Anti-racism is now a common term heard in conversations about race since the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and too many other Black people in 2020 alone. This language, elevated by the Black Lives Matter movement, has taken root—pulling many of us towards new levels of engagement with racial justice.
If you happen to identify as white, you may be responding to all of this with a range of reactions: Maybe questioning your privilege, or getting involved in conversations; you might be defensive, or dismissive, or you’ve taken to the streets to protest injustice and fight for equity at all levels.
Wherever you may be on the spectrum of understanding racism, anti-racism and racial equity, the movement is happening with or without you. So if you haven’t yet and you know what’s at stake, now is the time to engage. My day job is in the equity and inclusion field in higher education, but I’ve been working in the creative industries, starting with museums and galleries, and then working directly with artists, musicians and performers for over 15 years.
If you’re at the point where you’re asking questions about how to help move racial equity forward as a creative, I hope this article steers you in the right direction. How to be a Better Ally is meant as foundational guidance, offering ways you can get engaged in the work. Some of my examples are drawn from the visual arts world, but most of what you’ll read applies to disciplines in all creative fields.
Conversations about racism often butt up against egos and old narratives that reinforce beliefs in superiority and privilege. I often hear the phrase “It makes me uncomfortable to talk / write, speak about / acknowledge racism” or “I feel guilty” from white peers and colleagues.
The truth is this: The days where Black and brown people are harmed, excluded, rendered invisible and silenced so that you can remain comfortable are coming to a close. Your comfort is a small sacrifice for building a world where groups of people are not oppressed, and we need you to get through and make a commitment to change the system.
Guilt and other responses to racism by white folk early in the journey are normal, but wallowing is useless. Trying to shed the guilt only serves to center your comfort. Consider that we’ve all been sold a bag of white supremacy bunk, so we all have to work against it. I hope you might sit with any discomfort at least for a little while as if our lives depend on it (because they do).
As creative professionals, many of us grow into our careers through a network of supporters—who we find, and who find us. Who you rub elbows with can lead to a venue for a gig, a new commission or client, or representation of some kind. The possibilities are real when you can meet the “right” people.
But the decisions of who gets in the door and the economy built around that door has almost entirely been in the hands of white people. White-dominated creative fields have for hundreds of years replicated themselves to the point where most of my art history lessons in college—almost exclusively—valued only white artists and white-led arts movements.
If we can agree that this has been the case historically, then you must also come to know that it has taken activism and labor by Black, Indigenous, People of Color, mostly womxn, to demand that we be valued for our genius, complexity, depth, brilliance and all of the wonderful dimensions of our humanity and creativity.
It is because of the hard work of BIPOC that we have insights into what we can do to advance the movement for racial equity and anti-racism as individual artists, creatives and people who work in the arts. With some of this foundational knowledge behind us, we can now think about how to interrupt the systems that have for so long advantaged one group over others.
One of the most potent interruptions to a system that promotes individual icons (usually men) is to become an active, reciprocal member of a community. Now I’m not saying to go reach out to Black and brown artists and insist on friendship.
I’m saying do some research into what’s happening in your city and show up for performances or art shows from folks who are outside of your regular circle. It’s likely that you have built authentic relationships and networks in your own career-— the approach here is no different.
Showing up in support of Black and brown artists is a sign of respect. Amplifying other people’s work on your channels is a show of support. Extending and honoring invitations to engage are normal and non-intrusive actions that can cut through bias and enhance our ability to authentically value each other.
If you’re interested in educating yourself further about how to be a better ally, there are several resources that speak to authentic community building here, here and here.
In my experiences, there are far more word of mouth opportunities for creatives than anyone wants to talk about (no pun!). I already gave you the short history of who holds power in the arts and associated creative industries so you can guess who makes up the majority of decision makers, curators, contract providers, consultants, grantmakers, venue owners, show bookers and so on.
Because of this word of mouth deal, artists whose proximity to white decision makers often make them first in line for submitting proposals. These are the folks who get more access to big opportunities, and the cycle continues.
It’s no surprise that creatives of color are underrepresented in almost every industry—here are just some examples in design, music, publishing, and the arts.
These stats give us a picture of the system we need to disrupt. This list does not even account for the many ways exclusion impacts BIPOC creatives. Also know that BIPOC folks have -innovated and persevered despite a system of disenfranchisement, often leading disruption and innovating solutions along the way.
The last couple of years alone we’ve seen more and more actors and artists of color in the forefront to address the underrepresentation issue, but that’s not the whole story. Seeing overrepresentation in one area does not translate to representation in the boardroom, director’s chair, casting office, C-suite or any other position of authority, power or agency. Even if there is representation in a creative space, just know that it doesn’t always mean equal pay for BIPOC folks for any given gig.
If you’ve found yourself in a position to be invited to submit your work for a job, or someone has found you or vice versa, you can interrupt the system of replication by knowing of (or actually knowing) BIPOC creatives and ensuring that the person who has the decision making power knows of them as well.
Through the working relationships and partnerships you build with people in organizations or companies, you have the choice to ask if they have a history of working with BIPOC creators—and if they don’t, make sure you're raising the visibility of BIPOC through those interactions. I’ve seen this work!
This action relies on you authentically doing the work of knowing about artists and creators in your community and valuing the work of BIPOC artists in such a way that you would ask uncomfortable questions of the people who are paying you. But it’s also the least you can do to fight as an accomplice for BIPOC artists to be seen, heard and known.
Developing an anti-racism practice means having a conversation with fellow artists and others about being white and having privilege—and what that has meant for your career advantages.
Consider the fact that if BIPOC artists and creatives experience racism and oppression to the point where they are excluded from opportunities, we live in a distorted reality—whether or not you think you get advantages from the system.
The distortion pushes us to recognize that being white means you can be “not-so-good” yet still be successful within this system—- simply because the Western world has decided that whiteness is superior. (See Ijeoma Oluo’s book “Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America”).
Questions for reflection:
If you-value the work of anti-racism, chances are you’ll make mistakes and get called out.
When this happens, acknowledge the impact of what you’ve said or done and apologize. I’ve known white creative professionals and white-led institutions who’ve been called out for cultural appropriation, language, exclusion or ghettoising artists (for example, by featuring Black artist’s work only during Black history month).
Know this: 1) Your response to getting called out is everything, and 2) You’re fortunate that people care enough to take the time to make sure you are not able to cause harm to others. An authentic acknowledgement of the impact and an apology followed by corrective action is the way to respond and oftentimes are the initial steps to more trust and understanding between individuals and groups.
Being self proclaimed “anti-racist” is more said than done. Consider being less eager to give yourself the title, and far more interested in being active in the struggle to end racism and all of its manifestations.
Anti-racism can go beyond reading books and articles, and it even reaches beyond talking to your friends and parents and community. It’s taking action that will have a positive impact and disrupt systems of oppression. What is our work as creative professionals if not to disrupt business as usual and make us pause and consider building something beautiful, meaningful, hopeful, raw and honest?
You can go about your life, be the artist or creative that you are and take action against racism. As you become more confident in your values for racial equity and anti-racism the choices about what to do will become clearer.
Remember, we must hold a vision for a world where race is not a determining factor in your success as a creative.
We can’t change history, but we can change the way it’s told and we can definitely shape the future of culture. What does that future look like to you?