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Beyond Binaries: The Simplicity of Engaging Complex Audiences

People visiting a musuemRecently I’ve been following with great interest the discussions about diversity taking place in the arts blogosphere. Roberto Bedoya, Nina Simon, Clayton Lord, John Moore III, and several other smart people have made many valid and interesting points. All of these individuals have been in the field of cultural participation for quite a while and I assume all of them were born in the U.S. For full disclosure, I've been a U.S. citizen for 6 years now, and I've lived in this country for 16, which in many ways gives me a somewhat different perspective than that of my U.S. born colleagues. But to get to the point, what I want to focus on is the paradigm around race and ethnicity in this conversation about how people participate in the arts.

It's always been strange to me that we talk about race in the U.S. as if it is a binary variable: you are either “white” or “of color.” This is the way it’s taught at school, purposefully or not, when teachers first explain the struggles of slavery and civil rights, and it remains in our way of thinking well beyond school age.

There is nothing new in what I just described — we know this is the way we operate and demographics aren’t going to change that anytime soon. As one of my clients put it: "demographics are changing, but the dominant culture will take longer to change." Nevertheless, I think arts organizations have an opportunity to shift the paradigm we use to understand diversity. Let me explain what I mean.

colossus sculpture of Hand of Constantine, Basilica of Maxentius, RomeBeing white is something that is not exclusive to WASP (for the lack of a better term) people. You have probably heard the term “non-Latino white” which is a reflection of the fact that as many as 55% of Latinos in the U.S. identify as “white” Latinos. To provide some cultural context: most Latin Americans are mestizos, which means that we come from the fusion of different cultures. We are not of mixed heritage, we are two or three different cultures at the same time. We are as indigenous as we are European and/or African. Mestizaje is a word that doesn't exist in English, and it is not surprising that the whole idea of belonging to two different cultures at the same time is so difficult to understand for most people born in the U.S. For Latinos, our cultural identities are as solidly grounded in the indigenous Americas as they are in Europe, with an enormous African influence and a bit of Arabic culture via the Moorish occupation of Spain. We are not one or the other, we are both at the same time, and most importantly, we don't think twice when we say this. It is not that our individual backgrounds are from different cultures, is that our culture is the result of the fusion of different cultures. Being bicultural is something that happened in Latin America well before there were multicultural experts explaining why people can navigate two different cultures with ease.

Woman visiting museumThe implications for the arts are many and varied. When I hear arts professionals talk about engaging Latinos in the arts it is as if they are trying to invite us to something where we do not belong. It implies that artists like Frida Kahlo belong to us, but Beethoven does not. On the other hand, in the research we conduct we hear Latinos saying that they feel offended when arts organizations assume they are only interested in Latino artists, or even worse, when Latino outreach is confined to Latino-specific exhibits or programs. It seems there is a notion that interest in art is also binary: if you are European you must be interested in European art, and if you are Latino you must be interested in Latino art.  Artistic heritage belongs to everybody, and it is certainly not a binary variable. Furthermore, approaching marketing strategies using the binary paradigm complicates issues because it ignores the fact that ethnic and cultural identity is not isolated from its context. In other words, given the context they present, arts organizations should take on the role of reflecting the complexity of interaction of the many groups in our society.

It is simple: arts organizations need to exemplify the reality of how people experience their cultural identities. That is where relevancy comes from.

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