Moving beyond tolerance

By Chris Creighton-Kelly, April 2014

When different folks are at the table, different outcomes occur.

In February's Culture Talks, I wrote about the tendency of our arts system to marginalize the works of Aboriginal artists and artists of colour. I mentioned that even in 2014, almost all of the funding and resources go to European art forms and traditions.

Why does this happen? These are some of the stock answers: “That’s the way we have always done it.” “It would take new funding to address new concerns.” “The work in the European tradition—symphonic music, ballet, opera, museum theatre, etc—strives for artistic excellence.” 

Hmmmm? I would answer that Indigenous artists and artists of colour are “racialized” in the very construction of their identity.

Racialized? It is a word that I do not use often, precisely because it is not common in popular conversation. It is an academic word, developed by sociologists to better describe how racism is produced. 

In the last decade or so, it has replaced “race relations” as a go-to concept when discussing racism. In postcolonial studies, it was felt that “race relations,” while somewhat useful, did not speak about the relationship of power between people of different colours. The term “racialized” begs the question, “If some folks are being racialized, then who is doing the racialization? And why?”

“Racialized” suggests that individual persons and types of persons are identified by the powers that be as members of an inferior “race.” This comes from the classifications—when white Europeans described the world’s peoples as variously savage, sub-human, primitive, uncivilized and so on—that have been integral to the colonial project of the last 500 years. 

And that way of thinking has continued into our Canadian society. And has infiltrated our art system. Here is an example from the Massey-Lévesque Royal Commission on the Arts in 1952 that led to the Canada Council for the Arts:

“...since the death of true Indian arts is inevitable, Indians should not be encouraged to prolong the existence of arts which at best must be artificial and at worst are degenerate. The impact of the white man with his more advanced civilization and his infinitely superior techniques resulted in the gradual destruction of the Indian way of life. The Indian arts thus survive only as ghosts or shadows of a dead society. They can never, it is said, regain real form or substance…Indian art as such cannot be revived.”

Wrong! Wrong! Both in understanding history and in describing the future. Aboriginal artists and their art—kept alive for millennia—are renewing, rejuvenating and reworking traditions in their contemporary context. 

And these artists have done that in the face of continued racialization—including such charaterizations as they cannot govern themselves, are only interested in confrontation, want “race-based” special rights, enjoy living in poverty. The list goes on, constructed from stereotypes with the express purpose of racializing.

If we believe any such fictions about Aboriginal people, why then would we support their art practices—either in the form of arts funding or aesthetic respect for the work and the complex cultural traditions from which they emerge?

Sixty years later, in 2010, on a CBC’s The National segment that was about the lack of exhibiting and collecting of Aboriginal artists or artists of colour, the director of the National Gallery of Canada actually explained, “we are colour blind, we are only concerned with excellence.” To which Canada’s visual arts community loudly responded, “Whose excellence?”

The legacy of this thinking is also evident where we live. In 2003 the CRD undertook a major study, leading to the Regional Arts Strategic Plan (RASP). Extensive consultation was done throughout the CRD, but not with Aboriginal artists, artists of colour, or any of their arts organizations. In response to criticism about this exclusion, the report pointed to one of its many strategic initiatives: “Special emphasis…should be placed on outreach programs for Aboriginal and multicultural groups.” That was a good start. Unfortunately, this important emphasis did not make it into the final implementation plan.

In 2010, a similar mistake was about to be made by the City of Victoria’s Arts Scan. Most of the same mainstream art groups were again consulted. Some other artists complained that their issues were again ignored. Thanks to the thoughtful intervention of Gail Price-Douglas—at the time, the community arts development planner at the City of Victoria—new meetings were scheduled and the voices of Aboriginal artists and artists of colour were heard. 

Subsequently, the City has given critical support to the annual First Peoples festival, as well as co-sponsoring two important forum type events on Aboriginal arts. When different folks are at the table, different outcomes occur.

I spoke with Harinder Dhillon about some of these issues. Harinder was a director of the Capital Region Race Relations Association (CRRRA) and later worked consulting as a front line counsellor. She has won awards for her anti-racist work, including one from the Attorney General of BC. 

“Victoria is a somewhat sheltered community,” she believes. “ Even though there are so many people of colour here, it is still Eurocentric in its outlook. And even though CRRRA has disbanded, we still need an anti-racist centre in Victoria.”

She added, “Often, those who do not experience racism want to speculate about it. We, as people of colour, deal with racism everyday, all of our life—it does not stop at a certain age. We are the experts of our own experience. We are the ones who can detail our own lives.” 

I asked her about the concept of racialization. She said, “I feel that the word ‘racialized’ is too academic, not pointed enough. It could be construed as ‘I do not racialize people so I am OK; I am not a racist.’ Racism is a form of abuse. It can be debilitating. We all need to stand up against it.”

When I talk to mainstream arts organizations in Canada, most are sincere. They want to understand how to do this “cultural diversity” thing—when thinking about what actor to put on the stage, whose work to curate in a show, which film should be screened, what dance forms to write about. 

Sometimes I offer my advice as a series of steps. Move beyond “race” hatred—most people in the arts have done that already. Then move beyond denial—acknowledge that there is a problem here; it is not just political correctness. Then beyond guilt—a lot of folks are paralyzed by guilt. They want to do something but feel frozen. Then beyond the capital-M Multiculturalism idea of tolerance—surely we want to do more than just tolerate one another! 

And finally, move beyond sacrifice. Do not expect brownie points. Yes, it will mean squeezing your privilege but that is what happens when disenfranchised people step up and express their art forms. We all have to share the same stage.

It is the future of Canada. And it is inevitable. 

Chris Creighton-Kelly is a Canadian artist and writer who lives in the Victoria area. He has just begun writing a book on the Canadian art system.