This is a short response to my experience of taking part in Tabloid for the Oppressed, an invite-only event that was part of the Hidden Civil War programme at the Newbridge Project in Newcastle upon Tyne. A critical reflection not about the aims of the event but rather about the strange feeling I got when I realised I was at an arts event about ‘the oppressed’ at which the participants were almost 100% white, where there were more men than women, where the presenters were all men, where most people there were from a certain class and possessed higher-than-normal levels of cultural capital. The blog has led to an interesting discussion on Facebook – click here to read or join in – or comment on this page…
I was extremely interested when asked if I would like to participate in Tabloid for the Oppressed. I took part because I found the idea of attempting ‘to extinguish The Sun readership across the North East of England’ by developing a ‘blue print for a new tabloid publication to platform grassroots voices and a bottom up politics’ a rather brave objective for an essentially arts-led project to aspire to. I also had some serious concerns, primarily, as usual, about terminology; about wording. The event took place on the evening of Thursday 6th October 2016 in Newbridge Project’s main exhibition space which was filled with other Hidden Civil War art works, including the mock-political Free Balloons by ‘urban-absurdist’ interventionist, Richard DeDomenici. I find the balloons and DeDomenici’s work deeply problematic primarily as I read them as popularist post-political parody.
The event was a heady mix of goldfish bowl discussion, group idea ‘harvesting’ and disseminating, expert presentations, etc. all underpinned with that now oh-so-common deliberative approach. Arts events love deliberative, democratic, participatory, consensus-building these days. The fact that, in the end, the ideas harvested from the participants were so diverse and confusing so as to leave me feeling like nothing more would probably arise from the discussion, was unsurprising. Perhaps the group was too large? Perhaps the task set for us was too broad, too open? Perhaps. Perhaps. Perhaps.
But what stood out for me was the lack of diversity in the room which I suddenly became aware of (this is my problem too – I’m a white, middle-aged, man who was once working-class but, having accumulated cultural capital, might now be considered by some to be some sort of middle-class, precarious worker/ academic) after a female participant in a group I was part of early in the event discussed the importance of a female voice and a feminist perspective in any new tabloid. A male member of the group responded by attempting to say, amongst a number of other uncomfortably incorrect things, that women were ‘well represented’ in the room. The female participant responded by asking him to look around the room, to note that there were more men than women present. I looked around the room and this was indeed true but it was also immediately apparent (I confess to not noticing until prompted, as so often happens) that almost of the 30 plus people in the room were white, with one exception. Was disability well represented I wondered? What about sexuality and gender? What about different classes? What about people from outside the arts? There seemed to be a colossal elephant in the room. There ALWAYS is at arts events, no matter what the subject matter.
I had taken issue with the choice of wording for the event: why Tabloid FOR the Oppressed, I wondered? Shouldn’t we be attempting to ‘co-create’ a new politics with and by ‘the oppressed’? And who were ‘the oppressed’ anyway; how were they being defined here and by whom? It became clear that, to some participants, artists were ‘the oppressed’, perhaps even freelance journalists. But, after noting the clear and apparent lack of diversity, I realised that the discussion, in my opinion, accurately reflected the choice of title. ‘WE’ (artists and media people) were talking about how ‘WE’ could ‘co-create’ a ‘new media’ that could ‘meaningfully support the unseen and platform the unheard’ – ‘THEM’, ‘the oppressed’!
Things felt a little patriarchal, patronising even. Three presentations by experts: four men – four white men – three middle aged white men – one younger white man. A TABLOID FOR THE OPPRESSED. I sensed a dialectic: A BROADSHEET for the LIBERATED.
This is, of course, unfair to the organisers and participants who all actively contributed to what was an interesting, if ultimately entirely inconclusive, event.
Nevertheless, I think ‘WE’ – those with cultural capital – must be more aware at events like this, must call out lack of diversity. And, perhaps, organisers might think a little more carefully about diversity when inviting participants, particularly when the topic of discussion relates so obviously to ‘the oppressed’ and the many, hopefully equally obvious, people, groups and communities who are oppressed by our technocratic, deeply divisive Western neoliberal political and economic systems locally, nationally, and globally.
There is always an elephant in the room at arts events (and many other types of events too) – A WHITE ELEPHANT – lots of white elephants…
It seemed as though this Hidden Civil War event was no different: well-meaning white people wondering what to do about ‘them’, the oppressed, whilst simultaneously and (I certain) unconsciously othering ‘them’, othering the oppressed.
I am part of the problem. I am a white elephant in many rooms. We must change. We must look beyond ourselves. We must unlearn our deeply internalised, often invisible prejudices. We must acknowledge our privileges (even if relatively small when compared to what we may consider the ‘Big Oppressors’). We must decolonise our minds. Our minds are polluted with the ideologies of a long-standing white, male, heterosexual, bourgeois elite that others difference in every form. We must look within ourselves. We must look at ourselves. We must rid ourselves of our own hidden civil wars: our own hidden oppressions.