PoC Perspectives on Diversity Initiatives, Part 1

I felt compelled to write this piece after observing the growing trend and praise of diversity initiatives alongside the transparent tokenization of fellow PoC artists. Another initial motivation was the sloppy free-for-all launch of a new diversity project, where 80+ people were shared on Google docs to fill in the blanks. The sheer laziness of it was emblematic of so many diversity efforts. What if a cis-male rambled on in the ‘women’ section? Or “woke” white people weighed in heavily on PoC issues? We see this frequently on Facebook, and here it was in our Google Drives, facilitated by a leader at an institution (the project now operates within that institution).

I had written this intro last month, prior to George Floyd being murdered by cops. Diversity in the arts seem like a trifle when compared to the problems we face in this country alone, particularly racism, as well as the urgent need for police reform and accountability, as too many Black lives have been unfairly taken.

During this week of protest, social media saw a lot of white text on black squares from arts institutions who claim anti-racism yet have a history of programming that lacks diversity. Commenters responded with calling out and demanding action steps, but honestly, no one is going to figure this out in an Instagram post or Twitter thread in a matter of days or even weeks. In addition to issues of programming diversely, arts organizations sorely lack PoC leadership and art is therefore continuously assessed from the “pathology of whiteness” (Tanyaradzwa Tawengwa). Take New York City, where I live: two-thirds of those who run our cultural institutions are white, although two-thirds of New Yorkers are people of color.

Things need to change. Are old institutions even capable of changing? Perhaps some things need to end so that new things can begin.

The problems with our field are not just what appear on the surface: being used to enhance an organization’s image, the capitalist motivation to follow trends rather than a true desire to change. It’s about white saviors with good intentions but will never move to make room (and often speak the loudest in the room); it’s about the lack of equity starting from childhood and early education; it’s about time we have our say and have a place not only onstage and on a poster, but at the head of the table and in the executive suite.

We have a lot of work to do. Contemporary music is just a small corner of a corner of a corner of the world, but I hope that we can “transform [ourselves] to transform the world” (Grace Lee Boggs).

These quotes are from a series of interviews I conducted and transcribed last year; they are only a sampling of the in-depth conversations between me and my interviewees. My deepest thanks to my colleagues for their time, intelligence, and passion to make things better, and who were kind and understanding about the delay of this piece: Armando Bayolo, Natalie Calma, Nick Dunston, Mika Godbole, John Hong, Alice Jones, Treya Lam, Tanyaradzwa Tawengwa, and Phong Tran.

The interviews are presented in a zine/collage style. Full text is included below the image for accessibility.


What are the positive aspects of diversity initiatives?

“Being able to see people who have experienced things you have, or had the same kinds of challenges you’ve had, allows you to have an even richer imagination for yourself.” – Alice Jones

“I feel like representation is super important to give that boost…like, oh, this is a possible career path for me. Especially with convincing my parents that I could do music: if they could see other Vietnamese people doing this thing it’s like, oh maybe you don’t have to be a lawyer/doctor/surgeon.” – Phong Tran

“Diversity initiatives do allow underrepresented narratives to come to the fore through mainstream channels. Here in America… you all of a sudden have all these various narratives in space, and I think that’s for the better of humankind.” – Tanyaradzwa Tawengwa

“Some of the more positive things I’ve seen is the resultant visibility of musicians and composers of color and other non-binary composers and musicians.” – Mika Godbole

“It’s really hard to find opportunities and the diversity initiatives can be a way for people who are generally overlooked to be noticed.” – Treya Lam

“The ones I’m happy with, to be honest, are the spaces that people of color have crafted themselves.” – Tanyaradzwa Tawengwa



“Overall, I think [diversity initiatives] do more good than harm. I think that it kind of just [adds] an asterisk…’oh [this artist of color is] doing really legit work, but…’” – Phong Tran

“Just having people who are accepted through these programs question whether or not is was based on their skill or based on their skin [is a negative aspect].” – Treya Lam

“I laugh because this happens so much, where the intention is well-meaning, but just because of the pathology of whiteness, they fail anyway. You have to go outside these traditional channels of the old boys club.” – Tanyaradzwa Tawengwa

“The issue I have with all these diversity initiatives is when these white organizations are programming all these minorities and people of color because their qualifications of what is good is other white people. So they want all of these minorities who have learned to sound like white people but are not white people.” – Phong Tran


STOP CATEGORIZING! Clearly I’m a fan of ‘Pose.’ I would like to take this opportunity to mention that Dominique Jackson told me that I have a “great walk” when I took her runway class at Ailey

“It’s pretty insane, like, how blind these people are to the fact that this is literally some separate but equal shit. It’s amazing to me how outside it is of their view that this like, ‘Black’ concert, ‘Asian’ concert, but ‘concert’ is still like…the white concert is still the ‘Concert’ with a capital ‘C.’”- Nick Dunston

“I’ve seen [programs] that tend to sort of pander? They’ll make a big deal of it like, oh we’re doing this thing, and the resultant effect is like, nothing. Nothing comes out of it. It’s a one time, one off kind of thing… there are no solutions or lasting impact.” – Mika Godbole

“’We’re doing a women composers concert, etc.,’…doing [that] kind of thing …it’s like the organizational way of saying, ‘We’re not racist, we have Black friends! We have fulfilled our minimum quota of having diversity.’” – Phong Tran

“The big trap I try to avoid is tokenism. You do an all-women composer concert, an all-Black composer concert. But you’re just presenting one show. It should just be something that you do.” – Armando Bayolo


What do you think about the fact that there is a database where you can search for composers by race?

“I know that this is a very delicate topic for a lot of people. It can be two things: it can be a very viable way [to include everyone] but it can also lead into the, ‘Oh are you just calling because I’m ‘this?’” – Natalie Calma

“I mean it’s like…kind of, whatever? It makes things easier for people who want to actually find artists and composers they wouldn’t have otherwise found, but it also makes it easier for other people to be fake woke. To be like, cool, we’ve met the minimum requirements, and here’s an easy way to meet the bare minimum. I feel like for me the difference between an organization that is truly, genuinely wanting to support these people is, have they spent time with the actual work and the actual artist? And they’re not just like, “Cool, we’ve only programmed you because you’re a woman, and because you’re Asian or Black.” – Phong Tran

“I feel like it would be different if it was a collection of people of color who were creating this database for their own internal…yeah. This is weird! That’s a weird thing to do.” – Treya Lam

“We’re so deep in this shit that like,…a lot of solutions are going to come off as grotesque, but I don’t think because of the solutions themselves, but because of the problem itself, and any solution to the problem is going to come off as weird and complex as the problem itself. On one hand it’s weird that you can search by race, but it’s also like, I kind of would like to be able to do that sometimes. It’s this secreted closeted desire of mine that exists because of this fucked-up problem.” – Nick Dunston


What can we do to help ourselves and help each other?

“We’re the ones we’re waiting for, especially if you want to have that kind of ownership of space without having to answer to anybody, or having to explain to anybody…to me that’s the most exhausting thing. We must work together, that is it! And that’s how transformation has happened in history.” – Tanyaradzwa Tawengwa

“I think [we should] not be afraid to stand our ground and turn down certain things. At least for me, it has been very liberating. I understand that we have to pay our bills and exist and what not, but if we want to see a change, I think that we have to bring alarm to the fact that how it works right now: it’s not okay.” – Natalie Calma

“I feel it’s just a matter of continuing to put on our own performances and support ourselves in this. That’s how other genres have sprung out.” – Phong Tran

“I don’t only ever think of things in terms of [just] myself, when I like, accomplish something. That’s just kind of how I interpret my own existence: never just about me; it’s a lineage.” Nick Dunston

“First of all, go to people’s shows. Make it a point to do that. We’re talking about our composers and performers and the thing that isn’t talked about enough is audience members. Share their shit on social media, do shit that’s literally the click of a button, or shit that you’d be doing with your night anyway.” – Nick Dunston