Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Diversity IX: What I Learned From Dawkins

What I hope will turn out to be a quick thought (although I think I've said that before and I think I've been wrong):

Richard Dawkins' book The Selfish Gene is a must-read, folks. Dawkins' ability to explain evolution is second to none. I promise you, you may think you understand evolution, but you don't really understand how it works until you read The Selfish Gene. One of the key points, for instance, is an explanation of individual benefit as opposed to gene benefit.

Anyways, the other important idea that Dawkins instilled in me -- I mean, I knew it, but I didn't really know it (it wasn't reified as my teacher Mary Overly would say) -- was an understanding that genetic benefit is extremely contextual. The point where he excels at demonstrating this is when he shows that "enlightened self-interest" tends to win out over "greed" or "altruism" (that's an extremely reductive interpretation of an already extremely reductive example).

I think we need to remember that not only is quality/value extremely contextual, so is diversity.

To explain.

I ran some demographic analysis on my theater company this week. It's very weak and shorthand and everything, but I learned the following:
  • Major regions in the United States are about equally represented: North-East, South, Mid-West are just about equal; North-West is under-represented, and California (my home state) is over-represented.
  • Regions outside the United States are poorly represented. Obviously the sample size is too small to make too big a judgment, but the island territory of Puerto Rico is more represented than usual. Not that surprising, because one of my fellow leaders in the organization is Puerto Rican and it was her show to direct, cast, and staff. Other than that, it's just Germany and Israel, one each.
  • Gender is actually almost over-balanced in favor of women. Only 2 of 9 of our permanent staff are men; there's only one man in a leadership position out of five (that's me). When you include non-permanent members (people who are only involved on a per-show basis) men are better represented, but they don't break 40%.
  • Age diversity is a complete failure; with the exception of our upcoming show Hamlet, our age range is firmly 20-23, with an outlier at 19. If you include Hamlet, we've got someone in her seventies and the median moves further up, but it's still mostly recent-graduates. This is partly because Hamlet was trying to recruit more older folks, but found it difficult to get older folks to commit a lot of time to an unpaid show, the first fully professional show of a brand-new company.
  • Educational diversity is basically a complete failure, with almost everyone involved in the company coming on board because they have a recent BFA in NYU. Plus side - no one has an MFA!
  • In our little NYU world, though, we have diverse approaches to theater; folks whose primary training was based on Grotowski, Strasberg, Mamet, Adler, and Meisner. Of course, that's like saying we have a broad diversity from within Manhattan's boroughs (we don't, actually, we're very solidly a Brooklyn/Lower Manhattan gang).
  • Ethnic diversity is also low -- after Anglo-Saxon, Hispanic is the next category, but there's low turnout from Africa or Asia, nothing Native American, and I'm not sure I qualify as Middle-Eastern "enough."
Speaking of nationality versus ethnicity, it is difficult to decide sometimes which box to place some of my companions in. I'm half-North African and half Polish, was born in Israel but grew up in California. Also, being Jewish makes me ethnically distinct from the North African or Polish sides (I once had a daydream about running for office in Greenpoint and using my Polish ancestry as a way to get the foot in the door, but I realized that as soon as I explained that the reason I left Poland was because the Polish tried to slaughter every single person in my family and their community, it would turn out that we don't have as much in common as I thought).

Recently, NYU paid another attempt at diversity -- a play that a teacher was passionate about, set at the moment when the Civil Rights movement and the Women's Rights movement decided to split.

I thought about auditioning. I walked into the office and said, "Can I have the sides for the audition?"

The lady at the desk (who is my friend and who I know quite well) said, "Here are your white man sides."

Good lord. Is that the sum of who I am?

It reminds me of how the "dark-skinned Southern Europeans" used to not be considered white. Certainly, Jews weren't considered white until the second half of this century. And definitely, definitely this isn't a bad thing. And definitely, definitely I wouldn't equate my struggles with anyone who comes from genuinely discriminated communities.

All I'm saying is, if you're going to talk about increasing diversity, it might be important to talk about which diversity you want. For instance, the proposal to increase access to public school to arts education will address income diversity directly -- and racial diversity indirectly -- but it won't do a lick of good for international diversity.

So has my company accomplished diversity? When my professor talked about the low percentage of women in leadership positions, I smile -- it's hard for me to find talented male men to recruit to fit my needs. On the other hand, when John, who is directing our Hamlet, insists that we have to find more older people, and turns down perfectly qualified people my age because he wants to find someone older, I want to blush with shame.

Anyways, the reason I bring up this contextual diversity because I feel like this current generation of theatermakers is more diverse than the previous generation. For instance, calling for 50/50 by 2020 is a goal that I think is very achievable. In fact, if you look at womens' participation in my arts program, men have become quite underrepresented.

On the other hand, I don't see the same shift happening for low-income communities (in which certain ethnic communities are overrepresented). In the economy as a whole, the disparity between rich and poor is increasing, and access to equal arts education has been declining (even though education appears to be slowly improving in general).

Things to think about.