Eradicating racism in the arts in Kalamazoo starts with a discussion

Fixing 400-plus years of racism, white supremacy and all its lasting damage in an hour and a half might be a big bite for Kalamazoo arts organizations. But over 60 participated on a GoToMeeting call June 17 to talk it out -- and agreed that talking is a good place to start.

The forum was about "eradicating racism in the arts," says Kristen Chesak, executive director of the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo, who hosted the event.

Topics included racism and white privilege, bringing in more people of color in both the creative and management areas of the arts, inclusivity in arts education, and artistic responses to changing attitudes on race.

Artists were downtown creating Kalamazoo Black Lives Matter street art, June 19. Von Washington Jr, facilitator and panelist, says at the forum's closing that the discussion showed they recognized "it's going to take an entire community, it's going to take an entire nation of people deciding that this is important. And we're seeing it play out on the streets all over the country and the world, through protests that are peaceful, millions of people being moved to say something, where maybe even two years ago some of them wouldn't have been out there." 

He adds that artists "play a vital role in the resurgence, the healing, and moving us into that space where we want to be when we start talking about Kalamazoo being our home."

The following is an edited summary of the 90-minute forum.


Von Washington Jr., executive director of community relations with the Kalamazoo Promise, local actor.

Kama Mitchell, co-founder and co-executive director of Rootead, a nonprofit supporting healing arts, birthing justice, and body awareness, plus youth and community programs in dance.

Lofton (Lofty) Durham, Western Michigan University associate professor, theater history, professional director.

Participants were able to send questions through chat.

VW: Opens by saying "I don't think anyone here is an expert, or that anyone here has all the answers, but we're going to try to work through this together."

He gives the acknowledgment that "this event is taking place on stolen, indigenous land, and that black lives matter.... The axiom for tonight's town hall: We operate under the assumption that all people are created equal. If given the same choices and opportunities, all people will make choices that lead to beneficial life outcomes, thus any desperate and insidious outcome is not natural intrinsic, but created extrinsic."

Washington continues, "The overrepresentation of white folks in the arts average between 78% to 85% of those managing, working and participating in the arts. The U.S. census shows the white population at 72%. And we have really no idea how many folks didn't get counted out of fear of barriers or just being counted. That is so unequal and disproportionate, that hopefully these discussions and in light of what's taken place in our nation, we will be able to do something to make a difference. We're counting on all of us to do that."

He asks Durham to define race prejudice.

LD:  Durham gives a long, scholarly definition, including white privilege, colonialism, and the importance of context.

Race is a social construct, not a matter of biology. "Once we create the idea of races, then we assign traits to races and stereotypes to races, and that information gets passed down through the generations. It doesn't mean any of this information is actually accurate, but it does mean that it's continuing through time, it's not something that any individual has created, but is nonetheless something that gets baked in on a deep level." 

"It's not really possible to be born into a society like we have and not have race-based prejudice of some kind." 

On white privilege, he says that everyone has identities, and they have advantages and disadvantages, depending on context. Height, for example. Sometimes, "taller is better unless you're trying to buy pants. Suddenly taller is more expensive. Or you're at a gym with a low ceiling, and you're on a treadmill. And suddenly taller is, 'I'm bumping my head on the ceiling.'"

With colonialism "you have powerful states that come along and decide to sort people out according to race, religion or language, and they invest those differences with legal privilege or social privilege or cultural privileges. Then, that's when you turn race prejudice, which we all have, into racism, because then you have the power in the society deciding that we're going to put this particular people above this other group, and we're going to give those people a sense of their superiority because of the qualities that race prejudice is telling us, and we're going to give other groups a lower position in society...." 

"And if you add these two things together, you can immediately see that in our society, race is a very salient category that's been invested with privilege. And that gives us white privilege." 

VW: "There's no easy way to define what has taken place over the past  400 years, and the injustices that have just blanketed our nation during this time and continue to exist...." 

"What really strikes me now, some of the emotions that I've felt, even coming here today as I came through downtown.... As I was going through, they were starting to remove some of the plywood that was on some of the windows. A great emotion struck me as I know what has been happening in our nation, and know that it is directly related to what's happening in our local community. And then as I came down today, I noticed that some of the businesses still have the murals up. And I thought that to be such a beautiful thing, because when things like this have happened in our past, many times they are forgotten immediately. " 

The country and the world has undergone "a great deal of stress in the last three to four months, over things that are beyond our control. The pandemic and now things that have happened at the hands of other humans...."
Artists were downtown creating Kalamazoo Black Lives Matter street art, June 19.
"Kama, what are you hearing from your clients of color as they're trying to center on the things you find so important in your business," 

KM: Her organization has seen more people interested in doing home-births, she said. "Because of the climate, (people think) maybe I should have my baby at home," she says.

"There's not one black midwife in all of southwest Michigan, so they have this desire to build a team that's relevant to their experience.... Birth-work is an art, too, so I think it has a little bit of relevancy."

Rootead provides youth arts programming "that mix the arts with social, emotional learning, and behavior regulation. I have a lot of families still wanting us to show up, virtually, so that's good. A lot of families want their youth to be exposed to indigenous cultures and ways of being in art. Because they feel like it would help them to have a broader understanding of cultures, of arts, and of people as they move through the community. So the coronavirus has given us a lot of work, we've doubled in capacity this week." 

Their membership is growing, "because healing arts are so much a part of keeping us unified." 

They are seeing "grandmothers to infants" in drum and dance classes. "Yes, so much of our influence is traditional and indigenous ways of being, and with colonization and white supremacy -- I'll just say it -- we've become individualized, and have broken some of those patterns of ways of being intergenerational, and so yes, all the ages.... Humans are lifelong learners, and you can learn something from an elder, and you can learn something from your child and grandchild."

VW: To Durham, "What are you telling students of color who are coming into this business knowing the disproportion (of whites in arts management), and that opportunities are going to be few and far between potentially?" 
Artists were downtown creating Kalamazoo Black Lives Matter street art, June 19.
LD:  He's been "shedding some of the race prejudice" for himself. "As a young adult from the suburbs, I often encountered people who were not white as problems. Especially in the classroom, where they're often framed as problems," he says.

"The only way to dismantle white supremacy is to be brave enough to look in the mirror at what you are bringing to the table." 

He learned to "think of myself as the problem," and think of ways to connect with students of color. 

Race prejudice is a unique issue in the context of performing arts. "There are all these types, we map our race prejudice on characters in fiction, and then we want to arrange humans to fulfill those types. So my interests as a teacher are in evoking the students' passions and interests." 

He reframes the teaching process "with the student at the center, rather than my sense of what should happen at the center."  He works at learning student interests, passions and strivings, and "for students of color that means often times trying to earn their trust, to discuss the ways in which their race as impacted them." 

Also, students "need to meet with models and artists of color at every level of their career." 

VW: He graduated as a theater and communications major, looking to land roles, he says. "It's all about headshots and getting in the line and hoping you've got a role." 

At the same time, his parents were getting recognized as professionals on stage and screen. His father did a national commercial for Apple computers and moved to Hollywood. For Von Washington Sr., "the main roles that he got to audition for at the time were angry black police chiefs." 
People watch artists downtown creating Kalamazoo Black Lives Matter street art, June 19.
It was a common role for male black actors. "Sometimes that angry police chief is mad at a black policeman, police person. So they're mad at another person who's black.... This happened for a long time in Hollywood, and as an actor, we thought this was the only thing we could achieve to, and that we'd never have the leading role. And yet today, the industry demonstrates that we're still having those issues."

He asks Mitchell, "What existing systems or resources that are underutilized, that could help arts organizations be a catalyst for change?"

KM: "I think the Arts Council might be underutilized for some people of color in the community, just based on the fact that they don't know the resource is there. Also the KIA (Kalamazoo Institute of Arts) -- they brought in, I'm sure you know, the black artists last year, for six months they took over the KIA. And that was really, really a positive move for our community. I saw a lot of enlightened and uplifted hearts in my community, and we were really excited about that. The KIA also hosted AfroFest (in February)." 

She says, "I think it's just a shift in generations, really, we're starting to see that the youth is the most underutilized resource, Von. The youth. They are blending and mixing and don't have any care in the world for some of the notions some of the older folks among us have put in place. And I would say if we listened more to them and give them avenues to express their art, we would see some significant change, especially in our community...." 
A drone’s eye view of artists downtown creating Kalamazoo Black Lives Matter street art, June 19 by Nate Hartmann.
"I really think that every human being is an artist in their own way. When you start to think outside of your narrative and your box, and become friends with different cultures and different people of races, and delve into their art, then you can start to see your art in a new light, too."

The arts community needs to "build bigger bridges," she says. "There are resources out here, we just need to make a stronger web in our arts community." 
VW: "The minute you're not listening to the youth, you're really making a mistake. They bring such a sincere and innocent perspective in so many ways, that it helps you to move forward. A lot of times as adults we think we know best, and say do it because I said so, but that voice that they have is very important." 

Selected Participant Questions:

Angelita Aguilar (Kalamazoo Promise): "Is there an overall movement of inclusivity in the arts at an educational level?"

LD: "If you'd asked me six months ago I would've said it is a niche practice at best." Most educational institutions saw diversity as "something you had to have."

Now, "it feels like attention has been called to the wider social problem." Also, "the calls from black and people of color for accountability have gotten quite loud." 

He's he feels, from internal conversations at WMU, that "there is still a sense, among the white people I've talked to, that this is a crisis, right? So if you treat something as a crisis, it has to be managed and spun, and eventually, the crisis goes away.... Institutional racism and white supremacy is an ongoing catastrophe. Which means we're going to have to have more-sustained effort to climb the mountain." 

Adam Weiner (Farmers Alley Theatre): Requests that the panel to speak on diversity and inclusion in arts organizations, on leadership, governance, and "what does the board look like?"

VW: On the boards he's sat on, "certain individuals that make their way on the boards, whether they're people of color or not, are still people that have similar opportunities, that have been provided similar opportunities.... A lot of times it is not the people that are applying the work, they are not folks who are even associated with the individuals we're trying to help...."

So "we really have to make sure it's appropriate for everyone that is going to be involved in everything that we do. And it has to be intentional... You don't just ask the only other person of color if they've got a couple of friends. That's just not the strategy for moving that forward. And quite frankly, sometimes when you do that, you put that person in an extremely compromised situation to be the authority for everything of color. So you want to be careful." 

KM: When Rootead began, they wanted to "decentralize the hierarchy in our organization, and also centering black women's voices." Their staff is 75% black women. "We would love to have a more masculine presence, sometimes, for some kind of balance, maybe?" 

When an organization makes a shift in diversity, "you have to get down to the core of the 'why?' first. Like, why was this organization started? If you're in an organization that's 50 years old, that why might not be relevant to the why of today." 

Questions need to be asked, "Why are we doing this work? Who are we here for? And how and why do we want to change?" The leadership would have to be committed; if the board doesn't want to go along, "then maybe it's not the organization you need to be trying to do the work in."

LD: He agrees. In predominately white arts institutions, "you have to work to get white folks on the same page. Meaning, some training is necessary."

VW: A clear vision and training is "critical. If one declares "'no more, something has to happen,' you could be shut down quickly in conversations if you are not strong with a foundation of exactly what comes next." 

He's talked to human resources professionals who've said to their organizations, "'we need to become more diverse.' And the first pushback was, 'we have standards -- you want us to lower our standards?'" With training, there's "more opportunity to be successful in your argument" 

Angelita Aguilar: Asks Mitchell about the "concept of beauty" in arts, and how colonization has defined beauty.

KM: "That's very esoteric of you, Angelita," she says, laughing. "Every single person on this call has ancestors that had traditional ritual ways of being. And so much of the way that they lived was their art, right? You see the pictures on the caves, and the carvings... living was their art, they didn't separate them."

"What I hope to embody, and hope to ripple out into our community, is that white supremacy has categorized and labeled and boxed us so much that we have forgotten that just our life is our art. To me, that's the beauty in all the arts, whether it's the healing arts, a visual art, a dance art... it's who you are when you live your full embodiment. So that's the beauty of the arts for me...." 

"Colonization has defined everything for us.... It's not the individual person's way of being, it's about the structure that's been set, that we had no part in even wanting. We didn't choose this, we're in it." 

David Elhart (artist): "Address the current political breakdown regarding the artistic progress."

LD: "The current political situation is one that's been baking for a while. It's not all of a sudden it's Trump's fault that the government doesn't respond to us...." 

"Our government, in particular, has never really had a tradition of engaging with the arts.... More money goes from the city of Berlin to its largest theater than goes from the federal U.S. government to all artists" 

KM: "I feel the same way.... Artistic progress is already happening, as we can see downtown." 

VW: "When politicians, whomever your favorite politician is, decides to use the arts, decides to use the media in a way that they're using as a tool to support what they are doing, we start to find ourselves being put between a rock and a hard place with what we're trying to do with our arts. Because everything becomes extremely scrutinized."

Art's chance to have a hand in progress, "to make its way out, is going to be through the people, and artistic expression is already taking over. We're seeing it in the streets, we're seeing it on the walls, it's just not something that's going to be stopped. And when history looks back on these times, believe me, they're going to be looking at a lot of the artworks that come out of this time and period that expresses the voice of the people." 

Stephanie (last name unknown): "Why is our applicant pool so white? Is my workplace so uncomfortable? Is my job posting process? Where is everyone?"

VW: He's heard similar complaints from organizations trying to get diverse staff.  "The first thing that they say is, 'nobody shows up to apply....' This is not a legitimate reason for you not to have diversity in your organization."

KM: She tells of when she was a server and manager at the downtown restaurant Food Dance. The owner asked her "how come no black women apply to work here? I had to sit with that for a while."

They later hired "a young black woman. She lasted maybe two or three months. She looked at me one day and said, 'I feel like I'm serving the masters sometimes.'... "

"Growing up biracial, I moved in both worlds and did a lot of things leaning into one part of my culture, then the other. I was raised in black culture so that's the one I leaned into more. But I understood where this young woman was coming from.... The workplace wasn't uncomfortable, but the overall curation, creation of the restaurant was uncomfortable because there was not enough representation." 

This can be the case with any organization -- "representation matters to people who've been constantly oppressed and marginalized over and over again."

"When you show up to a space as a black person, sometimes you know right away if it's for you or not.... Quite often, we've leaned into making ourselves fit in just because we have to survive the system that we didn't ask for." 

LD: In higher education, complaints that they want diversity but no one applies, is "a mantra."

It can lead to box-checking: "Oh, there's one Pacific Islander! Oh, we got that box!" 

Relationships have to be built with sincerity, he says. "It's a slower process.... We have to connect, we have to commit, we have to be patient. We have to earn trust. Because if you're just forming relationships with artists of color because we want to solve our diversity problem, then that is going to be clear to the folks that we are interacting with.... But if we are curious, and feel a little awkward, and actually want to know, and we start to believe that we are actually being bettered by these relationships, then I think that's how you rotate that culture." 

VW: "We often find a lot of times that the application process is somewhat biased, and that the questions to be answered take on different meanings to people of different backgrounds...."

"I didn't know about jobs in the world, that were out there, when I was coming out of high school. I didn't know what existed. I'll always say that most jobs found me, I didn't find them."

No one told him of job possibilities, so he was "able to meander through being someone who, I quasi had my trouble in my times, I was off the radar for most of that.... As a young black male, that just put me out into the abyss."

As for the effort to build diversity in an organization, "first and foremost, it can't just be the HR person. It has to be a philosophy throughout the organization, that says this means something to us. Or it's going to be very difficult to achieve any type of change."

Janine Chesak-Black (local actor, Bronson senior risk manager): "How can performance theaters change their culture to truly embrace diversity casting?"

LD: For WMU student productions, "some people believe we are color-conscious in our casting, and other people say, no, you're being color-blind. I don't like the word color-blind because nobody's blind to color, but I learned a great term recently -- it's 'race evasive casting.' Pretending like color isn't a thing, though it is." 

Again, "It's very tempting to view diversity as a kind of checklist." For season programmings, WMU's student theater should embrace diversity for the whole season, instead of finding one show or casting choice to "fix it."

His black students are always asking about black plays, "and I don't know them. Well, I'm going to research them." 

Kevin Dodd (playwright, producer, instructor): "Artists and art organizations can play a vital role in stimulating public imagination to envision a just and equitable future for Kalamazoo. But where should this start, and what's the best organization to facilitate this kind of workgroup?"

KM: "Yeah, how about ours. Hey!" She laughs. "How about many? More hands make light work, stronger together. I think Kalamazoo's the perfect size to create this task force and really (push) the kind of change in our community that we really want to see."

Cindy Hunter (theater music director, music teacher): "As a music educator we have an obligation to program music by black composers beyond the occasional spiritual. Do you have any suggestions for public school music teachers?"

VW: In public education, he knows from experience, "a lot of times what you're asking is to take a risk beyond the normal, beyond the traditional spiritual. And those risks come with nerves and wondering if there's going to be some form of judgment." 

LD: Again, "it really begins with research on your own." There are genres beyond gospel or jazz -- he suggests looking into black composers in the European tradition, in African traditions. 

When a white teacher finds new material of interest, "that becomes infectious with all the students, so that if you come to this knowledge and then you share it, that means the students of color will feel that, wow, this is about me and this person is excited about that, and they're a white teacher who's sharing this." 

Question from unknown source: "What if you cast a black woman or man in 'South Pacific,' how would you handle that?"

LD: Laughs. "I think you're starting to enjoy lobbing these, Von...."

"I do think it starts with trust." He talks about "The Wiz," a version of "Wizard of Oz" rooted in black culture. "Would I be comfortable casting someone who's black as Dorothy in (the traditional) 'Wizard of Oz?' Absolutely I would, but that person might not feel comfortable with me as the director if she thought she was just there for decoration. In other words, to make my show look diverse. And that her lived experience as an artist was not going to be called for." 

If an older show that comes out of the "dominate whiteness" gets added diversity, actors of color could feel "sidelined... A lot of productions have been tanked by that sort of tension that always surprises the white producers...." 

When trying to fit actors of color into traditionally white roles, it seems like they're being told to "fit in our world." Producers need to find other work that fits the actors' "lived experience," or "make something new together."

VW: He went to a predominately white university, he says. In most theater productions, "I was the only one." He got a chance to play the lead in "Othello," a traditionally black role. But many times he had to fit in what were assumed to be white roles. "You can start to question yourself, quite frankly, on whether or not you belong there..... They have to be very clear to you that it's because of your talent, your ability to bring the role to life.... and not just because, we have to check a box."

Cori Somers (musician, executive director of Kalamazoo Bach Festival): To Mitchell, asks, "You once said to me, we all need to feed each other's fires, not just build a bunch of little fires. How can we do that more in our community?"

KM:  By "building a web of collaborations... build those bridges, create those webs...."

"What we've all touched upon is relationships. Shared humanity is what's going to get us to the other side of this crap. Like we have to share humanity, and what a better vehicle than the arts?" 

The amount of arts in Kalamazoo "is amazing to me, but we're all siloed out, doing our own little fires. What if we just had a huge bonfire?" 

She says "We need a hub" to promote diversity and be "anti-racist."

Jane Fette (Kalamazoo Cultural Center): "I am white, my team has no black workers, I'm disappointed in that, but my fear is that if a black person is hired on my team, how do we prevent this from looking like, what some would call, a token situation?"

KM: "I think affirmative action's okay," but one shouldn't just "check the boxes." 

"It's about opening yourself up to even being vulnerable to this person's point of view, perspective, lived experience. But how is your team receiving that person...? Are you intentionally creating a brave and safe space for actual organic change to happen with this new hire?"  Also, if they have the skill-set, "put them in management right away" to create a different dynamic.

VW: "You don't want that person sitting alone, wondering if I'm only in here because I'm of color, if I'm only here because of checking a box." 

Question from unknown source: What are the panel's thoughts on "historically white organization listening and engaging respectfully?"

KM: "Hmmmm...." She notes that the forum's time is almost up. "Racism is based on the hierarchy of human value, and that thought process or philosophy has trickled down into many organizations.... That's not calling the founder of an organization a racist, but because of the pattern of the world, it's just how we set it up. There are even organizations that have all black people that still have that strong hierarchy of power." 

An organization should start with the board, look at "what are they trying to create, what are they trying to undo, what are they trying to dismantle or add to that...." Also, understand that "black folks want to show up at the table... and want to be seen in their humanity, but don't want to waste their time doing it... step back and ask what kind of things you're really asking of them." 

LD: "It's about preparing the ground. You can't have a bunch of white folks sitting around the table, half of whom are scared of being called a racist, and more scared of being called a racist than of the harm that comes to people because of racism." 

We should acknowledge the fear, lack of engagement, and how some are intimidated by difference -- "that's the way it is...." People in management and others should get over that fear of being called racist, get to a point where, "we're deeply interested, because we actually want to know, and we actually want to change."

Read more articles by Mark Wedel.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992, covering a bewildering variety of subjects. He also writes on his epic bike rides across the country. He's written a book on one ride, "Mule Skinner Blues." For more information, see www.markswedel.com.