Power of Culture Blog
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A Personal Testimonial from the Executive Director
Growing up in the hood, lower northwest DC, as a poor black child with struggling parents and grandparents, four brothers, and as a student in the DC Public School system, life was what it was. On TV and in the movies, I knew that other people had bigger houses, nicer cars, more cash – and I had no understanding of why we couldn’t have those things. When I went to high school, I was recruited and provided a scholarship to attend an all-boy, mostly white, college prep. I was surrounded by people who had a tremendous amount of privilege – but they were all white (many becoming my best friends.) The life I had was not something I could get away from and everyone that I knew, including all the other diverse students in my high school, clearly had less. It was surprising and upsetting. What I didn’t understand was why my family couldn’t have those things. I wasn’t upset at my white friends; I was upset at my family because I thought it was their fault that they could not have the better things life had to offer. I now know much better and truly understand the systems that are put in place to privilege some people over others.
To grow up with this stress, struggle, anger, and the inability to escape becomes ever present. Even now, the mantras that I was told by black adults, teachers, mentors, and colleagues continue to play in my head – “work hard”, “you must give it 150%”, “they expect you to fail” and – from white adults – “slavery was over a long time ago, everything is equal now” and “just apply yourself…you are so smart”. Can you imagine being at a deficit in every room that you show up in, because your skin is a certain color?
The one thing that I had which offered solace and comfort at times, was art. In school, music, art, band class, play practice, dance lessons…a chance to leave all the stress of family, home, hood and 150% went away when I was doing art. I could imagine worlds that were different from the world that I was living. My favorite form of art was the movie musicals! The singing, dancing, costumes, love stories! Oh…it was magnificent to watch The Sound of Music, Oklahoma, Carousel, The Wizard of Oz, My Fair Lady and Grease over, and over, and over again. Imagine my family’s surprise when I told them that I wanted to be a musical theater performer! The looks of “you must be out of your mind!” came over their faces. I didn’t understand. In my mind, I could do those movies when I grew up! I could play those parts! In their minds and eyes, they saw not one person in those musicals that looked like us. Not ONE! Even when The Wiz came out, this was one movie musical out of the 50 that I watched that had black people in it. And clearly, that movie was filled with Hollywood and recording stars and the supporting cast must have “known someone” to get in. A career in movie musicals or Broadway was NOT possible for a poor black child from lower Northwest DC. Not possible. And the proof was right on TV.
Still, I naively persisted because my brain was filled with those mantras of “working hard”, “everything is equal”, “give it 150%” all the time rejecting the notion that everything is NOT equal, even if you work at 200% – you still may not get the job and working hard doesn’t matter because there are systems in place that keep you at a deficit – even in the cultural sector.
Its sad to think about it, because I imagine that this is the case for millions and millions of young non-white kids who either need the escape or dream of the arts as a career. And because of systems and lack of representations – these careers are not talked about around the dinner table and parents may not know how to support it or refuse to support it to protect their children from the heartbreak of the reality. The other sad part is, what has the world missed out on because of this? How many brilliant young artists never get their work showcased because there are built-in deficits.
Now, I will say that there have been programs, grants, and opportunities given to me to address some of this. I was given numerous scholarships and opportunities to train to learn how to do it like my white friends in training programs. Without a massive culture shift that says to the world that oppression is intolerable, these programs, policies, grants, discount tickets, outreach efforts will only put a Band-Aid on the problem. Only those people who directly use these will benefit. These don’t fix the cultural problem. We have these in our institutions, our local and state governments and even federally, but we haven’t truly addressed the culture of oppression. The numerous Civil Rights Acts, Affirmative Action Programs and EEOC policies have not fixed the system, structures, and institutions that keeps large populations of people at a deficit because of their skin color. Additionally, in our training programs, we lack diversity in our curriculum, so non-white kids are perfecting techniques that may not fit their cultural needs.
So, because of this, one of my priorities, anywhere I work…perhaps even a life goal, is to use my privilege to change systems and perpetuate a culture of racial equity. I feel a responsibility to little Michael Bobbitt and every other “little Michael Bobbitt” out there to do this. I want all the “little Michael Bobbitts” to have the chance to share their talents and give the world an opportunity to benefit from them.
When I think about what it will take to make the world equitable, for me, it requires a few things:
One, Acknowledgement that there are systems in place. If your organization is predominantly white, you must acknowledge that it was designed to be this way… I don’t mean to suggest that it was done with ill-intentions, but bias, lack of diverse perspective, and preference may have played a huge part in the design. The business model was designed by white people for white people. And, it stands to reason that with intentionality, racial equity, and diversity, the business model can be redesigned by multicultural people for multicultural people.
Education on the incredible creativity that was used to build the system, structure, and institution of racism. The great thing is, we are from the cultural sector, so our creativity to build an equitable system is endless.
And lastly, Ceding Privilege. Ceding privilege is where even allies, advocates, and abolitionists sometimes fall short. Ceding privilege is extremely difficult! But it is what is required. For many, the perceived loss of privilege, power, and opportunity will feel like the emotion we go through during the seven stages of grief. Ceding privilege is the true key to eradicating racism and other forms of oppression. Those who made the rules have the power to change the rules, but they must cede privilege by using their privilege.
Privilege often is used to confront a person. But I think that privilege can be used as a superpower to make change. My privilege as a man, a black man, a light-skinned black man, an educated man, a funder, and a leader, give me an arsenal of superpowers which compel me to make change. What is needed is for those of us who have privilege to use the perks, benefits, and lack of obstructions and hurdles to actively eradicate racial inequities. This is truly what de-centering and ceding privilege means. There is precedence – women’s right to vote came from men ceding privilege. LGBTQ+ right to marriage came from hetero-normative people ceding privilege. The end of the enslavement of black people came from some wealthy people ceding privilege. Embrace the feelings of loss. Embrace discomfort. None of us has the right to be comfortable during this process of eradicating racism. As a society, we have truly sucked at ending racism, so the idea of being comfortable is fictional. We are in crisis about racism. I don’t know anyone who is comfortable while in crisis.
Mass Cultural Council has constructed a plan to ensure the decisions we make about grant funding are equitable. We also want to support your efforts to diversify. We have heard your need for help expressed to us in numerous ways – listening tours, personal emails, phone calls, and site-visits. Our plan will create learning and support opportunities for you and your organizations.
I believe, as I have seen in every organization that I have led, that racial equity will benefit all. And in this case, the sector will grow, the audiences will expand, the flavor of the arts in the Commonwealth will truly reflect the diversity of Massachusetts. All will benefit. Imagine if we didn’t have diversity in our food. How much would you miss tacos, sushi, curry, BBQ, gyros, and cornbread? Imagine if this were the case in fashion and pop culture? So, lets do this for the Commonwealth! Let’s build the most diverse cultural sector in the country. Help me prove the theory that racial equity benefits all. Help me turn the Commonwealth into a cultural utopia where we can all exist in our own culture, but embrace, celebrate, and share each other’s culture – a utopia where race is revered and not feared. Maybe the arts, the Commonwealth’s cultural sector, can be a blueprint for society.
I hope we can count on your support of this plan, and that it will inspire you to look at the work you are doing in your communities and organizations. What side of history do you want to be on when we talk about this in 50 years?