Essay / Broken record

Lana Lopesi

‘Broken record’, by art and culture critic Lana Lopesi, is the first in a series of essays to be published alongside the poster project and exhibition Present Tense : Wāhine Toi Aotearoa

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When I started working as an editor of a design website here in Aotearoa, I was brought on board because of the critical conversations I was already having in the art world as a critic and editor elsewhere. I was fresh into the design sector and had assumed that the critical conversations we were having about the arts would have been the same as those which designers were having about design. I quickly learnt however that despite a few lone voices, generally speaking this wasn’t the case. 

As I started to talk to people in the design community — particularly to those who had an investment in writing and fostering a critical culture — one topic that was constantly brought to me as something we needed to discuss was the issue of diversity in design, or more accurately the lack thereof.

Doing research of my own, I became shocked at how little this had been discussed in the public realm because a lack of diversity in the sector, and specifically in leadership positions, was blatantly obvious to me as someone who had been around all of five minutes. It was qwhite obvious. Aside from, again, lone voices, I wondered why this hadn’t made its way into the very thin archive of Aotearoa design writing. It’s as if the design community here were continuing with their blinkers on, as the rest of the world — creative and corporate sectors included — were asking hard and vital questions of diversity. It’s not as if there weren’t models in other places of how to have the diversity conversation either — in fact it seemed to be a main concern for other diverse centres such as the US and the UK, with very real outputs too I might add. 

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I was asked to speak on a panel at a diversity hui organised by our national arts funding body. Imagine all of the investment organisations coming together to work out how to solve their diversity problem. Arts organisations from up and down the country were there. 

The morning started earnestly if not a little aspirational. I ran into old friends at the tea and coffee station which is always the best thing about these kinds of gatherings, we caught up and were ushered into the main room for the morning. 

Inspirational talk after talk made ethical, engagement and financial arguments that attested to the benefits of diversity. The talks were not controversial in what they were asserting, after all people very rarely take anti-diversity stances. But what did happen over the course of the day was that more and more excuses rose as to why people’s organisations did not reflect the diversity that they so desperately wanted it to reflect. More often than not, it was put down to factors that sat outside of and were much larger than themselves. That is somewhat ironic however as these were the directors our arts organisations across the country. If anyone has opportunities to make change it really is them.

As the day went on, the atmosphere changed from that of aspirational change to an avoidance of responsibilities. My energy began to drain and my body filled with frustration. Not only did it really not seem that hard to make their organisations more diverse, but all the speakers were giving everyone the answers, the blueprints for how to make it happen. 

To make organisations diverse requires people to move and make space. That’s actually the hardest part. 

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When I was writing about design diversity, I was repeatedly using statistics from the US or the UK. While those statistics can show us certain things, it doesn’t make all that much sense for us to be using that data in Aotearoa. So I used the platform and mailing list of the design website to run a survey that just asked five questions around gender, ethnicity, age, role and experience. It was never intended to be a comprehensive survey about diversity in Aotearoa design, but a start, a turning of the wheel. It was a good first stab with a sample size of 419, although a clear lean in the website’s own community of Pākehā women under 40 skewed the data somewhat. 

Yet what really shocked me was not a statistic that we found but rather one very specific and very particular resistance — a resistance to the term ‘Pākehā’. 

It’s always difficult to write a question about ethnicity, mostly because ethnicity itself is a tricky topic for so many people. After much thought, I made the decision to use the term Pākehā rather that European/New Zealander/Caucasian because on the one hand it means the same thing, but it does so in way which is specific to Aotearoa and places you as a European migrant in a relationship to Māori. While the survey demonstrated a number of things relating to ethnicity, the most startling was that most Europeans/New Zealanders/Caucasians refused to be identified as Pākehā, instead ticking the ‘other’ box and listing identities such as European/New Zealander/Caucasian.

Not only did this tell of a misunderstanding of the term Pākehā, but also an adamant rejection to be identified in te reo Māori. 

Why was the Pākehā so offensive?

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“When people of colour are expected to educate white people as to their humanity, when women are expected to educate men, lesbians and gay men are expected to educate the heterosexual world, the oppressors maintain their position and evade their responsibility for their own actions.” — Audre Lorde

I feel a lack of diversity. I feel it so deeply in my bones, because I really don’t have a choice. When I walk into rooms of only white people, or only men, I instantly add diversity to those spaces. Being in university adds a Pacific Island statistic to that programme, writing for a publication adds a Pacific Island tick to that book, magazine or website, speaking at an event adds a Pacific Island person to your diversity reporting. My humanity is your diversity. 

The thing about constantly having to talk, write or share about diversity when you yourself are ‘diverse’, is that you are by extension trying to justify why you matter. I’ve written my fair share of ‘why you need diversity, why diversity make business sense and why diversity matters’ articles and to be really honest, it’s not how I want to spend my time. Explaining to people who don’t see the value of open and inclusive workplaces why difference is important is actually incredibly demeaning when difference is not an abstract concept but is woven into every aspect of who I am.

We need diversity is because we need to stop being misogynistic, racist, homophobic, Islamophobic, ablest dicks. We need diversity because it’s the right thing to do, because it’s what good people care about and because we should be able to see the value in other people’s ways of being. 

It’s really not that difficult. 

 

Lana Lopesi / Project Manager, Tautai; past-Editor-in-Chief, The Pantograph Punch; art and culture critic

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return to the gallery Present Tense : Wāhine Toi Aotearoa