The ‘D’ Word: In Conversation with Alice Canton

Diversity, like oppression but fancier.

Diversity, like oppression but fancier.

In June, Creative New Zealand hosted ‘Nui te Kōrero: Talking about Diversity’, a conference which looked at “why diversity and inclusion in the arts are important and how the arts can provide a platform for change.” Alice Canton, Catherine Chappell, Rodney Bell, Matariki Williams and myself were invited to take part in “A Vision of Inclusion”, a panel within the conference. It was a privilege to be invited to sit alongside panellists with such an amazing background in theatre, dance and curating.

From the position of an arts institution or organisation, a call for diversity, is a call for diverse audiences and diverse programming. It all seems positive, right? I mean what’s wrong with diversity? Nothing! Where I start to feel uncomfortable is when the conversation ends at diversity as a concern for the ‘diverse’ alone, a discussion that only scratches the surface of the wider problem. The core, practical reason why we have conversations around diversity is because there are issues of underrepresentation – so where does underrepresentation come from? Well, marginalisation, oppression and institutional racism - but these problems seem much harder to solve than any well-intentioned conference.

The day after the hui I invited Matariki and Alice to collectively reflect on our panel experience. Alice leapt at the chance, while Matariki, for many reasons, opted to sit out. During the hui, there was a particular comment from a panellist that embodied the futility Matariki felt through the day’s discussion, an evolving conversation of complex kaupapa, without actually unpacking it or establishing structures for accountability and change. The comment referred to the “squirm” people felt at having “difficult conversations” with the speaker urging people to “embrace the squirm”.

Given the hui delegates were made up of a range of ages, abilities, genders, ethnicities, positions and artforms, for us, the “difficult” part of these conversations is actually our reality. It is the experience we live and work within, and we don’t have the luxury to marvel at how it makes us squirm, because the “squirm” doesn’t change things. The “squirm” is merely a reminder that others do not face the same issues we do. The disparity in these experiences, and the related unwillingness to create change on the part of those with institutional advantage to do so, left Matariki tired and unwilling to give energy to structures that use facilitating conversations of diversity as a way of patting themselves on the back.

A month on from this event, I’m feeling the tiredness Matariki talks about. I’m tired of talking about diversity and having to argue for institutions to acknowledge the value and existence of my community. Yet I am incredibly conscious of my responsibility as a conduit with a platform to advocate for us. To be talking about diversity is to acknowledge that certain groups are invisible, an invisibility which I must emphasise is not self-imposed. Yet it is these invisible people, the ‘diverse’ that are expected to rectify the problem of their own invisibility. Ironic. What this really comes down to is issues of power and dominance, and those who refuse to share it.

In a warm café on a wintery Tuesday morning, Alice and I sat down for one more hit out of the ‘D’ word, before we move on. We only just began to pick at the complex scab of diversity, yet one can’t help but future-gaze to the second part of the talanoa: what happens when we achieve the desired levels of representation, equity and agency? What happens to our voices when we are no longer ‘other’? Doesn’t that just sound glorious?

Lana Lopesi: The first thing I think we should talk about is Nui te Kōrero.

Alice Canton: Yea, right.

LL: I’m interested in how you felt during that hui? Because the longer I was there the more my blood boiled, I felt fiery and tired, an energy I didn’t have when I walked in.

AC: That was the same for me, it was an accumulative thing, a combination of feelings and projected feelings. By the end of it, I felt really tired, but not like oh, I’m really tired - I need a sleep, I was…

LL: …exhausted…

AC: Exactly! Although I can’t put my finger on one singular thing that made me feel that way.

I don’t know about you, but the other thing that felt weird was being hyperaware that my sector was very over represented, and so I was conscious that there were major stakeholders in the rooms that we were moving through. So, there was a sense of having this desire to play along.

The core, practical reason why we have conversations around diversity is because there are issues of underrepresentation – so where does underrepresentation come from?

LL: I felt that feeling when we were getting ready for the first panel and Stephen Wainwright (Chief Executive – Pou Whakahaere, Creative New Zealand) walked in. I just wasn’t sure what I was supposed to say, or what position I was supposed to hold. Essentially he was paying me to be there and you can’t help but be conscious of the organisations you represent and the precarity of our funding environment.

AC: Did you feel like you were having to withhold?

LL: I think the thing is that we had such a short time to speak. There were questions and provocations that were thrown out by the audience that I didn’t have a chance to respond too and so I didn’t feel as though I had the last say, which really frustrated me. So, on the second panel, I actually scraped everything I said in the first one and took the opportunity to say actually this how I feel, boom-boom-boom.

AC: That’s interesting because I felt the same way, but it wasn’t that I didn’t get to say what I wanted to, but that I didn’t get to say all that I wanted. It felt like ‘you (“you in the ether” you) never asked me the questions that I wanted’, or ‘you never gave me the space’, or ‘you never gave me a chance to speak’. But again, it was only at the end of the day I felt like I could articulate that.

LL: Something else I’ve been thinking about is how people don’t understand the emotional labour of these conversations that we talk about. Because for you and I, we are diversity, we can’t turn off from the conversation. When I leave a hui like that I keep thinking about it and replaying it in my head, it comes back to me when I’m sleeping, I wake up still thinking about it, because I can’t switch off, it’s impossible to remove a conversation like this from my existence as a Pacific woman, and that’s not a problem for many of my Pākehā colleagues. So, like, does it only matter to us?

...this hyper-invisibility or awareness of misrepresentation is something that we just live with in our everyday lives.

AC: I mean it does matter to us.

If you are the majority and the overrepresented then you don’t have to worry about it and it’s not your problem either. This is where I struggle with it. Because this hyper-invisibility or awareness of misrepresentation is something that we just live with in our everyday lives.

I guess that’s the point, right? Like if this is the case, then there’s a part of me that wishes the hui could have been led, written and co-designed by the diverse, the ‘we’ diverse.

I have to say all props to Creative New Zealand for organising it, and I understand that it is an in-house thing, but I think that it was a missed opportunity to ask, “Where is the pulse of this issue?” Because to them it is an issue that needs to be solved, that’s how it is framed, like “we need to solve diversity”. And if that’s the way that they choose to look at it, then who is a part of that? And who can be active in solving or resolving that problem? And perhaps that should have come from a ‘diverse’ person.

LL: Actually, that’s another question I have is, is diversity something that you can achieve or is it just something that you are?

AC: Yes, and what does it really look like? I don’t know.

I’ve been having conversations with Amber Curreen from Te Pou Theatre and we were talking and laughing because she was like, “I don’t think we are very diverse, we’re all Māori, I don’t think we want to be diverse either.” In fact, in their kaupapa they’ve identified that they want to extend the ‘olive branch’ to more tauiwi and more Pākehā, it’s so funny. Because she’s like “we’re not striving for diversity at all”, but all of a sudden, they’re ‘diverse’.

LL: Yea well I guess that’s the real question - is the word ‘diversity’ appropriate, and is that what we’re really talking about?

AC: That’s what I wanted someone to say on the day, like, “Hey guys what we actually mean is buh-buh-buh” or “What we currently have is and what we want it to look like is buh-buh-buh”. There was so much talk about “let’s have an uncomfortable conversation”, but I was like “I’m sorry, what is the uncomfortable conversation we are having? Because I am pretty sure the discomfort I feel on a daily basis is quite different to what you’re talking about”.

Yea well I guess that’s the real question - is the word ‘diversity’ appropriate, and is that what we’re really talking about?

LL: So, what are we talking about? Is it equity?

AC: I think so. Because I think at the heart of equity, the overrepresented, the having more needs to shift so that you have less, so that I can have more. Not in a filthy capitalist way...

LL: …but because you don’t have anything.

AC: Exactly! There is a great line from the play An Octoroon by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, which goes "My therapist was like, "don't you think you ought to not shit where you eat?" and I was like, "Well, what happens if I shit where I starve?"". Because it feels like that sometimes.

The thing I also struggled with from the day, was that question of what relationship Mana Whenua have to this conversation, and why Māori are lumped in with the ‘diverse’ we? Because I think traditionally Māori, Pasifika and/or Asian (whatever that terminology means) have been lumped together, because it is the ‘other’ against the majority. And I think that needs to change first. I think the moment we can acknowledge Māori as Tangata Whenua and acknowledge…

[An uncomfortable white man, who was sitting next to us in the café and noticeably eavesdropping into the conversation, walks out of the room with his briefcase.]

…our partnership and where that was broken and needs to be mended then everything else will just flow.

LL: I totally agree. I actually find it incredibly uncomfortable when I, as a Pacific woman am lumped with Māori as a homogenised ‘other’, because that’s not how it should be, right? We are actually all accountable to the treaty, by choosing to live in Aotearoa, we are all choosing to live on lands which have been stolen and do not belong to us in any sense of the word, and yet Māori are just lumped into this conversation with the rest of us tauiwi. Actually, it should be Māori on one side of the conversation and on the other, us - Pākehā, Pacific and/or Asian and everyone else.

AC: And where I feel uncomfortable also is that, I don’t want to speak for the ‘diverse’, because when you are in that panel situation you are speaking for people, and I don’t want to speak for all Asians, let alone also speak for Māori and Pasifika, because that’s what it feels like I am expected to do. Not only do I not need to do that, it is incredibly insulting.

I don’t want to speak for all Asians, let alone also speak for Māori and Pasifika. Not only do I not need to do that, it is incredibly insulting.

LL: One thing that I wanted to acknowledge was having Touch Compass on the panel with us [via Catherine Chappell and Rodney Bell]. Because whenever I approach this conversation of equity and diversity, I approach it with the lens of cultural diversity and equity because that’s my fight. Yet the struggles that Touch Compass represent are so much more critical, like actually, physically being able to get into a space.

AC: I agree. In the same way that ‘diversity’ has been colonised as a word, ‘accessibility’ has been colonised in a way too.

LL: Or able-ised.

AC: Yes exactly. We talk about ‘access’ on an intellectual and social level, but the access Touch Compass are talking about is the most basic. And that’s a hard conversation. You know if that crowd in that room were really looking for an “uncomfortable conversation” then the one that they were looking for was sitting right in front of them.

LL: It’s so easy to get squashed by a conversation like this and to wind up sad, actually. So, I wanted to ask - who is doing diversity well?

AC: It was interesting - at a hui that The Basement Theatre held the other day, that one of their board members, Matt Kenealy, came and he just listened. He acknowledged that he was there and present, he was a very visible presence, but he just sat for the entire day and listened. I mean how many board members would just sit and listen? That was the action that was more interesting than the fact that a whole lot of brown and yellow people had been brought together.

I guess ‘diversity’ comes down to being within the mainstream, within a colonial structure right? Which is why The Basement Theatre looks so good.

LL: I would definitely say it’s not within spaces or organisations which are mandated to have audience responsiveness, as with the galleries out south, or affirmative action mandates, but within these mainstream spaces, the spaces in which we should see ourselves in, but don’t.

AC: What I am enjoying is those videos, the most recent one with Ema Tavola and Leilani Kake, which talk about the Pacific body for Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki. The action of that conversation being public and on social media was a really important act, it radicalised it. I haven’t even been to that exhibition and yet I am engaged in the discourse and the counter-discourse.

LL: With that we have to give props to Ioka Magele-Suamasi, who runs the Outreach programme there. But my question is when Ioka leaves, and the other people doing great work in the backround for that matter, will the institution still produce things like this? What then? And then I come to back that question again - is it something you can achieve or is it something you are? People like Ioka already care about these things and that comes through to us as audiences, but can the organisation have this as an embedded quality?

I just don’t know.

Further Reading:

For those serious about this conversation, there are masses of resources you can pull on, starting here on The Pantograph Punch. Recent pieces worth reading include Why Can't We All Just Get Along? The Curatorial Edition, K. Emma Ng’s Old Asian, New Asian and Lana’s Caught in the thirst trap: White gaze on black bodies.

A little further abroad you could listen to Shaz Hussain, Collections Assistant at The Royal Airforce Museum in London presents at MuseumNext Europe, or read Tania Canas’ ‘Diversity is a white word’ on Artshub (which did the rounds a while back). Back closer to home, we can’t forget Victor Rodger’s ‘Let’s get real about diversity’, published in 2015 on E-Tangata.

But the only way we will ever really be able to “solve the problem of diversity” is if the ‘non-diverse’ come to terms with what it means to dominant. In Aotearoa that is to say, what it means to be white. So here are a few “uncomfortable conversations” on dominance, privilege and power inherent in a Pākehā identity:

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The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

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