I keep running across white women saying things like, “I’m never seeing any film or play that doesn’t pass the Bechdel test ever again!”
This statement epitomizes the problem with white feminism.
First, a quick definition of the Bechdel test, invented by amazing writer and comic artist Alison Bechdel, known for the long-running comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For and her memoir Fun Home, which she turned into a Tony Award-winning musical. Just in case you weren’t already convinced she’s a genius (and I have been since the old DTWOF days), she was a 2014 recipient of the MacArthur “genius” grant.
The “Bechdel test” is a metric she created in 1985 in a DTWOF strip to evaluate female representation in films. In order to pass the Bechdel test, a film must have two female characters who have at least one conversation that is not about men. It sounds surprisingly basic, yet the vast preponderance of films cannot pass the Bechdel test.
The Bechdel test becomes tricky when applied to theatre. For example, it immediately eliminates all solo performance and all male/male and male/female two-handers, regardless of content.
And this is exactly my issue with the Bechdel test being used as a basic metric of acceptability in theatre– it ignores both content and context. It ignores intersectionality.
Let’s take two examples. The first play, written by a middle-aged white man, is about four wealthy white women discussing their problems and lives while at various brunches in upscale New York eateries. The main topics of conversation are their wealth and whether the sacrifices they made to obtain that wealth were worth it. The central narrative is one character revealing she has lost most of her money and must now live outside Manhattan. This play neatly passes the Bechdel test.
The second play, written and performed by four young Black men, is about their experiences growing up in Oakland. The main topics of conversation are police violence and racism. The central narrative is the loss of their friend, murdered by police while unarmed, driving home from work at a local elementary school, the same school where all five friends met. This play does not pass the Bechdel test.
If the goal of metrics like the Bechdel test are to hold artists accountable for the work we create, insisting on work that resists cultural marginalization and works for inclusion, the Bechdel test is not enough. It is not enough to fight for the inclusion of women and ONLY the inclusion of women. Insisting that a play about privileged white women is so deeply, intrinsically superior to a play about Black men that we can issue a test to “prove” it is counterproductive to every diversity goal we have. We’re issuing a test that by design marginalizes men of color.
We need work that passes the Bechdel test, and we need it badly. But we cannot use that test as a metric for the acceptability of all work.
We live in an intersectional world, and issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion must be addressed intersectionally. Yes,we must fight for the inclusion of women in our narratives, but we must also fight for the inclusion of other marginalized groups. When we refuse to do so– when we announce that all plays must pass the Bechdel test in order to be acceptable, as I have seen so many white women do– we fail. We become “white feminists,” content with centering ourselves while ignoring other marginalized groups.
To state that you will never see a play that does not pass the Bechdel test is to state that Crimes of the Heart, In the Boom Boom Room, and Five Women Wearing the Same Dress are intrinsically important and worthwhile, while Topdog/Underdog, The Mountaintop, The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, The Year Zero, Mambo Mouth, and Twilight: Los Angeles 1992 are not worth seeing.
The Bechdel test even fails at what it was purportedly designed to do. Many films steeped in misogyny pass. “Lesbian” pornography made for male consumption passes. Most Disney princess films pass. The Bechdel test, I have to believe, was never meant to be an iron-clad metric.
I don’t know Alison Bechdel, but I consider the Bechdel test excellent social commentary, not a call to action. It’s meant as criticism, to make a point about how few films have female characters with objectives of their own. It’s meant to point out how few films present women as human beings rather than as events in the lives of men.
We cannot use the Bechdel test as the sole metric for acceptability. The examination of our work and its resistance to, and participation in, systems of oppression is a complex process, not a three-point test.
Even issuing a test is a classic white gatekeeping maneuver. White liberals are always looking for clear-cut guidelines to make us instantly “not racist” or “not sexist,” and we excel at creating oversimplified litmus tests that prove we are the Most Woke and everyone else is Doing It Wrong.
You can’t fill out a form with your credentials (“voted for Obama,” “watched Jessica Jones,” “smiled hard at Black guy on the street”), mail it in with a self-addressed stamped envelope to the Women’s Studies department at Howard and then just wait for your NOT RACIST OR SEXIST certificate to roll in. There’s no “Woke White Person” checklist.
There’s no test.
Fighting for diversity and equity in theatre is a complex, multifaceted process that involves the stories we tell and how we tell them, including who tells those stories and who’s in our audiences, who are the decision-makers and gatekeepers, where the funding comes from, and so much more. As tempting as it is to get a definitive ruling on what is “resistance theatre” and what is “collaboration theatre,” that fact remains that each piece of theatre we make will have facets of resistance and facets of collaboration, and all we can do is commit to the process of examining our decisions in both the work we make and the work we consume as thoroughly and realistically as possible. It’s never going to be as simple as only going to shows with The Gold Star of Bechdel next to their titles. Fighting systems of oppression requires more of us, much more.
Commit to the process. Continue to love the Bechdel test for what it is– an eye-opening way to examine narrative that sometimes works and sometimes does not, but can be an effective tool when used correctly. It was one moment of genius in a long career of genius moments for Alison Bechdel, but cannot be– and was never meant to be– the sole, definitive arbiter of acceptable work.
Remember when Gamergate was happening? All those online attacks, threats, and harassment by the “alt right” pretending to be about “ethics in games journalism” but really just attacking, threatening, and harassing women and people of color for discussing the portrayal of women and people of color in video games? And everyone was like, “Oh; it’s just a minority of people doing that– just a fringe group” and “Well, some of them really do care about games journalism,” and “It’s just online harassment. Just ignore trolls!”?
Now people connected with the “alt right” are going to be in charge of the government. The man who was one of the unofficial heads of Gamergate, Milo Yiannopoulos, writes for Steve Bannon, at Breitbart “News.” Steve Bannon, Trump’s White House Chief Strategist, supported Yiannopoulos throughout the entire Gamergate debacle, and (just before his leave of absence to work for Trump) through the massive sexist and racist attack campaign Yiannopoulos led against Leslie Jones, the final straw that got Yiannopoulos kicked off Twitter because he finally attacked someone with enough fame and power to get people to pay attention.
Even those within Gamergate who insisted throughout that it was about “ethics in games journalism” still defined those ethics as keeping cultural criticism out of gaming. As video games became more and more complex, creating scripts and animation to rival major studio films, games criticism began to include the kinds of artistic considerations we within the arts are well used to. Critics began to consider the social context of games in addition to their basic functionality, sometimes critiquing games for their sexist portrayal of women, or for their lack of diversity. Even if it were about “ethics in games journalism,” Gamergate was defining “ethics” largely as “never talking about sexism or racism in games.” This is an important point, as there really are ethical considerations in games journalism, all of which Gamergate completely ignored in favor of sending death threats to a woman who creates videos about sexist tropes in games and an independent female developer who wrote a free game about her struggle with depression, among others. The “alt right” movement Gamergate considered personal attacks, harassment, and threats an appropriate response to arts criticism— led in part by Milo Yiannopoulos while he was supported and employed by Steve Bannon, soon to be one of the most powerful men in the world.
One of the most important things to note about Gamergate is how often they threw around the term “free speech” to defend attacks, threats, and harassment meant to silence discussion around sexism and racism in the video game industry. One popular talking point at the time was the fact that Anita Sarkeesian had turned off comments on her video series critiquing the portrayal of women in video games, Tropes vs. Women, both on YouTube and on her website, Feminist Frequency, when the attacks, threats, and harassment began, which was characterized as an attack on their “free speech.” This is important to note– they felt so entitled to attack, threaten, and harass this woman that they claimed it was a violation of their free speech when she refused to personally create a space on her website for them to do so.
One of the most important things we can do as citizens is connect the dots between events. Steve Bannon paid Milo Yiannopoulos while he led attacks, threats, and harassment against people advocating for feminism and diversity AND claimed it was a violation of free speech when special space was not created for these attacks to occur. When Yiannopoulos was booted from Twitter for violating their ToS in leading the sexist and racist attacks on Leslie Jones, the movement howled that Yiannopoulos’ “free speech” was being violated. Bannon paid Breitbart writer Jack Hadfield to write an article for Breitbart claiming Yiannopoulos was a “free speech martyr.”
While women and people of color are the canaries in the coal mine of shitty American trends– if bad things are coming down the pike, they’re going to hit us first– it’s also important to note that Gamergate was, at its core, a fight over arts criticism. While people are quick to dismiss art as “just a game” or “just a movie,” art is where we, as a culture, decide who we are, who we want to be, what we fear, what we value. Art is where culture is made. So it’s no surprise to me that this “alt-right” movement in part coalesced and gained popularity around two movements angry about the inclusion of women and people of color in art and arts journalism– Gamergate for video games, and Sad Puppies/Rabid Puppies for SciFi/Fantasy.
Yet the response to these attacks and their alarming ideology at the time was a collective shrug of the shoulders. The most popular response was “just ignore the trolls.” This piece of advice could not have been more dangerously wrong.
We should have listened to women and people of color when they first began reporting these attacks. We should have responded robustly and clearly: No, this is wrong. Instead we shrugged our shoulders and told them, “Just ignore the trolls.”
We could have learned everything we needed to know about the “alt right” from Gamergate, and instead here we are, once again, telling each other to “ignore the trolls,” telling each other to discount Trump’s outrageous attacks on free speech when they’re on Twitter, as if they weren’t part of a larger world view that seeks to limit free speech (here, here, here, here, here), as if they weren’t coming from a man we’re about to put into the most powerful position in the world with Steve Bannon at his ear.
When Steve Bannon paid Milo Yiannopoulos to write articles that aided Gamergate and its horrific personal attacks against people who dared to openly discuss sexism and racism in the games industry, that should have been enough right there to make everyone terrified of handing Bannon any sort of political power. Now he’s about to have more political power– unaccountable political power, since he’s in an appointed, not elected, position– than nearly anyone else in the world, aiding a presumptive president elect who attacks free speech relentlessly. The “alt right” has openly fought against free speech for years. The question is, Have we learned anything from it? Or are we just going to keep saying “ignore the trolls”?
When I write about diversity in representational media (theatre, film, TV, video games), often the white anger (and there is always white anger) uses “artistic freedom” as its battle cry. “Artists should create whatever they want, without restrictions,” or “Total artistic freedom is sacred. Telling artists they must include diversity is wrong.”
The secret is: Every professional knows there’s no such thing as “total artistic freedom.” We always must work within certain parameters. At least half of the artistic process is finding artistic solutions to technical problems.
The space you’re working in has physical constraints. The budget has limits. The contracts you’ve signed with the company, the playwright, the actors, the techs, all limit what you can add (or subtract) from the text, how long you can rehearse, even what can and cannot be done on stage. Props don’t work the way you imagined. An actor can’t perform the blocking you’ve set in the costume you approved. You discover three weeks before opening that the set you approved is over budget and needs trimming. The incredibly important piece of specially-designed tech hardware is stuck on a truck with a broken axle four states away and the earliest it will be in house is now Sunday afternoon. Maybe. When it shows up Monday at 10pm, it doesn’t work. Your lead actor’s visa wasn’t approved and she’s still in London. The suits show up to a late rehearsal or a shoot and demand a change. The studio has paid for product placement, and now you must work SmartWater into three scenes.
This? This is the tip of the iceberg. It’s a magical day when everything goes according to plan and no changes need to be made.
The idea behind “artistic freedom” is one of the best ideas ever: Artists should be able to engage with the world around them without constraints such as censorship. Artists with artistic freedom create better, usually more impactful and important, art under those conditions. But those conditions always exist within a given framework. Some constraints are practical (time, space, and budget), some are legal (the law, your contracts), some are ethical (best practices), some are artistic (imposed on the artists by the director or producer, or just by the basic parameters of the project), and some are social (updating outdated topical humor, avoiding lines, characters, or narrative tropes that would be considered racist, etc). Although not every artist recognizes or follows every constraint every time– sexual harassment is a huge problem in all these industries– artists as a whole work within these constraints without questioning them.
The social constraints we work within are never questioned, and usually framed in terms of audience response– a joke your audience won’t find funny, public controversy that could impact sales, or a scene that evokes a hostile audience response, which is entirely dependent on your social context. I’ve staged plays in Berkeley without an iota of controversy that later were picketed elsewhere in the country. Conversely, I’ve been sent plays whose entire plots centered around the Horrible! Revelation! that Someone! Had a Same Sex Affair! In College! My Berkeley audience would laugh out loud at the idea that anyone cared about your same sex college fling; such a play is unstageable here no matter how well-written because the premise is nonsense within our particular social context.
So when we talk about the need for increased diversity (or the need to examine how various types of people are portrayed) in the theatre, film, and games we make, why is that seen as a massive, impossible imposition on an artist? We’re already working within a number of constraints and considerations, and, frankly, removing race as a primary consideration, instead using just type, talent, and skill set, doesn’t seem much of a constraint at all to me. All it takes is stating in calls (or instructing your casting people) that you’re open to actors of all races and ethnicities, and suddenly your hiring pool is expanded, not constrained.
That said, if you believe your work demands an all-white cast, no one is restricting– or can restrict– your right to use an all-white cast. No one can stop you from casting every lead with a white actor for the entirety of your career. So what, exactly, upsets people so much about calls for more diversity? Why is there so much angry backlash to discussing diversity in art? What people are upset about is that now consumers and critics are complaining about it. They don’t just want the freedom to use all-white casts, crew, and/or writing staff–they already have that. They want the freedom to do so without criticism.
This, by the way, is what they mean by “taking America back”– back to the days when shutting out people of color was completely uncontroversial.
Due to this desire to create all-white art without criticism, there has been an immense backlash, especially from the alt-right, about the very concept of using social criteria like diversity or the portrayal of women to evaluate art. They claim that this is a new development brought on by “political correctness” run amok, and that in the golden past, before feminism or Black people with twitter accounts, art was solely evaluated as art, and critical discussions of its social messaging were nowhere to be found.
This is, of course, bunk.
For centuries, art has been evaluated, formally and informally, using social messaging as part of the critique. In 472 BCE, Aeschylus was publicly criticized by Aristotle, who claimed Aeschylus’ play The Persians, about the Persian defeat at the hands of the Greeks at the Battle of Salamis in 480 BCE, was too sympathetic to the Persians. Playwrights in Renaissance England went to great lengths to hide their critiques of the church or the government in metaphors that would get past the censors. When Paul Robeson played Othello in 1930, reviewers criticized the choice to cast a Black man instead of a white actor in blackface. One wrote: “There is no more reason to choose a negro to play Othello than to requisition a fat man for Falstaff.” There are literally thousands of similar examples from the past.
There are, of course, nearly as many examples from the present as well. While the right (alt and otherwise) bitterly condemns using diversity and other social justice-based criteria in evaluations of art, they themselves do this all the time. The right’s response to Beyoncé’s 2016 Super Bowl performance is an excellent example. Her performance came under fire solely for its pro-Black social messaging, which many on the right took to be “anti-white” and, somehow, “anti-police.” Ads for Old Navy and Cheerios featuring interracial families came under fire from right-wing racists for their social messaging alone. Evidently “interracial families eat breakfast and enjoy Old Navy 30% off sales” was a bridge too far for them. In 2012, the wildly popular, highly rated video game Mass Effect 3 included same sex relationship options (as they had throughout the series), but really came under fire for including a bedroom scene that many homophobic players complained bitterly about. (Of course, those of us who played through the game knew you had to click through many conversations with that gay character, continually taking the obviously marked “romance” option, to trigger that scene, or go out of your way to seek it out on youtube. But that’s none of my business.)
While some people do not wish to be told that people would like to see more diversity, they clearly have no problem telling us that diversity is, in essence, wrong.
There’s only one conclusion to draw here, and it’s not about “artistic freedom.”
For those of us who work in representational media, and must work within constraints both out of our control, like physics and budget, and well within our control, like personal artistic goals and vision, “artistic freedom” can be a touchy subject. We want as much artistic freedom as we can get, in part because we know that in reality, our freedom is constrained in multiple ways. Those of us calling for increased diversity (and equity) in film, theatre, TV, and games are simply asking our fellow content creators to consider diversity an important artistic criteria that exists alongside all the other self-imposed artistic criteria we all have.
Making a commitment to diversity is actually reducing your constraints, because it widens your hiring pool. Once you make the decision that a role can be cast with an actor of any race, or a show can be directed by a person of any race or gender, suddenly your hiring pool becomes much wider. Making a personal commitment to diversity increases your artistic freedom because it gives you far more to work with.
There is no true “artistic freedom,” including the many constraints artists put on themselves as they strive to meet (or exceed) their artistic goals. Encouraging others to make personal commitments to diversity– and holding them accountable when they do not– increases the artistic freedom both of the individual artists who would be widening their hiring pool considerably, and the artistic freedom of the industries as a whole, that would have a wider variety of artists working within it, which we all know is a massive strength.
So don’t believe anyone who tells you that calls for increased diversity or using diversity as a criteria for evaluation is limiting “artistic freedom.” We know better.
Recently director Tim Burton was asked by Bustle writer Rachel Simon why his latest film, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, features an all white cast with the single exception of Samuel L. Jackson (who is cast, disappointingly yet unsurprisingly, as the murderous villain), Burton had this to say:
“Nowadays, people are talking about it more,” he says regarding film diversity. But “things either call for things, or they don’t. I remember back when I was a child watching The Brady Bunch and they started to get all politically correct. Like, OK, let’s have an Asian child and a black. I used to get more offended by that than just… I grew up watching blaxploitation movies, right? And I said, that’s great. I didn’t go like, OK, there should be more white people in these movies.”
“Things either call for things, or they don’t.” This is an alarmingly incorrect position to take.
By “things” one can only assume he means “films” or perhaps “film casts.” The idea that a film can, all on its own, cry out for an all white cast with a single black villain while the humble director, helpless, must obey without question is, of course, preposterous. “Things” do not “call for” anything– directors make specific decisions. You cannot abdicate responsibility for your casting by blaming it ON THE FILM YOU MADE, in which you personally made or approved every artistic decision.
If by “things” he means “the source material,” meaning that initially the book series was all white (adding characters of color later on in the series), once again he is abdicating responsibility for his personal decisions by pretending that he’s but a faithful reproducer of the source material. Where was this desire to faithfully reproduce the book when he was directing Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, for example? While Burton’s version is closer to the original 1964 Roald Dahl book than the 1971 film adaptation Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Burton still deviated in multiple ways from the book. Is whiteness the only inviolable aspect of source material?
As directors, we make the decisions that bring the world of the play, the film, or the show to life. We create the worlds you see on screen and on stage. We can choose a diverse world that reflects the one in which we live, or we can choose an all white world that shuts out people of color, denies opportunities for actors of color, and creates the illusion that white people are the only people whose stories are worthy of telling unless something is specifically about being Black, Latinx, Asian, etc. When a work is just about “people”– when the story has nothing to do with race specifically–if you then think the work “calls out” for whiteness because you see white as “neutral,” you have, at the very least, a failure of imagination. But that failure goes much deeper.
The alarming aspect of Burton’s abdication of the very basics of film directing– the artistic decisionmaking– is that he imagined the work itself somehow told him he needed to create a group of wonderful white people whose major threat is a murderous black man. This kind of reinscribing of whiteness as superior, innocent, and good alongside blackness that exists solely as a dangerous threat to that whiteness is a trope that literally gets innocent black people killed every day. This isn’t “just a film.” There’s no such thing. Our culture is primarily impacted by the narratives of popular culture. Films are massively important cultural artifacts that have the power to shift an entire culture.
When police officers have a split second decision to make, why do they imagine seeing a gun in the hand of an unarmed black man, or imagine a black man reaching for a gun when he reaches for his wallet as instructed, or imagine a black man lying on the ground with his arms in the air is a threat, or imagine a black child with a toy gun is an adult threatening their lives, especially when police bring in European American active shooters alive routinely? When our culture pumps out narrative after narrative after narrative equating blackness with DANGER, that has a massive impact on the real world.
When we talk about police “retraining” we have to realize that no amount of retraining has the power to combat the massive force of our popular culture. There’s no police-specific training that can combat that without each individual officer personally committing to actively fighting those narratives in their hearts and minds every day of their lives– which, by the way, is something I think we should all be doing. Even then there are no guarantees that the narratives white supremacy relentlessly puts into their hearts and minds are all examined, understood, and held in check in that moment they stand before black people with their guns drawn.
As the people who literally build western culture every day through the choices we make as we create and release our art, we have a responsibility to the people whose lives are being violently stolen every day to do better. It’s an insult to their lost lives to say that the “thing” magically “called for” you to use an all white cast with a black villain.
It’s telling that Burton imagines that a lack of white people in blaxploitation films of the 1970s is somehow equivalent to his all white cast/black villain in 2016, as if the obvious race privilege of white people in the 1970s didn’t exist and the films at the time were racially problematic– yet magnanimously forgiven by Burton– for not including white people. As if we’re not now all aware of the massive social injustice faced by black people who are treated unfairly at every level of the criminal justice system, and who face police use of force– from small acts of violence to fatal ones– at far greater percentages than white people, and what it means in 2016 to make a group of innocent white children the heroes battling against a murderous black man. It’s astonishing, really, that anyone who makes his living from creating art– from understanding the value of symbols and tropes and narrative– could miss this. It’s alarming. These tropes, unchecked in our culture, are complicit in the deaths of far too many people of color, including children.
It’s telling that Burton says “oh, let’s have an Asian child and a black” in decrying the tokenism of shows– again from the 1970s (dude, that was 40 years ago)– like The Brady Bunch. Apart from the dehumanizing phrase “a black” (a black what?), Burton cannot imagine diversity as anything but tokenism, as if people of color do not exist outside of whiteness, as if including people of color is automatically tokenism, as if he can only imagine a single token actor of color in a film. Tim, why not cast people of color in lead roles? In lots of roles? In all the roles? Why not consider a diverse range of actors for every role and see who best fits the part when race is removed from consideration? Yes, sometimes race needs to be a foremost consideration in casting. If you direct A Raisin in the Sun (please no one ever let Burton do this), Mr. Lindner needs to be European American and everyone else needs to be Black. But in, say, Mrs. Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, race is not central to the narrative. Nothing would have been lost by hiring a diverse cast, and much would have been gained. No one is asking you to cast a single token Black actor, and yet THAT IS EXACTLY WHAT YOU DID in casting Samuel L. Jackson, making that even more egregious by casting him as the villain. But The Brady Bunch‘s dippy 70’s “we’re all one big happy melting pot” nonsense is “more offensive” to you?
I’m not going to criticize Jackson for taking the role, since I have no idea how much he really knew when he signed the contract, and his statement about it does read like, “I am under contract to do positive PR for this film.” He’s an actor whose job is to act. Who knows what he was told about how the film would be created.
I am, however, flat out astonished that someone of Burton’s level of talent with symbol, narrative, and trope would create such an obvious lie as “things call out for things” as a cover for his own decisionmaking. Then again, I’m not surprised at all.
This article is also available on the Huffington Post here.
Please also check out “An Open Letter to Tim Burton from a Black Fangirl” by DeLa Doll, posted to HuffPo yesterday.
In theatre and in academia, my two worlds, we talk a lot about “diversity.” In theatre, we talk about diversity in casting, we talk about diversity in programming, we talk about diversity in audiences. In academia, we talk about “attracting and retaining diverse students” and “the diversity of our faculty.” But there’s a massive elephant in the room that we continue to ignore.
Diversity is not enough.
Do not confuse “diversity” with “equity.” I have been in far too many situations where an organization hires a handful of people of color, plunks them into the lowest rung (either by title or by treatment) and then never thinks about them again. I have been in far too many situations where faculty believe they are “working to retain” students of color by designing classes with titles like “Keepin’ It Real: African American Performance,” taught by a fussy middle-aged musical theatre professor, instead of engaging the students directly to discover what support they actually need. I have been in far too many situations where highly skilled and qualified women are hired and then passed over for promotion in favor of mediocre– or even demonstrably unqualified– men. I have been in far too many situations where a white man who is new to the organization is suddenly and dramatically promoted and given plum assignments in secret, announced to the stunned women who were passed over as a fait accompli.
Diversity fails if it’s not combined with equity.
Too many white male-run orgs frame diversity as bending down to lift up women and people of color. Women dominate the indie theatre scene as artistic leaders. They’re already out there, creating art every day. People of color aren’t just creating art– they’ve created most of popular American culture.
It’s telling when you hear people say things like, “Black children in the inner cities have no access to art,” and “We need to find ways to help people of color access theatre.” When we discuss “art” or “theatre” in these contexts, we mean “white art” and “white theatre.” We mean the work white people have deemed “important.” If there’s one thing inner cities have never lacked, it’s art. Most of popular American culture originated with artists of color in inner cities. Hip hop revolutionized music across the globe. Graffiti became a global school of art. Both hip hop and graffiti are already studied and taught in universities globally alongside other important artistic movements like minimalism and abstract expressionism, both of which, I’d like to point out, were originally held in as much disdain as hip hop and graffiti have been. You don’t bend down to grant art to people of color. They’re not starved for art, waiting for a white savior to show up and grant them access. People of color are lapping white culture artistically.
The problem isn’t a lack of access to “art” for women and people of color. The problem is lack of access to funding and well-paid positions of power. The problem is equity.
If we’re discussing equity, we’re discussing important topics like the glass ceiling– how larger theatres across the nation give almost all the positions of power to white men and show no signs of improving over the years we’ve been discussing this. How universities still give the majority of their tenure track positions to men and the majority of their poverty-level adjunct positions to women, despite that Cornell study that measured hypothetical attitudes. The hard data is clear, and those numbers widen when you add race to the mix.
If we’re discussing equity, we’re discussing how grantors and individual donors give white-run arts orgs far more funding than they do arts orgs run by people of color. We’re discussing how the study I linked above had the audacity to suggest that lower-funded orgs run by people of color should be left to “wither” and close.
If we’re discussing equity, we’re discussing how large, well-funded, white-run theatres are given massive grants to do “community outreach” programs to potential audiences of color when the theatres run by people of color, who are already doing that work, are left to fight for scraps. That’s diversity without equity– funding a wealthy white org’s diversity initiative instead of funding a smaller Black org that’s been doing that work for decades. Funding doesn’t have to be either/or. Where are the grants that fund partnerships or co-productions between those orgs? Or between women-run smaller theatres that attract diverse young audiences and the larger theatres that say they’re desperate for those audiences? I would have brought my theatre company into a larger theatre for a co-production in a heartbeat.
The problem with diversity without equity is that diversity can be accomplished in ways that entirely preserve the white male power structure. We congratulate diversity in programming and we ignore the fact that nearly every LORT AD position in the US from the institution of the 501c3 in 1954 to this very day has gone to a man, almost always a white one. We’re making calls for diversity that amount to asking white men to please hire more women and people of color while we ignore the fact that theatres run by women and people of color are literally starving for funding.
Diversity alone is not enough without actively seeking equity at all levels of our industry. We need to commit to both diversity AND equity.
UPDATE 9/8/16: Please read Jason Tseng’s excellent article about equity in arts funding: “The Kaiser Games.”
And by “my book is out,” I mean Caridad Svich‘s book is out. The ever-brilliant (srsly) Svich has released a collection of essays for TCG entitled Audience (R)Evolution: Dispatches from the Field. In addition to one by yours truly called “The Lies We Tell About Audience Engagement,” it contains essays by Larissa Fasthorse, Richard Montoya, Itamar Moses, Jules Odendahl-James, Sylvan Oswald, Bill Rauch, Lisa D’Amour, Roberto G. Varea, Callie Kimball, Carlton Turner, and Svich herself, among many others.
Order your copy here!
I’ve been sitting on this essay for months, because I’m a coward. I’ve been through so many attacks this year for writing about race and for writing about the Democratic primary that I was afraid to post this, despite how deeply I believe in it. And then the events of the past few days– the extrajudicial executions of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile– happened and I could no longer live with my cowardice. Our Black brothers and sisters are taking their lives in their hands every time they leave their houses, and I’m afraid to post *an article* because I’ll be sent more attacks and threats. I was ashamed by my desire to protect myself with privilege and silence. So here is my essay.
We use the phrases “white people,” “white America,” and the like all the time. I say that I’m “white.” I experience “white” privilege routinely. But how do we define “white”? What is “whiteness”?
While the usage of the term “white” has been used for millennia as a physical descriptor (along with “black” and similar descriptors) often attached to various cultures or groups, the term “white” was first applied as a cross-ethnic racial category in the late 17th century, created specifically around the racialization of slavery. (I hate to use wikipedia as a source, but this isn’t a bad summary.) “White” was created to mean “not Black, therefore, culturally superior and not subject to slavery or racial discrimination.” This meaning has never substantially changed.
Jews, the Irish, and southern Italians were not widely considered “white” when the first large waves of immigrants came here in the late 19th century. They slowly became “white” over the 20th century, through a process of assimilation that, in some cases, involved assimilating “white” America’s anti-Black racism. It’s important to note there’s no consensus about that process. There’s a great deal of academic discussion about who was considered “white,” when it happened, and what regional differences there may have been. But just the fact that there’s room for argument, the fact that there are differences of opinion even amongst experts, proves that there is no essential “whiteness.” “Whiteness” is a constructed social category that means nothing but “accorded cultural superiority.”
Irish American. Swedish American. French American. English American. Ashkenazi Jewish American. Scottish American. Greek American. Polish American. These are legitimate ethnic identities tied to proud cultures, traditions, heritages. These are identities and heritages of which one can (and should) be proud. Being “white,” however, has no intrinsic meaning. It means nothing but “accorded cultural superiority over people of color, especially Black people,” and, as such, the only heritage, culture, and traditions of “whiteness” are slavery, lynching, racism, oppression. “Whiteness” was conceptualized as a weapon to use against Black people, and as such, it’s spawned an extraordinary amount of social ills. When you raise children to understand their proud Greek, French, or even American heritage, that means something specific about your family, its past, and its connections to a long and storied culture and history. When you raise children to understand they are “white,” that means literally nothing but which position they occupy within a deliberately created system of racial hierarchy. “Whiteness” is a disease from which an enormous amount of our social ills have sprung. It’s time to dismantle the concept of whiteness.
I’m not calling for the dismantling of the concept of “Blackness” because Blackness is completely different. Blackness is an ethnicity, a culture with many subcultures. Black culture developed in this country because we ripped people from an enormous variety of different cultures (research shows that most Black slaves came from one of 46 different ethnic groups), threw them all together, often isolating them from anyone who spoke their native language, told them they were now “Black” instead of Ibo or Temne, told them they were now Christian instead of Muslim or adherents to their traditional tribal faiths, and tortured them the second it looked like one might be considering disobedience. Faced with an unimaginably traumatic disconnection from their cultures of origin, Black people in America together created a vibrant, strong, detailed culture with multiple subcultures, and with multiple linguistic and artistic traditions, influenced by their cultures of origin but crafted into something unique that would have (and continues to have) an enormously disproportionate impact on American culture as a whole. Black people make up just 13% of this nation. Yet how much of American music, language, and art comes from Black culture? This culture, with all its subcultures, miraculously created like a fucking phoenix from the ashes of one of the worst human rights atrocities in human history, is so powerful, so rich, so potent, it has, despite being the culture of just 13% of our people, invented just about everything you love about America. A Black woman invented rock and roll, Black people invented every piece of slang you use (I’m not even going to link that because we all know), Black people invented nearly every form of music we label “American” (jazz, blues, hip hop, gospel). Black inventors have revolutionized multiple industries. A Black man invented the home video game console. Black culture is so rich and influential, it makes America American, and spreads far beyond the borders of America to influence cultures all over the world.
When all is said and done, and America has joined the ranks of Great Dead Societies, Black American culture will have been as globally influential as Greece or Rome. To say that an American is “Black” is to tie them to a very specific, robust culture that is intrinsically tied to race because “white” Americans forcibly grouped them as such. It means something culturally specific in the way that “white” does not. (BTW, this is why I capitalize “Black” but do not capitalize “white.”) I’m sure Black people would have loved to have had the luxury of coming here (or not) by choice, and identifying as Nalu American or Ewe American, or, as many modern immigrants do, Nigerian American, Ethiopian American. That choice was denied to them, and they created a unique, robust culture of their own.
“White” Americans, on the other hand, nearly all came here by choice– even the indentured servants— and had the luxury to preserve their culture, or not, as they chose. I don’t mean to denigrate the enormous pressure for late 19th/early 20th century immigrants to assimilate, or the racism some (including my own ancestors) faced. But they came here by choice, and, despite those pressures were able to retain much of their cultures of origin.
“White” people didn’t put together a “white” culture with “white” traditions that became an entirely new ethnic identity. People from varying ethnic traditions identified as “white” for the sole purpose of oppressing Black Americans, then navigated back to their specific ethnic, regional, or religious identities at will.
Each and every one of the people who fall under the category “white American” have a more potent, more meaningful, more, let’s face it, real culture than the constructed racist identity of “whiteness.”
If your family has been here so long it’s lost all connection to its culture or cultures of origin, you have multiple options to move past your “whiteness.” You can reclaim a heritage identity; you can identify as “American,” you can identify with your region or religion. You have numerous options, many of which, I would wager, you already use. There’s no reason to cling to a label that was created specifically to be deployed as a weapon of oppression.
If we can step away from the concept of “whiteness,” we can step towards equity. I’m not naive enough to believe that people will magically lose their racism when they start identifying as “Finnish American” instead of “white.” But I do believe that language shapes thinking, and that what we call something– or someone– shapes how we think of them. If you call yourself, and people who look like you, “white,” that will have an impact on how you think about yourself and others. Restructuring how we understand “white” people into various ethnic categories that are not definitionally hierarchical is a step, one step, in the right direction towards eliminating the many structures and systems of racism that exist in American culture, American minds, American hearts. Eliminating the concept of “whiteness”– seeing ourselves and each other in terms that are not specifically defined by who is accorded cultural superiority– is a step toward eliminating that cultural superiority and building equity.
I’m not naive enough to think that whiteness is something I can unilaterally renounce for myself, and step out of the white privilege that exists as a prominent part of my intersectional identity. But I do think that all of us living as “white” people together taking responsibility for the impact of “whiteness” on people of color, renouncing that label and hierarchical concept, and claiming identities not based in deliberate cultural hierarchy as a tool for oppression, is one first necessary step towards dismantling white privilege. White privilege will always exist as long as we reinforce the racist concept of “whiteness.” This will take generations, so we better get cracking.
Refuse your whiteness. It’s a disease that feeds on Black lives. Claim identities that speak to your truth, not to a history of oppression.