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Posted by Philip Patston on 1 June 2010, 12:40 pm in , , , , , , ,

Brainless categorisation and creative inclusion

Two high profile news stories caught my eye last week. First, radio station The Edge's "Hug a Ginga Day" and then World Cup ambassador Andy Haden's "darkies" comment.

Both have fuelled debates in the media, as well as the lounges and lunch rooms of the nation. The arguments ranged from accusations of racism and even terrorist intent, to justifications of harmless fun and political correctness. Mitigations have come thick and fast: the use of similar terms like "honky" for Europeans and the commonplace acceptance of blonde jokes make ginga-hugging and darkie-calling okay.

I'm not going to wade into the dialectic exercise of deciding whether either were right or wrong — to be frank, I think both debates are trivial in the scheme of things. What interests me is that both issues exemplified our obsession with characterising ourselves and each other visually and, specifically, by reference to colour.

"Ginga" – red hair. "Darkie" – brown skin. Why the fuss?

Let's blame the reptilian brain — the least sophisticated part of what American physician and neuroscientist Paul D. MacLean calls our triune  (three-part) brain. This most ancient part connects us to dinosaurs, reptiles and birds, is responsible for instinctual behaviours such as aggression, dominance and territoriality. According to British author, researcher and speaker David Icke, it responds to "partial representations" like colour and strangeness. Racism, among other forms of discrimination, is reptilian.

The two more evolved parts of the brain are the limbic system and neocortex. The limbic system governs motivation and emotion responsible for feeding, reproductive and parental behaviour. The neocortex, found only in mammals and most evolved in humans, produces language, abstraction, planning, and perception. People choose not to – or simply are unable to – engage these cerebral systems.

So when a radio host, sports ambassador or any other half-intelligent person decides to design promotional days around hair colour or makes throwaway comments about sportspeople based on the colour of their skin, I don't think they are necessarily being discriminatory or meaning to be offensive. They are just being lazy.

They could think more complexly, but they are choosing not to because it's easier not to. They are using the most basic part of their brain to appeal to the lowest common denominator. The result is aggressive, dominant and territorial – and they risk hurting people in the process.

At best it's irritating and boring – at worst it's bad behaviour – and I think it should stop. But it won't until we grow up – or more to the point, grow into our brains

•     •     •     •     •

In the past two weeks I've had the privilege and pleasure of working with Arts Access Aotearoa and Creative New Zealand, facilitating "Arts for All" workshops in Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. Despite appalling weather in all three centres, the sessions have been well attended with enthusiastic response.

The aim of the workshops have been to follow the "Arts for All" publication produced last year and were designed to showcase good practice and support arts administrators to create inclusion policies and plans for their organisations.

Here are the key points that I made during the workshops in relation to creating inclusive practice and a welcoming environment for all people, including those who experience disability or unique function, as I prefer to call it:

  1. Do it for you, not for "them": Disability or unique function is something that can happen to anyone at anytime. You need to be thinking of inclusiveness in terms of either what you would need in order to access your organisation's services or return to your job, should your physical, cognitive, emotional, visual or auditory function change. This will lead to a more authentic response.
  2. Communication is paramount: The most important aspect to accessibility is communication. Tell people how accessible or inaccessible your services or premises are, rather than letting people wonder. Ask people what they need to make things easier, rather then waiting for them to tell you. Survey people before they leave and ask how you could improve. Engage with people via social networking, rather than relying on traditional marketing and promotion.
  3. Start small: Don't get overwhelmed by the scope of accessibility, because it is overwhelming! Choose one thing to do and do it well, then another thing. This will create momentum and have a cumulative effect over time.
  4. Be prepared to fail: Creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson says, "You can never have an original idea if you are not prepared to make a mistake." Mistakes are part of learning and the creative process. Take risks, stuff up, learn and try again. People will appreciate you making the effort and mistakes make a great platform for dialogue (see 2).
  5. Think of it as a movement: Watch/read "Leadership Lessons from Dancing Guy" at www.sivers.org/ff – this is the perfect analogy for creating sustainable inclusion. You don't need to be the only one harping on about access – find your First Followers and you'll be dancing before you know it.
  6. Be creative: Remember what sector you belong to and approach access and inclusion with creativity and flair. If any industry should be grabbing the challenge of diversity and inclusion with passion and gusto, it should be the arts.
  7. Ask for help: Create alliances with other organisations, contact Arts Access Aotearoa, ask Google or talk to me. This is not new to the world, even if it is new to you. Consider reinventing the wheel by all means (they are only so efficient) but save time by making sure someone else hasn't tried it before.

You can visit www.diversitynz.com/aaa/ for a sample policy and action plan template - feel free to use and adapt them to suit your needs.


I AM PWD (Inclusion in the Arts & Media of People With Disabilities) is a major disability rights campaign to increase the visibility and equal employment opportunities for actors, broadcasters and sound recording artists with disabilities throughout the entertainment and news media initiated by the Performers With Disabilities (PWD) Tri-Union Committee of Screen Actors Guild (SAG), the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) and Actors’ Equity Association (AEA).

Visit I AM PWD at www.IAMPWD.org