Tag Archives: racism

The Real Story of Clarion and Lloyd Suh

I don’t have any insider information. But I’ve been both teaching theatre in the university system and producing professional theatre for over 20 years, and I’m sick of the articles being written about this that have no understanding of what we do or how we do it.

Marilouise Michel of Clarion University wanted to produce Lloyd Suh’s Jesus in India, but never completed the licensing agreement, or responded to the agent when asked about casting. Michel cast with all white actors, including the roles written for East Indian actors. The rights, having never been granted, were denied.

Here’s what happened: In January, Clarion asks for a copy of the play. In May, they inform Lloyd they’re adapting it into a musical. For those of you unfamiliar with IP copyright, this is illegal if done without author permission. Lloyd generously tells Clarion that’s fine if it’s just a classroom exercise, but he (obviously) has questions if it’s for public performance. The director never responds. Meanwhile, she’s begun negotiations with the agent, who has asked her about casting. The director does the paperwork required for the university to disburse a check to the agency, but never completes the actual rights negotiations or licensing agreement. On October 30, five months after Lloyd asked about the musical adaptation, the director emails Lloyd asking if he would be able to skype with the actors who are currently in rehearsals. Lloyd, thinking WTF? heads over to google and sees that the production (still without the legal permission to adapt or even perform the work) has been cast with all white actors. He emails his agent. The agent emails the director. The director says LOL, we couldn’t cast it any other way, and I forgot you even asked. Lloyd discovers from his agent that the licensing agreement was never completed. He clearly restates what the agent was (obviously) trying to discuss with the director five months earlier: the Asian characters need to be played by Asians, or the rights will not be granted. The director says no. The rights were not granted.

And the world goes nuts BLAMING LLOYD.

The coverage of this has been enraging, painting Lloyd and his agent (the marvelous and wonderful Beth Blickers) as bullies, when nothing could be further from the truth. Clarion is completely to blame, even if you believe white people should be allowed to play people of color. 

The director maintains the agent never mentioned race in her email. That may very well be true. The email may have said something along the lines of, “Before we release the rights, how do you plan to handle the specialized casting in this play?” or even just “How do you plan to cast the play?” It’s disingenuous to assert that a question like that doesn’t, at the very least, make clear that casting is an important consideration in rights negotiations. I’m willing to bet Michel didn’t complete the licensing agreement because she didn’t want to have to confess to Beth that she had an all-white cast, knowing full well that would be a problem. I’m willing to bet Michel, who had a provisional yes and had already sent the paperwork required for the university to disburse a check, believed she was far enough along in the process that she wouldn’t get caught if she kept her head down.

I have had innumerable conversations with people in education about paying performance rights, rewriting scripts, or violating the playwright’s express instructions, and invariably I’m trying to convince someone that Yes, you WILL get caught, because internet. (I’m of course also discussing Ethics, and IP rights, and OMG are you even kidding me with this?) It’s depressingly common for my fellow educators (and even more so for administrators) to believe they won’t get caught violating contract or performing without rights, so I have no trouble believing that this director believed a little of both.

The people out there howling that Lloyd shouldn’t have cashed the check are spurred by misrepresentative coverage. First of all, Lloyd didn’t even see the check. The agency deposited the check along with every other one they received that day, and would eventually disburse payment to Lloyd for all the shows for which they’d contracted. It’s not at all uncommon to send a check before all the details of an agreement have been finalized. If the agreement isn’t completed for whatever reason, the agent returns the money. Cashing the check is not a tacit way of saying “I would love for you to violate my IP rights and do whatever you like with my play.”

Playwrights, agents, and publishers pull the rights for ALL SORTS of reasons. Beckett’s estate famously won’t allow women to be cast in Waiting for Godot (with some notable exceptions). Tams Witmark once shut down a production of Anything Goes because the company wanted to use a drag queen Reno Sweeney. MTI shut down a Bay Area production of Godspell— with a C&D!!–because the company changed the lyrics. Neil Simon refuses the rights to schools and companies that want to edit out his swear words. Lloyd owns his play. If he wants to refuse rights unless a production agrees to put a full-page elegy to Mr. Jingles the Sock Monkey in the program, he has that right. He sets the rules, just as you set the rules for who uses your property.

Clarion is in the wrong here, period, even if you believe white people should be allowed to play people of color. Which, in 2015, is just nonsense.

I’m sick of the mainstream articles (and posts and comments) wherein the years of activism, resistance, discussion, and progress around casting and diversity in theatre are invisible. Is the director at Clarion misrepresenting the issue deliberately? Or is she really so disconnected from the theatre community that she doesn’t know about these issues? Why are the writers of these articles so ignorant of the years of discussion, the hundreds of articles, and the massive national controversies around casting and diversity in theatre?

At least 95% of the available roles in any given season are open to white people. It’s embarrassing to watch white people throw a tantrum over the remaining 5%. We’re not entitled to everything just because we want it. I’ve written repeatedly about the many reasons non-white characters should be played by non-white people (search “diversity” if you’re interested). Many writers far better than myself have written about this issue repeatedly. In brief:

  1. History. Theatre, film, and television all have a long history of casting white people as people of color while shutting actors of color out. Those portrayals have almost always been insulting and racist. The historical context has made this issue a sensitive topic for people of color, and rightfully so as they have had to watch themselves portrayed in insulting ways by white people while being shut out of opportunities to play themselves. If you think this is a matter of the past, think again. And again. And again. And again. And again.
  2. Representation. Actors of color are still underrepresented in theatre. Most of the available jobs go to white actors, who are disproportionately represented. White men in particular have always dominated, and continue to dominate, the industry. It’s unethical to push people of color aside to allow even more white people to have even more roles, especially the tiny handful of roles written specifically for people of color. This is also why it’s not at all the same when a person of color plays a role written for a white person. That’s a step toward proportional representation, not “racism against white people.”
  3. Ethics. People of color in the theatre industry have been very clear that the continued use of yellowface, brownface, and blackface, as well as the continual whitewashing of characters, is hurtful to them in multiple ways. White people have three choices and three choices only: “We hear you and we’ll stop,” “We hear you, but we don’t care if it hurts you, so we’ll keep doing it,” “We don’t believe it should hurt you; you are incorrect about your own experience of the world.” The first choice is ethical; the others are not.

So when we discuss issues like the cancellation of Clarion’s production of Jesus in India, let’s focus on the facts. Let’s insist on accurate coverage. Let’s hold each other accountable. And let’s have the self-respect to admit when we’re wrong.

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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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The White Guy Problem

Before you start limbering up your fingers to write NOT ALL WHITE GUYS before you even read the article, lemme just say this: I KNOW. The only reason I’m able to track the performative phenomenon I’m about to discuss is because it only occurs in a small subset of white guys. Since most white guys are NOT doing this, but a solid and vocal minority are, it’s been easy to spot, track, and wonder about.

Earlier this week a friend of mine posted Cera Byer’s Salon article, “To My White Male Facebook Friends.” The article, originally a facebook post that was reposted so many times Salon asked Byer for permission to publish, has a basic thesis: White guys, don’t immediately get defensive when women or people of color tell you about their experiences. Listen and believe them.

Like everything ever in the history of ever, the reaction to that article proved the need for it repeatedly, thoroughly, and with no room for doubt.

In one thread of which I was a part– a public post (I know, I know, I usually know better)– a young Latina grad student was commenting in support of the article and about her experiences with white men as a queer woman of color, and one man– let’s call him “Jake”– posted this in response to her:

“Ah yes, the fiery Latina, hot in the sack, but not much going on upstairs if you catch my drift, and that temper? Yikes. It’s cool if you’ve nothing substantial to contribute, I’m good at ignoring. Just let me know if you’re going to slap those bongos of yours, ’cause I’d like to watch. “

He was immediately called out for his racism and misogyny, of course, by a healthy percentage of the people still actively participating in the thread, many of whom were white guy allies. Shocked, and, quite frankly, exhausted by the public racism and misogyny we’ve seen so much of in recent weeks, I copied and pasted the above into a status of my own and told people where to find the public thread.

His response to the censure he received for such open racism and misogyny was enormously telling, and, as it dawned on me that I was seeing a predictable pattern, the impetus for this article.

For the past few decades, our cultural norm in cases where someone has been caught in public making a racist or sexist comment has been some kind of apologetic (or half-assedly apologetic) performance. “I never intended to offend anyone” is a popular (half-assed) performance in these cases. Think Mel Gibson. Think Michael Richards. Think Donald Sterling and Bruce Levenson. Think Paula Deen. Public racism, in particular, has been long considered the kind of activity that can ruin a business, get someone fired, destroy reputations. But something has changed, and quickly, spearheaded by a small but vocal minority of white men.

When “Jake’s” comment was first posted and subsequently called out, I fully expected, given the egregious nature of the comment and the fact that it was in a public thread (and thus viewable by his boss, clients, whoever), some kind of, “While I disagree with you and the article, I should not have said what I said. It was inappropriate and I apologize.” Standard American CYA behavior.

Instead, he opted for a new pattern of behavior I’ve since begun to think of (after Byer’s article) as “the Defensive White Guy performance.” While I realize this has always been happening *privately*, I’m seeing a new, widespread willingness to behave this way *publicly*.

This Defensive White Guy performance is particular and predictable the moment it begins. Of course I understand that a LOT of human behavior is predictable, for all types of people– I live in Berkeley and can predict a knee-jerk liberal reaction to the letter and the link– but this DWG phenomenon is representative of a widespread willingness to perform and then defend racism and misogyny publicly.

It’s a very particular performance I’m seeing more and more of, and it’s always the same: the Defensive White Guy makes a racist or misogynistic statement, is called out for it, then immediately begins claiming he’s the victim, either in the discussion, in American culture, or both. He claims that he is not racist or sexist. He labels any oppositional commentary, no matter how bland, as an attack, often conflating the commenter with entire groups, such as “liberals,” “feminists,” or “SJWs.” Often he will double down on the original racist/misogynistic statement by posting more of the same, even while claiming not to be racist or sexist. His attacks are filled with horrible insults. He claims perfect entitlement to the usage of those terms because he is being “attacked,” or because the people who disagree with him “deserve” it.

In this particular case, “Jake” responded with accusations of slander (playing the victim) and responses to women like, “Don’t you have dishes to do?” (doubling down), in addition to a wide variety of attacks of various types. While attacking me publicly, he came to me privately, begging me to take the status down, claiming he was receiving “threats” from my “friends.” I hid the status and then asked him for specifics, stating that, if that were true, it’s not OK, and I would speak with those friends and personally ask them to stop. In response, he accused me of being a (somehow anonymous) participant in these supposed “threats,” said he would give my name to “the authorities,” and blocked me, forcing me to conclude this was just another “playing the victim” performance. Despite the fact that he was almost certainly lying, I reopened the thread and posted a request for people to leave him alone, left it up for 24 hours, and then re-hid the thread.

So what’s happening here? Why would a guy be all bluster, racism, and misogyny in public, then come privately to me and ask me to protect him from the consequences of attacking me (and others) and expect me to comply? Why couldn’t he just man up and sincerely– or even somewhat sincerely– apologize to the woman he originally attacked, utilizing the same CYA performance that’s been the standard for the past several decades?

Again, just to head off the inevitable YOU’RE BEING RACIST AGAINST WHITE MEN reactions, most white guys are great. Most white guys are empathetic people trying to understand the lives of others. But the entire nation is currently being dragged down by a small group of people whose reaction to the pain of others is MY PAIN IS MORE IMPORTANT, whose reaction to racism and the role of their own privilege in that is LALALA I CAN’T HEAR YOU, or worse, PRIVILEGE IS MADE UP BECAUSE MY LIFE IS HARD.

Here’s what I think is happening:

We all see ourselves as the “good guy” in the narrative of our lives, and these Defensive White Guys are no different. They believe in their hearts that they understand racism, and believe they understand the experiences of others. They believe in their hearts they are not racist or sexist, and that assertion is almost always a loud component of the DWG performance. They BELIEVE it. They grew up with Free To Be You and Me and learned in school about the many laws and customs we once had that barred women from participating in public life– voting, higher education, certain kinds of employment. They learned about the income disparity. And they said to themselves, “I am not that.” And they believed it. In school they learned about lynchings and listened as their teacher played “Strange Fruit” or read to them about Emmett Till. They saw pictures in their grade school textbooks of drinking fountains marked “WHITES ONLY,” they learned about the 1963 Birmingham church bombing, they learned about brave little Ruby Bridges, they learned about racism and they said, “I am not that.” And they believed it.

As they grew up, they demonstrated this by talking about how little they cared that their co-workers were Black, or their boss was a woman. They voted for women or people of color. They didn’t see anything wrong with interracial marriage. They BELIEVED they were not sexist or racist, and for that, they believed they were one of the “good guys.”

As our culture progressed, however, and became more and more willing to study racism and misogyny, and how they both operate systemically within our culture, we articulated the concept of privilege, we studied it and created a mountain of statistics to show its existence, we began to examine the myriad ways in which racism and misogyny are encoded into our culture. We realized the problem was deeper and wider than we thought.

And the definition of “good guy” changed. It was no longer just a public declaration that you weren’t bigoted and a lack of active oppression of women and people of color. Being a “good guy” now meant engaging in a difficult and complex process of understanding privilege, including your own privilege, acknowledging that, and understanding how racism and misogyny are created and disseminated, how much of that we’ve internalized, and how we work to end that. Suddenly a stated belief in “equality” and a simple lack of active oppression– both relatively easy to understand and believe you can accomplish (despite the fact the we now know this is much more complex than originally thought)– were no longer enough. Many white people had the courage and/or resources to meet these new challenges head on. Many had to slowly come to understanding. Most of us are still struggling with these issues and our place within them every day. But some white people, including these men I’m discussing, whose personal narratives and self-conceptions, like all of us, rely on being “the good guy,” are LIVID. The definition of “good guy” changed. It requires understanding and accepting something they do not have the will and/or ability to understand, and they are angry. They feel betrayed that “good guy” went from easy to difficult, was taken away from them while they weren’t looking, and is something to which they feel entitled, but is in reality something they now have to earn.

In addition to the fact that the qualification for “good guy” status has changed, the culture is changing all around them. While white men still hold almost all of the positions of power in our culture, and control almost all of the wealth, demographically their numbers are shrinking, and the culture is changing slowly to reflect that. The entire shape of the economy slowly changed since the Reagan Revolution, tipping the nation’s wealth to the hands of a few families, shutting people without wealth out of the political process, and almost entirely ending the American Dream of upward mobility. Many white men are hurting economically. Since all white American-born men have lived their entire lives in a culture that always put their needs first and was structured around their narratives, the idea that someone else’s narrative could be just as important, or, possibly, for even just a moment, more urgent and important, is, for some white men, literally impossible to understand. This subset of white men cannot comprehend that idea as anything but a MASSIVE injustice against them. They’ve been first in line for so long THEY NEVER EVEN KNEW THE LINE EXISTED, and they believe that being asked to wait in line like everyone else is bigotry against them. This subset of white men cannot comprehend that ending street harassment is a more urgent issue than their desire to approach women whenever and however they like; that actual rape is a more urgent issue than their fear that one day someone might possibly accuse them of rape; that the killing of unarmed Black men (and BOYS) is a more urgent issue than their fear of Black “thugs”; that the killing of unarmed Black men is a more urgent issue than a few broken windows.

This subset of white men cannot comprehend that the expression of the pain and anger of a long-oppressed group of people is a more urgent issue than their need to be seen as “a good guy.” It takes a truly mind-blowing amount of self-absorption, entitlement, and privilege to answer “White people are hurting us; please help make it stop” with “NOT ALL WHITE PEOPLE.” What this response is saying is: “My need to be seen as a ‘good guy’ is more important than your pain. Please direct your attention to that and confirm that I am ‘good’ before I will consent to recognize your pain.” It’s the social equivalent of demanding that someone compliment your bitchin’ Camaro before you agree to roll it off their foot. OR HEAD.

In the face of the changing culture, and the changing job description of “good guy,” this subset of white guys, these Defensive White Guys, have sunk into their anger and resentment and are filling the culture with a level of unapologetic, overt racism and misogyny that we haven’t seen in decades. And while I don’t have the answer, I suspect it’s because they resented having to make room in their social concept for women and people of color to begin with– they were only playing along so they could secure the title of “good guy” and be liked, not because they truly believed it was the right thing to do. And now that the culture has progressed and these DWGs have discovered that they are no longer the “good guy” without a little more work and direct engagement, they’ve reached a “fuck it” moment. They are reasonably sure– and they’re right, at least for now– that the culture at large will protect them in some way because it always has.

So when they express their resentment, anger, and feelings of betrayal by making these public racist and misogynistic statements, and are inevitably called out for them, they cry victim because they BELIEVE they’re the victims– the victims of a culture that changed behind their backs and deprived them of being the well-liked “good guy” without meeting new qualifications; the victims of a culture that deprived them of the American Dream; the victims of a culture that tricked them with social issues that everyone knew were inevitably lost into voting for conservative politicians who had no intent of doing anything but further distancing that American Dream from everyone but the wealthy; the victims of a culture that suddenly “doesn’t care” about their issues because the issues of other groups are starting to be seen as equally important; the victims of a culture that no longer posits “white guy” as the one human in constant possession of the benefit of the doubt.

These DWG performances reek with fear, desperation, panic, and the hatred those three inevitably create. The world is changing, and their role in that world is changing, HAS changed, and there’s precisely nothing they can do about it. The panic is as thick as tear gas.

Most white guys are up for the challenge the new America presents, especially the rising generation. Eventually this DWG phenomenon will die down, just as anything succumbs to cultural inevitability. They’ve already lost the battle they think they’re fighting– a battle best represented by the ultimately meaningless slogan “Take Back America!” The knowledge of the loss is, of course, what’s driving much of the anger.

But I think it’s important that these guys are so pissed in part because they believe they’re “good guys,” and believe the culture betrayed that by changing the terms of the agreement. They’re attacking and attempting to discredit everything and everyone they can find that represents, disseminates, or even just discusses the new “good guy” job description. I have to believe, despite everything, that there’s hope in that “good guy” self-image. I have to believe that eventually, at least some of these guys will come to an understanding of the truth, and put in the work required to really be good guys– good citizens of a diverse America– because (again, I have to believe) they honestly want to be. Maybe that’s naive, and my internalized white privilege is making me give these guys too much of the benefit of the doubt even as I condemn their actions. But I do. I still do. I have to have hope for change.

(NOTE: This is my personal blog. I am under no obligation to approve any particular comment. Racist, sexist, or threatening comments will be trashed.)

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The Performance of Protest vs The Performance of Excusing Apathy

Once upon a time I met an actor with mental health issues. Just . . . save that joke for later; I’m serious times right now. He told me that the Korean government was trying to kill him because of his political street theatre. When I tell this story, it never fails to get a laugh. Political street theatre? Harhar. No one cares about political street theatre that much! Harharhar.

In the wake of the failure of the grand jury to indict Darren Wilson, protests have exploded all over the country. The internet has also predictably exploded with people condemning the rioting and looting that have been an unfortunate component of some of the protests. The theatre around this issue is fascinating, and enormously telling.

There have been peaceful protests in Ferguson (and elsewhere) literally every single day since Michael Brown was killed. Here are some shots:

Ferguson, August 11. Photo by Robert Cohen, AP.

Ferguson, August 11. Photo by Robert Cohen, St. Louis Post-Dispatch/AP.

People march in Washington on September 6, 2014 to protest the killing of black teen Michael Brown whose killing by a white policeman in Ferguson, Missouri, ignited violent protests and debate on race and law enforcement in America.    AFP PHOTO/Nicholas KAMM        (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

Washington, DC, September 6. Photo by NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images.

Ferguson, September 29. Photo by Robert Cohen, St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Ferguson, September 29. Photo by Robert Cohen, St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

St. Louis, October 11. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

St. Louis, October 11. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images. You’ll see Scott Olson’s name on a lot of photos of Ferguson and St. Louis. You’ll also see photos of him being arrested by Ferguson police for taking pictures. Some of his fellow professional photographers caught his arrest on camera. Because evidently we’re the kind of nation that arrests journalists now.

Protestors staging a

Protestors staging a “die-in” in St. Louis, November 16. Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.

Protests are political street theatre. The last picture shows an example of the kind of actions we’d more normally associate with “theatre,” but a protest of any sort is a performance intended to capture attention and make a certain point. The problem is: the peaceful protests were almost completely ignored. Sure, we saw some pictures early on, and the “die-in” got a little press, but by and large, Ferguson disappeared off the cultural radar within a few weeks of Brown’s death, only resurfacing as the grand jury decision was nearing. Headlines roared impending violence: “Police in Ferguson Stock Up on Riot Gear Ahead of Grand Jury Decision.” “State of Emergency Declared in Missiouri for Grand Jury’s Decision on Ferguson.” “Officials Prepare for Ferguson Grand Jury Decision, Urge Calm.” Everyone knew the grand jury would fail to indict. Even those who still had hope knew. Everyone expected there would be riots. And, amid the many peaceful protests over the past few days, there have indeed been many incidences of property damage and looting.

This shot, seen round the world, of a looter in Ferguson. November 24. Photo: David Carson/AP.

This shot, seen round the world, of a looter in Ferguson. November 24. Photo: David Carson/AP.

Dellword, MO, November 25. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

Cars burned during the riot the night before in Dellword, MO, November 25. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

Despite the violence and looting, most protesters are still peaceful.

Protestors in Oakland, CA, November 24. Photo: Jim WIlson/New York Times.

Protestors in Oakland, CA, November 24. Photo: Jim WIlson/New York Times.

Times Square, New York City, November 24. Photo: Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images.

Times Square, New York City, November 24. Photo: Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images.

The peaceful protests have been nearly completely ignored while America obsesses over the images of violence. That message is loud and clear: WE WILL NOT PAY ATTENTION TO YOU UNTIL YOU DO SOMETHING DRASTIC. And when you do something drastic, well, then you lose our respect and your issue becomes secondary to our scorn.

A significant chunk of America is terrified of the future diverse America they can do nothing to stop, or don’t care about people of color, or any marginalized people, and are livid that the culture is slowly lumbering towards expecting them to care. They’re in a flat-out panic trying to stop immigration (but only from the brown countries), trying to roll back the gains of feminism either overtly (denial of birth control) or covertly, pretending it’s all about a different issue entirely (Gamergate), trying to roll back marriage equality, trying to roll back the separation of church and state, trying to roll back diversity anywhere they find it. These are the people who use “social justice warrior” as a pejorative. The terrified and the indignant.

That chunk of America is comforting itself with those images of African American looters. They make an enormous amount of theatre about the rioting and looting– little performances on TV, social media, blogs– scolding African Americans, claiming they’re demeaning their cause with riots, or that the cause itself is just a fabricated excuse for violence and looting. Thousands of little performances that accuse Black people of expressing “sadness for a death” by rioting. Performances where Martin Luther King is trotted out to posthumously scold Black people. (White people always reach for MLK when they want to scold Black people without looking racist.) Performances scolding Black people for “honoring Michael Brown with looting.” Thousands of little, belittling performances that pretend this is about the death of one man, an isolated incident. Thousands of little, belittling performances that pretend the looting and property damage are the most important aspects of this cultural moment.

These performances deliberately miss the point because they are only meant to comfort that terrified and/or indignant chunk of America. If the protests are just senseless riots and looting, then nothing is actually wrong and nothing needs to change. They were right all along. Case closed.

In truth, no one actually believes this is just about Michael Brown. I think, by this point, everyone understands that it’s about Michael Brown AND Amadou Diallo, John Crawford, Ousmane Zongo, Timothy Stansbury, Kendrec McDade, Aaron Campbell, Victor Steen, Steven Eugene Washington, Wendell Allen, Trayvon MartinTravares McGill, Ramarley Graham, Oscar Grant, Jordan Davis, Darius Simmons, Eric Garner, Ezell Ford, and, just the other day, little Tamir Rice. AND MORE. So, so, so many more cases of white people killing unarmed African Americans, usually young men, because we have a culture that frames Black as a symbol for IMMINENT DANGER. White people imagine guns in the hands of unarmed Black men while they would never imagine such a thing in a similar situation with a man of a different race. They imagine a Black man walking towards them is a threat, a Black man adjusting his waistband is reaching for a gun, a Black man standing on the street is a weapon just waiting to be used against them.

I know it’s hard for some of you to imagine the anger of a community whose youth are routinely seen this way, and subsequently gunned down in the street, more often than not with impunity or the lightest of sentences, whose pain goes completely ignored or even contradicted– the terrified and indignant love nothing better than a performance about how wonderful things are now for people of color, how people of color are upset over nothing, how Black-on-Black crime or Black-on-Caucasian crime is the real issue (as if those two types of crime erase the problem). I know it’s hard to focus on a Big Problem that needs Big Work to solve. But we MUST.

I’m exhausted by people who think the riots are the most important aspect of this cultural moment, who ignore everything else. I’m exhausted by those people both because they’re using the riots to comfort themselves into believing the cause itself is worthless, and because they’re creating a self-fulfilling prophecy: IF YOU ONLY PAY ATTENTION TO VIOLENT PROTESTS, THEN PEOPLE MUST RESORT TO VIOLENT PROTESTS TO GET YOUR ATTENTION.

African Americans are just 13% of this nation, and this issue directly involves white people. White people MUST be involved if we’re going to have justice here. Most white people completely ignored the peaceful protests. They sent their last fuck off to seek its fortune with a knapsack and a pocket full of dreams two days after Brown was shot. The ONLY thing that got their attention was violence, and the ONLY reason they suddenly decided to pay attention was that violence gave their inattention a REASON. They couldn’t post “I’m ignoring these daily peaceful protests because the idea of losing my privilege in the face of equality terrifies me,” or “I’m ignoring these daily peaceful protests because I don’t give a shit about social justice or racism and I’m pissed that you expect me to care.” They stayed silent until the violence gave them a handy reason not to care, and then they finally erupted in thousands and thousands of little performances demonstrating why they didn’t need to care.

“A riot is the language of the unheard,” wrote Martin Luther King. When no one pays attention to peaceful protests, that anger, depair, and rage will boil over into violence. But MOST of the protestors, remember, are still non-violent. Most of the protest performance is still peaceful. Not that anyone notices or cares.

Of course you can decry looting and property damage while simultaneously fighting for justice. But I don’t see that in the many little performances blowing up social media. The most common theme in these is open racism. Many of the memes created aren’t even using images from Ferguson– they’re using images from other places and times. I’m seeing little racist performances like these everywhere:

“In memory of how Michael Brown lived his life. Looting isn’t a crime! It’s a tribute!”

“Not a single pair of work boots was looted in Ferguson last night.”

“The best way to end the rioting and looting in Ferguson is to hold a job fair. They’ll scatter like cockroaches when the lights come on.”

There are more. I won’t link to any of them. You’ve already seen them.

If you want to decry riots and looting while simultaneously working for justice, then by all means, do that. In actual fact, that’s what most people who support this cause are doing. While we recognize that riots, looting, and destruction of property are the language of the unheard (see Tea Party; Boston), we’re still working in peaceful ways to bring about change. But right now, we’re forced to push against a monolith of people using the violence to comfort them in their terror and apathy, and/or using the looting and property damage as a vector through which their racism can be channeled.

I wrote an article about how our culture frames Blackness as a symbol for potential danger, and how we as artists can work to change that. I’d be thrilled if you read my own little protest performance. I’d be even more thrilled if you shared it. But I’d be THE MOST thrilled if you wrote your own.

YES. WE. FUCKING. CAN. Change the country, create justice, and end racism. It’s a Big Problem that requires Big Work, and that’s scary and intimidating. You can’t do a Big Work all on your own. But a million small works add up to the Big Work. Create your own protest performance, even if it’s as small as a single meme, a single article, a single sign. Do what you can. Together, we can create so many they can’t be ignored. Let’s do this. Drown out the apathy, the fear, the hatred, the racism.

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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?
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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).
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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.
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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?”
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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?
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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.
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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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Protecting Racism in Theatre

Yes, I am still talking about this, despite some truly delightful comments and emails requesting that I stop draining all the fun out of life. (One woman, who said, and I quote, that she would like to punch me in the face, was relieved that I didn’t cast her local production of The King and I, as I would have unfairly deprived her of her favorite role, Lady Thiang, due to my ridiculous stance against yellowface.) The title of Mike Lew’s brilliant HowlRound article, “I’ll Disband My Roving Gang of Thirty Asian Playwrights When You Stop Doing Asian Plays in Yellow Face,” says it all. Privilege goes down hard, and it goes down swinging, and it goes down all the while claiming the right to do, ahem, whatever the fuck it wants.

One of the things privilege wants, and wants badly, is the continued ability to protect racism in performance. Mike Lew’s article above discusses some particular and extremely important issues regarding racism in performance, and while this was written for a special HowlRound series, he and I and a bunch of other theatre bloggers (and writers and critics and academics and your mom) have been discussing racism in narrative performance for quite awhile. And it’s disheartening to see, despite ongoing national discussion for DECADES, so little impact. Yes, things are changing, but with glacial slowness.

Change is maddeningly slow in an art form otherwise known for its cultural progressiveness because privilege is constantly defending and protecting racism in performance by calling it names like “artistic freedom” or “intellectual complexity” or “having faith in audiences.” See through the verbiage to what’s underneath: protecting racism.

Philip Kennicott’s article in the Washington Post, “A challenge for the arts: Stop sanitizing and show the great works as they were created,” is an overt apologia for racist characters and tropes in classic plays and operas. Kennicott asserts that the only people who care about what he terms “giving offense” (ugh) in American theatre are people who see art as merely “entertainment” rather than “an independent and volatile space governed by its own rules (or no rules at all).”

To preserve their independence, the arts need to stand resolutely aside from the increasingly complex rituals of giving and taking offense in American society. The demanding and delivering of apologies, the strange habit of being offended on behalf of other people even when you’re not personally offended, the futile but aggressive attempt to quantify offensiveness and demand parity in mudslinging — this is the stuff of degraded political discourse, fit only for politicians, partisans and people who enjoy this kind of sport.

Art has more important things to do: preserving its autonomy, preserving the danger of the experience, preserving the history embodied in the canon, and helping us understand our own ugliness, weakness and cruelty.

I’d like to start by immediately euthanizing his phrase, “the strange habit of being offended on behalf of other people even when you’re not personally offended” for two reasons. First, people who are resisting bigotry are often dismissed with the belittling idea that they’re “offended,” as if fighting cultural oppression and the tools with which it creates, disseminates, and preserves that oppression are equivalent to an imaginary schoolmarm shocked at finding the word “fuck” carved into a desk. No, we are not “offended.” We’re fighting bigotry, and belittling that by pretending it’s about offending our delicate sensibilities with your culturally superior artistic achievements is nonsense. Secondly, the idea that only people of a certain group should resist bigotry against that group is, in 2014, laughable, and Kennicott should be ashamed of himself. Tell it to Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. Tell it to Judy Shepard. Tell it to Kiichiro Higuchi. A culture wherein bigotry is protected by privilege is a culture of inequality, and that inequality affects us all. We all have areas of privilege and areas wherein we lack privilege. Resisting race-based bigotry is to resist all bigotry, as a concept, benefitting us all. But even setting personal benefit aside, in this statement Kennicott BELITTLES EMPATHY, and he should be ashamed.

Let’s look at his central idea: that preserving the bigotry in classic works is aligning oneself with a higher good– the “autonomy” of art and its history. The basic conceptual problem here is that “art” does not spring full-formed from the head of Zeus, perfect and complete. Art is created– and interpreted– by humans, using the tools we have at our disposal. Art does not have “autonomy,” because art does not have a separate existence from its creators, interpreters, producers, or performers, particularly performance-based art that is largely created using the bodies of living people.

Two of the specific examples he gives are Monostatos from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) and Shylock from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. He gives many examples, but I’ll focus on these two and allow you to extrapolate from there rather than bloviate about them all.

Kennicott seems to believe that performance is the only window through which contemporary people can access classic performance. No one is arguing that classic works, along with their historical bigotry, should no longer be studied by scholars, discussed, or written about, so the hysteria around protecting the “autonomy” of art and “the history of the canon” through performance is curious. Scholarship studies what is there, on its own terms. In performance outside of an academic pursuit, however, there is a duty to the audience to be, at the very least, clear, and Kennicott shows a truly shocking lack of understanding of the basic dramaturgy of classic works in performance.

Monostatos is a character originally conceptualized as a Black monster of a man who threatens rape and violence. He has a single aria in which he laments that he’ll never know love because it’s denied him due to his ugly Blackness. Die Zauberflöte premiered in 1791 in Vienna, in a time and place wherein the opera’s audience would take Blackness as a nearly universal sign for “ugly and repellant.” Mozart chose that semiotic purposely. However, that semiotic no longer functions as he intended. The entire cultural context of Blackness has shifted, and performing the semiotic as written actually vandalizes the original intent. If you want to preserve the intent– that the character is self-evidently read as physically repellant– you must search for a contemporary semiotic that gets you as close as possible to the original intent if your purpose is to preserve the original intent. When you pause to consider that Kennicott is arguing for performing Monostatos as written solely due to a stubborn insistence on being allowed to be publicly racist “because art,” you begin to see what’s underneath the argument.

Shylock is a complex character, and Merchant is a complex piece of work. Many people think it’s no longer recuperable due to the fact that antisemitism is woven into the fabric of the narrative. I’ve seen a number of attempts to work around that, none successful. It’s the reason I haven’t directed it myself. It’s truly a tragedy, as some of the play is heart-stoppingly beautiful. But whether I think the attempts are successful or not, the fact remains that, in 1605, there had been no (openly living) Jews in England since the Edict of Expulsion in 1290, and there would be none until Cromwell permitted their return in 1657. It’s almost certain that Shakespeare had never seen a Jew, and was using the semiotic of “the Jew” as a marker for avarice, lack of honor, blasphemy– all the things English people of the time associated with “Jews” as a concept. If you choose to stage Merchant today, you’re confronted with the unhappy reality that Shakespeare used a member of a marginalized group as a semiotic for a set of ideas in a way we now consider unvarnished bigotry, and contemporary audiences will not react in the same way to that semiotic as the author intended. And while the solution is not as simple as ones generally found for Monostatos, contemporary directors recognize that a solution must be found, and not because people are going to be “offended,” but because the 400-year-old symbol no longer works as intended.

Of course I understand that there are some people who still take Blackness to mean “ugly,” and that there are plenty of people who believe Jew = avaricious (as a Jew, I’ve been treated to that sterotype numerous times), but the culture as a whole no longer accepts those symbols as read. A director cannot rely on them to function as they once did, and clarity of storytelling is one of the most basic aspects of our jobs.

If Kennicott and his ilk believe it is so important to perform these works as written in order to preserve them as a window into our past (“the history embodied in our canon”), where are the castrati? Why do we no longer perform Shakespeare with adult men in the male roles and underage boys in the women’s roles? Because Kennicott, and people like him, are not ACTUALLY arguing for historical preservation or artistic “autonomy.” Instead, they’re arguing for the right to be able to decide what is acceptable and what is not, and an issue they find acceptable– bigotry in performance– is being challenged. Kennicott and those who concur with him, like the woman who wanted to punch me in the face, are protesting the challenge to their power, to their cultural authority. They want the right to be able to continue to perform works in yellowface, or to perform roles that equate Blackness with monstrosity, or to perform antisemitism, simply because they have had that power long enough to consider it a right, and are, and I use this word deliberately, offended at the suggestion that they do not.

It all sounds so pretty, and fine, and noble: “autonomy of art,” “preserving the history embodied in the canon,” “helping us understand our own ugliness, weakness and cruelty.” But under those phrases lie the simple idea: “I am uncomfortable that I am losing my cultural supremacy and its concomitant definitional authority over what is acceptable and what is not.” How ironic that these fine words, used in the service of protecting racism, shine an undeniably clear light on our “ugliness, weakness and cruelty.”

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Ferguson, Narrative, and Dungeons and Dragons

Like everyone, I’ve been thinking a lot about Ferguson, and about the epidemic of white men gunning down unarmed young African American men.  What is racism made out of? What makes someone think that such an action is acceptable in any way? As they say, no one is born racist. Sure, people talk a lot about the influence of tribal thinking (who is like me and therefore part of my group; who is unlike me and therefore a potential threat), but there’s no intrinsic reason that should be related to skin color any more than hair color or height. No, you have to create racists, and you do it by creating, disseminating, and consuming racist narrative.

When a police officer, or a man in a 7-11 parking lot, or another police officer, or the guy next door, or a Neighborhood Watch nutjob (I could go on and on, but you get my point) shoots and kills an unarmed young African American man (the ages of the five murder victims above spans 13 – 22), he does so because he believes that young man is in some way intrinsically dangerous, and less human because of that. After the fact, the stories pour out: “I saw him reach for a gun” is a favorite. “I thought my life was in danger” is another. What makes a man imagine a gun in the hand of an unarmed African American teenager? Because he sure as hell isn’t imagining that gun when it’s a white teenager in front of him.

I believe that the answer lies in the narratives we create, disseminate, and consume. The entertainment industry makes a staggering amount of money selling products that depict Black = Dangerous. There are white men whose entire fortunes are built on that trope. (Check out this article by Dr. Darron Smith on the issue of the depiction of Black men in American media.) The reality is that MOST African American men are NOT committing violent acts, but MOST of the art about African American men that gets funded, distributed, and consumed depicts that as if it’s irrefutable fact, even when the main Black character is not participating in those activities– he’s “getting out,” or “trying to rise above.” There are white gatekeepers out there refusing to fund art that doesn’t conform to that trope because they believe it doesn’t sell as well– and maybe they’re right, which is on us as consumers.

I’d never say that an African American (or anyone else, for that matter) who created art about violence out of his or her lived experience should not be doing that. No one should ever tell another person that the art they create out of their lived experience should be suppressed– consuming authentic narratives about others creates empathy. Everyone should have a voice, and we need diverse voices from diverse points of view in all our art forms.

But that’s just it– we need more diversity in our narratives. We need to take a cold, hard look at the ways in which we as creators and distributers of art contribute to making Black = Dangerous the PRIMARY narrative about African American men, because the impact of that is quite literally lethal. We don’t have other, equally potent cultural tropes about African American men tempering Black = Dangerous, which is why this racist trope is the one in the minds of armed white men facing unarmed African American teenagers– these white men have been taught from birth that Black = Dangerous, and they, for whatever combination of reasons (and we could list these all day– institutional racism, family racism, enjoyment of privilege, lack of critical thinking skills, and lack of empathy are just a few), BELIEVED IT, never questioned it, and gunned down someone’s baby in cold blood. As a mother, it stops my heart.

Solo performer and author Brian Copeland does a show called Not a Genuine Black Man. I took my students to see a performance of the world premiere run. It was an incredibly impactful experience. The most devastating story he told about growing up African American in a nearly all-white Bay Area town (San Leandro, now one of the most diverse cities in the nation) in the 70s, was when he was 9, being chased and harassed by racist white teenagers. He saw a police officer, thought “safety,” and ran up to him. The police officer took a step back and put his hand on his gun. NINE YEARS OLD.

This is what a nine year old boy looks like. From istockphoto.com.

This is what a nine year old boy looks like. From istockphoto.com

This country desperately needs to disrupt the cultural status of Black = Dangerous as the primary trope about African American men. We need to stop making money off a trope that’s literally KILLING KIDS. As artists, it’s our JOBS to understand the cultural context of the tropes and narratives we create. WE MAKE CULTURE. Let’s start making it with the deliberate goal in mind of making the primacy of Black = Dangerous a thing of the past, so that one day a story about a Black bad guy will be no more about his Blackness than narratives about The Joker, Emperor Palpatine, or Hannibal Lecter are about being white. We desperately need to decouple the concept of “dangerousness” from race.

Let’s look at a content creator who’s doing it right.

As a giant nerd, of course I got the new Dungeons and Dragons Player’s Handbook. When I first cracked it open in the store and began paging through, I was floored. Page after page after page of women– as many women as men– all looking like legitimate heroes in functional armor, not scantily-clad pose monsters pretending to fight while twisted into impossible shapes that manage to show both cleavage and ass. I never realized how much I felt like I was a girl horning in on a “guy game” until I saw these pictures and felt welcomed.

What also immediately stood out was the diversity. The book is filled with people of color. I stood there holding the book in the game store, and I almost cried. I held the book out to my husband, a longtime player, and fought back tears as I explained to him what it meant to me just to see these women. And to think about what it would mean to young nerds of color to see themselves reflected on those pages.

I could go on and on about what this means for women. But to stay on target: There will be an entire generation of nerdkids who will learn this game in this edition, for whom Black heroes will be a natural part of the game, who will experience narratives of Blackness that aggressively disrupt Black = Dangerous. All D&D adventurers are dangerous. But they are all individual, as individual as the people playing them. A Black D&D adventurer is no more or less dangerous than anyone else. His Blackness is part of his identity, but nowhere in that universe is the color of his skin a marker for his dangerousness. His broadsword or his spellcasting, on the other hand . . .

Let me show you a few examples. These are just a few out of an incredible diversity of images. If you EVER had an interest in D&D, or thought you might someday check it out, now is the time.

This is the first example they give of the Human race. LOOK AT THAT FUNCTIONAL ARMOR!

This is the first illustration in the Human race profile!

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This is the first illustration in the Fighter class profile.

This is the first illustration on the Wizard class profile.

This is the first illustration in the Wizard class profile.

There are still plenty of white guys in there, but along with them, there are just as many women and people of color pictured as legitimate adventurers in their own right, not window dressing or tokenistic afterthoughts. Bravo, Wizards of the Coast. You fucking nailed it. I hope this new edition brings you legions of new, diverse fans. And you can BET I will be showing these pictures to my students and talking about narrative creation in our culture.

Do I actually think D&D can save the world? YOU BET I DO. But it can’t do it alone. It’s up to us as artists and entertainment industry professionals to reject the idea that the only trope worth funding or distributing about African American men is Black = Dangerous, and replace that harmful idea with a wide variety of tropes– yes, including Black = Dragon Slayer. I’m not leading some campaign against art that depicts Black men committing crimes or being violent. I am, however, one small part of a campaign against a widespread artistic and cultural practice that PRIMARILY depicts Black men as threats.

This CAN be done. We just have to pay attention to the cultural context of what we’re creating, funding, distributing, and consuming, and make a commitment to real diversity. When it’s done right, it’s glorious.

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Speaking from Privilege

I posted the other day on facebook and twitter that white privilege and thin privilege are the toughest scrappers in the game– they’ll throw any kind of punch they can think of to preserve their privilege.

I posted that because there have been a handful of responses in the blogospere to my blog post of the other day, The Weapon of Invisibility, that advocate for “taking a step back” and “approaching these issues with nuance” and “allowing for respectful appropriation.” In other words: Go easy on the privileged when we cross boundaries, because sometimes we do so accidentally, or with respect in our hearts. Not one had a word to say about the thin privilege portion– the point wasn’t even WORTH MENTIONING. Ah, the weapon of invisibility. But I digress.

Listen, I get that you’re frustrated and want activists to go easier on people who cross boundaries of cultural appropriation. I see it all the time. You’re terrified of fucking up– or that you have already massively fucked up in something you wrote, staged, or said. Relax– of course you fucked up. So did I. So has everyone. But that doesn’t mean you get to decide what respect looks like for marginalized people. You have to live with the fact that, if you have privilege and you wish to fight for social justice, you do not create the terms of that and must listen carefully to the people who have been marginalized. If the privileged are the gatekeepers, then nothing has changed.

And yes, I completely understand how scary it is. But you cannot sit from your place of privilege and decide which cultural appropriation has crossed the line and which is respectful because, quite frankly, that is not your decision to make. What does that look like? “Dear people of color, sorry you’re all so pissed, but I believe that production was respectful borrowing, so please calm down”? Privilege cannot decide the terms of this if the goal is social justice. All that accomplishes is preserving privilege.

We all have some types of privilege and we all have some areas wherein we lack privilege. In those areas wherein you have privilege your job is to listen and allow those without privilege to set the terms of the discussion– WHAT crosses boundaries and HOW.

In those areas wherein you lack privilege, you get to set the terms of the discussion. You get to decide when boundaries have been crossed. And when, as so often happens, someone with privilege you lack comes along and tells you that you aren’t approaching the issue with “nuance” or that you should give someone the benefit of the doubt because they were appropriating with “respect” (as if intent erased results, but fine), then you have every right to be outraged at the attempt to silence you, at the attempt of privilege to retain its privilege by seizing control of the terms of the discussion and turning it into a debate.

I understand that we’re all scared. I’m scared, too, both for the areas in which I have privilege– How many times will I get it wrong today?– and the areas in which I don’t– How many times will I be told that my outrage is unjustified today? How many times will my feelings of marginalization be met with “You people are too sensitive” or “I didn’t mean it that way, so relax,” or “It’s just a joke/play/school production/Hollywood film/etc”? Because EVERY SINGLE TIME I speak out, someone with privilege I lack is there within moments to say ALL of those things to me.

Just take a deep breath and listen. When people who lack privilege you have are speaking out about that lack of privilege, and how it looks every day, and how their culture is appropriated, LISTEN. BELIEVE THEM. And use your place of privilege to speak out as an ally.

When you lack privilege and want to speak out, know that there are allies who WILL listen to you, support you, and yes, screw it up, but still keep trying. Don’t let the people who tell you that your outrage isn’t justified silence you. I see you. I stand with you. And I know you stand with me, in my fear, in my outrage, in my strength, in my mistakes, in my triumphs. There are millions of us, and for the first time in history, we’re all saying NO.

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The Weapon of Invisibility

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Jered McLenigan in Lantern Theater’s Julius Caesar. Photo by Mark Garvin.

This is a piece about the Wooster Group’s production of Cry, Trojans!, Lantern Theatre’s production of Julius Caesar, the Lean In/Getty stock photography collaboration, and my head finally exploding all over my computer.

Privilege is a squirrelly thing. When your privilege is working for you, it’s undetectable to you. That’s its job: to silently ease your way through life by protecting you from the thousand little (or big, or enormous) roadblocks people without your privilege face every day.

Two examples from my own life on both sides of privilege:

I taught for a long time at a film school. I taught early-career filmmakers about casting, working with actors, and script development. One semester, a young Black man had written a short film script about four young Black men being pulled over. The police officer asked all four for their IDs. I told this young filmmaker that he would need to clean up his narrative– that it didn’t make sense for the officer to ask for the IDs of passengers unless he had some reason, and the script needed to provide that narrative bridge. I had four young Black men in that class and all four were immediately astounded. They had been asked for their IDs as passengers every single time they had ever been in a car that had been pulled over. They believed it was normal. I had never once been asked for mine as a passenger, and had never even heard of such a thing. I had been protected by my privilege so completely that I had had no idea I was even being protected. I began to wonder what else these young men were experiencing that was invisible to me.

When my son was little, he went to a Jewish preschool. I didn’t talk to him much about Christmas or Easter. When he was almost three, we were headed into a supermarket that had just been decorated for Christmas, as they are always an orgy of Christian heritage between September and January. My son pointed at a giant Santa and said, “Look, Mommy! A king!” And I was overwhelmed with unexpected gratitude that my son was, for the moment, protected from the full knowledge of his outsider status in our culture. It wouldn’t take long for him to understand. But for the moment, his lack of Christian heritage privilege was completely unknown to him.

What we know about our own privilege is always a process, and one we have to struggle for, since it involves active curiosity and empathy, two things humans are just abysmal at, despite our constant assurances to each other of the contrary. But an understanding of the shape of one’s privilege, as hard-won as that is, is just the first step if you’re interested in social justice. The second step is, you know, WORKING for social justice. Unfortunately, that involves actively working against your own privilege, and there is nothing humans hate more than that.

So we find subtle ways to fool ourselves (and others) into IMAGINING we’re working for social justice while ACTUALLY reinforcing (in grad school, we called this “reinscribing”) our own privilege and cultural superiority.

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Cry, Trojans! Photo by Paula Cort.

The Wooster Group is well known to you if you have a degree in theatre, or were plugged into the theatre community in the 80s. Most people know about it as the New York-based company that gave birth (so to speak) to Spalding Gray. Some people will recall its tradition of experimental deconstructions of classic works and nonlinear, aggressively designed original works in what we once called a “postmodern” style. Headed by Liz LeCompte, Wooster Group has an almost legendary status for what was, for its time, very experimental theatre. Lantern Theater is a company in Philadelphia that’s in its 18th season. A quick glance at their production history reveals a very prosaic aesthetic, featuring unremarkable, utterly safe works such as The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, The Liar by David Ives, Private Lives by Noel Coward, and The Beauty Queen of Leenane by Martin McDonough, in addition to lots and lots of Shakespeare.

So here comes the part where my head begins to explode:

These two companies, almost at completely opposite ends of the theatrical spectrum, both pulled the exact same stunt at the exact same time: They staged shows featuring non-white characters and cast those characters with primarily white actors. Cry, Trojans!, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, was originally conceptualized as a collaboration with the RSC and performed in London, and was reconceptualized for an American run. Originally, the Americans played the Trojans and the British played the Greeks, rehearsing the scenes separately until coming together just before opening. Wooster Group played its Trojans as “Native Americans” against the British playing the Greeks as modern soldiers. For the American run, LeCompte decided to make both sides “Native American,” using a fusion of appropriated costumes, props, and other imagery gleaned from books, films, and other materials– and an almost entirely white cast. Lantern Theater, remarkably, staged Julius Caesar in feudal Japan– but without Japanese actors, instead casting seven white people and one Latino, with African American actor Forrest McClendon as Caesar. (I highly recommend looking at actor Makoto Hirano’s letter to Lantern Theater about the cultural appropriation in their production.)

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JC Guzman and Forrest McClendon in Lantern Theater’s Julius Ceasar. Photo by Mark Garvin.

At this point, when the national theatre community has been decrying cultural appropriation, yellowface, brownface, and the like loudly and vigorously and at great length, it seems almost a deliberately retrogressive act. But here’s where privilege steps in and allows people to make decisions like these without understanding how deeply problematic they are.

Both Liz LeCompte and Charles McMahon (the director of Julius Caesar) believe they are working for a HIGHER CAUSE.

“Plus it’s not about that. It’s about everything bigger…We love the piece, we love the stories, we love the films, we love the people…We wanted to tell the story in this way and make it so big that this [lack of direct Native American input] wouldn’t be a problem.” — Liz LeCompte, quoted here (emphasis mine)

“’We wanted to get away from all of the clichés and assumptions about classical Rome, with people walking about in togas and looking like statues from antiquity,’ says artistic director Charles McMahon. ‘Our associations with that make it feel like we’re saying, ‘This is old, this is long in the past” . . . McMahon also wanted to avoid the specificity that comes with updating the play to the modern day. ‘We didn’t want to say this play is like Libya, or this play is like Central America or Russia or North Korea, because that’s not the point either. I think there’s something universal about it.‘ McMahon soon realized that the stoicism of Caesar’s Rome had strong philosophical parallels with Japan’s tradition of Zen Buddhism. ‘The ideas in this play of being detached from the results of actions and being emotionally remote from the events of the world are present in the great samurai epics. So these themes all seemed to add up to feudal Japan being a very resonant scenic and thematic environment to put the play in.'”– read Shaun Brady’s  whole article here, emphasis mine

LeCompte clearly thinks that her artistic vision is “bigger,” and therefore more important than issues around cultural appropriation or racism. She believes that the importance– the “bigness”– of her artistic point of view about Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida should eliminate the need for an examination of the racial politics she puts onstage. She overtly asserts her artistic vision’s cultural superiority over any issues of race. She has no interest in an artistic exploration of Native American cultures. She’s appropriating various aspects of Native American cultures to make what she overtly states is a more important artistic point.

MacMahon states that the way he could get his (mostly white) audience to associate emotional distance with Julius Caesar was to visually associate the play with SAMURAI FILMS. He has no interest in an artistic exploration of feudal Japan. He’s interested in importing a feeling of stoicism, manliness, and ass-kicking fighters to a mostly white audience, and is appropriating the cultural artifacts of fuedal Japan as an artistic shortcut. He’s appropriating a very specific culture and calling it “universal” because he’s imagining the feeling he gets from watching Kurosawa, not the cultural heritage of a real people whose descendants are alive and marginalized.

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Cry, Trojans! Photo by Paula Cort.

LeCompte and McMahon are using artifacts of other cultures– both groups currently marginalized in the US– while shutting out the people of those cultures from the artistic process because they believe their artistic vision is MORE IMPORTANT. They see these cultures as visual art available for their use, not as an inextricable part of the heritage of real, living people. They have reinforced their own privilege and cultural superiority, maintained the invisibility of those marginalized peoples, AND set themselves up as answering to a higher artistic calling– in LeCompte’s case, the “bigger” nature of her artistic vision, and in McMahon’s case, “universality.”

The Lean In/Getty stock photo collaboration is pretty much the same thing, but even more blatant. It purports to be a massive new tool for social justice while instead overtly reinforcing privilege to an almost shocking degree. I SHOULD BE USED TO IT. I knew what to expect. But I was still shocked.

If there's one thing the Lean In/Getty collection has taught me, it's that photographers love to take pictures of young white women running. It's like CATNIP to them.

If there’s one thing the Lean In/Getty collection has taught me, it’s that photographers love to take pictures of young white women running. It’s like CATNIP to them.

The Lean In/Getty stock photography project crashed onto the internet in a loudly self-satisfied manner, proclaiming itself to be a feminist project– a revolution in stock photography that shows women in new, “more empowering” ways, claiming it will change the way women are perceived in America by changing the imagery associated with us. I reviewed all 2763 images. I set aside any containing children, as that’s a discussion for a different day. I also compared the images to the ones you can already find on existing stock photo sites.

One thing that’s immediately apparent, and for which the Lean In/Getty collection deserves a basket of high-fives, is its inclusion of older women. There are many more older women depicted than you would expect to find in such a collection, and it was damn refreshing. I loved the inclusion of photos of older women being active– biking, dancing, swimming. Another thing the collection does right is show pictures of women doing jobs, as opposed to sexy models pretending to do jobs.  Although the vast majority of workplace photos show upscale offices or studios, the few that show blue-collar workplaces do show women who look like they actually belong there, as opposed to a scantily-clad model licking a hammer.

This . . .

This . . .

. . . as opposed to this.

. . . as opposed to this.

On the other hand, exhaustingly, almost ALL of the women in these photos, elderly women included, conformed to traditionally acceptable, thin body types.

getty.elderly

Out of all the images of adult women without children, exactly FORTY-THREE (by my count) of the pictures in which women’s bodies were visible depicted women who were not thin. That’s one and a half percent. Of those 43, only FIVE showed non-thin women performing any kind of fitness activity, although the Lean In/Getty collection is rife with with women performing fitness activities (especially white women, whose workout depictions make up 10% of all photos, compared to 2.2% of all photos depicting women of color performing a fitness activity or in fitness clothing).

Unbelievably, depictions of professional women were even WORSE. Exactly ONE picture (that I could find– maybe you’ll find one more and bring the grand total up to two) depict a non-thin woman in anything that could be remotely construed as a professional or business setting, although the collection features literally hundreds and hundreds of business-oriented pictures. Searching “business” gets over 600 results, while “professional” gets over 800 results, and they are almost all of thin women. Considering 60% of women in the US are not thin, that’s an aggressive shut-out that feels deliberate. It’s just not believable that such a result was entirely accidental. Since the Lean In collection has been non-stop screaming its feminist awesomeness as empowering for all women since even before it dropped, one is left wondering why the only women worth “empowering” are the 40% who already enjoy thin privilege.

The few non-thin women depicted in a workplace are depicted in low-wage blue collar or service industry jobs (factory workers, custodians). There are a few portraits, mostly of older women. Very few young, non-thin women were depicted at all. For the record, there are precisely two pictures of a visibly disabled woman, both of the same very fit athlete.

Let’s look at some of these pictures:

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From the Lean In/Getty collection, from the first page of images returned from the search “business”

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From the Lean In/Getty collection, from the first page of images returned from both searches “business” and “professional.”

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From istockphoto.com, from the first page of images returned from the search “business.”

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From shutterstock.com, from the first page of images returned from the search “professional.”

Lean In/Getty gets a high five for returning images such as this when searching

Lean In/Getty gets a high five for returning images such as this when searching “professional.”

But most of their images look like this.

But most of their images look like this.

One of a tiny handful of pictures in the collection of almost 2800 depicting a young, plus-sized woman

One of a tiny handful of pictures in the collection of almost 2800 depicting a young, plus-sized woman.

For every picture of a plus-sized young woman, there are literally over 700 of a woman with this body type.

For every picture of a plus-sized young woman, there are literally over 700 of a woman with this body type.

While the Lean In/Getty collection is doing much better with older women than other stock photography sites, it is actively reinforcing the thin privilege the woman behind the Lean In brand, Sheryl Sandberg, and the woman from Lean In who supervised the stock photo project and curated its imagery, Jessica Bennett, currently enjoy, and it can’t be completely irrelevant that Sandberg is now in her mid-forties. What the Lean In project has done, under the guise of “empowering women” through “changing imagery” is reinforce the cultural privilege and dominance of women of Bennett’s and Sandberg’s body type while making an attempt to create more cultural acceptance for women of Sandberg’s age and older, all while blatantly shutting out women without thin privilege, rendering them virtually invisible. While pretending to empower women as a whole, they have instead reinforced their own privilege.

Celebrating with salad! Yes, this was one of the photos the Lean In collection returned when I searched for

Celebrating with salad! Yes, this was one of the photos the Lean In collection returned when I searched for “celebration.”

Invisibility is a weapon, and it’s the one we most often use to reassert or reinforce our privilege and cultural dominance. If THOSE PEOPLE aren’t there, it’s because they aren’t IMPORTANT ENOUGH TO BE THERE, and the project’s focus is on “more important issues” anyway. You only get answers to the questions you ask, so be prepared, if you want any credibility in this fight for social justice, to ask WHO IS MISSING? And WHY?

Not every project needs to have a representative from every single group, but when we appropriate someone else’s culture while keeping them invisible, or when we purport to stand for a group’s empowerment while shutting out over SIXTY PERCENT of them, we have a problem.

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“I’m Not Apologizing for Voicing My Opinion”: Entitlement Goes to a Middle School Play

So someone I know recently went to his kid’s middle school play. Awwwww, adorable, right?

During the event, he posted a picture of a beautiful Black woman– surely another parent or relative (because who else goes to school plays?)– in a fit-and-flare leopard print dress with short sleeves, a modest neckline, and a hem that hits just above the knee. She was also wearing boots and a vintage-inspired updo. It was a secretly taken picture. She is smiling. She looks beautiful.

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Imagine a leopard-print version of this, worn by a smiling, gorgeous Black woman with fierce boots and an adorable updo.

His comment on the picture was that her outfit is not appropriate for a “jr high play (sic),” but more appropriate for a club “or, better yet, a street corner.” He secretly took a picture of another parent at a school event, posted it online, and called her a whore. The wind was just . . . knocked out of me.

Several people called him out. The first few posts were all curious, on the order of “What? That outfit looks fine to me,” or “Why?” Mine was a little more detailed. I agreed with the other commenters that there was nothing wrong with the outfit, and that I’ve taught in similar outfits, although animal prints are not my personal style. I told him that it’s never appropriate behavior to post a secretly taken picture of a woman–a fellow parent at a school event!– that includes her face and calls her a whore, no matter what your opinion is of her outfit.

He reacted angrily. He said that my comments were “subtext crap” and refused to admit that his behavior was inappropriate in any way. He told me I needed to stop being “every females champion (sic).” He told me “If you don’t like it, that’s not my problem.” He told me, “I’m not apologizing for voicing my opinion.” He told me “I’m not going to sit here and have you ridicule me for voicing my opinion.” (Of course I wasn’t actually ridiculing him in any way, merely stating the things I’ve posted above.) He told me, “I thought you were a better friend than that.”

I received a couple of messages from people who had seen the discussion, thanking me for standing up to him. One called me her “hero for the day.” It was touching.

But the incident still nags at me, and I need to speak out. I need to speak out because this one man’s behavior reflects a pervasive cultural pattern of behavior that plagues women and people of color every single damn day in this country. Enough is enough.

This necklace is sold by the etsy shop MetalTaboo. They have a lot of great stuff, so check them out!

1. She was not dressed inappropriately. When facebookland responded with that, his response was “You weren’t there. I was,” as if being in the physical presence of her magical Black sluttiness would make her dress lower cut? Shorter? What, exactly, was he objecting to about her outfit? A brilliant friend of mine jokingly speculated a subgroup of people who get their information about sex workers from 80s cop shows and believe leopard print = prostitute. The outfit was actually quite modest. Was it her figure? She was what used to be referred to as “va-va-va-voom.” She was a busty, curvy goddess– a full-figured hourglass head-turner. Was it her weight? Her curviness? Would he have objected to her outfit had she been a skinny white girl? It’s unclear, precisely, what he was objecting to, and he refused to clarify. The truth is, he created a rule in his own mind and punished her publicly for breaking it. He targeted her for reasons of his own. He targeted her because he could.

2. He secretly took a picture that included her face. If the picture had been from the neck down, or from behind, it would at least have had some tiny, tiny speck of respect for her as a human being. But he included her face. And of course she wasn’t a complete stranger at a mall he’ll never see again. She’s a fellow parent at the school, or a relative close enough to come to a middle school play on a Thursday night after work. The chances of running into this human being again are high. The chances of having, or at one point acquiring, mutual friends is high. This woman was reasonably identifiable within his social network reach. What does he think this woman, her partner, HER CHILD would think? Would he have done this if the woman was white? Would he have done this if the woman was walking with a man? He feels well within his right to publicly point out a woman and name her a whore. Would he be OK with another man doing this to his wife or daughters? Of course not. But this woman, in his opinion, deserves it. She is not worth basic human consideration to him.

3. “I’m not apologizing for voicing my opinion.” We’ve already covered that he targeted her simply because he could, and that he felt entitled to put her face on the internet and label her a whore. Now we get to the inevitable part where he defends this behavior as his right.

When called out by multiple people, he said he’s entitled to express his “opinion.” He clearly feels that the scope of his “opinion” includes public shaming (but only for others, as we’ll get to in a moment). He does not see the difference between having an opinion and expressing that opinion publicly. He has no fucks to give about that public expression’s consequences for OTHERS. Despite our dissent, he couldn’t wrap his mind around the fact that the picture he posted belied his opinion, and instead insisted that the OPINION redefined THE PICTURE– that his opinion was more REAL than the EVIDENCE. (“You were not there. I was.” “It must just be the picture. You had to be there. It was inappropriate.”) He believes he has every right to state his opinion (no matter how hurtful to others), that his opinion should be accepted as fact without question despite evidence to the contrary, and that there is no possible way the public expression of this opinion could be wrong in any way. “Voicing my opinion” is, for him, a magic formula of entitlement.

4. He believes his actions should have no consequences, and is shocked and appalled when they do. It comes as no surprise that someone who targets a woman almost at random, feels entitled to put her face on the internet and label her a whore, and defends this behavior as his right should also believe that this behavior should be completely without consequence– for HIM. One wonders what school admin would think if they discover a parent is secretly taking pictures of other parents at school events and posting them to the internet with nasty comments. One wonders what this woman’s attorney would think.

I know what I think: That all too often men think they are perfectly entitled to claim authority over women’s bodies and determine when and how we are displaying ourselves “inappropriately”; that all too often white people think they are perfectly entitled to claim authority over Black bodies and determine when and how they are displaying themselves “inappropriately.” This struggle over “appropriate display” has tentacles into every aspect of our culture, including my own world of theatre. WHO is appropriate for WHAT role– WHO determines what body is acceptable to inhabit Lady Anne or Biff Loman– and HOW those determinations are applied– are processes that many in this community are constantly fighting to open wider. Representation– and who controls the definition of “appropriate”– MATTERS.

This facebook debacle is one example out of millions, happening every day. THIS MATTERS. Am I “every females champion”? FUCK YES I AM.

One of the many Black Madonnas of medieval Europe. This one is from the 12th century and is in Barcelona.

One of the females I champion. One of the many gorgeous Black Madonnas of medieval Europe. This one is from the 12th century and is in Barcelona.

I was much less . . . fiery in the actual discussion, posting about four or five comments, most in response to his assertion of entitlement and (inevitable) accusations that I was attacking him. Of course, I never once attacked him. Instead I told him he did not have the right to attack HER. My comments were all respectful (no name-calling, no personal belittling), stating that he was not entitled to post secretly-taken pictures of other parents and call them whores, that her outfit was actually quite modest, that I have several outfits very much like it.

His reaction was unfocused rage. He accused me several times of “ridiculing” him, and twice told me, “Don’t you know when to quit?”

speakthetruth

And THAT, I think, reveals the heart of the matter. He felt entitled to the right to ridicule a Black woman for displaying herself publicly in a manner he found unacceptable. He did not, however, believe that *I* was entitled to the right to disagree, and that my public disagreement with him was “ridicule.” Of course I wasn’t actually ridiculing him in any way. I know how, believe me. He was automatically interpreting a woman’s dissent as ridicule. I was challenging his authority. He felt entitled to claim authority over a woman’s body without consequences, and did everything he could, including deleting my comments, to silence my dissent.

His twice-repeated “Don’t you know when to quit?” came while he was still directing comments at me– comments I was expected to take silently.

5. “This is MY facebook timeline . . . I’ll remove content from my timeline I don’t wish to have there.” Apart from the obvious (there are still ToS, harassment laws, and fucking basic human decency), he’s right that it’s his timeline and he can control its contents. He has every right to remove content from his own timeline that’s critical of his actions.

When I told him I agreed that he had every right to delete my comments, and that I would, since I had quite a bit to say about this issue, blog about it instead (assuring him I would not reveal his identity), using my own venue for my own thoughts, he accused me of “throwing him under the bus.”

He believes, correctly, that he has every right to delete comments that are critical of his actions or unflattering to him from his own timeline. But he also believes he’s entitled to post whatever unflattering content he likes about other people, and– this is the real kicker– that no one else is entitled to post anything critical or unflattering about him in ANY venue.

Of course it never occurred to him that he was throwing this beautiful Black woman “under the bus.” In his mind, she DESERVES IT by daring to appear in public in an outfit of which he disapproves. He feels that he deserves sympathy, empathy, and compassion, but she does not deserve the like.

This is the very soul of entitlement. He believes he intrinsically deserves, and should automatically receive, a level of consideration and compassion he is unwilling to extend to others.

This is an attitude I see far too often about women, Black people, people in poverty, LGBT people, people who exist outside of any of the basic markers of privilege in this country. We are not entitled to the same treatment because people like this refuse to see us as fully human, as real, as entitled to compassionate treatment as THEY are. They feel entitled to mete out punishment and shame to us as they see fit, and howl with rage when met with dissent. They do everything within their power to silence or discredit dissent.

DO NOT LET THEM SILENCE YOU. Enough is enough.

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