Beneath the labels

Today’s afternoon session on the Clore Leadership programme, led by Sandy Nairne and Gus Casely-Hayford, focussed on the issue of diversity in the arts. It’s a subject that I have thought on a lot over the last few years, having worked for companies whose work has stemmed from communities who often find themselves in a minority of one sort or another, but my response to the session was more complicated and more challenging than I had expected. So before my head hits the pillow for the night, I want to work through some of this complexity.

As expected, the discussion was relatively wide-ranging, although, as ever in time-limited conversations, only able to skim the surface of some intricate and deeply personal issues. Topics touched on included identity (both created by and in protest against imposed labels), concepts of the mainstream and the margins, of nationalism and interculturalism, and of reductiveness and homogeneity. Participants in the discussion included people of various nationalities, ethnicities, and sexualities.

Despite believing passionately in the importance and relevance of the conversation, I did not contribute, and felt increasingly uncomfortable about my inability to participate. I realised that, coming as I do from various communities which are all traditionally representative of the UK mainstream – white, heterosexual, able-bodied, middle-class – I felt increasingly unable to enter the conversation, for fear of being seen to be an inappropriate spokesperson on the issue. I found myself very wary of errors of imposition, of assumption, of cultural ventriloquism: colonialism by another name. Whoever’s story it was to tell, or point to make, I certainly didn’t feel that it was mine.

And yet, through hesitancy on joining the discussion, I worried that I was guilty of the equal but opposite crime of appearing not to engage, not to acknowledge or admit the importance of the conversation. Something that couldn’t be further from the truth.

With my path through life having been inadvertently smoothed by belonging to multiple majorities, I now find it deeply difficult to know how to enter and support the conversation around diversity without, by default, reinforcing the voice of those already dominant majorities to the detriment of voices that have for too long gone unheard. I am rarely, if ever, referred to as white, heterosexual or able-bodied: they may be my labels, but they are ones that go largely unmentioned. My white, heterosexual, able-bodied experience is rarely remarked on in those terms. I pass under the radar, without having to live up to or shake off assumptions about or categorisations of my identity (/identities). Consequently, I do not want my voice in a conversation to strengthen a mainstream identity against which those who identify with minority indentities have to struggle to be heard in their own words.

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