Policing Can Teach The Arts a Thing or Two

What do policing bias and gender bias in the arts have in common? 

It is called “implicit bias.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City spoke recently in a Brooklyn meeting about killings by police.  He reported that, in an effort to prevent the annihilations of human life and public trust, officers would soon begin to have training to help them understand “implicit bias.”

The implicit bias curriculum, according to Ginia Bellafante of the New York Times, is “a fad right now in law enforcement circles and in certain segments of the corporate world seeking to become more sensitive to issues of diversity and difference.”

“The theory behind it…maintains that we are all, as human beings, acculturated to certain distasteful perceptions and attitudes, some of which we may not even be aware that we carry.”(Emphasis added.)

Does that sound like what this organization, Awareness of Gender Bias in the Arts, is about or what?  Acculturated negative perceptions and attitudes – toward women and girls — of which people, male and female, may not be aware.

The police make a strikingly important point.  The goal of implicit-bias training is not to rid people of their dispositions – that would, Ms. Bellafonte says, be like trying to convince someone with an instinctive dislike for Abstract Expressionism that the art form is worthwhile.  Instead, the objective is to help people see where and when they succumb to stereotypes and teach them how they can keep from acting on them.

“The point is to decouple the bias from the behavior,” says Philip Atiba Goff, a Stanford-trained social psychologist and president of the Center for Policing Equity.

Let’s apply this to the arts.  That could mean that a male theater administrator who prefers plays written about men, with male-focused story lines, can learn to “decouple” his preference from his action of hiring mostly male playwrights and actors and, instead, hire an equal number of women playwrights.  A male museum administrator can learn to “decouple” his preference for female nudes (painted and viewed by men), and take action to put some of them in the museum attic for awhile and display the works of women artists on a multitude of subjects.

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An opera manager can “decouple” her old habits of using existing, “pure” but demeaning libretti (the words) of the last two centuries and take action to use modern wordings that don’t belittle, demean and stereotype women’s roles and live singers in current operas.  There is precedent for this. The language used in the performing arts to refer to African Americans was “cleaned up” in the 20th century; it is time to take action to make references to girls and women respectful.

The police understand “implicit bias.” Our arts administrators need to “decouple” their biases and pursue unbiased action. Our audiences must demand this!