Ming Cho Lee (1992)

When it comes to cultural diversity, the design field is in crisis. In my twenty-three years on the faculty of Yale, we’ve had only four Black and three Asian students (and no Latinos or Native Americans) in the MFA Design program, out of an average of ten students a year. That’s barely over three percent. Unfortunately, I think Yale is typical in this regard. Recently, I went to the annual USITT Conference in Vancouver. There were 3500 designers and production people present and you could count on one hand the number of non-whites. We constantly despair at having no applications from young people of color.

I don’t think that this is caused by any outright prejudice in the field, however. Considering how few designers of color there are, we’ve done very well. Rather, I think other cultural and educational factors are involved. I may be generalizing, but in the traditional Chinese point-of-view, for instance, to have a male child going into the arts is considered bad luck. I don’t know if families of other cultures have such biases. How does one face that particular phenomenon?

The real question for me is how can the field become a viable choice for people of these different cultures? Does it reflect in any way on their lives? I’m not sure that it does. The only choice at the moment seems to be assimilating yourself into the dominant culture. How does that feed into your life or identity?

I think this lack of participation is also linked to the lack of visibility of designers and production people. A black child can see black actors and say, “I want to do that.” He or she can read about black directors. But if that child sees a set or a lighting design, there’s no sense of who is responsible for it. It’s almost as if it came into being completely on its own somehow.

The only way to combat this is for designers of color to become more visible. We must let young people know, and I mean young Asian, Black, Latino, and Native American boys and girls, that this kind of expression is available to them, that they can survive in this field, and they don’t have to give up who they are to do so.

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