Diversity in Programming and Avoiding Tokenism

In order to make the arts more diverse and inclusive, the shows and performances on stage should reflect the community. If 60% of the United States population identifies as White (non-Hispanic) according to the 2019 data from the U.S Census Bureau, then 40% of the United States population identifies as a racial or ethnic minority: Hispanic, Black, Asian, Mixed Race, and Indigenous. But when looking at Broadway Shows, Symphonies, Operas, Ballets, and the other various performing arts, the whiteness, whether it be the composers, performers, or audience members, far exceeds 60%.

How are marginalized individuals supposed to feel comfortable coming into these white spaces that have historically excluded them, when they aren’t represented? This is a question that arts organizations are considering now that everyone discovered racism existed in 2020. The lack of representation can be seen through the staff, programming, and audience members, and it is the responsibility of every department within arts administrative organizations to fix this problem.

On the programming side, some individuals may be afraid of tokenizing marginalized people by trying to reach some sort of quota of diverse shows. Tokenism is the practice of making only a perfunctory or symbolic effort to be inclusive to members of minority groups. In my opinion, what separates tokenism from inclusivity is intent and consistency.

In early 2020, I decided to only play works by underrepresented composers for my final violin recital of my master’s degree in October 2020. This led me to curate a larger recital in April 2021 that would also only consist of works by underrepresented composers, as well as a newly commissioned work from a living Black composer. Later this summer I will be attending a chamber music institute, and upon accepting, I requested that my chamber group work on a piece by an underrepresented composer. At this institute, all participants are required to play a solo piece in a masterclass, and, once again, I chose a piece by an underrepresented composer. My reasoning behind doing all of this is to show current musicians, audience members, and future musicians sitting in the audience that underrepresented individuals can also have valuable contributions to the world of classical music, and that there is space for us, despite the whiteness that exists in the composers, musicians, and audience members. I should note that when choosing repertoire, I choose pieces that speak to my musical tastes, and not to fill a diversity quota.

Each piece is chosen because of the specific artistry that went into composing it, and not solely because of their demographic. Doing the latter is performative, and makes underrepresented communities feel like tokens. It is the same sentiment when arts institutions have Black History Month concerts and shows in February, but then return to the “norm” the very next month for the remaining shows. Performative representation and inclusion do nothing to create real, necessary change. It still contributes to the centering of whiteness in the arts. It marks art by underrepresented communities as different and apart from the norm.

So, is programming more diverse art harder work? In my experience, yes. I could easily program a recital full of compositions by white men in seconds, but that is only the result of a music education that was rooted in whiteness. It takes more work to change what you have been taught, but if you’re committed to making the arts more inclusive, then it’s necessary work because the art is there, you just have to look.

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