Your Diverse Event is Not a Safe Space

Kezia Aria

 

When it comes to creating events or projects that aim to bridge the gap between communities, several aspects need to be taken into consideration. These considerations can be the power dynamics among socio-cultural groups; including between that of performers and the audience, what the aimed result of the project is, and whether the project benefits the group it is intended to benefit.

 

In the midst of misinformation and sensationalism, there is a recurring trend where projects and events that deal with ‘diversity’ are created with a certain demographic in mind: white people.

 

Events such as Sydney Writers Festival showcase writers and poets of marginalised communities, presenting ‘diverse’ ideas and people as products up for consumption for those who are from more affluent backgrounds. ‘Othered’ members of society are always left with the burden to prove their innocence, their humanity, and their worth. Catering towards this respectability only ultimately benefits the cultural hegemony.

 

People in positions of privilege speaking on behalf of marginalised groups possess more responsibility than they may have initially perceived. These speakers have the power to produce and reinforce negative stereotypes and perceptions, contributing to a continued disenfranchisement of several oppressed groups. So the point remains: a speaker’s identity, or social ‘location’, is a significant factor upon whether their claims come from a place of authority.

 

The constant stream of content and media we are exposed to doesn’t allow for anyone to retreat from the discourse surrounding one’s existence and humanity omission has an equivalent impact of reinforcing dominant ideologies, leaving others unaccountable. While not everyone in a cultural or ethnic group may have the same experiences and beliefs—and one person can hardly speak for all—any member of said group has more experience and semblance of authority than someone not of that community. This applies especially to someone from the oppressing group, even as an advocating ally. This often leads to communities needing representation in the very institutions, including the media, which work to oppress them. Although representation within the institutions which systemically oppress us may not be entirely liberating or revolutionary, individuals who are willing to meet in the middle with those who are complicit are almost essential as messengers advocating for our needs.

 

The act of representing, however, has many facets to consider. As previously mentioned, there is often a certain demographic in mind when ‘diversity’ projects are created. Educating becomes dog-whistle politics, code for performing a spectacle and humanising individuals for others—with emotional labour as the price. While distributing knowledge and receptive listening on the part of the privileged is a fine notion, it may as a consequence become a narcissistic deed which shows the privilege person as an open-minded and empathetic person; instead of enabling the marginalised groups to benefit from the experience, it’s somehow twisted and utilised by the ‘understanding’ and ‘reasonable’ white person attending.

 

People of culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds—who are additionally demonised by media and society—are often exposed to a binary form of representation. It’s a reductive and inadequate method and yet it prevails in establishing meaning for the masses; Australian/un-Australian, good/bad, and rational/irrational. These events usually involve members of the group and those who are not—us/them—and this consists of certain parameters in which members need to act. Binary oppositions are hardly neutral and always depict power relations between two sides, with one being more dominant. This power imbalance creates awkward and laborious experiences for the subjects of such events, often exposing them to certain expectations, confronting lines of questioning, and gaslighting by audience members who perhaps didn’t expect to ‘feel attacked’ when Whiteness is challenged. The reality is that truth-value of what one speaks is often questioned, dismissed, and ignored, unfortunately until someone of the privileged, oppressing group agrees, it’s claimed as a fresh, well-reasoned and original ‘truth’.

 

The aforementioned expectations that arise from members of the cultural hegemony attending such ‘diversity’ events are often constricting. Disenfranchised communities would and are still positioned as the guest, the stranger, the one who is receiving their hospitality, time, and consideration. A performance and celebration of happy multiculturalism is anticipated—especially for state-sponsored events—and anger or despair towards the system or the socially privileged isn’t. In the spirit of showcasing ‘diversity’, attending and/or sponsoring the event acts as a statement which proves the institution is pro-equality, here alluding that ‘diversity’ and ‘equality’ are abstractly synonymous. ‘Diversity’ could be described as “a politics of feeling good”, working to obscure the still-existing issues of racism that no-one in particular likes to shed light on, and, if they are, the enthusiasm surrounding the event or discourse would very quickly shift into hostility.

 

For many with culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, and those who are Indigenous, going into the arts or entering any new institution could be a challenge in itself—it can easily become alienating and discouraging. Events such as these, which actively excludes marginalised people by pricing, location, and accessibility, only worsens the situation. There is so much more to consider when planning events that are intended to be ‘progressive’ and a lot of the current events we—people of colour and other marginalised groups—who are interested in arts and literature, are not offered a wide range of accessible or beneficial opportunities. It is incredibly important that participants don’t have to embody ‘diversity’ to be included in these spaces, and even more important that the audience demographic is also diverse. With more mindful considerations, and perhaps more well-suited organisers, perhaps true solidarity could be fostered and tangible issues tackled.