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.

Related articles

Reader's comments (20)

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
Patrick and Raphael, I compliment you both on conducting a reasoned debate over your differences of opinion about this article and whether or not it proves the point it sets out to make. It reminds me of a long-ago exercise: back when I taught in a sixth form college I was part of the team delivering a BTEC Public Service course, aimed at youngsters planning to join the emergency services or the military. This team comprised a Bulgarian man, a black man (from Cameroon), and a white British female (me). We'd stage an argument between us and invite the students to comment: Was it racist? Was it sexist? Or was it just a disagreement between people of different genders and ethnicities? The aim was to make them think and not to rush to conclusions. It seems to me that at the moment, the humanitarian concern is to eliminate unfairness and abuse, no matter what the underlying reason. If someone can demonstrate unfair treatment, does it really matter why they have been treated unfairly? Surely we should aim to fix the problem, not the blame?
Thank you.
I am supposed to debunk studies that you can’t even be bothered to cite? I am supposed to google all the studies on this subject, assesses then individually and explain why they are wrong or why they don’t substantiate Rishi’s case, or else I must accept Rishi’s argument on “a balance of probability”? Why don’t you just cite the studies you are talking about or summarise their results? You’re obviously very familiar with them. I have to say, though, I’m surprised that there is such a scientific consensus on this subject. I have an MSc in Cognitive Science and I remember a relatively underdeveloped field that was fraught with deep empirical and philosophical disagreements about foundational concepts. Seriously: cite the studies, let’s see if they prove what you think they prove. — “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”. So I am a racist and a homophobe?
Hi Patrick, I note you're becoming progressively emotive in your language. Please don't. It will only cloud your judgement. You seem be under the impression that I am trying to prove the existence of systemic racism. My point is that it not only has it been proved, it is common cause among the majority of serious scholars that systemic racism is real (if you're looking for meta-data, this Wiki article lists a vast range of research and studies that you can follow up on https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Racism_in_the_United_Kingdom) If you want to debunk existence of systematic/institutional racism, then go ahead. But as I say the onus is on *you* to say why you reject it and the onus is on *you* to prove that Rishi's experience was not racist given what we know about how racism operates. Your final comment implies that I should attach some importance to the face that you know Rishi personally. What is the importance of this fact other than to suggest that he would less credible to you were he a stranger? all the best, Raphael
You have claimed that the existence of systemic racism has reached the level of scientific consensus, therefore you have to supply evidence that this is true. The Wikipedia article does not prove such a scientific consensus. Further, there have been scientific consensuses in the past which have been later overturned — hence major scientific revolutions — so the presence of such a consensus (if it did exist, which it doesn’t) would not prove your case. Your responsibility is to make a reasoned case for your position — I.e that systemic racism exists in the UK. If there was a scientific consensus, there would almost definitely be very compelling evidence which you could cite to evidence your position.
First, my tone is too formal, now my tone is too emotive...oh vey!
In short, you don't accept that systematic racism exists. This should have been the first thing you said and by not stating so upfront, I question your good faith and feel compelled to draw this exchange to a close. all the best, Raphael
ps: what do you mean by "oh vey" ?
"Oh vey"? You've let the mask slip there Mr. White. A quick Google search will have told you that Raphael Smith is Jewish. Resorting to alt-right language to mock a Jew, in a debate in which your whole claim is that systemic racism doesn't exist in the UK... what does your MSc in cognitive science tell you about that?
Hi Jenny, No, please don’t resort to that. I’m not on the Alt-right. I am politically on the left — a type of dissident leftist, I suppose. My father was in the SWP, and the Anti-nazi league and I attended many meetings and protests with him. I opposed the EDL when they protested near where I live, twice. Not that it matters — but in the interests of exposing how wrong you are to other people observing this post — I will also mention that my partner of 13 years is Jewish. I used that expression because one of my Facebook friends used it recently in an exchange I had with him, and I thought it was a funny sounding expression, and fitted the context here. That Facebook friend is also Jewish. (I actually misspelt it. It should have been “oy vey”). Also, I don’t know who Raphael Smith is, and “Raphael Smith” is not a very Jewish sounding name. This is exactly what I am talking about. You people (by which I mean people who subscribe to your set of beliefs) insist upon seeing racism in everyone and everything.
Patrick, that's twice now that you've resorted to "some of my best friends are black" to deflect criticism. If you truly love and admire people like your partner and the author, as you claim, then why are you so ready to dismiss their lived experience? It would have been one thing for you to say that the article is too generalised and should provide more specific details about the racism described, but something altogether different for you to jump from needing more information to forcefully asserting that he must have imagined it or made it up. It can't have been easy for him to speak out like this and he doesn't sound so stupid as to do that frivolously. He says he worked there for ten years; that's a long period of experiences for you to dismiss out of hand. Unless you've also worked at the organisation he discusses and know the people involved I can't imagine why you would leap to the defence of nameless and potentially racist strangers over somebody you say you were lucky to have teach you.
You accused me of being an anti-Semite. I pointed out that my partner was Jewish to protect myself from that very serious and very irresponsible accusation on your part, and that was a relevant fact to identify because an anti-Semite would not choose to be in a relationship with a Jewish person. I did not mention that fact to substantiate my argument or to defend my argument from criticism. You did not in fact engage with my argument at all but chose instead to call me an anti-semite on the basis that I used the expression "oy vey", and suggested I was in some way aligned with the Alt-right, which I am not. -- "If you truly love and admire people like your partner and the author, as you claim, then why are you so ready to dismiss their lived experience? It would have been one thing for you to say that the article is too generalised and should provide more specific details about the racism described, but something altogether different for you to jump from needing more information to forcefully asserting that he must have imagined it or made it up". 1) It is not my partners "lived experience" that British society is systemically anti-Semitic, or racist or homophobic, for that matter. 2) I didn't say that Rishi had "imagined" or "made up" the events he described. I said that he had not provided sufficient evidence that the mistreatment he received was motivated by racism and/or homophobia. I made this point several times, very clearly; so I am wondering if you even read my comments? --"It can't have been easy for him to speak out like this and he doesn't sound so stupid as to do that frivolously. He says he worked there for ten years; that's a long period of experiences for you to dismiss out of hand". 1) I'm not sure how difficult it was for Rishi to publicly claim that the performing arts are institutionally racist, given the popularity of the black lives matter movement (which has been endorsed by virtually every big business in the world, and almost everyone on instagram), but whether it required bravery or not really has nothing to do with whether that claim is true. 2) Rishi is, as I suggested above, exceptionally intelligent and well-educated. He is also a generous and brilliant teacher. I would add that he is a brilliant writer and dramatist as well, but I've never read or seen any of his stuff, so I wouldn't be able to comment on that, even though I suspect both those things are also true. Unfortunately, being an exceptional individual does not mean that one is entirely immune from bad ideas, perhaps even the opposite. There are many examples of exceptional individuals who have promoted bad ideas throughout history. 3) I didn't dismiss his ideas "out of hand". I wrote a very carefully-worded and thought-through criticism of his article, and I also made a point of complimenting him in that article. I then responded, in detail, and several times, to Raphael Smith who disagreed with my criticism of Rishi's article. No one likes being disagreed with -- I understand that -- but the nature of my response indicates a high level of respect for Rishi and for the importance of these ideas. I'll reiterate again: I have a huge amount of respect for Rishi; He's a brilliant and supremely intelligent person. -- "He says he worked there for ten years; that's a long period of experiences for you to dismiss out of hand. Unless you've also worked at the organisation he discusses and know the people involved I can't imagine why you would leap to the defence of nameless and potentially racist strangers over somebody you say you were lucky to have teach you". 1) You've made the same mistake as Raphael here, by inverting the burden of proof. It is not my responsibility to disprove Rishi's thesis; it is his responsibility to substantiate it, and I think I showed pretty clearly that he did not properly substantiate it. Perhaps I'm wrong, though, and you are able to explain this to me? 2) I'm not rushing to the defence of these people. I assumed that they were guilty of mistreatment, I just didn't see a good case for that mistreatment being racially or homophobically motivated. I've been treated badly in the work place, I've seen others treated badly, and consider it to be very common. 3) More generally, I am motivated to question the theory of systemic racism because I believe it is false, and dangerous and will lead to serious social division. I wan to live in a society in which race is irrelevant, and greatly exaggerating the degree to which our society is racist, is simply going to make white people more race conscious and activate tribal behaviour.

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Sponsored