News / Opinion

“Diversity breeds tokenism, what we need is inclusion”: a post-election view on the US creative industry

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UK-born, NY-based insight strategist Lemara Lindsay-Prince is passionate about achieving wider diversity in the creative industries and tackling its problems of privilege. Following the American presidential result she writes about the urgency to do that now more than ever.

What the outcome of the American election exposed for some, was not entirely new for “us”. I thought back to every time I walked into work after the murder of another person of colour in this nation. How I had wanted to “call in black” that day but held my head high while hurting. And how, after those moments, not a single word had been said to acknowledge this state of reality we’re in which openly disregards black lives. It’s not good enough to engage with something until it affects you but, on the night of Donald Trump’s win, as each electoral college vote inched him closer to victory, the shroud of white privilege began to loosen, eventually falling off and with it, a realisation of some of the weight people of colour have been carrying for years. A newer reality to the fact that we’re not as united as we thought we were, that our liberal bubbles had been popped but, also a realisation that there is work to be done to close the gap of inequity and that those with the most privilege have to lead the way.

In the wake of the decision various outlets for the creative industry put out piece after piece in an attempt to make sense of the election and understand the effect the next four years would have on design, advertising, marketing and brands. However, as I read these articles I wondered what the creative industry was going to do about issues a little closer to home. How over the next four years it was going to push for more cultural understanding within its own office walls, how it was going to push for more representation, to tackle its own inherent privileges, to act on its pledges of diversity and also become safer spaces for employees of colour.

Quite often we talk about diversity within the creative industry as a quick solve for the lack of people of colour and minorities working in the industry. However, diversity as writer Anna Holmes points out “has become both euphemism and cliche, a convenient shorthand that gestures at inclusivity and representation without actually taking (it) seriously.” To me, the word diversity possesses the same magical qualities that “abracadabra” does, as upon utterance it seems all previous problems can be solved or checked off like a list, without reviewing, understanding and implementing change around the structures that make it so. Without really interrogating the abundance of white privilege that surrounds the creative industries at both a micro and macro level.

Diversity in some cases, breeds tokenism and what we need going forward is inclusion at every touchpoint of the creative process – from the boardroom to the billboard and beyond. For diversity to have impact and mean something within the creative industries, we have to acknowledge that so often within these spaces – where we are aiming to connect with culture daily that we miss the chance to be more nuanced, that we miss a chance to check micro-aggressions directed towards people of colour and that we miss the chance to challenge the spaces we work in.

Care in this context is not coddling people of colour who are more than qualified and able to be in this space. It’s noting that getting us through the door of your agency is half the job and the real work starts once we’re here. It’s not treating diversity as a tick-box and quota to achieve. It’s bridging the gaps within your hiring process to give more access and making creative opportunities available to all and not a select few. It’s pushing back against clients who demand that predominantly white or racially ambiguous photo stock imagery be used. It’s actively practicing more nuance and cultural understanding from within. It’s moving towards gathering new insights about culture. It’s envisioning and designing the future of the world with knowledge of its changing colour. It’s getting a HR department where people can have access to someone independent to raise personal grievances to. It’s being cognisant of your language at all times and not dismissing racial remarks as someone’s “way” or “office banter.” It’s you not us, creating a conversation amongst your own peer group of privilege and spreading knowledge. It’s giving your space to those in need and doing more pro-bono work for cultural causes. It’s giving time and money to specific groups. It’s not designing for trends and tragedies but being inclusive of all the inequalities in society today. It’s making a commitment to dismantle privilege within the space you work in everyday and checking your own privilege at the door, daily. It’s using newer buzzwords which show ally-ship and understanding such as: intersectionality and inclusion over innovation. It’s realising we have the power and tools at our disposal to be truly representative and provide real change.

In the wake of the election the creative industries can take note from the art world. In her piece outlining what artistic spaces and people can work to change for the better over the next four years, artist and organiser Caroline Woolard wrote “artistic practices that incorporate listening, healing, analysing, envisioning, creating, and celebrating make interdisciplinary models for economic justice possible.” It’s within these creative spaces that I’ve seen not be so quick to go back to the ‘business as usual’ approach but, have been creating honest spaces for discussion, empathy and activism since the result. From taking part in a Lois Weaver inspired long table discussion led by a non-profit organisation, where the conversation centred on how to create equity in the arts, to independent art galleries who opened their doors for people to come and receive care as opposed to a service. There is a coalition between creative collectives and places doing the work in providing a safe space, in outlining what inclusive means and creating set practices for people to move forward in their day to day as well as the next four years. What the election results revealed about America is a wide and varied discussion however, it has presented us with a renewed opportunity to really discuss privilege, power and inclusion and as pioneers of creativity we have to start from within and lead by example.

Lemara is founder of The Only Ones, an online group for all people of colour who work in the creative industries.