Zainub Verjee: Can the arts world fight systemic racism in a real way instead of resorting to tokenism?

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      by Zainub Verjee

      Did the arts world drop the ball on fight against systemic and institutional racism in favour of diversity management?

      In the midst of a reopening of the culture sector in the phased recovery from the COVID-19 crisis, the Stalinist aphorism about a million deaths being a statistic, a single death a tragedy rings true.

      The killings of Regis Korchinski-Paquet and George Floyd, like past killings of Indigenous, Black, and other people of colour, have shattered the settled torpor of Canadians, much as they have poked the mood of lassitude reigning the world. As if in a sudden thrust, the corporealness of crisis of systemic and institutional racism and structural violence is foregrounded. Once again!

      However, the mood of the nation dictates embracing more racialized lives as COVID-19 recovery campaigns are getting bruised. The optics have not been disappointing: Politicians are taking the knee, protests are growing stronger and larger, and organizations are issuing a flurry of statements of solidarity, as the new search for meanings and definitions begin in a classic act of deflection from the core issue.

      In the growing clamour, the larger story of the recent history of fighting systemic and institutionalized racism is getting lost, and perhaps misplaced.

      Amid the twin failures of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords, the 1980s and 1990s were critical decades in the recent history of the struggle against systemic and institutional racism in Canada. Artists and culture workers pushed for Canadian institutions to face the reality of systemic racism and compelled them to respond with concrete measures.

      Public memory has a short shelf life. Across disciplines of writing, visual arts, film, and video, racialized artists organized themselves to take on the institutions. Let me pick up the narrative from circa 1989.

      The decade of the 80s saw mobilization of Indigenous people which led to multiple sites of exhibitions and resistance. It vindicated Harold Cardinal's 1969 proclamation—“a new era in lndian politics” had begun with a new alignment across cultural, political, and social domains to serve the First Nations well. One of the best examples was seen in the exhibition Beyond History curated by Tom Hill and Karen Duffek at the Vancouver Art Gallery in 1989.  And how can we forget Rebecca Belmore sitting in frigid temperatures (-22 degrees Celsius) as a display artifact #671B4 outside the Thunder Bay Gallery to protest the Spirit Sings exhibition in solidarity with the Lubicon Cree protestors?

      In 1989, Vancouver saw developing-world feminist energy bursting on the scene as 75 women-of-colour filmmakers from 28 countries descended on the city for the In Visible Colours—Women of Colour and Third World Women International Film and Video Festival, which showed over 100 films and videos. It foregrounded race and gender and the politics of cultural difference. The spectacular success of In Visible Colours opened the floodgates for subsequent interventions by racialized artists and culture workers across Canada—Yellow Peril Reconsidered; About Face, About Frame; Minquon Panchayat; and Writing Thru Race. As racial equity committees continued countering the Multicultural whitewash, these events became the building blocks leading to demand and formation of the racial equity office at the Canada Council for the Arts.

      Meanwhile, in Toronto, the Royal Ontario Museum’s 1989 exhibtion  Into the Heart of Africa, became highly controversial for its colonial gaze. It took it 27 years to apologize to the Black community.  The same city saw a decade-long movement in 1990s of anti-racism, progressive left movements, AIDS activism, and LGBTQ rights, leading to the Toront0-based Desh-Pardesh festival and subsequent institutionalization of a space for cultural production for people of colour.

      In the national capital region, we saw the continued contestation of Western modalities flow through two benchmark exhibitions Indigena and Land, Spirit, Power.  At the same time, the Stephen Lewis Report on the Yonge Street Riots of 1992 led to the short-lived Ontario Anti-Racism Secretariat.  It followed the Canadian Race Relations Foundation Act of 1991, part of the Japanese Canadian Redress Agreement. This happened as the Citizen’s Forum on Canada’s Future was informing the national debate on Canada’s constitutional arrangement.

      Despite the parading of a progressive ethos, the systemic racism in the arts world is deeply entrenched, and it is also exacerbating many underlying social issues and power imbalance in the arts. This was well captured by Dionne Brand, a poet and filmmaker, who wrote in Front in fall 1994, the “notion of access, representation, inclusion, exclusion, equity, etc are all other ways of saying 'race' in this country. So it’s made comfortable to talk covertly about race in this country without saying that we live in a deeply racialized and racist culture which represses the life possibilities of people of colour.” 

      But by the turn of the century, the anti-racism struggle took the neoliberal turn to diversity management. The arts institutions embraced the corporate lead. They took to the siloed approach as part of “diversity and inclusion” mode to create a cultural segmentation of Blackness, Indigeniety, and people of colour. This enables the process of staging diversity like houses set for sale. Like television anchors and media people, token racialized representations continue to don the institutions, with no impact either on policies or work on anti-systemic racism to show.

      In the present context, corporate bodies have begun their public-relations campaigns. The diversity agenda is being served as a full course in the corridors of the corporate world. In the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s killing came the incident of Amy Cooper—who was fired from her job by her firm Franklin Templeton for racially motivated behaviour. The big brands positioned themselves accordingly. Flashing their algorithmic demonstrations of “implicit bias” management, as if a small app would wipe away centuries-old and deeply embedded racial prejudices. And ironically, all this is done while making claims for fighting systemic racism!

      You may wonder why?

      The genesis of the overbearing of business leadership on social issues stems from an interesting moment in history. In 1987 , facing demographic challenges, a report came out of the Rand Corporation titled Workforce 2000. This report claimed that the challenges to the U.S. industry in terms of workforce will have to grapple with this new forthcoming globalization of the 21st century and will need to diversify the labour force and how U.S. manufacturing will be able to capture and dominate the global market.

      It is not surprising that the report findings were debunked after a decade of publication but its import was picked up by the management discourse in U.S. academia, which produced a particular method of corporate practices. These practices essentially focused on the labour, productivity, and market. The vocabulary of diversity was introduced and began to create a distinctiveness from the equality and affirmative-action agenda. The shift in focus advocates business reasons as the sole motivation for managing diversity.

      The struggle highlighted in the 1980s-90s was wiped out of the public memory, much like the racial-equity office at the Canada Council for the Arts. Neither is it a part of university curricula. A new generation bred on the false promise of neoliberal diversity management has been led on a different path of symbolism and lip service to the demands of the fight against systemic and institutional racism.  It comes as no surprise that some entrenched interests are framing the narrative of the fight against systemic racism and structural violence as at odds with the COVID recovery process and a possible threat to the Canadian economy.

      The crisis of systemic and institutional racism has raised its ugly head. It is a crisis, we have been reminded of for decades and like every crisis it reflects the fears, mindsets, behaviours and deadlocks of a society.  However, in the times of COVID crisis, will we be able to get on with the real commitment to fight and confront systemic racism in this country or as Dianne Kadota, Vancouver’s veteran arts community member, cautions us: will we see another “pandemic of tokenism”?


      Zainub Verjee is the laureate of 2020 Governor General's Visual and Media Arts for Outstanding Contribution. An artist, critic, with expertise in cultural policy and cultural diplomacy, she was at the fore front of the cultural policy work in the 1980s-2000s in Canada and internationally. She has worked on issues of Artist Labour, Racial Equity, Cultural Diplomacy and Culture Trade. Former Executive Director of the Western Front, her work on the BC Arts Board led to the formation of B.C.Arts Council. Currently, she is the executive director of the Ontario Association of Art Galleries in Toronto. Views are personal.