“The system, to the bone, is flawed,” says artist Paul Rucker.
by Jasmyne Keimig
Last week, artist Paul Rucker dropped an op-ed in Artnet detailing his experience with racial discrimination as the first Black male arts program manager at Seattle’s Office of Arts and Culture. The op-ed is also a call to reexamine the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion template, asking organizations to prioritize actively improving the working conditions for Black people over making empty statements.
While Rucker has not worked for the office for almost a decade and no longer lives in the Seattle area (though he shows here occasionally), he told me he finally has enough distance—and extensive documentation—that he felt in a good position to speak up about his experience working for the city.
“I think as a steward of public dollars, we must have representatives and public servants that exemplify integrity,” he told me over the phone in a recent interview. “This may not be a priority for some organizations, but it is very telling of who we are as society when certain behaviors are tolerated.”
Rucker began his time at the OAC in 2007 as a Community Arts Liaison, responsible for two grant funding programs and a festival. In the article, he writes that he enjoyed his job with “excellent performance reviews and no disciplinary action” for several years until a new director, Vincent E. Kitch came onboard in 2011. Though Kitch only lasted 16 turbulent months in the position, Rucker described a sudden shift in the office dynamic.
He said Kitch was “very hands-on,” trying unsuccessfully to prevent Rucker from taking on art commissions outside the office. The director then promoted Rucker’s peer, Kathy Hsieh, to be his supervisor, without any internal or external call for the position. After which, Rucker “suddenly received a series of write ups and ‘personnel notes’ that served to create a record of negative behavior.”
Hsieh wrote him up “multiple times over a very short period of time” for trivial reasons. In one incident not described in the article, Rucker told me he was written up for working 2.5 hours overtime as he helped applicants apply for a Neighborhood and Community Art Program. Many spoke English as a second language and he wanted assist them as much as possible. Because he had not cleared the overtime in advance, he was written up for it.
While still employed at the OAC, Rucker said he struggled to get ahold of his file to find out what exactly his superiors had written. Once he did, Rucker wrote that he found “a written reprimand, three personnel assessment notes totaling thirteen pages, and a mid-year performance review that included misinformation, misspellings, and ramblings.”
Rucker said Hsieh, who still works for the OAC, also assessed him as having “post-traumatic-slave-syndrome.”
Here’s Rucker’s description of what she wrote:
“One of the most concerning sections involved the supervisor portraying me as a troublemaker and suggesting my behavior and mental state were related to my history as a descendant of enslaved people, using the idea of ‘post-traumatic-slave-syndrome.’
Referring to the Race and Social Justice Initiative (RSJI), the City’s commitment to eliminate racial disparities and achieve racial equity in Seattle, she wrote, ‘My honest assessment is that he is exhibiting signs of what in RSJI lingo is referred to as post-traumatic-slave-syndrome. When he perceives that he is a target is [sic] reacts defensively and does not act reasonably.'”
He said that he reached out to HR, then-mayor Mike McGinn, the Seattle Arts Commission, and the Seattle City Council about the toxic and anti-Black environment, but no one pursued the issue. He told me he even submitted an 80-page document detailing his experience and evidence to McGinn, but still no action. After suffering panic attacks, loss of sleep, and increased anxiety, Rucker quit the OAC in 2012.
Since the article’s publication, OAC acting director Calandra Childers released a statement acknowledging the article and a “culture of white supremacy” at the office that “does not reflect our values.” When reached for comment about Hsieh, the department declined to respond, as they do not comment on personnel issues. Rucker told me that he has yet to receive a personal apology from the office, which a department spokesperson also confirmed.
A former staff member…has recently shared his experiences during his time as an employee of the Office. The experiences and trauma he describes are difficult to read and he describes a culture of white supremacy that does not reflect our values. https://t.co/klX9amsNjk pic.twitter.com/YVC3TG0GnQ
— Seattle Office of Arts & Culture (@SeattleArts) May 27, 2021
In the rest of his piece, he talks about the difficulty of navigating arts administrations as a Black person, a field rife with “structural barriers that are put in place that don’t allow equitable access to employment” and insidious racism. Rucker wove in the story of the Seattle Silence Breakers, a group of mostly female city employees who spoke up about their toxic working environment in 2017. He also delves into the 2018 workplace discrimination report Mayor Durkan ordered in response to the Silence Breakers, which found that 32 percent of Black respondents who worked for the city said they had experienced discrimination based on race.
Additionally, Rucker told me he interviewed several Black employees who formerly worked and currently work for the city. Among them, he said he noted a deep distrust in HR and the new-ish Office of the Employee Ombud, created in 2018 and charged with investigating allegations of harassment, misconduct, and discrimination within the city.
“I don’t expect there to be a flood of people coming out and telling their story because ultimately you don’t win. Even with the ombudsman, you don’t win,” he told me. “You just seal your fate for never being promoted to a higher position… There’s a certain level of assimilation and there’s a certain level of adopting this toxic culture that happens in order for you to move ahead.”
Rucker told me that since his op-ed went live, he’s received an overwhelming response from people across the country, who have shared similar experiences with racism in administrative settings. While he’s heartened that his story touched so many people, it’s still reflective of the toxic culture that permeates city governments, arts organizations, and the like. From his time at the OAC, and the testimony of Black and brown city workers who have spoken up in the years since, Rucker still believes there’s a lot that Seattle and the country must overcome to combat anti-Black discrimination.
“It takes a lot of energy as a Black person to be in these arts organizations and a certain level of working from the inside to try to hopefully change the system,” he said. “But it’s really exhausting because the system, to the bone, is flawed because it doesn’t look through a true race and social justice lens.”