March 14, 2014

Multiculturalism is key for creating inclusive arts experiences

Last month, Coca-Cola aired its now-famous Super Bowl ad depicting people from various racial, ethnic, and cultural groups singing “America the Beautiful” together in different languages. Among the instant outpouring of polarized reactions to this ad rang much praise for its depiction of a multicultural America. Yet the ad provoked a slew of negative responses as well. Many of the ad’s detractors questioned whether this multicultural America could ever feel as cohesive as an America whose citizens speak a common language, and therefore have taken great strides toward assimilating into a common culture.

Arts and culture institutions have recognized the need to attract more racially and culturally diverse audiences for decades. Recently, Roberto Bedoya, head of the Tucson Pima Arts Council, challenged several museums professionals to think about how the White Racial Frame intersects with cultural policies and practices. These bloggers recognized the need for museums to create visitor experiences that are shaped by, and represent, people and perspectives from diverse backgrounds and cultures.

Yet, these sentiments have also raised concerns much like the skeptical reactions evoked by that now-infamous Coca-Cola ad. Cultural critic Edward Rothstein has expressed concerns that museums’ quests to affirm experiences of particular groups can draw focus away from a more universalist vision of art or history. And, in his recent blog post addressing the complex issues surrounding race and arts policy, Ian David Moss cautioned that calling attention to race might serve to exacerbate racial tensions. However, research on social behavior outside the museum context can help allay these concerns. Recognizing and celebrating cultural differences has actually been shown to help foster positive interracial relations between individuals and improve racial equity in society as a whole.

In his thought-provoking blog post, Ian David Moss referenced a 60 Minutes interview during which Morgan Freeman famously called Black History Month “ridiculous.” Freeman’s point was that calling attention to race prohibits us from truly seeing each other as individuals. In a similar spirit, terms such as “post-racial society” are often used to suggest that in an ideal society, race is irrelevant or ignored. On the surface, this colorblind ideology may seem like an admirable effort to get past interracial tensions and focus on our common humanity. But the goal of ignoring or downplaying racial differences is problematic in a few ways. In a colorblind society, the dominant group inevitably defines the common culture. As Stephen Colbert facetiously quips, “I don’t see race; I just pretend everybody’s white, and it’s all good.” Colorblind ideals ultimately disregard the unique perspectives, needs, and assets of people of color; allow white individuals to ignore or downplay racial inequities; and send a message that belonging to a race other than white is somehow bad or shameful.

A racially equitable society doesn’t have to be colorblind. We can instead envision a multicultural society that celebrates racial and ethnic differences, recognizing that each tradition has something valuable to offer. The problem is not that race exists; the problem is racial stereotyping, prejudice, and differential privileges conferred upon some groups over others. A multicultural ideology emphasizes the goal of doing away with racial inequities without ignoring race altogether. 

Plenty of evidence from the social sciences suggests that multicultural, rather than colorblind, ideologies promote racial equity between individuals, within organizations, and in society as a whole. Sociological survey and interview research across a diverse national sample shows that colorblind perspectives actually serve to maintain, rather than undo, racial stratification. And, a recent field study found that in workplaces where white employees espouse multiculturalism, rather than colorblindness, minority employees experience less racial bias and feel more engaged in their work.

Multicultural perspectives can reduce racial tensions on an interpersonal level as well. White individuals who endorse multiculturalism show less prejudice against racial minorities, compared to those who endorse colorblindness. Surprisingly, simply thinking about multiculturalism is enough to reduce racial bias. White research participants show less racial bias after reading a passage that endorses multiculturalism, compared to a different group who read a passage endorsing colorblindness. And, perhaps most importantly, interacting with a white individual who holds colorblind, rather than multicultural, ideals elicits stress among racial and ethnic minorities—enough stress to decrease their performance on a cognitively demanding brain-teaser

Taken together, these studies show that trying to ignore race puts a strain on interracial interactions that is felt by whites and minorities alike. Instead, seeing the world as the multicultural place it is diminishes these tensions and provides a framework for more open, positive, communication. And even subtle nudges toward a multicultural mindset—in these studies, simply reading a paragraph or two—can make measurable strides toward reducing racial tensions. In other words, we can all work towards, and succeed at, adopting a multicultural perspective.

What does all of this mean for arts and culture organizations? Rather than adopting a colorblind ideology by default, it is important for arts organizations to examine their ideals regarding racial and ethnic diversity and be deliberate about thinking, acting, and communicating with a multicultural mindset. For example, one important step toward connecting with diverse audiences may be for arts organizations to change their internal culture in ways such as hiring staff and board members with strong ties to underrepresented communities. But it is also imperative that these organizations hold, and communicate, multicultural ideals so that minority staff members feel engaged and empowered to make the changes needed to reach out to their communities.

In terms of programming, targeted efforts to appeal to more diverse audiences should be undertaken in the spirit of creating a multifaceted experience that feels inclusive to everyone, rather than expecting all visitors to appreciate the same artwork or adopt the same Eurocentric ways of experiencing art. Creating arts and culture experiences that are inclusive to all requires a genuine recognition of and celebration of our diverse cultural landscape; in many ways, idealizing a colorblind society ultimately stands in the way of achieving this goal. 



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