About systemic racism in cultural representation and participation

I recently stumbled upon the following (paraphrased) question: “What really is systemic racism and what can be done about it given that laws seems to be OK and there are plenty regulations already in place to counter it?” Systemic racism is a relatively complex concept to unpack, with social, political, economic, psychological, aesthetic implications. I don’t know enough of the problem, there were a few important themes I could point to but decided to focus my answer on just one, cultural representation and participation. Given that I still ended spending a couple of hours on it, I decided to make it an article: what follows is a revision and expansion on my original answer.

The chosen theme touches all the domains mentioned above; if I manage to explore all connections below, it will have been by accident, otherwise, it will be because of my shortcomings, not because accurate and convincing analysis of these phenomena do not exist or are hard to find (see “Black is Beautiful: A philosophy of black aesthetics” by Paul C Taylor).
Fundamental assumption for what follows is the rejection of classical racism, which is the belief that individuals, at birth, have ingrained in them a profile that materially limits their intellectual and emotional capabilities based on race (mainly skin tone and facial features). It is possible some of my arguments can provide counters to classical race arguments, but that is not the intention.

To be precise, it not the case that classical racism disappeared: We distinguish a classical era and a modern era in race (studies) to enhance the difference between what I mean when, for example, I say race and when David Duke says race and the difference between the decades when institutions had blatant racist regulations (apartheid, segregation, nazi-fascist era etc) and now that those beliefs are internal to the members of the same institutions and at times subconscious.

Therefore, I am talking to people who, looking at two cradles with infants of two different races, wouldn’t say one is a better human being than the other but who do believe one is probably going to be more successful, in a measure that is dependent on the societies the babies are born into. Part of my arguments will explain the different probabilities relatively to the chosen theme (imagine the two babies growing up with artistic inclinations) and will try to convince those who don’t believe race has any exogenous effects in the fates of the above mentioned infants. I have nothing to say to those who believe the difference is endogenous and that, in fact, the two children deserve differently valued outcomes.

The first thing that will influence the two kids journey into the cultural work world is the presence or lack of models. This is where the first big difference is: for minorities in the West, history is two times removed from them.

The first separation is contemporaneous to the happening and collection of the historical facts. This at times happened by destroying the cultural heritage and permanently damaging the human ecosystem of invaded and colonized civilizations, at times it happened by physically and forcibly removing people from their roots and shipping them from one continent to another. For populations with deep oral traditions, as often these were, this separation amounts to killing their culture and part of their personhood. When turists visit sub Saharan Africa they seldom ask “Why are there no monuments and ancient cities?” The reason is they were all destroyed by Europeans. If you just caught yourself thinking there are none because none were made, ask why you allowed yourself to think that, with such a naturally rich continent, human industry stopped on the shores of the Mediterranean sea and that for 6 millenia, since the dawn of human civilization, nothing significant was made on the other side of the desert. Mawuna R. Koutonin, activist for Africa Renaissance, describes in his blog how hundreds of important African cities were destroyed by the colonizers weapons and exotic illnesses .

The picture is a view of the ancient Benin city (modern Nigeria) in 1891 before the British conquest 6 years later.

Sadly, in 1897, Benin City was destroyed by British forces under Admiral Harry Rawson. The city was looted, blown up and burnt to the ground. A collection of the famous Benin Bronzes are now in the British Museum in London. Part of the 700 stolen bronzes by the British troops were sold back to Nigeria in 1972.

That is why tourist questioning the absence of monuments add insult to injury and why it is misguided and hurtful when arguments like "White people invented music" or "White people made music great" or "Mozart was white" are brought forward, because white people killed countless Mozart in America and are levelling their environment so that not even their burial places are recognizable, white people packed countless Mozart into ships on the shores of Western Africa and left them with broken bottles to cut their hairs into shapes as a last hold to humanity trough expressiveness. The fact that Mozart made it into the canon is certainly due to his merits, but the fact that exponents of extra European cultures are not part of it has nothing to do with their demerits.

The second separation is contemporaneous to the moment these historical facts are being taught. It is not a surprise that most English people think of the colonial era as one of success and most Americans have a skewed idea of nativity and imagine the conquest of the West as a glorious adventure and a peak of human nature. That is what they are taught. In my high school history book, Columbus' three ships are mentioned by name and described in detail, millions indigenous people are killed in one line; Columbus' efforts to acquire funding are dramatized and his departure is made epic, the ruin of countless civilizations is presented as inevitable and a simple matter of progress. The degree to which history has been revised to appease the winners senses and comfort their conscience is embarrassing. Minorities have a harder time tracing their roots and contributions to history. One could argue, I believe successfully, that everyone, not just minorities, need to gain more knowledge of these facts and a more nuanced view of white successes and that western history teaching, which already presumes itself to be global, needs to really become that. However, reactions to a recent push in that direction in the School of Oriental and African Studies cause despair. This idea is further reinforced by what we see happening in contemporary history.

Notwithstanding the plethora of well deserving women writers and writers of colour in the 20th century, modern canon is still dominated by white males, with a few exceptions like Toni Morrison, as found by this English teacher while analysing the AP programs. I have not focused much on cultural workers while elaborating on the two separations above, but I trust that their position in what I just said was clear: oppressed minorities cultural workers were removed from existence, and when they were not, their works were removed from history, and when they were not, their ideas were removed from our education.

This means that when the two kids from earlier (let’s identify them as black kid and white kid) look far into the past they see different things. The white kid will see a celebrated golden age, the black kid will look into the void.

For sake of argument, imagine the black kid manages to get inspired, due to contemporary history or an exceptional spirit, that the white kid has also chosen a path as a cultural worker and that they are both now men fresh with a degree.

Except for a still too small number of cases, what awaits the black man is either going into a niche environment that produces and consumes cultural expressions for minorities, or partecipating in a never ending sequence of stereotypes in the mainstream hoping something meaningful will come around. Of course we cannot expect the white man to participate immediately, or ever, in important things, but we don’t expect him to be cast as an actor solely in order to display an accent that perhaps is not really his, or as a dancer to fill a skin tone quota, we don’t expect his paintings to be rejected by a gallery because they don’t look white enough, we don’t expect people to treat him as interchangeable even when he is successful. In either way, staying or leaving the mainstream, the black man and cultural worker becomes invisible to the general society. He becomes invisible because people refuse to see him: they don’t perceive his presence, or acknowledge his personhood, they dismiss his perspective and are unaware of the plurality of voices within his community.

The way we visualize things is racialized because the predominantly visual culture that dominates the West and racism are modern phenomena which grew together, both temporary and causally. It is also worth noting that our aesthetic judgments are informed by, and inform, ethical stances. That is why we should always be wary whenever we justify the predominance of an art form over another by reasons we believe to be purely aesthetic and why it should be worrying that, even when minorities cultural workers acquire the same standing as white cultural workers, they still have to deal with the fact they their work is valued less. This is not the same as saying that there is less economy moving around minorities cultural works. For example, Urban America is absolutely fascinated by black culture, but white people still own the production means and exhibition venues and profit from them when underground cultural expressions reach the surface. Not only, when the minorities cultural expression are made manifest to the wider public, they are often mistakenly attributed to the dominant culture.

Naturally, laws and regulations are not going to do anything about the above, but there are a few practices that can make the situation better. We need to make it so that more minorities kid can afford (in all senses) an education in arts and humanities, that public and private judicatory and governing boards are more diverse so as to include perspectives that are today ignored (think of the changes that were made to the Oscar’s academy board after last year’s protests). These are things we can do right away; then, without a doubt, positive reinforcement will make the system self-sustaining. That said, doing this is not trivial because whenever a white man finds himself without a job, he blames minorities, to the point where Milo Yiannopoulos seems to think it is actually hardest on white guys right now (read about it here but please don’t fund him by visiting his website). But mind me, I do believe in progress and I believe there is a general positive tendency in many domains; however, progress wasn’t achieved because of the generosity of the dominant culture, it was paid for with sweat and blood and even today betterness doesn’t come from free, it takes resilience, persistence and continuously making people like you uncomfortable enough to ask on a public forum "What else can we do for you?". To summarize the second phase of my arguments, minorities cultural workers (or their products) are often deemed aesthetically not viable, and when they are, they are said to be economically not viable, and when they are, their products and venues are removed from them.

If I started this article with:

It is not right to me that a director like Spike Lee needs to stroll festivals to get producers for his work, or that a movie like La La Land which insists on saving Jazz relegates black people to the background, or that a biopic on Nina Simone casts Zoe Saldata as Nina and blackens her face in order to make her look like Nina.

I would have got angry responses about how "White movie directors also have it hard" or "Why can’t white people do jazz? That’s outrageous" or “Is Zoe Saldana not black ?”.

I hope your reaction is now more nuanced.

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