I have a note-to-self that reads, “Stop protecting these fragile white egos.” I wrote it after a particularly frustrating and enlightening conversation in 2015. I would go on to have dozens of similar conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts in rooms often filled with affluent, “well-meaning” white men.

In 2015, I founded our area’s first bilingual, digital news service, Noticiero Móvil, at the University of Nevada, Reno, where I worked as a faculty member. I directed and grew the program until my departure from UNR in December 2019. In the early stages of the endeavor, I sought to redefine student internship arrangements, as, up until then, they felt awfully one sided. In essence it meant getting “free labor” from journalism students in exchange for a byline.

In the aforementioned meeting, I sat in a room with four white men to discuss the possibility of a partnership to develop bilingual content for their newsroom. They said they could offer me a special section on their website because they felt their audience might be startled or “shocked” to hear Spanish on the air. They wouldn’t want to drive them away. I told my boss, who was in the meeting, I would never agree to a special section, even if it meant not collaborating.

That was the beginning of newsrooms and community partners offering my program special sections for our work. I learned early on to ask the other parties, local community organizations like art non profits, newsrooms, and museums—who often approached me to help them diversify their audiences—why they were interested in this kind of work. If it involved monetary gains for their business, which was by far the number one motivating factor, I declined the invitation. The program earned a number of national awards, which certainly legitimized our work in the public eye. This, in turn, drew more interest from potential partners across the country.

I felt less alone in my indignant righteousness when I had the opportunity to share my frustration on national stages for journalism conferences.

“This kind of work shouldn’t be reduced to a special section,” I’d passionately speak into my mic. “We (Latinx people/bilingualism) deserve to be woven into the existing fabric.”

Las Vegas-based mixed media artist Justin Favela, who is of Guatemalan and Mexican descent, is no longer participating in shows curated during Hispanic Heritage Month, which occurs Sept. 15 – Oct. 15 annually. 

“I’ve decided that I didn’t like the feeling of being a tokenized artist,” Favela said in a phone interview earlier this month. “Even though I wasn’t told to make art specifically about my heritage, I felt a lot of pressure to please the white audiences, especially after the movie Coco came out. Latinos exist all year round. I’m all year round. I think it would be an institutional critique and true statement if I took off all Hispanic Heritage Month and did not work at all.” 

Las Vegas artist Justin Favela has sworn off participating in Hispanic Heritage Month exhibitions. Photo: Courtesy of Justin Favela

Though not an artist myself, I am an avid supporter of the arts, and I have been invited on a number of occasions to work with local organizations on DEI initiatives. I gave a TEDx talk in 2017 about implicit bias and my lived experience as a Latinx woman. I present as white, which affords me privilege, which includes being invited to these tables. 

In one meeting, a local music organization gathered a group to discuss how to make their space less white and affluent, specifically seeking to attract more Latinx or bilingual attendees. I asked their marketing manager how often they advertised in Spanish. She replied, “Only for our Día de Los Muertos show.” I explained that, by doing this, they were sending the message that we were only welcome during that special event.

“After the [2016] election, and the phobic rhetoric that followed, there was an influx of Mexican American art in institutions around America,” Favela said. “A lot of these institutions, while shining light on marginalized people—I don’t like those terms—think they’re coming in and making a bold statement, going against the grain and amplifying the voices of those being oppressed. But then what happens after that? Is it good enough for a museum, especially in a predominantly POC area, to do an exhibition about Latinx people once every few years?” 

I do often get to work with folks who sincerely want to do the right thing, and the Holland Project is the only board I serve on that is diverse and willing to dive in and do the work. I asked Favela about this, as I wanted to know who else in the arts space is investing in a meaningful way.

“I had an amazing experience last summer at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, because the curator there supported any idea I had and made it possible,” he said. “Sometimes I get pushback because of how archival the work is [That means he uses “non-archival” materials that will degrade over time, like tissue paper.] or how much space it takes up. I wanted to make giant Tex Mex dishes out of paper mache, and Kathryn Hall helped me interpret the sculptures and tie them to the history of Texas. It became a show about my identity through Tex Mex food that challenges authenticity and layered identity.”

“Floor Nachos Supreme” is a piece by Justin Favela that was shown at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft in 2019. Favela cited the Texas museum as an example of one that practices diversity effectively. Photo: Courtesy of Justin Favela

Institutions that legitimize people’s work need to recognize that POC exist all year round, and should begin by looking internally at their staff as well as their collections. Governing boards are systems of power that we need to discuss and critically evaluate as well. I’m frankly tired of sitting at tables filled with people who are baffled as to how to thoughtfully recruit more diverse humans to join them. One white man once said to me, stunned, and in front of his fellow board members, “I just don’t get why they don’t just sign up and ask to join. That’s what I did!”

I explained to him I had personally been invited to every board I’ve served on, otherwise I may have never seen myself as belonging there. 

Favela posed an important question in our interview: “Are there POC of diverse backgrounds and means in your director positions, managerial positions? Who are the people making the decisions? If you don’t have that diversity on that staff, nobody is going to push the boundaries on what a cultural institution can do. People who have been silenced historically, their stories aren’t written. Most people writing their stories are white folks, and that needs to end.”

Vanessa Vancour has been a member of several arts and cultural boards. She wants to see them diversify. Photo: Courtesy of Vanessa Vancour

Within the last year, I attended a large, professional luncheon and sat next to a board member for the organization where I worked. She is white, in her mid-70s, and affluent. She leaned in and expressed how concerned she was over how the organization is perceived in the community. Specifically, how awful it is to walk into the business and see that everyone at the front desk looks Hispanic. It must be so uncomfortable for white people, she added.

“Let me show you something to prove to you I’m not a bigot,” she said.

She pulled out her phone and zoomed into a photo of her granddaughter standing next to a Black man. She waited for me to respond.

“It sounds like you and I have different philosophies on this issue,” I told her. “Our business is one of the few in this community whose staff reflects the community we serve.”

At that point she threw her napkin and said, “Then, I guess it’s time for me to resign.”

She eventually did, but only after I endured weeks of calls with the board chair, where she explained that the woman was, after all, 75, from the South, and a conservative Catholic. 

Following the woman’s resignation, the board chair told me the board would undergo training the following month on “the fiduciary responsibility of the board and cover some pitfalls, including how we are not supposed to directly give input or direction to staff.”

I asked if the training would address implicit bias or discrimination.  

“Bias creates a liability for the organization,” the board chair said. “It will be taught by an attorney, which makes it easier to receive for some people. Board members should be more diligent about self policing.”

In other words, keep their bias to themselves? Board members should act as ambassadors to the organization and uphold its values. Undergoing “diversity training” does not excuse demeaning, prejudice or hostile behavior, and it isn’t enough. Most importantly, the people who are already at the table need to critically assess whether or not they are willing to give up their seats to make room for those who belong.

Vanessa Vancour

Posted by Vanessa Vancour

Vanessa has called Reno home for 14 years. She is a bilingual journalist, community engagement specialist, public speaker and speaker coach.

2 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Wow, this quote resonated with me “I present as white, which affords me privilege, which includes being invited to these tables.” I’ve lived my life “presenting as white” but being 100% Mexican. I accepted it and maybe, unconsciously, exploited it. This has made me pause, and wonder how I can change after hiding behind the presenting as white? I am not ashamed of my heritage, but I have not represented it. Thank you for the slap on the head to wake my awareness, the question is, now what?

    Reply

    1. Avatar

      Vanessa,
      Thank you for being true to yourself and principles that we all are blessed by. I love the thought of being one race with proud heritages that make life flavorful, beautiful and united. Collectively we have more to learn. Day by day we can lift where we stand to make positive change.
      Blessings!

      Reply

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