The Business of Show Biz: Is Everything Racist Now?
Wednesday, June 24, 2020
Posted by: Rotimi Agabiaka
by Velina Brown
Q: Is everything racist now? I’m sure I’m not alone in hoping we can get back to doing live theatre again soon. In the meantime, folks trying to stream shows are getting shut down by barrages of tweets, Facebook posts, etc. saying that the show they chose was wrong or they cast it wrong or their artistic team is wrong. Lists of complaints about theaters are popping up. Suddenly things that should have been discussed privately at the time a so-called “micro aggression” occurred are getting dredged up and posted publicly and anonymously years later. It’s not fair. The word racism is so overused now that it’s lost all meaning. It’s gotten ridiculous. And if theatre survives this pandemic and we get to present live plays again, will the relationships within the theatre community survive all the social media character attacks that happened when we were all locked down?
Actor and career consultant Velina Brown.
A: Is everything racist now?
Everything? No. Nearly everything? Yes. Now? No. There’s nothing new about racism. What is new to this moment from my perspective is there are currently more frank conversations about racism than usual. So it’s not that age-old behaviors are “suddenly” racist. They were always racist. What’s suddenly different is the greater ability, with cameras everywhere, to have proof that egregious behavior has taken place and that real consequences can follow.
Lists of complaints about theaters are popping up, suddenly things that should have been discussed privately at the time a so-called “micro aggression” occurred are getting dredged up and posted publicly and anonymously years later. It’s not fair.
I agree that generally, whenever possible, it’s better to speak up in the moment if there’s a problem. However, there are reasons why someone would choose to not address a negative interaction in the moment. For one thing, it’s simply not always safe to do so. The risk of retaliation can make it not worth it to say anything. If you’ve made it known that you think it’s “ridiculous” that people are calling out racism, you’ve decreased the likelihood that someone would share directly with you something you said or did that they experienced as hurtful or racist and have increased the likelihood that the incident might be “posted publicly and anonymously.”
I know. Nobody is perfect. We all make mistakes. I just suggest we all be careful about being dismissive when someone is sharing their experience. If I made a mistake and said or did something hurtful, I would definitely want someone to pull me aside and say, “Hey, that wasn’t cool and here’s why.” I hope I would hear them out and not immediately get defensive and tell them their feelings are ridiculous. By the way, respectfully hearing someone out is not the same as agreeing with them. But remember, if someone takes the time to give you honest feedback, to appreciate it. They are expending their precious energy to give you something important. This is unpaid emotional labor that they are under no obligation to do. Instead of talking to you, they could just warn others about you. There are all kinds of “Me Too” experiences.
…the word racism is so overused now that it’s lost all meaning. It’s gotten ridiculous.
I don’t know who originally said this but the saying goes, “Things change slowly, then all at once.” Things like choice of shows for a season, how shows are cast, lack of diversity on an artistic team that can lead to inappropriate, offensive choices, these are things that have been able to continue for years/generations. People who raised their voices about these things all along were labeled whiners, crazy, militant, fringe, or simply “hard to work with.” “Suddenly,” enough people have witnessed proof of what’s long been complained about. Now calling out these things is no longer a fringe activity.
This is relevant to theatre because it’s our job as artists to hold up a mirror to society. All of it. Not just part of it. When people, experiences, and perspectives are missing from the picture, then it remains distorted and false. To get to the truth, listening is needed.
As artists, we have a lot of power to shape the narrative of what’s happening and show a vision of how things could be. You may not agree but, in my opinion, using our talents to point out injustice is not ridiculous. It’s righteous and brave. If artists do this, if theatres do this, I believe theatre and the theatre community can come out of this very challenging time more vibrant and relevant than ever.
PS. I highly recommend Robin Diangelo’s book, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism.
Velina Brown is an actor and career consultant. Send her your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org