Benny Sato Ambush (1992)

In the artistic arena, cultural diversity has become the new Africa, a dark continent with many meanings to many people that has been groped over, cut up, parceled out, financed, and plundered for various reasons, without much regard for those already there. Though much of this activity has been well-intentioned, results have been checkered. Diverse cultures have found some expression in mainstream institutions, but often in superficial ways. More people of color have been participating in those institutions, but rarely in positions of authority. At times, monsters of sorts have been created, such as planned Christopher Columbus commemorations with celebrational Native American music.

Such results can only come out of a kind of blindness. This blindness, however innocent, is a silent and unseen progenitor of much that is misguided and flat out wrong about many approaches to cultural diversity in the arts. For those who have been historically disenfranchised (people of color, the disabled, women, gays and others), the tolerance of this blindness has worn out in 1992 when we as a nation ought to know better.

Lasting, meaningful cultural diversity in the performing arts cannot be accomplished without respect for difference. Before respect for difference can happen, however, each of us must be open to recognizing that fundamental differences exist between people. For many of us to recognize that requires that we radically alter the way we see. In other words, consciousness must be fundamentally transformed. That this is necessary is painfully evident from the investment many in the theater have made in another kind of blindness: color blindness.

Color does matter, but not in the way it has. Most people of color do not wish to become invisible or whitewashed. Beyond color, what is operative is culture, world-view, a people’s cosmology, belief systems, values, and historical/political positioning. Color blindness is a false construct designed to ease the guilt of those most threatened by empowering difference. It softens the adjustments necessary to embrace the politics of inclusion. The myth of color blindness is a convenient buffer against the real deal: cultural equity and the concomitant sharing and redistribution of power, money, and resources necessary to achieve it. Belief in color blindness strips the “disdained other” of his/her identity and pretends to reduce the threat their difference poses to the racially/culturally dominant.

Race consciousness to me is a healthier, more realistic idea. It is how I operate in the world. It is how our nation operates. The American theater should be hip to what is obvious everywhere else.

That the nation’s funding community has rendered cultural diversity a problem for the white Eurocentric institutions by directing a good deal of its recent underwriting towards integrating them speaks to the structural imbalances in who is doing what at what level and for whom. Why are these institutions being favored once again? African American, Latino, Asian, and Native American theater groups have received a surprisingly small share of this new money, though they are the ones already devoted to the kind of work being sought. These theaters have other sets of problems — like survival itself — making their take on cultural diversity quite another thing altogether.

Art can mean different things to different races and cultures. The way art is created, marketed, and experienced can be racially and culturally specific as well. What constitutes an issue about cultural diversity is also in part racially and culturally based. Again, power is at the heart of much of this. Whose story? Whose aesthetic? Whose interpretation of history? Through whose cultural idioms is the art filtered? Who is the audience? Who is creating and producing it?

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