Performing arts isn’t the tolerant refuge you think it is

Rishi Trikha says his experiences of racism and homophobia in a conservatoire show that creative fields have to be part of anti-racism conversations, too

June 19, 2020
stage

Many graduates spoke out about their experiences of racism at the UK’s drama, dance and circus schools after the organisations posted messages trumpeting their support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Those alumni have provided powerful testimonies of their experiences in education and rightly pointed out that these institutions ought to get their own houses in order first.

Although there is merit in the suggestion that more staff diversity might have prevented some of the racism experienced by these students, the problems described are entrenched at the highest levels of these organisations and affect their few black and minority ethnic staff as deeply as it does their students.

As a gay Asian who worked in a major British conservatoire for almost a decade, I?experienced this first-hand – not just from the institution and colleagues, but also from some students.

My experiences ranged from being forced to work months of unpaid overtime while white colleagues were fully compensated for doing the same; being refused training that was freely available to others; having my experience and expertise continuously undermined; and being subject to arbitrary disciplinary proceedings.

I alerted senior management to this, and provided substantial evidence, yet was met with defensiveness and contempt. It was only when I?commenced proceedings to take the school to an employment tribunal that managers committed to investigate my experiences, although that investigation never took place. In the end, I?was explicitly passed over for a promotion because I?had raised the issue of racism with managers: the chief executive told me that I?was not suited to working there because of my tendency to use “alarming words”.

The issues arising from my sexual orientation at the school were more nuanced. Like many LGBTQ people of colour, I?have discovered that in some circles my sexuality is embraced as proof of integration or “westernisation” and thus provides some superficial defence against racial discrimination.

As the arts have long been something of a haven for sexual minorities, my experiences of homophobia were less pronounced and systematic than the racism I?encountered, but there were some shocking incidents.

On one occasion, a janitor overheard part of a lecture that I?was delivering on queer theory to undergraduates and complained to the chief executive, who summoned me to demand justification for teaching such a “distasteful” subject.

Her successor attempted to ban a gay Muslim student from performing a piece he had created exploring Islam and homosexuality. It was only after I?said I?would resign over the issue and the student raised the spectre of legal action that he was permitted to present his work.

Based on my own experiences, as well as those of graduates and other staff who are now speaking out, it would seem that performing arts schools are a uniquely fertile ground for such abuses. This will surprise those who perceive the arts as a vanguard of progressiveness, but this unshakable belief in their own virtue also gives rise to a profound sense of exceptionalism.

Until very recently, there has been a steadfast refusal to accept that biases that suffuse other parts of society could exist in creative institutions because tolerance and pluralism are part of the core identity of many who work in the arts. Their capacity for introspection and positive action is obstructed by the high moral esteem in which they hold themselves. As my students and I?discovered, those who challenge this treasured self-image can be derided and punished.

I’ve since had the good fortune to take over course leadership of the theatre and performance programme at London Metropolitan University, where management has shown outstanding commitment to increasing diversity and closing the attainment gap between BAME and other students.

Such effort is highly commendable, but a more difficult area that all institutions must face is the disproportionate levels of abuse that minority staff can suffer from some students. I?have very recently been shouted at, belittled and reminded of my place by students in a manner that shocks my white colleagues but is very familiar to BAME academics.

There is an assumption that as figures of authority, we can defend ourselves, but the customer service model that has developed alongside tuition fees and competition for student numbers leaves all educators in a paradoxical position.

For ethnic minority staff, we must not only strike a difficult balance between giving students what they need and what they want, and assessing them fairly when some believe that they?are paying for a first, but must also tolerate racialised responses when we fail to satisfy. The capacity of educators to challenge such behaviour is very limited when we are pressured to retain students at all costs and complaints procedures are based on the supposition that misuse of power in learning environments only ever flows in one direction.

These challenges are not insurmountable. Increasing staff diversity is an important start, but leadership must also be prepared to adapt in response to what they hear from BAME staff. This means introducing programmes that explore unconscious bias for students and staff alike; restoring authority to lecturers; and developing more balanced systems for enforcing discipline.

My own institution is doing trailblazing work to implement a more inclusive curriculum, and it has taken significant measures to demonstrate commitment to the advancement of students from all parts of society. However, the entire sector must also work to ensure that classrooms are a safer space for staff. The racism did not stop when we graduated from university, and we cannot protect students unless we are ourselves protected.

Rishi Trikha is a director and dramaturge, and senior lecturer in theatre and performance at London Metropolitan University.

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Reader's comments (8)

Excellent article! Thanks for sharing this experience
A strong and clear message: racism is way too often “baked in” to institutional process and employment practices. An excellent piece. Let’s hope it changes some hearts and minds.
Great article, thanks for bravely sharing!
Shocking but all too believable!
The author does not present any clear evidence that he was the subject of of racial discrimination or discrimination based on his sexual orientation. That doesn't prove that such discrimination did not occur, of course, but the onus is on him to substantiate these claims, which he did not do in a convincing way. With regard to his claim about being racially discriminated against, not being promoted at a particular time, being asked to perform unpaid work, having his expertise continuously undermined or being subjected to frequent and unfair disciplinary procedures, do not individually or collectively constitute evidence of racial discrimination in and of themselves. They are examples of mistreatment, almost certainly, but for mistreatment to be racist, that mistreatment has to be motivated by racism, and there are many other reasons why people choose to mistreat one another. The author makes an even weaker case for the presence of homophobia in performing arts, referring to an instance in which he was (1) called by the chief executive to justify the content of a lecture he had given about queer theory, after the lecture was overheard by a janitor; and (2) when another chief executive attempted to formally prevent a gay muslim student from performing a piece about the relationship between Islam and homosexuality. With regard to (1): the author does not make it clear whether it was queer theory itself that was deemed "distasteful" by the chief executive -- which does sound like an instance of homophobia -- or the particular version of queer theory that he was teaching, and/or the manner in which he was teaching it. Surely, there are some theoretically possible versions of queer theory or ways of teaching it (as with any subject), that are "distasteful"? Further, he also didn't say whether the chief executive excepted his justification for the content of his lecture, which is surely of great importance in this particular case? Is Rishi really suggesting that it is homophobic to even question the appropriateness of his teaching of a particular version of queer theory, even if it is then later accepted that it is in fact appropriate? With regard to (2): is it not more reasonable to think that the first chief executives concern about the performance piece was primarily motivated by the fact that the piece would offend many religious Muslims? I strongly support artistic freedom and therefore would have strongly disagreed with any attempt to ban the piece. I also strongly commend the stance that Rishi took by threatening to resign if the piece was banned, but, again, I don't see a strong case that it was motivated by homophobia on the part of the chief executive. I am deeply concerned that Rishi would advocate positive discrimination and mandatory unconscious bias training on the basis of this very week evidence of racism and homophobia, and would ask him to think very carefully about how someone as intelligent and talented as he is, could allow himself to be taken in by what is essentially a religious ideology.
Hello Patrick, You’ve clearly put a lot of time into thinking about this article and formulating your response but you have made a serious error to suggest that the author has not presented strong evidence. A first hand eyewitness account is not the only kind of evidence but it is some of the strongest evidence there is in situations such as these. More importantly, we have plenty of similar evidence from other witnesses in similar situations. Over the years, people of colour have documented thousands upon thousands of related stories that follow the same pattern. There is also substantial, serious academic research to back up the claim that systemic racism is a hard social reality. I think Rishi’s story passes any truth test on a balance of probability. Can you explain why you don't believe Rishi’s account of his experience even though his story is in harmony with so much corroborating evidence shared in similar institutions around the world? I think it’s because when you say you find the evidence insufficient, what you are really doing is revealing your bias and setting an almost impossible evidentiary standard. What type of evidence do you require to help us prove that an institution is systemcially racist and homophobic? Please provide specific examples and explain what is so extraordinary about this story that it requires such a high level of doubt? By adopting the tone of a judge you reveal that you imagine yourself as the authority figure in this discussion, the person who gets to say what is and what is not true. I would ask you to reflect on what drives that sort of self-confidence. Or perhaps you would rather have a discussion on "white privilege" another day? Raphael
Hi Raphael, Thanks for your response. Since you have asked a number of questions I will response to them individually. -- "A first hand eyewitness account is not the only kind of evidence but it is some of the strongest evidence there is in situations such as these. More importantly, we have plenty of similar evidence from other witnesses in similar situations." Notice that I did not object to Rishi's argument because it was an "eyewitness account", as you termed it. I accepted that the events he described occurred, but I questioned how he could know that the events were motivated by racism or homophobia. My objection rested on two premises: 1) there are many reasons why human beings mistreat each other aside from racism and homophobia; and 2) people's motivations are often not discernible from a 2nd or 3rd person perspective. I think these two premises are indisputable. As for the other evidence you mentioned I cant comment meaningfully on that given that I don't know what evidence you're referring to, but if it is of the same nature as the evidence that Rishi supplies in his article, than the quantity of that evidence is irrelevant. To put it in simple terms: bad evidence does not prove a case even if there is a lot of bad evidence. -- "There is also substantial, serious academic research to back up the claim that systemic racism is a hard social reality. I think Rishi’s story passes any truth test on a balance of probability". This is not a strong argument. If such evidence exists why not describe the findings of this evidence, rather than simply asserting that such evidence exists? I don't know how I can respond to this point. -- "Can you explain why you don't believe Rishi’s account of his experience even though his story is in harmony with so much corroborating evidence shared in similar institutions around the world? I think it’s because when you say you find the evidence insufficient, what you are really doing is revealing your bias and setting an almost impossible evidentiary standard. What type of evidence do you require to help us prove that an institution is systemcially racist and homophobic? Please provide specific examples and explain what is so extraordinary about this story that it requires such a high level of doubt?" To reiterate, I do believe Rishi's account, I just don't accept his judgement regarding the intentions of the individuals he refers to, and I provided a very thorough explanation in my original post to substantiate this. Again, I can't comment on the evidence you have mentioned because you haven't described it in enough detail for me to be able to assess it. That said, I am obviously aware that many people *assert* that certain countries and social institutions are systemically racist and/or homophobic so you might wonder how I could possibly believe that Rishi's claims about racism and homophobia are not true about his particular institution, when they seem to be true about other institutions, given the number of such *assertions*? Firstly, it's worth pointing out that this argument amounts to: a lot of people say it so it must be true (which is an argument ad populum). I presume I don't have to explain why this is a fallacy because you seem like an intelligent person? Still, I can offer an explanation for why I think there have been so many assertions of racism. Fundamentally, I think that the left (which I consider myself to be a part of) have adopted an erroneous model of human nature (the blank slate model of the mind) and this predisposes them to view different outcomes for different groups as being the result of nothing other than discrimination. The adoption of this model is partly the result of the collapse of institutionalised religion (the death of God) and partly a result of the fact that the people who compose the political left are, on average, innately more compassionate. This is complex though and would take a great deal of time for me to explain properly. Regarding your claim that I am setting an impossible evidentiary standard for "systemic racism", I don't agree. Whatever the evidentiary standard for a systemically racist or homophobic society or country should be, it has to go beyond evidence of mistreatment, given that mistreatment can be motivated by things other than racism or homophobia. As for concrete examples of racist societies, there are plenty: apartheid South Africa, India (the caste system), Nazi Germany, Israel, Poland and I am sure there are many others that I don't know about or cant think of at the moment. With regard to homophobic societies: Russia, Jamaica, Pakistan, Uganda, Dubai...basically every non-western country. -- "By adopting the tone of a judge you reveal that you imagine yourself as the authority figure in this discussion, the person who gets to say what is and what is not true. I would ask you to reflect on what drives that sort of self-confidence. Or perhaps you would rather have a discussion on "white privilege" another day"? I adopted that tone because conversations about this topic often turn into name-calling and I didn't want that to happen. I also made a point of complementing Rishi in very strong terms to show that I am disagreeing in a principled and sincere way. Your suggestion is that society has conditioned me, as a white person, to view myself as an authority, which is simply not true. If my tone expresses confidence it is because I have spent a great deal of time attempting to educate myself and I believe that I have something to say about this topic, whether that is true or not. On a personal note, Rishi acted a my tutor when I was in my late teens for roughly a year when I was re-taking my A-levels, which was a period of great uncertainty in my life. I had absolutely no problem in seeing him as an intellectual authority, despite me being white and him being asian. In fact his intelligence and brilliance was totally obvious to me then, and I felt extremely lucky to have him as a tutor. None of this means however, that I can't (or shouldn't) sincerely disagree with him when I think that he is badly mistaken, as I do in this case.
Hi Patrick, See my replies below: “Notice that I did not object to Rishi's argument because it was an "eyewitness account", as you termed it. I accepted that the events he described occurred, but I questioned how he could know that the events were motivated by racism or homophobia. My objection rested on two premises: 1) there are many reasons why human beings mistreat each other aside from racism and homophobia; and 2) people's motivations are often not discernible from a 2nd or 3rd person perspective. I think these two premises are indisputable.” You object to Rishi’s evidence on the basis that it’s very difficult to know a person’s true intentions unless they state them explicitly. It seems to me that you’ve placed a near impossible evidentiary burden on the question of racism and homophobia. There are, as you say, many reasons why people mistreat each other. It happens that one of the most common reasons is an unconscious bias towards (among other things) race and sexual orientation. This has been proven through copious amounts of world class academic research (Google if you don’t believe me). In most matters of social interaction, reasonable people tend to employ a test of a “balance of probability”. Can you please explain why you reject a “balance of probability” as a test for racism and homophobia? “As for the other evidence you mentioned I cant comment meaningfully on that given that I don't know what evidence you're referring to, but if it is of the same nature as the evidence that Rishi supplies in his article, than the quantity of that evidence is irrelevant. To put it in simple terms: bad evidence does not prove a case even if there is a lot of bad evidence.” When I say “other evidence” I refer (as stated above) to the countless studies on systemic racism that have been produced by academics, state institutions and corporations over the last 50 plus years. This research is freely available on the internet and I work on the assumption that you are familiar with it. I’m not asserting anything, I’m describing what has been proved by others. If you think their research is “bad evidence” then prove it instead of making pleonastic remarks. If you accept Rishi’s story but doubt the reality of systemic racism and systemic homophobia at Rishi’s former workplace, then the onus is on you to explain that particular workplace is the exception to almost every other workplace in modern Britain. The onus is not on Rishi. If you reject is the existence of systemic racism the onus remains on you, not Rishi, to show demonstrate why it's a flawed concept. Your explanation that just because a lot of people say doesn’t make is so it and the left adopting erroneous models of human nature (whatever that means) are, frankly, straw man arguments. Academic and other experts who have researched, studied and measured as best they can have reached this conclusion that systemic racism is real. Your job is to debunk *them* and their ever growing mountain of academic research. “On a personal note, Rishi acted a my tutor when I was in my late teens for roughly a year when I was re-taking my A-levels, which was a period of great uncertainty in my life. I had absolutely no problem in seeing him as an intellectual authority, despite me being white and him being asian. In fact his intelligence and brilliance was totally obvious to me then, and I felt extremely lucky to have him as a tutor. None of this means however, that I can't (or shouldn't) sincerely disagree with him when I think that he is badly mistaken, as I do in this case. “ You offer this information as an example of your good faith but I’m afraid what it implies is that you are prepared to give Rishi the benefit of the doubt that you wouldn't typically give to a person of colour or an LGBT person who happened to be a stranger. Raphael

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