The conversation about white privilege is uncomfortable but necessary
The cultural sector must not shy away from painful issues, says Dr Gladys Francis. At Nordic Dialogues, she will talk about how cultural institutions can check their privileges and take action.
Read more about Nordic Dialogues: Towards an inclusive cultural sector, Oslo, 2-3 December 2019.
To reach equality, equity, inclusion, and fairness, organizations must open critical conversations around issues of privilege, representation, and identity politics.
– I insist on the word "open" – what matters is to challenge the oblivion stance that silences, ignores, or looks the other way. We must open these difficult dialogues even if their outcomes might not always be the most fruitful.
Dr Gladys M. Francis is an Associate Professor of Africana Studies and Theory and cultural studies at Georgia State University, Atlanta, USA, where she is also the Director of the Africana Studies Center. She explores issues of identity formation, race and ethnicity, gender-based violence, individual and collective trauma and social cohesion. Francis is the author of several books and holds lectures, workshops and is involved in international collaborative projects across the globe on matters of community activism, social justice, diversity and inclusion.
In her lecture at Nordic Dialogues she will talk about white privilege. The term describes how, due to the structural impact of racial inequality in our societies, white people benefit from the fact that they are not a racial minority.
How does white privilege impact cultural institutions?
– White privilege... These terms are polarizing, seen as offensive or trivializing across white mainstream. The dominant group under scrutiny here might be, for the most part, unlikely to perceive itself as a privileged one.
Francis adds that even by beginning to answer this question, she puts herself in a vulnerable position, open to criticism. As a woman of color, she risks being interpreted as serving her own interests. The concept is difficult to address, Francis says, precisely because these privileges are invisible to most white people but painfully evident to the people who are affected by them.
– Artists of color might not know what it means to go about negative episodes at work without questioning if these had racial implications. They often enter the job market pondering about the acceptance of their blackness in the cultural institution they aspire to work at. Within white privilege, there are no penalties for choosing to be oblivious to individuals of color (or other minority groups), to belittle their daily tribulations, and to circumvent seeing or hearing the ways in which they are made powerless. White privilege allows a dominant white group to be a norm, a model, whose members are not called to question.
Being black in a majority white space
In the cultural sector, being outside the norm has a range of implications that are damaging to artists, Francis argues.
– In the Nordic countries, it is difficult for artists of color to find curricula outside a white canon or white decorum. To achieve their aspiring artistic careers, artists of color have little choices but to enter "white-size-fit-some" institutions that (indirectly) demand that they conform to a (white) canonic academic training that (directly) denies space and appreciation of Global South cultures.
Artists of color are constructed as "the other", and they continuously have to fight to be valued on equal terms, Francis explains:
– They often enter such cultural institutions fully aware that their race/ethnicity is a setback. White privilege sustains non-white bodies as outsiders. Within the cultural ecosystem discussed here, artists of color are isolated, out-of-place, and outnumbered inside such dominant artistic and cultural forms. Their "othered" bodies, artistic productions, and discourses entail a constant (cultural, social, institutional) fight.
Cultural leaders can create change
According to Francis, leaders can either maintain or they can challenge unequal, oppressive, and discrediting norms.
– Looking at the cultural institutions in the Nordic countries, the people in power are likely to be white. These cultural leaders should not only be trained to acknowledge their white privilege, they should also be provided tools to examine and lessen it. Because white privilege is so unquestioned and normalized it is made invisible; these factors contribute to its powerful hold.
Leadership requires courage, Francis says:
Organizations should always remain open to make their white majority uncomfortable in the name of redressing inequality and upholding accountability.