STATUS QUO

Sophia Cai, DECEMBER 2018

This piece was first published on Antidote.

There was a palpable moment this year when I realised white women are not always my ally. Or rather, there were a series of small but increasingly fraught situations that made this realisation clearer over time.

The first of these moments was when I was working on an essay commission for a female-only exhibition, and the arts manager told me with no irony to her voice that she believed ‘gender equality’ had been met at her institution. A look at the programming revealed a serious lack of diversity in this supposed ‘equality.’

The second of these instances was the time I attended a feminist panel. During the question time I raised a query about artists of colour and simultaneously noted how alone I was in that room. How many panels have I attended organised by and for female artists with barely more than a token non-white speaker? 

The third time was when I posted the status “white women are not my ally” to my Facebook page and was met with some defensive remarks from my peers, who wanted to explain their position – demonstrating both the volatility of this provocation and how uncomfortable this is to talk about. 

A special mention goes to the time I was proud to have curated an exhibition with no white men, and was then made to feel guilty for having done so by a white female artist.  

How can I talk about this issue without alienating my peers, many of whom are incredible, motivated, intelligent white women? How can I start this conversation without creating resentment and without creating further barriers between the work of artists and arts workers who are taking steps to dismantle existing structures of power within the art world as so many are? 

If you’re reading this and wondering whether this is about you – it probably is, but that doesn’t mean I don’t value you or your work. It doesn’t mean I don’t respect you or your place. And, it certainly doesn’t mean I don’t want you here.

It means I want you to really think about what agenda you are bringing to the table, to the boardroom, to the programming meetings at your institution. To consider what it means to operate at a certain level of privilege in terms of your visibility and your place within the arts sector. And, to be honest, to own up to the fact that the Australian art world is dominated by you (at least below the board and management levels, which are still dominated by men).  

White women can too easily preserve the status quo with some white feminism thrown in. A room full of white women isn’t diverse. Don’t let this become the newly accepted status quo, don’t let this be where we stop striving for better.

Because the work isn’t done if we are not open to intersections – for that is where the different voices come from. Intersectional feminism is all good and well, but it needs to be put into practice rather than considered as an after-thought.

Maybe this means that sometimes we need to subscribe to affirmative action, like choosing an artist for an opportunity who may have had less access to experiences that make for an impressive CV. In fact, maybe this means overhauling what standards we use to judge ‘success’ or ‘merit’, which is still very much based on prescribed narratives created by those who have had the privilege to ascribe what is significant and what is not. Let’s start again.

Being a good ally might also mean realising when you need to hold space for others. Don’t close the door on your way to the top. Don’t play musical chairs with a closed-community of curators and artists who all went to the same school, studied the same Western philosophers, and have the same ideas of what constitutes exhibition making. Invite others to bring their own chairs to the circle.