Monthly Archives: September 2015

“They Never Thought He Had a Bomb”: Racist Narratives

bomb

The above meme (click to embiggen) has been burning up my feed, and I think the sentiment behind it is spot on. The motivation behind the arrest of 14-year-old engineering whiz Ahmed Mohamed for bringing a homemade clock to his Irving, Texas high school was racism, no question. But I’ve been thinking about this for hours, and I think the above conversation misses the point entirely.

I’m sure it took about .0007 seconds for people– even people like the faculty, staff, and police of Irving, TX, who clearly aren’t the sharpest tools in the shed (and your fellow educators thank you for making us all look like asshats, btw)– to understand that a bomb must be attached to something that can actually explode, and that Ahmed hadn’t built a bomb out of circuit boards and Muslim Magic. What they were accusing him of is building a hoax bomb. This is why no one acted like there was a real bomb on site. They were accusing him of creating a performance meant to frighten and intimidate– they were accusing him of performing the role of “terrorist.”

Ahmed-Mohamed-being-arrested

Ahmed Mohamed, 14, being led away in handcuffs in a NASA T-shirt. The look on his face breaks my heart.

The police asked him repeatedly to explain why he had built the device, and to provide a “larger context.” When he couldn’t, they arrested him. The above picture of him went viral, along with the story, and the public outcry has, of course, caused Irving officials to begin to backpedal furiously, saying that he “wasn’t forthcoming” during questioning, never gave any more information than explaining that the device was a clock (probably because the device was a clock) and that they would have done the same for any student of any race.

Um.

Um.

I think that’s not even within walking distance of the truth. If the truth were Mordor, Irving PD are still in The Shire having second breakfast. Look at what they said about the arrest:

Irving Police spokesman Officer James McLellan told the station, “We attempted to question the juvenile about what it was and he would simply only tell us that it was a clock.”

The teenager did that because, well, it was a clock, he said. […] McLellan told the Dallas Morning News that Ahmed insisted the device was a clock, and that police have no reason to think it was dangerous and “no information that he claimed it was a bomb.”

Still, police wanted “a broader explanation” from the teen, McLellan said.

“We have no information that he claimed it was a bomb,” McLellan said. “He kept maintaining it was a clock, but there was no broader explanation.”

Asked what broader explanation the boy could have given, the spokesman explained:

“It could reasonably be mistaken as a device if left in a bathroom or under a car. The concern was, what was this thing built for? Do we take him into custody?”

They created a narrative (“Muslim creates hoax bomb”) and framed it as his fault when he wouldn’t perform that narrative– they claimed he was uncooperative when he wouldn’t perform the role they had invented for him based solely on his ethnicity. Irving officials imagined Ahmed was a hoax bomber, and could therefore provide context– a reason he would build a hoax bomb and bring it to school. But he couldn’t provide context that didn’t exist. When he “refused” to give a “reason” he had created this “hoax bomb,” they grew MORE suspicious because they had already decided he was performing a narrative about Muslim terrorists.

They were looking for an explanation like, “I planned to plant it under the principal’s chair so everyone would think it was a bomb,” or “I planned to show it to some kids who were bullying me to scare them,” or “My cousin Sayeed is turning me into Junior Jihadist.” Instead they got, “It’s a clock.” And they blamed him for not being “forthcoming” or “providing context.”

They literally could not understand the obvious context right in front of their faces– nerdy kid builds nerdy device– because they didn’t see him as “nerdy kid.” They saw him as “Muslim.” They could not put “nerdy kid who hangs out at Radio Shack and builds things” together with “Muslim.” Literally every single American went to high school with at least one awesome Radio Shack nerd. This is not some far-fetched, unusual, outlying teen identity. These kids are all over the country, and have been for decades.

Too bad Ahmed didn't look like Val Kilmer.

If Ahmed looked like Val Kilmer, this all would have gone down differently.

The problem is more complex than just “they wanted to humiliate a Muslim.” That may very well be true, but we need to pay careful attention to the specifics here. America has created narratives for the millions of Muslims who live here, and we are unable and unwilling to understand when real people do not conform to those narratives, to understand that Muslims are people, as varied as any other group of people. We’ve created multiple narratives that see people of color as DANGEROUS, and we’re skeptical and mistrustful when people of color say they do not conform to those narratives. We imagine they’re just hiding something. People of color must prove again, and again, and again that they’re not something we invented about them.

We’ve created a narrative that Latinos are illegal, drug-pushing rapists who are here to take our jobs. We’ve created a narrative that Black people, especially Black men (and boys) are essentially weapons lying in wait to attack innocent white people. And we’ve created a narrative that Muslims are all America-hating, bomb-wielding terrorists.

NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 26: Participants wait for the start of the American Muslim Day Parade on September 26, 2010 in New York, New York. The annual parade celebrates the presence and contributions of Muslims in New York City and surrounding areas. The parade, which attracts hundreds of participants, concludes with a bazaar selling food, clothing, and books from various Muslim nations. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

And we BELIEVE in these narratives, despite demonstrable evidence to the contrary, despite the fact that anyone with four working neural synapses and 90 free seconds can sort out that those narratives cannot possibly be true. We BELIEVE in these narratives, and this is the result. Brilliant kids are arrested for nerding while Muslim. Sikhs are murdered, sometimes mistaken for Muslims. Muslims are murdered. A Muslim man was murdered in March just 12 miles away from Irving TX, part of a pattern of death threats and hatred inflicted on the local Muslim population. Let that sink in. Ahmed Mohamed lives in an area with an established pattern of anti-Muslim sentiment. If they had thought he had a real bomb, police would have killed him.

Black people are gunned down in the street because an armed white police officer “felt threatened.” Latinos are beaten and leading presidential candidates say about the attackers: “They love this country and they want this country to be great again. They are passionate.” These narratives we’ve created for people of color are deadly, and we can’t just step away and dismiss them as someone else’s racism.

It is of crucial importance that we understand that Ahmed’s arrest is one example of specific, carefully created narratives playing out everywhere, all the time. They accused Ahmed of building a hoax bomb because that’s what the narrative says Muslims do. When you blame unfocused, random Southern conservative bigotry for an evil act like this, you are effectively washing your hands of it, stepping away, and saying, “That’s not me,” instead of productively working to deconstruct the racist narratives in which we all participate to some degree.

Source: First Dog on the Moon for theguardian.com

Source: First Dog on the Moon for theguardian.com

We’ve created narratives for people of color that cast them as “danger to America” and we must actively work to dismantle them, because people are dying, children are abused, evil is being committed in our names.

I sure as hell am looking hard at what I’ve done over the years and wondering where, and how often, I may have contributed to this.

You want to “make America great”? Work to dismantle these narratives and understand that most of what people talk about as “American exceptionalism” comes from the strength of diversity– bringing different people together to generate ideas and innovations they would not have otherwise come to alone. You want to “make America great”? Stop arresting nerds, stop killing people of color, stop pretending that America lost something when it became clear our white majority was quickly evaporating. Diversity is our strength.

A NOTE ABOUT COMMENTS (9/21/15): This is my blog, not a news site. This blog reflects my personal opinion and analysis. I approve all respectful and worthwhile comments whether they agree with my opinion or not. I do not approve comments that use disrespectful language, that mock, belittle, or attack, or that otherwise engage in trolling. As this is my personal blog, I am the sole arbiter of how those terms are defined. If you wish to engage in respectful dialogue about the issues being discussed, whether you agree or disagree with my opinion or analysis, I invite you to leave a comment, and I will approve it as soon as possible.

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BUT I GET TO BE RACIST BECAUSE ART: The Mikado

artist

With last year’s massive national controversy about The Mikado in Seattle, it’s difficult to believe that anyone, anywhere, would be doing The Mikado in yellowface, right? I mean, Rick Shiomi at Skylark Opera in collaboration with Mu Performing Arts in Minneapolis showed us all how it’s done back in 2013: Since the work is actually meant to lampoon British Victorians, why not actually dress them as British Victorians? A few very small, non-invasive line changes and voila. Now you get to have Mikado sans racism. That’s what we all want, right?

As it turns out, no. The New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players is doing a production of The Mikado this upcoming holiday season, with most of the characters in yellowface. Playwright Leah Nanako Winkler wrote a fantastic piece about it on her blog that was picked up by Angry Asian Man, in which she expresses her shock and calls for people to speak out in solidarity with the Asian American theatremakers (and audience members) who are fighting for better representation of Asian people on American stages. If you want to contact the Skirball, she lists all the contact information you need.

Several of the usual (awesome) suspects in the theatre blogging community are writing about this production as well (Howard Sherman, Erin Quill). With all these articles burning up my feed, I’m seeing the inevitable backlash comments as well, defending The Mikado in particular and racism in art in general. I’ve covered this issue before. We’ve all covered it before. And yet the apologia for racist content never stops.

So, I’m thinking it’s time to play Racist Art Apologia Bingo! EVERYONE PULL UP YOUR FACEBOOK FEED. Find the first article about this set to “public” and open the comments. Get ready to check those comments for these well-known racist apologia statements as Millie calls them! Ready? GO.

I'm ready!

I’m ready!

(Tumbles wheel full of racist apologist statements) OK, I’ll just reach in here and pull these out one by one. See if you can find them in your feed!

Source: bossip.com

Millie draws the first one! (Source: bossip.com)

B17: “The one who points out racism is the REAL racist.” Quote from my feed:  “[The Mikado] is only racist in the eyes of a racist.”

Analysis: ILLOGICAL. I get that you’re going for the time-honored “I’m not the nerd; YOU’RE the nerd” you picked up in grade school, but it doesn’t fly in grown-up discussions. Let’s think about this for a second. The primary voices speaking out against yellowface are Asian American. So Asian Americans who say The Mikado is racist are the real racists? Because . . . ?

race.meme.hayseed

Here comes the next one!

N44: “Why should we pander to political correctness/SJWs/liberal demands?” Quote from my feed: “A work of art shouldn’t pander down to ignorance but insist that an audience rise to its challenge.”

Analysis: BELITTLING. Treating people of color with respect is never “pandering.” You only “pander” to demands when those demands are unworthy of consideration. Making this argument is tantamount to saying that racist portrayals of people of color on our stages, including yellowface, are so perfectly acceptable that the protest against them is worthless, and any consideration of that worthless protest is pandering. This quote is even worse, as it assumes that people who protest the racism in The Mikado are just “ignorant” and unable to “rise to the challenge” of art.

racist.joke.meme

Did you get both? Get ready for the next one:

I29: “It’s actually anti-racist if you think about it.” Quote from my feed: “What always matters in the question of whether something is racist is intent. It is actually making fun of an Englishman’s condescending attitude towards other cultures…or specifically, the Japanese.”

Analysis: WISHFUL THINKING. So let me get this straight: The cartoonishly stereotypical characters in The Mikado are actually fighting racism because they’re mocking Victorian racism through modern white people performing cartoonishly racist Asian characters. This is like claiming you punched someone to show other people that punching is bad. MY INTENT WAS CLEAR. I am anti-punching. Therefore, I get to punch whoever I want. QED.

satire

Ooh, I bet you guys are getting close! Just a couple more spaces to fill……

042: “You just don’t understand.” Quote from my feed: “[The claim that The Mikado in yellowface is racist] is an astonishingly simple and one-dimensional understanding of this lighthearted but really profound and many layered work of comic art.”

Analysis: NONSENSE. We understand; we just disagree. We see all the layers that you do, sweetheart, we just don’t agree that the “profound” message that Victorians were racist and Orientalist (lol, “profound”) does not earn the right to perform yellowface in 2015.

racismfunny

One more . . . Come on, Millie! I’m so close!

G8: “This is ART.” Quote from my feed: “There’s a very good reason these works have endured…why they are admired.”

Analysis: IRRELEVANT. This is an apologia favorite. “Art needs to be protected; art should be pushing boundaries and making people uncomfortable; pieces like The Mikado have have endured and long been admired; we should never censor art.” No one is claiming these works should be demolished. We should continue to study them. Pretending our history of racism never existed is a dangerous idea. But what we’re choosing to perform as “light-hearted” comic performances, what we choose to put on our stages, and how we choose to present work, are all completely different considerations. The work didn’t endure because of the racism in it, and often, as Rick Shiomi demonstrated, there’s a wonderful workaround that makes the piece relevant to an audience for whom racism is no longer acceptable.

The main problem with the “preserving ART” argument is that racism and racist caricatures had one cultural context in the Victorian (or Elizabethan, or Classical, or what you will) era, and have completely different contexts now. Fighting to preserve a racist work as written most often vandalizes that work’s original intent. The racist symbol was created to convey a meaning it can no longer convey. Yellowface can no longer convey the meaning Gilbert originally intended when writing The Mikado because that meaning has been superceded by a modern understanding of yellowface’s inherent racism. Even if you believe the yellowface in The Mikado means “Victorians are racist; isn’t that funny?” it can never mean that to an audience in 2015 because yellowface is read as racist in and of itself, and stomping your feet and insisting that Gilbert’s intent was completely different does exactly nothing to change that.

But purism is a smokescreen to hide the real issue at hand. If people are fighting so hard to perform classic works as originally performed, where are the castrati? The boy actresses? The act intervals? The on-stage audience seating? These people have no interest in purism as such. They’re upset because they feel entitled to the right to be able to decide what is acceptable and what is not. White people have always had that right, and the idea that people of color might have the cultural power to contradict them and be heard galls them. An issue these white people find acceptable– racism in performance– is being challenged, and they will fight as hard as they can to retain the cultural supremacy that entitles them to continue to define racist performance as “acceptable.” They’re fighting more and more furiously because they know they are losing.

I, however have WON!

RACIST APOLOGIA BINGO! B17, I29, N44, G8, O42! BAM!

Suck it, Marlene, Esther, and Florence! See you at the next Hadassah meeting in my NEW HAT.

Suck it, Marlene, Esther, and Florence! See you at the next Hadassah meeting in my NEW HAT.

P.S. Shana Tova to my fellow tribespeople and Jew-ish affiliates! I hope you all have a wonderful 5776.

UPDATE 9/18/15: NYGASP has announced the production will be cancelled and replaced with Pirates of Penzance. I still think a better solution would have been to update the work like Rick Shiomi did, but I understand why they felt they should just shut the whole thing down. I hope this opens a conversation at NYGASP (and elsewhere) about representation and diversity on our stages.

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“Too Street”: Hypocrisy in Policing the Speech of our Actors

Idris Elba, the living embodiment of

Idris Elba, the living embodiment of “suave,” was labeled “too street” to play James Bond by Bond author Andrew Horowitz.

I just had an interesting conversation with someone whose white teens are using the slang words “finna,” “aight,” “brah,” etc. She characterized it as “shortening words to sound hip.” I’m almost certain she just didn’t know where the terms came from; I don’t think she was trying to be erasive. But it brought to mind how poorly we’re handling political issues around language, especially in the theatre.
Those slang words aren’t about being hip and cool– they’re about being Black. I’m not trying to stop Black people from influencing the language as a whole. Black slang is, and has always historically been, one of the most important influences on the way English is spoken in America. But understand the context here. When a Black person uses the slang they create, they’re slammed for not being “professional,” not being “articulate,” but when that slang finally makes it to white mouths, it becomes “hip” and “cool.” Usage changes language, and language is political. Our culture constantly appropriates Black invention as “hip” and “cool” while deriding and marginalizing Black people for using their own inventions. Language is an enormous part of that. If it’s become “hip” for white kids to say “finna,” how are we approaching Black people who use their own slang? Because right now, I see a hallway full of shut doors for Black people who aren’t speaking perfect English at all times.
black.shakespeare.meme
I corrected a girl for saying “ax” in my class last year, and I’m deeply ashamed of that now. I read up on that usage, and I came to understand how wrong I was. Language is political. We have to understand what we’re enforcing, and why we’re enforcing it, when we police usage.
I know a Black actor who was told by a Black professor at the university where I used to teach that he would never be cast in Shakespeare because his speech was “too Black,” and that he needed to amend his speech in order to be cast. The actor told me this after I had cast him in several Shakespeare plays at my company (as well as several new plays– this actor is phenomenal). As a white director whose approach to classic work deliberately eschews stiffness and formality, I’ve always had an eyeroll for “American Standard,” which we still teach actors to this day. Even actors completely untrained in it will often fall into its faux-British, formal tones when doing Shakespeare. A couple of years ago at my company’s general auditions, I had a very diverse bunch of college actors, all from the same university (perhaps not coincidentally, where I used to teach), and every single one came in with a cookie cutter, faux-British, semi-Standard American accent. I actually considered contacting the chair with a “What are you teaching these kids?” email, but I knew exactly what they were doing: prepping them to perform in a world that rejects anything that doesn’t reek of privilege.
studio-180-tweet

When we cast Shakespeare, when we cast new plays, when we teach actors, when we go to the theatre, when we choose our seasons, what choices are we making that reinforce privilege? How often have Black actors heard they were “too urban” or “not urban enough” for a certain role? How often have Asian and Latino actors been asked to “do the accent”? How often are we shutting people out because their speech– or their writing– does not conform to the expectations of white privilege?

The evidence is everywhere. Critics who slam plays because they don’t conform to the values and expectations of white privilege. Actors are told by white directors and casting directors in auditions to be “more urban” or “less urban,” meaning, “perform Blackness in the way I expect you to.” Black comedians Sasheer Zamata and Nicole Byer wrote a fantastic sketch, performed by Byer, called “Be Blacker,” mocking the many auditions in which Black actors are told to “be more urban.”

What does it mean to ask an actor to perform Blackness in a way white people expect or want? How often are we encoding the enforcement of privilege in our casting? How often are we encoding the enforcement of privilege when we say we’re teaching actors “speech and diction”? How much policing of speech is enforcing privilege?
American culture– and that includes American theatre– needs to take a long, hard look at the multitude of ways we police speech, especially the speech of people of color and people without class privilege. I’m including both spoken speech and written speech in that. If we’re making commitments to diversity, then we need to think about the multitude of ways in which we’re reinforcing the idea that diversity must be performed only in ways that are acceptable to white privilege. White people are measuring the acceptability of people of color by how closely they resemble whiteness off stage, and how accurately they can portray Blackness to white specifications in various situations on stage. I’m not claiming this is limited to Black people– cis people measure the acceptability of trans people by how closely they resemble cis people, and so on. But the topic at hand is how we believe Black speech is acceptable coming out of white mouths, but reject it coming out of Black mouths unless we can directly profit from it.
pygmalion
 In other words, if white America is talking about how hip and cool it is that white kids today are saying “finna,” then we need to look long and hard at the actors we’re rejecting because their speech isn’t “ready,” is “too urban,” or who “aren’t articulate.” We need to look long and hard about how we teach our students. We need to look long and hard at the people we’re not hiring at all levels because we perceive their speech– or their presence– as performing a kind of Blackness (or Asianness, or any other kind of identity that differs from straight, white, cis, class privileged) with which white people are uncomfortable.
I’m not excepting myself from this. Quite the opposite. I’m saying: This is a place wherein we’re falling down, and dragging far too many people down with us. Let’s examine what we’re doing more closely, and find a better way forward together.
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Labor Day

labor

Labor Day celebrates the labor movement and labor unions in the US, whose gains are always being challenged by the far right. The 5 day/40 hour work week, overtime pay, worker safety protections and worker’s comp, sick leave, military leave, minimum wage, and guaranteed breaks are all thanks to the labor movement. One of the labor movement’s most spectacular gains was the enactment of national child labor laws.

A little boy selling newspapers, 1921.

A little boy selling newspapers, 1921.

While there were activists fighting for child labor protections for many years, and even some serious Congressional efforts to enact such legislation nationally, there were few child labor protections until 1938, when FDR signed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which outlawed child labor under the age of 14, and limited the kind of work and the hours of work for people 15-17, in addition to many other gains the labor movement had been fighting for. Conservatives have been seeking to erode or even destroy the FLSA since its inception. For decades, those conservatives who sought to undo basic labor protections like child labor laws and the minimum wage were considered the fringe far right. Even Reagan championed unions and collective bargaining, calling them crucial to freedom. Now, anti-labor and anti-union sentiment is at the center of the party, including a push to roll back child labor laws, complete with a romanticization of child labor instilling “values” and “work ethic.”

Oyster shuckers in Port Royal, SC, 1921.

Oyster shuckers in Port Royal, SC, 1921.

Republicans across the country are working hard to eliminate child labor laws, succeeding in four states thus far. GOP presidential candidate Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin, abolished all restrictions on the hours kids between the ages of 16 and 17 can work in his state. In Idaho, child labor laws were changed to allow children as young as 12 to be employed by their schools for up to 10 hours a week. The conservative legislatures of Maine and Michigan both increased the number of hours minors are allowed to work in their states. While these four states are the only ones whose conservative politicians have succeeded in rolling back child labor protections, Republicans in Ohio, Utah, Missouri, and Minnesota are fighting hard to roll back child labor protections in their states as well. Some seek to ease restrictions on the number of hours children can work, some seek to ease restrictions on the type of work they can do (teens are currently restricted from performing dangerous work), some seek to create a sub-minimum wage for people under 20, and some are seeking to eliminate child labor laws completely. While Republicans have continuously fought hard against child labor laws beginning the moment the ink was drying on FDR’s signature, the most recent push to end child labor protections arguably stems from former GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich’s call to repeal child labor laws entirely, calling them “truly stupid,” in 2011. Current GOP politicians, including the current crop of presidential candidates, deeply romanticize child labor, pretending it’s all character-forming summer jobs, all-American paper routes, and light shifts after school at the local fast food place.

A five-year-old shrimp picker in Biloxi, Mississippi, 1919.

A five-year-old shrimp picker in Biloxi, Mississippi, 1919.

Child labor laws in America have always contained special exemptions for agricultural workers, who are legally allowed to work as young as 12 years old in the general season, 10 for hand-picked short-season crops. Even with exemptions, child labor laws are constantly violated in the agricultural industry, and I don’t mean kids helping out on family farms. I mean children working on commercial farms up to 60 hours a week in the blazing sun under brutal conditions. While it’s a problem industry-wide, it’s a particular problem on tobacco farms, where Human Rights Watch found children as young as 7 working, 2/3 of them suffering from symptoms of nicotine poisoning, such as vomiting, nausea, and headaches. Conservatives have fiercely protected agriculture’s right to hire children, and blocked efforts to improve their working conditions.

Child tobacco workers, Hazardville, CT, 1919

Child tobacco workers, Hazardville, CT, 1919

This Labor Day, let’s honor the spirit of the day by pledging to stand firm against conservative lawmakers fighting to destroy our hard-won child labor protections. Let’s seek further protections for children working in our fields. Let’s push back against the romanticization of unregulated, unrestricted child labor, and remember it for what it was: exploitation.

Workers at a glass factory in Alexandria, VA, 1911

Workers at a glass factory in Alexandria, VA, 1911