Where’s the Intersection of Disability and Race?: CB Mako reporting on the ‘Shifting The Balance’ Report launch
When I was invited to live-tweet @DiversityArtsAu ‘s #ShiftingTheBalance Report Launch, I couldn’t say no. My inner fangirl squealing, I was excited to be in the same room as two of my favourite podcast hosts, Lena Nahlous from ‘The Colour Cycle’ and Beverley Wang from ‘It’s Not a Race’. I listened to these two podcasts as I slowly cycled on my cargobike, to and from art classes, school runs, and errands. I regularly relistened to these podcasts long after they stopped uploading new episodes.
Using the hashtags #ShiftingTheBalance #DiversityArtsAu and #FairPlayCreative, I took photos and threaded tweets as they happened in real time. As soon as the launch finished, Diversity Arts shared the weblink on their social media platforms, inviting people to download #ShiftingTheBalance report for free. For. Free. I wondered how many had downloaded the report and went through the statistics and the numerous tables.
When I watched Diversity Arts’ live stream on Facebook, I reflected on what the report showed and what the speakers shared during the launch on August 2019. Perusing the printed copy of #ShiftingTheBalance, I couldn’t help but notice big, well-known, and credible organisations and institutions had funded and supported the research study. For those who were initially involved in research and data gathering, this legitimised the endeavour and their findings.
And, yet, despite pulling in big-named institutions to fund the research study, Lena Nahlous, Executive Director of Diversity Arts Australia, admitted during the launch that they faced resistance from their targeted respondents: the gatekeepers, meaning those who were in positions of power.
With regards to diverse terms, the report’s Executive Summary used NESB (Non-English-Speaking Background) while the research study used CALD (Culturally and Linguistically Diverse). Online, there were other different acronyms. When Twitter had a 120-character limit, there was either POC (People of Colour) or WOC (Women of Colour). While in the UK, there was BAME (Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic).
When Twitter’s character limit expanded to 240, another acronym emerged: BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour). But, then again, all diverse terms were problematic, said Lena Nahlous. We are, after all, living on stolen land where sovereignty was never ceded. Many of us migrants of colour—along with other ‘woke’, decolonised creatives—include an Acknowledgement of Country in the beginning of our events in the arts. However, the research funding and Diversity Arts as an organisation, focused on CALD specifically.
But within the non-white spaces—diversity within diversity— artists fight and claw at one another, inadvertently bringing down further marginalised BIPOC to get the one or two spots in a literary anthology, journal, or chapbook series. Thus, other voices are erased and removed from the Australian narrative: the disabled BIPOC, QBIPOC, those with mental health issues, and those who are carers. The lack of discussion around this kind of intersection is disturbing. Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theory of Intersectionality—gone viral, and now a mainstream word—has a ‘fundamental truth: that individuals have individual identities that intersect in ways that impact how they are viewed, understood, and treated…Intersectionality is to make room for more advocacy.’ (Coaston, 2019). In a lived experience of my own, I was pushed out of the abled space of ‘diverse’ artists.
Listening to the different speakers, I realised that the #ShiftingTheBalance Report was portable, and validated what I saw and experienced in non-arts areas such as education, mental health, fandom, disability, libraries, cycling industry, digital library collections such as ebooks and audiobooks; I could go on and on. One of the speakers, Tim Lo Surdo, Founding Director of Democracy in Colour, mentioned that the findings from the report were not an isolated issue, but a systemic problem: a ‘shocking statistic that doesn’t shock you.’ And I agree. Many of us non-white artists were not shocked by the findings. The findings validated what we hear constantly from trail-blazers, who decades ago carved a path for us current artists of colour, and that we, current artists of colour, continue to see and experience.
Beverley Wang’s speech published in The Guardian is titled ‘Australia’s creative industry is shockingly white’. Like me, she, too, is a first-generation migrant of colour, with an American accent (though she is from Canada). In comparison to Wang’s speech, the title of the research study ‘Shifting the Balance’ sounded rather… soft. Was it to placate detractors, gatekeepers, or even white supremacy trolls? The researchers could’ve named the report with powerful, gut-punching titles like, ‘Arts and Race’ or ‘Whiteness in the Arts’, or even ‘The Overrepresentation of White Leadership in The Australian Arts Sector’. As Jackie Bailey of BYP Group noted in her speech, the report was ‘productively uncomfortable’.
But Diversity Arts’ report is just the first step. In fact, it’s the first report of its kind. With evidence-based data used as starting point, surely this might bring about change among gatekeepers? Guest speaker Rohini Kappadath, General Manager of the Immigration Museum, mentioned that there is a gap between rhetoric and reality. And while Tim Lo Surdo challenged his audience to acknowledge that there is a problem, to do something, and not waste the opportunity as a catalyst, the report focused on leadership. Which is to say, those who occupy positions of power, the gatekeepers.
Would emerging artists of colour like myself, artists who do not occupy positions of power, be able to help ‘shift the balance’? Reframing discrepancies in the distribution of artistic merit and cultural capital can bring about positive outcomes. Author and editor of literary journal Mascara Literary Review, Michelle Cahill, conceptualised Interceptionality, which,
Deliberately draws from the matrix of social and racial intersections that oppress individuals…Interceptions such as email correspondences, social media messages…are necessary interventions because despite its widespread use and its promise as a research tool, intersectionality has not succeeded in reshaping public policy or arts policy, probably because of the salient operational challenges.
What would happen if you approached a gatekeeper, and attempted to disturb the balance of white structures of strongly held institutions? Would you be ostracised? Removed from future arts programming? I’ve seen many artists of colour who gave up, disappeared and faded into obscurity. Others burnt out and shifted to non-arts areas or different industries. This reminded me of artist Gemma Mahadeo who was one of the speakers at the report launch. In their speech, Gemma mentioned that support is needed at every level of an artist’s career from initial entry as emerging to established.
I once faced a gatekeeper. But my plea—to provide funding for my disabled child’s team of teachers’ professional development—was disregarded. Was it because I was a parent of colour and of diminutive height? Whatever the reason, I was deemed inconsequential. I then tried emailing my local Federal Member of Parliament. The reply wasn’t direct, nor did his office provide funding for teachers training. Instead, I was called to the school’s office, surrounded by people who held even more power, even higher positions, and were from the state’s strongly held educational hierarchy. In that meeting, I was the only person of colour. Was this what Ijeoma Oluo (2018) meant about unexamined beliefs and implicit bias against people of colour? Was this their way ‘to exert their power, to prove me wrong…and to rebalance the status quo?’ (Eddo-Lodge, 2017). As Sara Ahmed (2017) pointed out, ‘When we push against walls, we are pushing against what does not appear to those who have been given residence. And when we do this kind of diversity work…there will be consequences.’
To disrupt white privilege in power, shifting their strongly held balance, making them ‘woke’ and ‘productively uncomfortable’ must come with a caveat: be prepared to face trolls or even a verbal lashing by whoever holds the power. Or the rare alternative: find an ally – an empathic person in power who could move barriers and open opportunities for those who need it the most, those whose stories are never heard, who are constantly erased by the mainstream, abled, white narrative.
Sara Ahmed. Living a Feminist Life, Duke University Press (2017), p 159.
Michelle Cahill. ‘I Am Doubt Itself: Criticism, Narrative, Ethics’.
Sydney Review of Books, (23 May 2017), https://sydneyreviewofbooks.com/i-am-doubt-itself-criticism-narrative-ethics/
Jane Couston. ‘The Intersectionality Wars’. Vox, (28 May 2019), https://www.vox.com/the-highlight/2019/5/20/18542843/intersectionality-conservatism-law-race-gender-discrimination
Reni Eddo-Lodge. Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, Bloomsbury Circus, (2017).
Ijeoma Oluo. So You Want to Talk About Race, Seal Press (2018), p 93.