When I look into the future, my vision is a little blurry. The year 2020 caused me to reflect in a way I never have before. In a year of uncertainty, the last thing I would like to be is unsure of my path. My wariness mirrors my feelings towards the arts and culture field, which is my career focus. The arts are struggling as performance venues, museums, dance centers, and so many other large and small arts organizations closed their doors due to COVID. Not only do the arts have to navigate the current state of the world, but there is another issue that plagues the field, namely racial inequity.
Along with the pandemic, the ongoing conversation of race and the treatment and lack of representation of African Americans in the arts and entertainment sectors came to the forefront. Unfortunately, the demand for equality is still prominent, after years and years of constant toil. As much as I put my chosen career path on a pedestal, the arts struggle with this issue as well, making it harder for Black people to excel to higher positions or step foot in the door at all. You would think that a field that relies so much on diversity, and champions itself on representing different ideals and backgrounds, would have more representation. The sad truth is that the arts are far behind in the race for equality, equity, and inclusion.
If you read the essay “Flies in the Buttermilk: Museums, Diversity, and the Will to Change” by Lonnie G. Bunch III, founding director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture, he calls attention to what Black and other people of color have already come to realize. For years the arts and culture field catered to white people, not only in the programming that it offers but in the positioning of white people in leadership positions. Meanwhile, the majority of Black employees in cultural institutions either work in security or facilities management, and rarely play an authoritative role. Funny enough (but not really), while working as the Assistant Director of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Bunch recalls a time when he was mistaken for the elevator operator by another employee who was “clearly in a hurry and very blonde.” She responded by claiming she just assumed he was the elevator operator.
After reading Bunch’s article, it made me think about my place in this field, where at first glance, someone could look at me and think I’m an elevator operator, or that I work security or facilities. How can I find my place in a field that has already made assumptions about me before stepping foot in the door? It makes me question ideas of respectability politics where my identity as a Black woman comes into question. Do I need to be this stern figure in the arts and culture community that signifies I don’t tolerate anyone’s disrespect but instills this idea that I am an angry Black woman? Do I embrace who I am as the fun-loving Black woman who wants to smile while working but instills I am not serious about my work? I feel like there is a constant need to balance out who I am to make it palatable for career advancement.
Although I am a little discouraged right now, I know this is the career path I want for myself. Surely from the outside looking in it appears to be very contradictory. How can you be a part of something you have no idea how to navigate? However, I am confident it’s something I want, and I question how I can achieve success in this field every day. So, in a time where things are uncertain, COVID is still here, and the fight for equal rights has yet to cease, I ask myself the question, “Where do I see myself in the future?” I am still unsure, but I know for sure I want to continue on this path to advocate for the arts and equality. I am always on my journey of self-discovery and finding where I fit in the arts field, the profession I love.
Despite all the obstacles, this year has shown me that anything worth fighting for will have obstacles, but if you are fighting for the things you care about most it makes the struggle worth it. The late Toni Morrison offers a challenge that is worth keeping at the forefront of our minds: “I want to discourage you from choosing anything or making any decision simply because it is safe. Things of value seldom are.” It is alright not to have all the answers right now. There is no wrong way to navigate your chosen career path despite the adversity you may face. The field of arts administration needs us to be curious, courageous, and clear. Racial disparities exist in the arts world. Yet, I still choose this work. Perhaps my efforts will encourage someone else.