to work.”

I first read Acosta during my first year of University, and what he talks about is still so pertinent. I read it as someone who is constantly having to negotiate and renew themselves, reaffirming identity in order just to survive, and what is taken from them cannot be taken back, and furthermore the terms on which they have to renew themselves are not their terms. I’m also struck by the idea of the buffalo run – the idea of isolation in a group of many, migrating and moving. Some will die through violence, others of hunger.

In this era (which a certain key leader said ‘was the best for people of colour it’s ever been’) that is characterised by Theresa May’s ‘Hostile Environment’ for migrants, of borders and refugees, of Black Lives Matter and so much else – it is important that we are honest with each other and challenge ourselves to create work that is set on our terms. I think it’s important to think as broadly as possible of how we can use art for the most specific of situations.

Arron Gill is co-organiser of The GAP Arts Project, a youth-led arts organisation based in Birmingham, UK, that ‘creates space and time for young people to make sense of the world through creative and cultural action’.

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