Words and Symbols: Not Just Decorative

Theatre is storytelling. A large part of that job is understanding how various aspects of your story, visual, aural, linguistic, etc– will affect your audience. You’ll never be 100% accurate, of course, but it’s your job to have a basic working knowledge and understanding of the way words and symbols are interpreted by the culture in which you’re staging your work. Unless you’ve contracted to tour an existing show in another area and are using a word you didn’t know was local slang for “extremely large penis,” it’s your job to understand those things well enough to manipulate them effectively.

So it always comes as a surprise to me when theatre people screw this up. Let me break down my past few days for you:

swastikaring

redskins

michonne-cosplay

1. Sears listed this ring on its website, then immediately took it down, saying a third party vendor had posted it in violation of their terms. Whether Sears knew about this or not, in the online discussions I saw of this, people were LEAPING to defend it. Whenever you get into a discussion of swastikas, the first apologists you see are the people charging in with “it’s a religious and/or cultural symbol that was used in art all over Europe and Asia for centuries.” To which I say: LOL. WE KNOW. But the historical usage of an image doesn’t change the way that image is perceived NOW, in this time and place. Its usage in traditional art cannot evacuate its current semiotic– and what’s more, YOU KNOW THIS. You KNOW that most people in the Western world associate that image with the Third Reich. The next apologists say things like, “I don’t think most people even know what that means anymore; kids are ignorant.” To which I say: LOL. They’re kids, not hamsters. They know.

If you’re a theatre professional, you should understand what that symbol means and the impact it has on a western audience– whether it’s the one in your theatre or the one walking down the street checking out your cool not-Nazi-I-swear ring. Whatever background information you have about that symbol is worthless in that process. The swastika is one of the most recognized symbols in western culture, and its semiotic is as clear as any semiotic gets.

2. The same thing can be said about the Washington Redskins logo. Although the association of the word “redskin” with racism isn’t as widely discussed in our culture, about fourteen seconds of thought should be enough to straighten you out. How difficult is it to ascertain that the word “redskin” is racist? Let’s ask the “ignorant kids” of Urban Dictionary:

“An offensive and derogatory term refering to native americans.”
This is the third definition; the first two are along the lines of “greatest team in the NFL.” In addition to every legit dictionary definition designating the term “offensive” or “racist,” even a crowd-sourced dictionary used almost exclusively by the under-30 population knows what’s up. EVERYONE KNOWS.
The apologists are exhausting: “It honors Native Americans,” “I grew up with it; it’s not meant to be racist,” “I totally know a Native American who thinks it’s fine,” “It’s tradition.”
So what is anyone– let alone theatre people– doing defending this name? Why would anyone try to pass off a word widely accepted as a racial slur as “honoring” that group? Why would anyone defend the use of a racial slur as “tradition”? We have plenty of racist traditions we no longer employ because they’re racist. So what makes this word different? Because . . . you like it? You’ve always been allowed to get away with it, so having the power to use a racial slur without consequence is your right? You get to determine what’s racist or culturally insensitive to marginalized people?
*****
3. The third image comes from a debate that broke very recently. A German cosplayer posted a picture of herself  in dark makeup as part of her cosplay of Michonne from The Walking Dead, pictured next to her. The internet went (predictably) apeshit.  Whether or not blackface occupies the same cultural position in Germany as it does here, the fact remains that plenty of people in the US are defending this, and this is hardly the first time I’ve seen this in cosplay. The defense goes something like this: “She’s honoring the character,” “It’s OK when black people do whiteface, so what’s the big deal,”  “no one even knows what a minstrel show is anymore,” and the ever-popular, but completely perplexing, “anyone who says this is racist is a racist.”  Several threads about this issue have contained comments from Black people saying things like, “You don’t understand how hurtful this is because of its cultural and historical context; whiteface is entirely different; please believe me” only to be shouted down with a barrage of “So white people don’t get an opinion?”
*****
A few days ago, I was in an online discussion with a young white guy who took extreme umbrage at the fact that I said it’s a pile of nonsense-flavored nonsense for white people to tell people of color they’re wrong when they discuss their lived experiences of racism, using as my example my frustration with seeing white people jump on an Asian American who was calling out yellowface. This young white guy– a theatre person, btw– insisted that the opinions of white people need to be welcomed and honored in those discussions, or they would never “be convinced” that diversity is good and bigotry is bad.  That white people need to be “allowed” to argue (read: allowed to argue without consequence) with people of color when people of color point out racism, or white people will refuse to care about racism.
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Setting aside the  fact that no one should have to “be convinced” to have basic human decency and care about racism, both the blackface apologists telling Black people they need to “calm down” (literally) because cosplay blackface isn’t a problem, and the young white guy above are saying the same thing: The opinions of white people are ALWAYS important, no matter what the context, no matter how uninformed or misguided. In short: white people should be respected when they whitesplain racism to people of color. To which I say: LOL.
privilege
When theatremakers who should know better defend racist and/or culturally insensitive symbols, there are several things operating at once: White privilege, wishful thinking, and their combined ability to override the basic theatre skillset of understanding cultural context and semiotics. It’s one thing to understand a racist symbol and then use it with that understanding; it’s entirely another to try to argue that a symbol with a well-known racist semiotic is actually just fine if you squint (and stop listening to people of color).
 *****
Only someone consumed by their own white privilege could possibly imagine that social justice demands respecting white people shutting down people of color as people of color recount their lived experiences of racism. That’s not a discussion– it’s a deployment of privilege and power– or an attempted one. It’s whitesplaining.
*****
It’s not that white people don’t get an opinion because they’re white. Have all the opinions you like. I HAVE A WHOLE BLOG OF THEM. It’s just that white people should stop expecting people of color to STAND ASIDE while in discussions of racism so that white people can seize control of definitional authority. No one believes that white people aren’t “allowed” an opinion– we all understand free speech– but like so many people who misunderstand free speech, whitesplainers are upset because they’re not allowed an opinion without consequence. What they’re upset about is that they’re the ones being shut down instead of being accorded the authority to shut others down. When the discussion goes “PoC: That’s racist; Whitesplainer: Actually, it’s not; PoC: You don’t get to decide what’s hurtful to people of color” the whitesplainer gets upset because the person of color didn’t step aside and allow him to define the terms of the discussion. The whitesplainer derailed the discussion away from the racist act itself and into an argument about whether or not the person of color is correct and/or respects him. It’s exactly the same as this:
“What should we do for lunch?”
“This isn’t lunch, you’re wrong.”
“Dude, I’m the one facing the clock and I’m telling you it’s noon.”
“Why aren’t you respecting my opinion?”
 *****
White theatremakers, please think before you start jumping to defend symbols of racism, bigotry, and cultural insensitivity. If you find yourself in a discussion where you’re disagreeing with targeted people and passionately defending someone’s right to wear a swastika ring, or use the term “redskin,” or wear blackface, stop and think about what the actual fuck you’re fighting for. Seriously. You’re fighting for the right to be, at the very least, culturally insensitive without consequence. You’re fighting for the right to sieze definitional authority over terms and symbols that target marginalized people away from the people targeted. Why do you believe you deserve the authority to tell marginalized people what they are and are not allowed to find hurtful?
 *****
If you want to be a theatre professional, you MUST come to terms with the fact that, no matter how hard you wish it, the semiotic of a symbol IS WHAT IT IS. Manipulate it how you will after that, but don’t go on facebook trying to convince people that swastikas are OK in America because of the way they were used in India.
*****
There are privileged people out there who are fighting HARD for their cultural privilege. I’m not saying they’re deliberate bigots– they’re by and large not– but they are so used to occupying a certain positionality within our culture that they freak directly out when that positionality is challenged– when their authority isn’t automatically respected in a discussion, or when they’re asked to believe people of color when they talk about their lived experiences, no matter how hard those stories are to hear. Take a step back, listen, and think.
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2 thoughts on “Words and Symbols: Not Just Decorative

  1. Zambonesman says:

    LOL indeed your writing is like Drano clearing away the muck of the daily spin feed. The ring is shocking… If they want to keep Redskins- give the whole franchise over to a tribal council to run and profit from…

  2. Jesse Walt says:

    I agree with your determination. This is a great article.

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