How many of us do you know, to tell the difference between us?


In his latest DNR_RND piece, Ashokkumar Mistry argues that in order to make diversity more than just an aspiration, the arts sector needs to move away from closed circles of people with similar backgrounds and values, engaging with “the marginalised at arm’s length” towards a ‘nuanced familiarity’ with those deemed different, where a true plurality of voices can be heard and understood.

Artwork made up of 25 square photographs arranged ina large square. Each photograph shows a South Asian man shot through a kaleidoscope from different angles.

Ashokkumar Mistry Through Other Eyes

I often ask myself why, twenty-five years after entering the arts, diversity is still an aspiration and not a given. If the arts are so liberal, why is it still not intrinsically diverse? By intrinsically diverse, I refer to a breadth of people from different backgrounds not the same few people tagged on to situations as token gestures. What I want to do is to tackle why, ‘diverse’ (other than the mainstream) artists are still seen as a homogenous lump represented by the same few faces in the mainstream.

Many people deride diversity and baulk as soon as the word is said. The mere utterance of the word induces the response “here we go again”. Not having felt the cold stare of discrimination it’s difficult to explain to these people how it feels to be sidelined for no reason other than ‘fit’. For those who don’t understand the need for diversity, there has been a clear path through the world enabled by unseen privilege. And besides, if there are so few disabled or people of colour in the arts, it must mean that there is something wrong with them. Right?

Art is very subjective and what should and shouldn’t be shown in arts centres or funded is an extremely difficult call to make. We often make decisions around quality or worthiness when what we are actually doing is being prejudicial without knowing it. What should and shouldn’t be funded has always been polemical. When Arts Council England released its new strategy, titled ‘Let’s Create’, there was a great deal of derision from the puritanical sectoral ‘professional classes’, deeming the strategy a triumph of relevance over excellence.

Most of the critiques of ‘Let’s Create’ were hidden behind paywalled articles in broad sheats and the commercial arts press, and framed from a need to distinguish or separate the author and people of their ilk from the rest of us uncultured sorts. Art has and still is seen as a privilege that is narrowly defined and requires a rigour based on a particular tradition, heredity and social class. Through these articles, a cultural sleight of hand occurs that feigns cultural public benefit (along with all of the other priorities of public funding including diversity) but actually exploits public funding for a monocultural elite.

One of the reasons there is such a vast disparity between the ongoing aspiration for diversity and the reality of stalled progress is a sector-wide unwillingness to cultivate a familiarity or understanding with people who are deemed to be different. It has disturbing echoes of the commonly experienced comment ‘they all look the same’. Anyone who has interloped into a space that is not for them would recognise the feeling of being constantly mistaken for a fellow interloper. Regardless of the characteristic that makes one a misfit in the situation, being confused with someone else similar to oneself is a little off-putting, but the insinuation that one’s kind all looks the same is dehumanising. This mistake may seem innocuous, however, one needs to look at the dynamics involved. The person in the majority making the dismissive statement delegitimises the presence of the individuals from a minority. When people infer that ‘You all look the same to me’, my retort is, ‘How many of us do you know to tell the difference between us?’

Both the epithet and my retort have an important basis in science. There have been various studies that explore the difference in recognition of people deemed foreign to oneself. In particular, a study from 2010 titled Neural repetition suppression to identity is abolished by other-race faces measured neural activity when presented with images of people of the same race or other races. It exposed a phenomenon called the ‘other-effect’ which meant that people needed more time to understand the nuances in faces that were foreign to them. I would suggest the same is true of disability, in that without being immersed in disability culture, artists and audiences, the staff at mainstream venues can’t recognise disabled people and will invariably keep turning to the same few ‘familiar’ disabled artists as they reside within their comfort zone.

Back in the early 2000’s I worked as an assistant officer (and acted as lead officer) at one of Arts Council England’s Regional Offices. What I experienced was a juggling act between a need to nurture the best of the best and a need to support those who were most disadvantaged to enable them to compete on a level playing field. It was the job of lead and assistant officers to interpret and summarise applications, gleaning virtues to public benefit from the best applications whilst simultaneously encouraging new reapplications from applicants from marginalised sections of the community who were getting turned down. There were some serial applicants who exuded a sense of entitlement and were seen by officers as the best. However, defining ‘the best’ was a matter of opinion.

The problem was that in the minds of many officers there was a stratification of worthiness or superiority. Those deemed worthy or superior were to be nurtured at all costs whilst others deemed inferior were to be pacified into thinking they should or could do better. This was referred to as “managing expectations”. Look closely and what was actually happening was that officers were more likely to fund applications written by people within their own social class and circles. This was evident when one looked at the few people of colour and disabled people within their circles, essentially even the token gestures were brown or disabled versions of them. They talked the same, dressed the same and had similar interests. These few tokens had bought into the same middle-class trappings as the officers. This is what is referred to as code-switching but I prefer the term ‘Risk harassment’.

An example of this was the case of an Indian language literature group that had unsuccessfully tried for years to attain project funding. The lead literature officer told me that he always wanted to fund them but they never came up to the mark and as the brown assistant officer I was asked to look into their latest inquiry. When I spoke to them I noticed that the people from this group were all first-generation emigrants who didn’t fit the middle-class values of my fellow officers. It was as though this was the disconnect that the officers could not put their fingers on, and perhaps subconsciously discouraged them from funding the group.

The officers had likely not engaged with them enough to understand the nuance of their art and culture, and possibly confused class and cultural difference with a lack of quality. For the middle-class officers, familiarity was easier to see and interpret as having value. Subconscious biases were seemingly at play; familiarity was and still is a major hurdle for policymakers.

At the heart of the assessment of ACE applications was (and still is) public benefit which usually looked like some form of audience engagement. However, once applications went to the final panel meeting, ‘cross-cutting criteria’ was employed to measure ‘worthiness’. These cross-cutting criteria, measured amongst other things, levels of social deprivation or levels of engagement in the arts, in the postcode area where the activity was meant to take place, or other priorities defined by the organisations. In fairness, it felt as if ACE had tried to build in these safeguards against biases and prejudices.

However, despite all of these mechanisms, the key flaw with the system was that the cross-cutting assessment was undertaken after the officers had filtered out all of the applicants outside of their circles. In other words, an application from a disabled or black person would likely be misunderstood, be marked as failed by the officer and never get to the second stage with cross-cutting criteria. Crucially, assessment systems are not usually created with access in mind – they are created from the perspective of weeding out the weakest applications until you get to the best. There is no point at which one asks why one applicant is weaker and there is no vocabulary for the officers to understand the cultural nuances, just like the facial nuances from the ‘other-effect’ study. Differences can get misunderstood as poor quality. The bottom line is that funding and arts organisations may look ableist or racist because disabled people and those from minorities are not given the time or the space to be understood.

I don’t know how this compares to the current selection process at ACE. But I feel the weight of reluctance every time I attempt to gently push the door of conversation with the bigwigs of the art sector. My question to them remains this, ‘how many of us do you know to understand what we fight for?’ Perhaps Let’s Create marks an opportunity to build the nuanced familiarity of those marginalised people and recognise differences well enough to tell them apart. It’s time to include a true plurality of voices, disabled, black and more besides. This will require buy-in from across the sector, from the funders to the mainstream organisations and down to the grassroots. It means more than just the knee jerk, hollow scramble to catch up with diversity in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests and unfortunately, a lack of willingness, (hollow or otherwise), to address ableism, which we have seen recently.

So in many ways, this is a direct invitation to open a dialogue, not necessarily with me, but with a plurality of disabled artists and artists of colour. Why? Because I want you to activate diversity, not just allow it to remain an aspiration. This conversation is about consulting disabled and black artists as equals. Yes, we are consulted, but we are never the consultants. And you will never understand the difference between us unless you get to know more of us better.

DNR_RND is an ongoing project, the questions covered are below. You can contribute your own answers which may be used as part of the research, via this survey.

  • How do you feel at the moment in general?
  • How do you see the arts sector changing in the years to come?
  • What is the single positive change in the arts that can have a big impact?
  • Is there one aspect or practice within the art sector that you think shouldn’t be resuscitated?
  • What is one of the main barriers to diversity having agency in the mainstream?
  • How can we stop the value that disabled people bring to society and to the arts from losing prominence?
  • Do you think protected characteristics are more visible now?