Tag Archives: racism

Whiteness Is a Disease

I’ve been sitting on this essay for months, because I’m a coward. I’ve been through so many attacks this year for writing about race and for writing about the Democratic primary that I was afraid to post this, despite how deeply I believe in it. And then the events of the past few days– the extrajudicial executions of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile– happened and I could no longer live with my cowardice. Our Black brothers and sisters are taking their lives in their hands every time they leave their houses, and I’m afraid to post *an article* because I’ll be sent more attacks and threats. I was ashamed by my desire to protect myself with privilege and silence. So here is my essay.

 

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“Whiteness” by Jessica Rath

We use the phrases “white people,” “white America,” and the like all the time. I say that I’m “white.” I experience “white” privilege routinely. But how do we define “white”? What is “whiteness”?

While the usage of the term “white” has been used for millennia as a physical descriptor (along with “black” and similar descriptors) often attached to various cultures or groups, the term “white” was first applied as a cross-ethnic racial category in the late 17th century, created specifically around the racialization of slavery. (I hate to use wikipedia as a source, but this isn’t a bad summary.) “White” was created to mean “not Black, therefore, culturally superior and not subject to slavery or racial discrimination.” This meaning has never substantially changed.

Jews, the Irish, and southern Italians were not widely considered “white” when the first large waves of immigrants came here in the late 19th century. They slowly became “white” over the 20th century, through a process of assimilation that, in some cases, involved assimilating “white” America’s anti-Black racism. It’s important to note there’s no consensus about that process. There’s a great deal of academic discussion about who was considered “white,” when it happened, and what regional differences there may have been. But just the fact that there’s room for argument, the fact that there are differences of opinion even amongst experts, proves that there is no essential “whiteness.” “Whiteness” is a constructed social category that means nothing but “accorded cultural superiority.”

Irish American. Swedish American. French American. English American. Ashkenazi Jewish American. Scottish American. Greek American. Polish American. These are legitimate ethnic identities tied to proud cultures, traditions, heritages. These are identities and heritages of which one can (and should) be proud. Being “white,” however, has no intrinsic meaning. It means nothing but “accorded cultural superiority over people of color, especially Black people,” and, as such, the only heritage, culture, and traditions of “whiteness” are slavery, lynching, racism, oppression. “Whiteness” was conceptualized as a weapon to use against Black people, and as such, it’s spawned an extraordinary amount of social ills. When you raise children to understand their proud Greek, French, or even American heritage, that means something specific about your family, its past, and its connections to a long and storied culture and history. When you raise children to understand they are “white,” that means literally nothing but which position they occupy within a deliberately created system of racial hierarchy. “Whiteness” is a disease from which an enormous amount of our social ills have sprung. It’s time to dismantle the concept of whiteness.

I’m not calling for the dismantling of the concept of “Blackness” because Blackness is completely different. Blackness is an ethnicity, a culture with many subcultures. Black culture developed in this country because we ripped people from an enormous variety of different cultures (research shows that most Black slaves came from one of 46 different ethnic groups), threw them all together, often isolating them from anyone who spoke their native language, told them they were now “Black” instead of Ibo or Temne, told them they were now Christian instead of Muslim or adherents to their traditional tribal faiths, and tortured them the second it looked like one might be considering disobedience. Faced with an unimaginably traumatic disconnection from their cultures of origin, Black people in America together created a vibrant, strong, detailed culture with multiple subcultures, and with multiple linguistic and artistic traditions, influenced by their cultures of origin but crafted into something unique that would have (and continues to have) an enormously disproportionate impact on American culture as a whole. Black people make up just 13% of this nation. Yet how much of American music, language, and art comes from Black culture? This culture, with all its subcultures, miraculously created like a fucking phoenix from the ashes of one of the worst human rights atrocities in human history, is so powerful, so rich, so potent, it has, despite being the culture of just 13% of our people, invented just about everything you love about America. A Black woman invented rock and roll, Black people invented every piece of slang you use (I’m not even going to link that because we all know), Black people invented nearly every form of music we label “American” (jazz, blues, hip hop, gospel). Black inventors have revolutionized multiple industries. A Black man invented the home video game console. Black culture is so rich and influential, it makes America American, and spreads far beyond the borders of America to influence cultures all over the world.

When all is said and done, and America has joined the ranks of Great Dead Societies, Black American culture will have been as globally influential as Greece or Rome. To say that an American is “Black” is to tie them to a very specific, robust culture that is intrinsically tied to race because “white” Americans forcibly grouped them as such. It means something culturally specific in the way that “white” does not. (BTW, this is why I capitalize “Black” but do not capitalize “white.”) I’m sure Black people would have loved to have had the luxury of coming here (or not) by choice, and identifying as Nalu American or Ewe American, or, as many modern immigrants do, Nigerian American, Ethiopian American. That choice was denied to them, and they created a unique, robust culture of their own.

“White” Americans, on the other hand, nearly all came here by choice– even the indentured servants— and had the luxury to preserve their culture, or not, as they chose. I don’t mean to denigrate the enormous pressure for late 19th/early 20th century immigrants to assimilate, or the racism some (including my own ancestors) faced. But they came here by choice, and, despite those pressures were able to retain much of their cultures of origin.

“White” people didn’t put together a “white” culture with “white” traditions that became an entirely new ethnic identity. People from varying ethnic traditions identified as “white” for the sole purpose of oppressing Black Americans, then navigated back to their specific ethnic, regional, or religious identities at will.

Each and every one of the people who fall under the category “white American” have a more potent, more meaningful, more, let’s face it, real culture than the constructed racist identity of “whiteness.”

If your family has been here so long it’s lost all connection to its culture or cultures of origin, you have multiple options to move past your “whiteness.” You can reclaim a heritage identity; you can identify as “American,” you can identify with your region or religion. You have numerous options, many of which, I would wager, you already use. There’s no reason to cling to a label that was created specifically to be deployed as a weapon of  oppression.

If we can step away from the concept of “whiteness,” we can step towards equity. I’m not naive enough to believe that people will magically lose their racism when they start identifying as “Finnish American” instead of “white.” But I do believe that language shapes thinking, and that what we call something– or someone– shapes how we think of them. If you call yourself, and people who look like you, “white,” that will have an impact on how you think about yourself and others. Restructuring how we understand “white” people into various ethnic categories that are not definitionally hierarchical is a step, one step, in the right direction towards eliminating the many structures and systems of racism that exist in American culture, American minds, American hearts. Eliminating the concept of “whiteness”– seeing ourselves and each other in terms that are not specifically defined by who is accorded cultural superiority– is a step toward eliminating that cultural superiority and building equity.

I’m not naive enough to think that whiteness is something I can unilaterally renounce for myself, and step out of the white privilege that exists as a prominent part of my intersectional identity. But I do think that all of us living as “white” people together taking responsibility for the impact of “whiteness” on people of color, renouncing that label and hierarchical concept, and claiming identities not based in deliberate cultural hierarchy as a tool for oppression, is one first necessary step towards dismantling white privilege. White privilege will always exist as long as we reinforce the racist concept of “whiteness.” This will take generations, so we better get cracking.

Refuse your whiteness. It’s a disease that feeds on Black lives. Claim identities that speak to your truth, not to a history of oppression.

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The Oscars: As Silly and Useless as Ever, and Yet Crucially Important

The Oscars are nonsense. They’re Hollywood’s Homecoming Queen elections, as insular, as clique-ish, and as disconnected from any actual merit as any Homecoming election in any rich white high school. Rich white people congratulating each other for the kinds of achievements attainable only by people sitting atop an obscene amount of money– their own or someone else’s. They ask you to believe that the actual best acting, best directing, best editing, and best design of the year just always happen to be located in the one narrow strip of filmmaking that (entirely coincidentally!) has the most funding.

So the Oscars are more or less the Tonys of the filmworld– limited to a very narrow strip of exceptionally well-funded work while we all pretend the awards somehow represent the best of the nation’s work as a whole.

Most of the artists who receive Oscars or Tonys did a fine, in many cases excellent, job. I begrudge them nothing and honestly wish them nothing but the best. But it’s important to remember that we don’t give awards for the “best” work in theatre or film because we don’t even consider most work, and, most importantly, there’s no objective way to measure whose artistry is “the best” once you’ve eliminated some of the obvious worst– and, let’s face it, when it comes to Oscars for acting, even that’s seldom done.

We give these kinds of awards based on how an artist makes us feel; generally, how an artist makes us feel about ourselves. There’s an old saying: “When the audience cries, it’s not about you; it’s about them.” The people who vote for these awards are no different.

Despite the fact that these awards are meaningless as measures of artistic merit, they contain an immense cultural value. A great deal of that stems from the narrative of artistic supremacy created by Broadway and Hollywood. There are an entrenched group of extremely wealthy and powerful people whose fortunes depend on you continuing to believe that Broadway and/or Hollywood represent the pinnacle of American performative art. They’ve built and expertly marketed a superstructure of dreams and wishes that will make people who’ve never worked in either Broadway or Hollywood defend their artistic supremacy as if they’re defending their own children. I actually admire the way Broadway and Hollywood have controlled that narrative. There’s a terrible beauty to that level of cultural manipulation.

An immense part of that narrative of supremacy is rooted in the cultural supremacy that comes from cultural saturation, something only money can buy. A film like Fifty Shades of Grey–a film of questionable merit on many fronts— had the financial backing to play in theatres all across the country (and the world, but our cultural exports are a story for another blog), saturate the market with advertising, and command enormous press attention, garnering $166 million at the box office ($570.5 globally) and a basket of award nominations for The Weeknd for Best Original Song (Oscars and Golden Globes among them), while literally hundreds of much better films lacked the financial backing to receive such culturally potent– and lucrative– attention. Fifty Shades of Grey becomes, therefore, a permanent part of our culture, attaining a position of influence unrelated to merit, created by the wealth of its backers. People in the BDSM community were largely aghast at the misconceptions about themselves and their lives now lodged like a tick into the national consciousness. Now people who have never met anyone in the BDSM community “know” what “those people” are like, will make decisions about “those people” based on that. The power of cultural saturation coupled with the myth of artistic supremacy is immense. Everyone sees X + X comes from an “important” source = X is truth, even when X is demonstrable bullshit.

This is why, despite the fact that I will laugh in your face if you tell me the Oscars have artistic meaning, I think it’s crucial that we look closely at the messages we’re sending when we shut people of color out of those awards, because those messages have immense power in the real world.

First of all, do not bother to comment that a number of people of color were nominated for the Oscars this year, including Best Director and Best Original Song, mentioned above. I know many people who work behind the camera, and I am keenly aware that the current discourse is limited to the actor awards. It irritates me that tech people, directors, designers, and writers are so easily disregarded, and that the work of actors is regarded as so much more important in a medium where the work of the actor is actually of far less import than the underscoring, cinematography, and editing. The cultural primacy of the film actor exists, whether I like it or not. There’s a culturally important mythology around film actors that just doesn’t exist for most of us behind the camera. They are our mythological figures– our Achilles, our Ajax, our Helen, even our Artemis, Athena, Hermes, Apollo. We create unending mythology about them and their lives. The mythological Jennifer Lawrence is a combination of Artemis and Dionysus in our culture right now. Yet the real Jennifer Lawrence is just a young woman, no different than any other. We have raised her (more accurately, a mythologized version of her) to a mythological height that makes what she eats, what she wears, what she says, what she does, and who she sleeps with a matter of national interest, just as humans once created stories about what their gods ate, wore, said, did, and nailed. Film actors are seen, in essence, as metaphors for Human.

Because the Academy members are nearly uniformly white men over 60, the awards are almost always given to other white people– human metaphors that are emotionally potent for the person voting on the award. When an award is given to an actor of color, these older white men are still voting based on how the artist makes them feel about themselves– in this case, self-congratulatedly “not racist.” Then, satisfied that they got the Good White Person cookie, they go right back to nominating and awarding reflections of themselves.

So when we choose a thin, able-bodied, all-white pantheon to honor for film acting, it says that the people who are the best metaphors for Human are thin, white, and physically “perfect.” Our culture is filled to the brim with negative portrayals of people of color. When children grow up, they look to the culture at large to determine what’s expected of them. Are we really OK with a culture that tells children of color– on the cusp of becoming the largest population of children in this country— that they’re not as worthy as white children? For that matter, are we really OK with telling our girls that their worth is indelibly attached to their attractiveness to men? Because we do both, all the time, and they’ve resulted in a million different kinds of cultural and personal problems.

So I applaud the Academy’s response to the current controversy. I think increasing the amount of women and people of color on the panel is the best thing the Academy can do, since that diversity will result in more diverse choices. What needs to happen concurrently, of course, is better representation of women and people of color across the board in Hollywood, just as there should be on Broadway and across the professional theatre community as a whole.

But let me be clear here: (coughs, turns on mic) NOTHING CHANGES IF ALL THE GATEKEEPERS CONTINUE TO BE WHITE MEN.

The Academy is making the best possible decision. I hope it happens in time to make swift changes, not glacially slow ones, as is too often the case. And our own best possible decision is to increase the number of women and people of color who are in gatekeeping positions of power in the rest of the film industry and in theatre.

It’s a massive problem if the solution to a lack of diversity becomes asking white men to please hire more women and people of color, thank you. We need more women and people of color in these decision-making, content-creating positions of power or all we’re doing is preserving the cultural primacy and power of white men.

 

I’m not saying that we should fire all white men and give their jobs to women and people of color. I AM saying that when these jobs become available– when it’s time to hire artistic directors, producers, and the like– let’s consider hiring someone other than the white guy every single time. I’ve been watching this for a couple of decades now, and almost every time a position of power opens up, it’s filled by a man, usually white, always able-bodied, usually straight. Out of 70 LORT member theatres, 50 (71.4%) have white male Artistic Directors, 16 (22.8%) are led by white women, 4 (5.7%) by men of color, and zero by women of color. When you consider that white men are just 31% of the population, that’s significant favoritism at play.

It’s nonsense to say that there are just fewer women qualified to produce either theatre or film. The indie world is dominated by women. We just don’t promote them to the high-paid gigs as often as we do the straight white guys because our hiring practices are exactly the same as our awarding practices– the white guys in power are looking for reflections of themselves.

We’re asking the existing people in power who created the lack of diversity in the first place to create the diversity we want. And they will, to a point, if we push hard enough. But as soon as the cultural attention moves elsewhere, those people– straight white able-bodied male people in power– will go right back to making decisions that reflect their own experiences of the world– will go on making decisions that mythologize people like themselves– because they are human, and that’s what humans tend to do. And yes, there are many white men who are committed to diversity in their theatre or film companies, but they are, obviously, the exception or we wouldn’t be here, sitting in the middle of dismal diversity stats.

All I’m asking is that we, who work in these industries, make conscious decisions to include women and people of color when we’re hiring for these gatekeeping positions. We understand the immense cultural power of the actor, but we who work in these industries– most of us behind the scenes– also understand the even more potent gatekeeping power of the people who choose the actors– and everyone else on staff.

There’s nothing wrong with telling stories from a straight white male perspective. They are humans who deserve to have their stories told. But we need to make room for the other 69% of our population as well. The way to do that is to ensure that the people making the decisions about what stories get told, how they’re told, and who tells them are representative of the population as a whole.

In case you’re interested:

Over the course of its history, 66 Black actors have been nominated for an Oscar and 15 have won; 28 Latino actors have been nominated and 9 have won; 17 Asian actors have been nominated and 4 have won. This is the 88th Oscars, meaning 352 awards to actors have been given overall out of 1760 nominees.

Black actors nominated = 3.75% of total nominations; Black actors awarded = 4% of total awarded

Latino actors = 1.6% of total nominations; 2.5% of total awarded

Asian actors = 1% of total nominations; 1.1% of total awarded

For comparison, Black people are 13.2% of the US population; Latinos are 17%, and Asians are 5.6%.

 

 

 

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Fellow Jews: Are We Going to Let Innocent People Go Through What We Went Through?

Thousands Of Syrian Refugees Seek Shelter In Makeshift Camps In Jordan

Syrian refugees in Zaatari refugee camp, Jordan, in February. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

I’ve been in tech this week, so I’m behind on the news, and this will be a short one. It certainly won’t take long to say what needs to be said here.

Ahem.

As a Jew, I firmly denounce the stigmatization of Syrian refugees, along with all the GOP proposals for surveillance of Muslims, including a national database and closure of mosques. Fellow Jews, if you are not loudly and firmly denouncing this as well, I am ashamed of you.

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A four-year-old girl named Hudea mistakes photojournalist Osman Sagirli’s telephoto lens for a gun and surrenders to him at the Otmeh refugee camp in Syria last December.

A national database? You know where registering people for being part of an ethnic group leads, right? And even if you don’t believe it could happen in America, you and I know what that kind of registration was used for even before the camps. You don’t know? You don’t remember? Talk to your grandmother. Pick up a book.

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The identity card of Herbert Levy, marked “J” for “Jude” (Jew). Levy was brought to England through the Kindertransport program in 1939. Activists successfully lobbied Britain to loosen immigration restrictions to allow 10,000 Jewish children– but children only– into the UK, taken in by foster families. Most never saw their parents again. (Photo: AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

Proposing the closure of mosques should scare the living daylights out of you. For one thing, we have this little document called the US CONSTITUTION, and are we truly going to allow our hate, fear, and racism enable us to shred it? Are we going to mistreat our citizens? Or people looking for our legendary Land of Opportunity? The “opportunity” for what, virulent racism?

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Three Japanese American boys stand at the perimeter fence at the Manzanar internment camp near Independence, California in this iconic photo by Toyo Miyatake. Japanese Americans were forced to live in internment camps 1942 – 1945. (Source: blog.janm.org, courtesy Alan Miyatake)

 

Probably the most heartbreaking, however, is the heartless turning away of refugees. It’s no surprise to me that there are so many conservative American Christians shrieking “No room at the inn” and slamming the door against Syrian refugees. They did the same to us. This was expected. But you and I? Our families? Not one of us, not one, should refuse these people a place AT OUR TABLES, let alone in our country. We know better.

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These Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany fled to the US aboard the “St. Louis” and were forced to return to Europe after both Cuba and the US denied them entrance. 1939. Look at the hope in their faces. They believed they were safe. They believed they were among the lucky. How many of the children in this picture survived after we turned them away? (Source: ushmm.org)

Radical right-wing white men are the most dangerous terrorists in the US today (also see this and this). If you’re in favor of refusing Muslim refugees escaping extremist violence, if you’re in favor of (unconstitutionally) curtailing the rights of American Muslims, but you’re not in favor of tracking and/or limiting the rights of American far-right extremists, you’re not trying to protect America from terrorist attacks. You’re just a racist.

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A Syrian child sleeps in his father’s arms after arriving on a dinghy from the Turkish coast to the Greek island of Lesbos in October. (Photo: Muhammed Muheison/AP)

 

 

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Syrian refugees struggled to keep warm during the snowstorms that hit the Middle East last February. Too many died of hypothermia. This was taken at a refugee camp in Lebanon. (source: UNICEF)

We’re talking 10,000 Syrian refugees here. That wouldn’t even sell out Madison Square Garden. You’re willing to shitcan everything America stands for because you’re afraid of a group of victimized innocents that number fewer than 1/50th of the people who saw the last Rush concert tour?

American Jews, please join me in denouncing, loudly and vociferously, the terrifying, all-too-recognizable treatment of Syrian refugees seeking shelter here, as well as our fellow Americans who happen to be Muslim. Join me in lifting the lamp beside the golden door, even if we have to wrench it from the hands of the racists seeking to hide it from them.

American Muslim Pride

(photo: Joel Gordon)

(NOTE: This is my personal blog, not CNN. While I approve all respectfully dissenting comments, I am under no obligation to approve comments I deem racist, disrespectful, derailing, or trollish. If you want to blame “the Jews” for government actions in nations to which most of us have never been, or “the Muslims” for criminal actions most of them have roundly condemned and in which many innocent Muslims have perished, I advise you to pick up your racism and move along. It truly pains me to have to include this, but bitter experience has taught me well.)

 

 

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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?”
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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!

dnd2

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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