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The Problem of Diversity in Seattle Theatre Stems from Implicit Assumptions and ‘White Fragility’

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St. Mark's First Grade

When I was in the 7th grade, I took a class called “Humanities”. At St. Mark’s School of Texas, a predominantly white 1st-12th prep school in Dallas, where I grew up, Humanities was a bourgeoisie 90’s new-age amalgamation of English, Social Studies, and selected History. One day my teacher kept me after class. She wanted to have a discussion about why I was not taking a more active role in contributing to discussions we were having at the time. You see the class was reading the Autobiography of Malcolm X and the teacher, rightly so, was trying to facilitate a class discussion that exposed her students to a diversity of perspectives about the material.

Fast forward to 2014. After years of planning with my fiancee and now husband, I’m happily living and working as an Actor of Color in Seattle. These are indeed exciting times for discussions about diversity in the theatre community. Most, but I hope all of you have already read the provocative, brave, and incomprehensive article in The Stranger titled “A Paler Shade of Moor”. In it, Brendan Kiley tips his toe into the cold, dark sea of complexity and systemic hegemony that surround issues of diversity in the theatre; not just in Seattle, but certainly everywhere I’ve ever worked as an actor. Even more insightful than the article are the thoughtful-if-melodramatic comments, and the author’s judicious responses.

But the article and the letter upon which it’s centered stumble over themselves in their logical discourse. In any case, what IS an Actor of Color? What is a “white role[]” (direct quote)? And most importantly, why is this still an issue in a city where you can order weed legally on a smartphone app? I mean we all take such pride in the uber progressive triumphs of our locality, yet the institutional failure of diversity in theatre is the fly in the ointment of what we wish was a utopia for liberal ideals in practice. The failure of The Stranger article is this: it tries to investigate the issue of diversity in theatre without first explicitly identifying the unique challenge of having a conversation about race in a town that “doesn’t see color”.

When people tell me that they “don’t see color”, I usually reply with some smarmy retort like “Oh, when were you diagnosed with color blindness?”. WE ALL SEE COLOR. To say otherwise only adds insult to the incessantly difficult task of prevailing over ever present racial identities. There’s a multitude of reasons white people have come to rely on this go-to phrase. Those reasons are explored exhaustively in the International Journal of Critical Pedagogy by Robin DiAngelo, a white woman, in a paper titled “White Fragility“. White Fragility deserves diligent study by any white person who believes they have an objective perspective on issues of race. I highly recommend reading the entire article. But the following excerpt gives you a solid introduction to some of the nuance to this very macro-level concept (bold and italic formatting my own):

“White people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress. This insulated environment of racial protection builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress, leading to what I refer to as White Fragility. White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves.

…These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium. Racial stress results from an interruption to what is racially familiar. These interruptions can take a variety of forms and come from a range of sources, including:

  • Suggesting that a white person’s viewpoint comes from a racialized frame of reference (challenge to objectivity);
  • People of color choosing not to protect the racial feelings of white people in regards to race (challenge to white racial expectations and need/entitlement to racial comfort);
  • Receiving feedback that one’s behavior had a racist impact (challenge to white liberalism);
  • An acknowledgment that access is unequal between racial groups (challenge to meritocracy);
  • Being presented with information about other racial groups through, for example, movies in which people of color drive the action but are not in stereotypical roles, or multicultural education (challenge to white centrality).

Very few white people living in our predominantly white society will grow up with the ability to independently identify the underlying truths of White Privilege which afford them opportunities many non-whites are not given. White Privilege catapulted into the national discussion this year when Time Magazine published an essay by white Princeton University Freshman, Tal Fortgang, who was tired of being told to ‘check your privilege’ on campus (challenge to meritocracy).

One of the more fascinating aspects of white privilege is the perception that white people are entitled to “Racial Comfort” as DiAngelo puts it. On one occasion with a dear friend and fellow actor in Seattle (who happens to be white), I was sharing my perspective about race in the theatre and explaining some of the privileges afforded to him because he was a white actor. One example of these recurrent advantages is being seen as “race-neutral”. In theatre, it’s an advantage to be white not because casting directors are racist, but because they’re human. Humans see color, whether they admit it to themselves or not. And in the absence of color, humans are more open to a first impression that isn’t tainted by their perception of a particular racial identity.

Just the thought of my friend having a tangible and unfair advantage over me because of his whiteness drove his sense of ideological stability into disarray. Suddenly, I was being made to feel as if I had inflicted harm on him by having an honest conversation. Simply making him aware of observable fact had caused perceived mental harm, and real psychological stress (challenge to objectivity). We’re great friends and the conversation moved to happier topics with the help of 2 or 7 more glasses of wine. But it wasn’t until I read DiAngelo’s piece on White Fragility that I understood what was going on that night.

You see my friend’s problem is Seattle’s problem. We are a city comprised of a 66.3% majority of white people, almost all of whom are progressive and liberal, but almost all of whom aren’t emotionally equipped to have an honest discussion about race problems that still exist today, and their role in those problems. Even if the city was ready to talk about the issues, very few are brave enough to admit that actions they take every day help to perpetuate institutionalized racism (challenge to white liberalism)

Right about now, if you’re a white reader, your White Fragility is probably taking your thoughts down the line of “I’m not racist. I don’t participate in institutionalized racism. That’s all the other white people in this town.” Well, if you live in Seattle, based on my observations, odds are you aren’t racist, but you are participating in institutional racism. And part of that has to do simply with the unique demographics of the region.

I was in New York during the 4th of July holiday, and had a wonderful moment with my husband on the E train to JFK. We have this inside joke which, truthfully, is an inside joke shared with many in the black community. You make it when you look up and find yourself in a room where you are the only black person in sight. When my husband and I moved to Seattle, this started happening to me more than any other place I’ve lived. And I’ve lived in Dallas, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Stamford, CT, and New York. Subconsciously, when I lean in to my husband in the middle of a crowded Seattle affair to whisper that “I’m the only black person here!”, it’s simply an adaptive mechanism for coping with the extraordinary psychological stress of being the only person of your race in one place at a certain time. To put that in perspective, it’s such an extraordinary case that no white American could dream of experiencing such “Racial Stress” unless she enrolled in a historically black college, or got on a plane to Tokyo. Oddly enough, when I leaned in to my husband that day, I whispered to him “You’re the only white person on this train!”

When you live in almost any other major city in the US, provided you aren’t in one of the pockets of segregated affluent whites that still exist today, it’s actually not common to be standing in a room filled entirely with white people… unless you live in Seattle. The White populations in the other cities I’ve lived are 28.8%, 27.2%, 43.5%, 53.3%, and 57.2% respectively. Do you recall the statistic for Seattle? It’s 66.3%. Seattle is statistically one of the whitest cities you can live in. And there is nothing wrong with that. But any conversation about race or diversity in Seattle must begin with this insight, because this reality is what remains as the biggest challenge for anyone interested in solving the problem of diversity.

It’s not the diversity (or lack thereof) in the cultural backgrounds of actors that is the biggest hurdle, it’s dealing with the lack of diversity in Seattle’s audiences. Even on Broadway, where you can step off an E train filled with people of color, 78% of tickets were purchased by white patrons in the 2012-2013 season. Paying customers form a democratic voting body that businesses in any capitalistic environment are obliged to gratify. And so it’s with these initial insights and relevant information that we can BEGIN to understand the shortcomings of Kiley’s article in The Stranger.

In the article Kiley claims “Seattle is not particularly progressive when it comes to casting actors of color in white roles”. On the one hand, I agree wholeheartedly. On the other hand this statement shows Kiley’s, and the city’s naivete when it comes to the concept of white privilege. We never answered the question of what exactly is a “white role”. Kiley’s implicit assumption is that any role that is NOT a role for an actor of color is a white role. Whether this was intentional or not, it’s implicit in his language and American culture overall. DiAngelo articulates it better than I ever could when she says (again bold and italics my own):

“Whiteness is not recognized or named by white people, and a universal reference point is assumed. White people are just people. Within this construction, whites can represent humanity, while people of color, who are never just people but always most particularly black people, Asian people, etc., can only represent their own racialized experiences”

To be fair, what I believe Kiley means to say is that Seattle is not particularly progressive when it comes to casting actors of color in non-race-specific roles. Othello, as it happens, is not a race specific role. Yes the character is described as “black” in the text. But as one astute commenter points out:

“the term ‘black’ was historically used by British people to refer to *any* group of people who were conspicuously darker than what they deemed to be “white.” For example, British colonists routinely referred to their Indian subjects (the ancestors of the actor who ended up being cast in the role) as ‘black.’”

The anonymous author of the letter that began this important conversation appears to have used faulty logical reasoning on multiple counts. There are several enthymemes hidden in her words which she overlooks, like many before her. The first of which lies in this statement from her letter, “Shakespeare is very specific about Othello’s skin color.” To be concerned that Patchamatla isn’t “black” is based on the following syllogism:

  • In America, we refer to Americans of Anti-bellum African descent as “Black”
  • Shakespeare calls Othello “Black” in his play
  • Therefore: Othello should be played by an American of Anti-bellum African descent

 

Forgetting for a second the fact that we, as a nation, group 1st generation Nigerian immigrants and 12th generation African-Americans together as “black” despite their distinctly unique cultural idiosyncrasies, the anonymous director is completely off base for thinking Othello must be black as defined by American racial identities because the play was written in a completely different time and place in the context of a different cultural milieu. She implicitly assumes that the racial identity “black” is universal, when in fact it has varied throughout history and continues to vary even geographically within the US.

And this is the first of many implicit assumptions that exist not just in her words, but in the words of many who have participated in this discussion since the article was published. The anonymous director continues “…And Shakespeare (and Seattle) offer few enough opportunities for actors of color.” We still haven’t answered another one of my earlier questions, which was, what IS an Actor of Color? In this case, I’ll assume that what the director means is “black” but she uses the phrase “Actor of Color” to avoid the term “black” due to her White Fragility. This is an important distinction because all Actors of Color (black, red, brown, and yellow) face the same challenges. So when we say “Actor of Color”, that’s always what it should mean. And if you want to talk about “black” actors, then talk about black actors.

Nonetheless, there was a point to having you read that last quote…. There are PLENTY of opportunities for actors of color in Shakespeare and in Seattle overall. The problem lies in theatre audiences. We’ve posited that the majority of these audiences are white like the Broadway research demonstrates. And this relates directly to the last example of DiAngelo’s “defensive moves” that I’ve provided, which is the “challenge to white centrality”.

Right now in Storrs, CT, Leslie Uggams, a black actress, is starring as Mama Rose in Gypsy. She is, by some accounts the “the first African American female to play Rose in a professional production.” Many white audience members who come to see the production simply won’t get it. They won’t be able to get past the inevitable thoughts in their head, “but the historical Mama Rose wasn’t black” or “But how could she have had white kids?” or simply “Why did they cast a black actress in this role, its distracting!”. (Do you recall the debate that swirled around 5th Avenue’s production of Oklahoma?) THAT, in a nutshell, is white centrality. Having become accustomed to always being in a room with other white people, or always looking at a face on the movie screen that belongs to a “race-neutral” actor, white people aren’t used to dealing with the racial stress of being presented with an Actor of Color in a role that does not reference or depend on that actor’s color. This leads us to the answer of the final question presented in the article. Which is, why don’t more black people show up to audition for shows with race-specific roles?

Flash back to the 7th grade and my teacher’s conversation with me after class that day. The implicit assumption that she made is this: all black people are well suited to represent black culture. As DiAngelo puts it “Because race is constructed as residing in people of color, whites don’t bear the social burden of race. We move easily through our society without a sense of ourselves as racialized subjects.” The twist is that this has been my personal experience of self-identity as well. I didn’t grow up in the segregated south like my parents, I grew up going to prep school with mostly white students who interacted with me as an equal peer. I have friends representative of the population rather than predominantly black. My parents blessed me with an education from a prestigious institution which affords me the cache I need on paper to rise above racial inequalities. In many respects, I’m more privileged than many of my white counterparts. And that is why when we were discussing The Autobiography of Malcolm X, I rarely came to class having finished the reading for the day. To my 7th grade self, the book was just as boring and foreign as A Tale of Two Cities. Just because my skin is black, it doesn’t mean that I must take a particular interest in certain material, or that I actually have unique insight into said material. If Tracy Turnblad had said to me “I wish every day was negro day”, I would have had to reply “At our house, it’s more like the Cosby Show, but you can come over any time you like!” Meanwhile, while I was called back for the non-equity tour of Hairspray on three separate occasions, the third time I was called back and made it further than before, I was typed out for not being “soulful” enough.

It should be no surprise that I’m not black enough to genuinely play black roles. Race itself has no basis in genetics, even though a large part of the population is probably blind to that fact. Thandie Newton says it better than anyone in her TEDTalk: “There’s actually more genetic difference between a black Kenyan and a black Ugandan than there is between a black Kenyan and say a white Norwegian”. Remember that 1st generation Nigerian immigrant who you group with me as “black”? It’s possible and likely that the white people I walk by on the streets of Seattle are more genetically similar to me than a Nigerian.

So Othello, who is black, but not our definition of black, and not even necessarily genetically similar to me, is supposed to be a good role for me, because I’m “black” too? Incorrect. I didn’t audition for Othello because I’m not a black actor, I’m an actor. I’m an actor who has already completed MANY character studies investigating the challenges of racial inequality or flat out racism against said black characters. I rarely if ever have anything in common with these characters, and almost never have personal experiences to draw upon to bring the characters to life. I’ve never been in jail like Mitch Mahoney, I’ve never been scared of the gods like Tonton Julian, and I’ve never had a white person steal my music like Curtis Taylor Jr.

I, like many actors of color, seek out universal human stories, like the one recently presented in Passing Strange at ACT. In it, 7 black actors tell the story of a young black boy growing up in LA who did NOT grow up in the ghetto. Over the course of the play, the ensemble members of the all black cast are tasked with playing citizens of Amsterdam (all presumably white) and citizens of Berlin (also presumably white). Ask anyone who came to see the show if they weren’t able to enjoy the show because the characters in Europe weren’t played by white actors. On the contrary, I wish more people in our community, in the context of the current discussion, were talking about some of the artistic achievements of our production. Now sure, I’m biased (this, this, and this aren’t), but Shontina Vernon’s German accent was nothing short of pure brilliance. Every vowel and soft palate tapped “r” was pure nirvana, transporting an entire room 5,050 nautical miles to Berlin every night. Yesenia Iglesias also entranced me with her Dutch accent work, but you forget to pay attention to those kinds of details when you’re in the presence of a performance as layered and heartbreaking as hers.

Both of these women hold an MFA from the University of Washington. And both of these women will face an industry of casting directors, producers, and audiences that refuse to let them show off their immense talent and training because the audience needs white skin in order to not get distracted from the story. As soon as you replace a white actor with a black actor in a role that doesn’t actually require a white actor to tell the story, many white people simply won’t be open to the story. The tragedy is that theatres have always dealt with this, and they even sometimes pick material because it’s easier for their white majority audiences to enjoy. So maybe Kiley had it right when he called them “white roles”. Because until you, the person reading this, make it your personal responsibility to reject white centrality in theatre, many roles that I am right for which I would love to tackle will always be white roles.

In the meantime, I’m resigned to the fact that I won’t be working on productions as often as I’d like here in Seattle, because I’ll continue to politely dodge offers for black roles while I quietly long for a role that actually gives me an opportunity to draw on my real human experience separate from my racial identity. I’m lucky in that a few key artists in the community have gone out of their way to get me seen for these types of roles, and that I continue to have many strong allies. But, even the strongest advocate has no recourse when a Director decides that the casting needs to mirror Broadway. In that case, a real-life Seattle example that I myself experienced, an Actor of Color may not be considered for a role simply because the actor that originally played the role was white. (challenge to meritocracy)

In my view, it’s a wonderful thing that Patchamatla was given this opportunity and that the community is now forced to begin a difficult discourse which I hope won’t end when the curtain goes down on Othello this summer. I’m truly excited to see young white actors like Quinn Armstrong participating in this discourse, and I encourage each and every one of you to do the same in your own way. Only continued attention from the entire community will lead to more diversity in theatre, and ensure racial atrocities like the current yellow face production of The Mikado fade into history. But beware, the hardest of part of the discussion will be to make yourself vulnerable for accurate challenges to your objectivity. I leave you with these important words from DiAngelo:

“When confronted with a challenge to white racial codes, many white liberals use the speech of self-defense (Van Dijk, 1992). This discourse enables defenders to protect their moral character against what they perceive as accusation and attack while deflecting any recognition of culpability or need of accountability. Focusing on restoring their moral standing through these tactics, whites are able to avoid the question of white privilege.”

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  • Tyrone Brown

    J Reese – thank you for this very insightful and enlightening article. I will be sharing it – and know doubt going back to read and reflect on it again in the future. Bravo!

  • qnetter

    JReese – great piece. I’m so glad Kirsten linked to it. I’ve admired your work since you’ve been in town, and wish you were getting more of it, and being cast as a fine actor in good roles.

    (I think the OKLAHOMA! issue is a little more complex, because I think there was both White Fragility outrage and Black Subhuman Villain outrage. But the former is so obviously true that I don’t want to derail your post, or be White Fragility Poster Child for that matter.)

    Please keep fighting the good fight, even though it’s at least as much ours as yours. The theatre and the city benefit from it.

  • Mjreese

    Good thinking my dear son. This illusion of diversity is seen across this great nation of ours-and sadly the creative community gently approaches the mater with “blinders” on.

  • Jason Goff

    Really enjoyed your article. I have to disagree with one thing.. you say that you won’t take roles that you have no experience with personally in real life. Yes, a role is much easier when you have all the experiences that the character has had, but I think any great actor can play any role with enough character study done to ensure that you are true to the reality of the character. Don’t sell yourself short.

    • Jason, thanks so much for taking the time to read and give feedback.

      I agree that I should be open to auditioning for roles that I have no personal experience in. By what happens to black actors is that we only get called in for one type of role. Thugs, criminals, poor, uneducated.

      I’m not selling myself short, I just choose not to perpetuate stereotypes through my art by taking part in portraying characters that embody those stereotypes. It only adds insult to injury that I’m mostly only ever asked to tackle that black archetype, but never something unrelated to my race AND also not tied to my personal experience. E.g., an astronaut, a parent, someone with cancer.

      • Jason Goff

        I understand your position, just thought perhaps you might overlook a role that you might be really good for. I’m not suggesting that you go against your convictions.. I have my own convictions and choose not to do certain roles. It’s not because I feel I would be bad in that role, I may actually be amazing in it but I just feel my desire and dream of doing other roles. So I completely see your position.

      • Dezmond

        I think that’s an important to make for yourself. At the end of the day, none of us can transform raciality singlehandedly. Furthermore, as black people, we are asked to carry the burden of that transformation. Still, as someone who thinks a great deal about race and subjectivity, I have come to promote caution when discussing universality. White stories are not universal because no stories (narratives or histories) are universal, even if many people are able to connect in their own specific ways. I fear the situation that a black narrative must be “not be from the ghetto” in order to be “universal” when universality is only a thinly veiled nomimer for (certain circumstances of) whiteness. This partially comes from my bias as an artist who is primarily interested in art as a tool for social/cultural transformation, but I do think that stories of poor black folks (as most of us are, around the globe) need to be told, in all the humility, compassion, complexity and depth we all deserve as human beings. So for me, more diverse casting won’t be very satisfying if we keep getting the same “universal” narratives based on the same (age old) logics of exclusion.

  • Adrian Cerrato

    Thank you so much for such an eloquent and to-the-point article about institutional racism in Seattle Theatre. You really hit the nail on the head here; wonderfully executed.

  • Ben Hamm

    Sorry, I know this is a detail, but this meme drives me nuts:

    “There’s actually more genetic difference between a black Kenyan and a
    black Ugandan than there is between a black Kenyan and say a white
    Norwegian”

    Just because it’s in a TEDtalk doesn’t mean it’s true.
    There is no evidence for this claim, and it is ridiculous on its face.
    Genetic differences at the level of populations arise from the isolation
    of populations and different selection pressures. Uganda borders Kenya
    and shares its climate, flora, fauna, and disease profiles. Norway is removed from Kenya by more than 4,000 miles and 2 seas, with a radically different set of selection pressures. A claim that flies in the face of basic evolutionary theory requires extraordinary evidence.

    • Ben, I don’t think you read the below article which I cited in the text. You need to do more research before refuting a cited claim that is backed by mountains of of evidence in the scientific community. We’ve had the entire human genome sequenced for over a decade.

      http://www.psmag.com/navigation/nature-and-technology/why-your-race-isnt-genetic-82475/

      From this article “Unlike the distinct populations of chimps, humans continued to exchange both goods and genes with each other even as they rapidly settled an enormous geographical range. Those ongoing contacts, plus the fact that we were a small, genetically homogeneous species to begin with, has resulted in relatively close genetic relationships, despite our worldwide presence. The DNA differences between humans increase with geographical distance, but boundaries between populations are, as geneticists Kenneth Weiss and Jeffrey Long put it, ‘multilayered, porous, ephemeral, and difficult to identify.’ Pure, geographically separated ancestral populations are an abstraction: ‘There is no reason to think that there ever were isolated, homogeneous parental populations at any time in our human past.’”

    • And from: http://www.nature.com/ncomms/2014/140429/ncomms4513/full/ncomms4513.html

      “owing to the intrinsic nature of biological variation, it is difficult to say where one population stops and another starts by looking at the spatial distribution of a trait (for example, hair colour2). Darwin acknowledged this problem, stating that ‘it may be doubted whether any character can be named which is distinctive of a race and is constant’. Yet, questions of biogeography and genetic diversity such as ‘why we are what we are where we are?’ have piqued human curiosity as far back as Herodotus of Halicarnassus, who has been called ‘the first anthropologist’. However, only in the past decade have researchers begun harnessing high-throughput genetic data to address them.”

      • Ben Hamm

        What you’re citing is correct, but you’ve missed the point of my critique. I probably should’ve been clearer. Everything you’ve adduced supports the following statement:

        “The amount of genetic difference between a black Kenyan and a black Ugandan is roughly comparable to the difference between a black Kenyan and say a white Norwegian”

        However, that is not what you quoted, which reads:

        “There’s actually MORE genetic difference between a black Kenyan and a black Ugandan than there is between a black Kenyan and say a white Norwegian”

        The former statement is arguably true. The latter statement is nonsensical from an evolutionary perspective, absent a very implausible migration narrative.

        • Ben,

          First, to be fair, I agree that it’s important to read memes with a critical eye lest our society devolve into an illiterate bunch of one-liner quoting schmucks.

          That being said, I’m not going to belabor your specific arguments with the quoted statement. But, I’ve pulled the full text transcription for this section of Thandie’s speech and provided it below. In it, she cites her professor, Dr. Phyllis Lee, who has published over 88 peer reviewed research articles. ( http://www.researchgate.net/profile/Phyllis_Lee3 ) Hardly a source that warrants extreme critique. Also note Thandie’s simplified explanation for why the statement in question is based on scientific observation.

          “By 19, I was a fully-fledged movie actor, but still searching for definition. I applied to read anthropology at university. Dr. Phyllis Lee gave me my interview, and she asked me, “How would you define race?” Well, I thought I had the answer to that one, and I said, “Skin color.” “So biology, genetics?” she said. “Because, Thandie, that’s not accurate. Because there’s actually more genetic difference between a black Kenyan and a black Ugandan than there is between a black Kenyan and, say, a white Norwegian. Because we all stem from Africa. So in Africa, there’s been more time to create genetic diversity.” In other words, race has no basis in biological or scientific fact. On the one hand, result. Right? On the other hand, my definition of self just lost a huge chunk of its credibility. But what was credible, what is biological and scientific fact, is that we all stem from Africa — in fact, from a woman called Mitochondrial Eve who lived 160,000 years ago. And race is an illegitimate concept which our selves have created based on fear and ignorance.”

          • Ben Hamm

            If you want to keep the internet from devolving, you should remove false statements from your blog post, because people resonate with the things you’ve written and your piece is going to be widely shared. What you cite isn’t a scientific paper, it’s a non-scientist’s imperfect recollection of something a scientist once said. The explanation that “in Africa, there’s been more time to create genetic diversity” is again ridiculous: every human population has had precisely the same time to create genetic diversity. I think if you aren’t going to defend the statement, you should remove it from your piece. Of course it’s your blog and you can say whatever you want, but the piece deserves the credibility that it loses with that quote.

          • “The researchers surveyed 650,000 genetic locations in people from 51 populations to derive the map, providing data that will become a valuable tool in the search for disease-related genes. The work was published in the Feb. 22 issue of Science.”

            http://news.stanford.edu/news/2008/february27/med-genemap-022708.html

          • Ben Hamm

            Moving on: There’s nothing wrong with arguing that race is an illegitimate concept, but in that case it seems illegitimate to reify the concept of race by deploying phrases like “white fragility”.

          • Ben,

            I’m not denying that distinct racial groups (created by our society) exist, and that terms to describe them (“black”, “white”, “hispanic”) should immediately be abandoned.

            White Fragility is not just some coined phrase, but an observable phenomenon. The article from which I get the phrase has over 18 pages of discussion and citations which better describe what is meant by the term.

            Perhaps for just one moment today you feel the frustration ALL people of color feel when words are thrown around to generalize us. Are there real observable phenomenon that are consistent through certain minority populations? Certainly. But I would argue that as a society, we tend to focus more on the generalized behavior of minority populations than that of white populations. In the context of this discussion, it’s important to identify behaviors in whites that inhibit the ability of minorities to overcome racial inequality. Do black people eat a lot of watermelon? Maybe, but that wouldn’t stop white people from attaining equal pay. White Fragility does actually have a negative effect on minority life in America. Though it may be uncomfortable for you to except or discuss that fact.

          • Ben Hamm

            It seems like you could make these points without the condescension and without making assumptions about my experience/disposition, but I suppose this IS the internet.

            I’m neither trying to prove that race exists nor trying to disprove that. Here’s my position, to be clear: race is not a valid genetic concept, but it is extremely powerful from a social perspective. So people who say “race doesn’t exist” are both correct and missing the point.

            What I think is lost when terms like “white fragility” and “racial stress” are used is the cross-cultural perspective. I think what’s going on here is a special brand of what I think would be better called “majoritarian fragility”. I’ve lived in places (Pakistan & Jordan) where my appearance was an anomaly that distracts from my speech, where I wascalled upon to speak for “my people”, and where my appearance placed me in some degree of danger.

            So there are some features of what you call “white fragility” that arise from all majority/minority relations, and then there are some that arise specifically from the power dynamics in the United States. I think it would be helpful for you to disambiguate those, but perhaps that is impossible.

          • Ben, to be fair, it seems like you could also make your points without condescension and without making assumptions about MY experience, or the amount of research put into this article. I’m happy to continue a productive discourse if and only if that’s what you bring to the table.

            –“I’m neither trying to prove that race exists nor trying to disprove that. Here’s my position, to be clear: race is not a valid genetic concept, but it is extremely powerful from a social perspective. So people who say “Race doesn’t exist” are both correct and missing the point.”

            I’m specifically using the FACT that race is not a genetic concept to display the disconnect between our society’s misuse of race as a social construct. It seems you miss that point entirely. Yes race is powerful from a social perspective. That is exactly why I wrote this article, because we need to move away from using race as means to label people, especially if science says “Most of the DNA variation we see has nothing to do with what the people who use the term ‘race’ usually mean” http://news.stanford.edu/news/2008/february27/med-genemap-022708.html

            –“What I think is lost when terms like “white fragility” and “racial stress” are used is the cross-cultural perspective. I think what’s going on here is a special brand of what I think would be better called “majoritarian fragility”. I’ve lived in places (Pakistan & Jordan) where my appearance is an anomaly that people start with when they regard me, places where I am called upon to speak for “my people”, and where my appearance places me in some degree of danger.”

            I would highly recommend you read the entire article “White Fragility” before making any more critiques of the concept, which I did not author. The paper explicitly states that the terms are used to describe American sociological phenomenon, “The direction of power between whites and people of color is historic, traditional, normalized, and deeply embedded in the fabric of U.S. society (Mills, 1999; Feagin, 2006). Whiteness itself refers to the specific dimensions of racism that serve to elevate white people over people of color… Recognizing that the terms I am using are not ‘theory neutral “descriptors” but theory-laden constructs inseparable from systems of injustice’ (Allen, 1996, p.95), I use the terms white and Whiteness to describe a social process.” Furthermore, my entire article is about my appearance being an anomaly that drives people to call upon me to speak for black people. So I don’t quite understand how that is bringing a new insight to the discussion. After all I clearly state in the article text: “…no white American could dream of experiencing such ‘Racial Stress’ unless she enrolled in a historically black college, or got on a plane to Tokyo.” This should serve to show that I recognize a daily experience for me could also be experienced by a white person, but ONLY in an extraordinary circumstance that most white Americans never actually do experience, like being in Pakistan or Jordan. Is that a daily event for you? Because being black in a white majority city is a daily experience for me. Again, that’s a central theme of my piece.

            –“So there are some features of what you call “white fragility” that arise from all majority/minority relations, and then there are some that arise specifically from the power dynamics in the United States. I think it would be helpful for you to disambiguate those, but perhaps that is impossible.”

            I make no claims in my conclusions about universal applications of my logic. I discuss issues of race as it relates to American history and casting in the theatre. And the first quote I use in the article begins with explicitly defining the scope of my discussion “White people in North America…”

          • Ben Hamm

            The Stanford citation you keep posting is a public relations summary of a study, not the study itself. Here’s the study itself, which I’d recommend you read before you make claims based upon it: http://www.jstor.org.proxy.lib.umich.edu/stable/20053432

            You read that and I’ll go read the piece on white fragility.

            All of your responses here are couched as a defense, as if everything I said was an attack. It wasn’t, but I suppose I opened with a criticism so it’s understandable you’d react that way. I was actually, in fact, asking how you think this differs from a wider phenomenon of majoritarian fragility. Is that a question you’re interested in?

          • Ben, I’m fully aware that my source is not the study, which is why I said in my earlier reply “This was written as part of a SUMMARY of an article published in Science in February 2008.” (I thought we agreed to not be condescending??)

            And the quote “that the vast majority of genetic variation occurs within populations rather than between populations, suggesting that, genetically speaking, race is only skin deep.” is immediately followed in that summary by …”‘Most of the DNA variation we see has nothing to do with what the people who use the term ‘race’ usually mean,’ said Marcus Feldman, PhD, professor of biological sciences.” Marcus Feldman is one of the authors of the study.

            I think I have an accurate grasp for the findings of the paper, which I only just sought out today in response to your critique. Feel free to read it on YOUR OWN if you’d like to find something in it to refute my interpretation. It is not cited in my article.

            It seems as if you’re putting the full brunt of accountability of information on me, when you’ve yet to provide a source of your own to refute anything I’ve said. I’d rather spend time reading something you’ve shared than hearing you tell me I need to read something fully in order to understand it.

            In response to:

            — I was actually, in fact, asking how you think this differs from a wider phenomenon of majoritarian fragility. Is that a question you’re interested in?

            That’s not a question I’m particularly interested in, or something I’ve investigated in my post. As I said earlier, my article is a discussion about behaviors in white Americans specifically, and my primary source specifically deals with “White people in North America”. If you want to talk about these issues relevant to my article in this comment thread, please let me know.

            Finally in response to:

            —Edit: In answer to your question: No, being a minority is not currently a daily experience. It was three months ago when I lived in Jordan. It also was three years ago when I lived in Pakistan. Indeed, it also was eight years ago when I lived in Philadelphia, which is not so far off as Tokyo. Does it need to be my current daily experience for me to have a valid perspective on it? Would your perspective be rendered invalid if you moved to a non-white majority city?

            Ben, its not about your perspective, its about mine. This is my blog, and you’ve tried to take the focus away from my perspective. White perspectives are EVERYWHERE in American society. Look at Congress, look at the movies, look at Wall Street. This article is not about black people learning white perspectives. And why is it that black people SHOULD take so much time and care to learn about white perspectives? Indeed, this last statement of yours is textbook “White Fragility” as defined by DiAngelo:

            “Whites are taught to see their perspectives as objective and representative of reality (McIntosh, 1988). The belief in objectivity, coupled with positioning white people as outside of culture (and thus the norm for humanity), allows whites to view themselves as universal humans who can represent all of human experience. This is evidenced through an unracialized identity or location, which functions as a kind of blindness; an inability to think about Whiteness as an identity or as a “state” of being that would or could have an impact on one’s life. In this position, Whiteness is not recognized or named by white people, and a universal reference point is assumed.”

            “…[A] discourse of victimization also enables whites to avoid responsibility for the racial power and privilege they wield. By positioning themselves as victims of anti-racist efforts, they cannot be the beneficiaries of white privilege. Claiming that they have been treated unfairly via a challenge to their position or an expectation that they listen to the perspectives and experiences of people of color, they are able to demand that more social resources (such as time and attention) be channeled in their direction to help them cope with this mistreatment. ”

            Your perspective IS valid. But it would be more productive for you and all white Americans to try to better understand minorities’ perspectives, rather than feeling as if they your perspectives are not being heard. A simple look at history shows that white perspectives FAR outweigh black perspectives in academic discussions, political endeavors, and pop culture.

          • Ben Hamm

            Allright, to cite the article directly: “The first and second PCs [Principal component analyses] explain 59% and 26% of the Fst variation, respectively…with the first PC primarily describing the contrast betwen sub-Saharn Africans and non-Africans and the second driven by the East-West difference in Eurasia. The PCA for individual continents/regions clearly delineates fine-scale population structure.” While the paper does affirm that the majority of variation occurs within populations, the details of the principal component analysis make it clear why the quote that I originally took issue with is incorrect. Imagine if you had population group A that ranged between 5 feet and 5.5 feet tall. And then imagine that you had population group B where height ranged from 6 ft to 7 feet. The variation within population would be greater than the variation across populations, but that wouldn’t justify the statement. Group member A1 is more different from group member A2 than group member A1 is from group member B1.” That statement would be both incorrect and, indeed, a violation of category logic.

            As for my perspective: You asked me about whether something of mine was a daily experience, so I responded. Not sure how what I said fits the definition of “textbook” white fragility you cite, since I did not claim objectivity or victimization, and indeed I was discussing instances where my whiteness was overtly recognized and named. Is it just because I’m challenging your position? Deploying one’s own perspective is the only way in which to disagree. If you want zero disagreement, if you want nobody else’s perspective on this page, that is indeed completely your right as the blog author. And there’s a quite straightforward way for you to achieve that silence: disable comments.

        • Ben,

          I’ve just found a source that ends this discussion. See quote below from a Stanford Medicine Blog Post:

          “The data confirm earlier work that the vast majority of genetic variation occurs within populations rather than between populations, suggesting that, genetically speaking, race is only skin deep. ‘Most of the DNA variation we see has nothing to do with what the people who use the term ‘race’ usually mean,’ said Marcus Feldman, PhD, professor of biological sciences.”

          http://med.stanford.edu/news/all-news/2008/02/human-family-tree-drawn-by-gene-sequencing-effort.html

          • Ben Hamm

            Once again, this supports the statements that genetic difference between populations is insignificant. It does not support the statement you quote. The statement you quote actually asserts an implausible dramatic difference between populations (Ugandan and Kenyans).

          • In response to:

            “Once again, this supports the statements that genetic difference BETWEEN populations is insignificant.”

            No, you’re actually not interpreting my accurate source Put simply:

            “the VAST MAJORITY of genetic variation occurs WITHIN populations rather than between populations”

            This was written as part of a summary of an article published in Science in February 2008.

            Taken from: http://news.stanford.edu/news/2008/february27/med-genemap-022708.html

            “The DNA for this work comes from the Human Genome Diversity Panel, a collection initiated by Cavalli-Sforza in a collaboration with the Centre Etude Polymorphism Humain in Paris. Working with bioethicists to ensure samples were collected properly, anthropologists from around the world started sending blood to this collection in the 1990s. The 51 populations used in the Stanford study were chosen mostly on the basis of where anthropologists were able to get samples. Feldman and Cavalli-Sforza hope to one day have access to samples from additional populations, which will add to what’s known about the genetic diversity and relatedness of the world’s populations.”

            And further:

            “DNA from the HGDP is freely available. In fact, a paper published in Nature on Feb. 21 from a group led by Noah Rosenberg, PhD, assistant professor of genetics at the University of Michigan and former graduate student of Feldman’s, looks at the same samples and reaches many of the same conclusions as the Stanford study.”

          • Ben Hamm

            I’m not attacking any of the studies you cite. I’m attacking your interpretation of them, which I believe arises from a misunderstanding of the categories under discussion and the meaning of the term “variation”. I’ve contacted some of the authors of the studies you cite. We’ll see what they say and actually get this settled.

          • Ben, I look forward to their response which will corroborate my very simple and plain interpretation.

          • Ben Hamm

            Ok, got a response from one of the study authors, Professor Li Jun. Posting the full exchange:

            Dear Professor,

            I write in the hopes that you can help resolve a dispute regarding your work. There’s an online discussion in which your work is being used to support the following statement, pulled from a TED talk:

            “There’s actually more genetic difference between a black Kenyan and a black Ugandan than there is between a black Kenyan and say a white Norwegian”

            I have heard this quote before, and I don’t like free-floating scientific illiteracy. So I attacked it as ea basic misunderstanding of genetics:

            “There is no evidence for this claim, and it is ridiculous on its face. Genetic differences at the level of populations arise from the isolation of populations and different selection pressures. Uganda borders Kenya
            and shares its climate, flora, fauna, and disease profiles. Norway is removed from Kenya by more than 4,000 miles and 2 seas, with a radically different set of selection pressures. A claim that flies in the face of basic evolutionary theory requires extraordinary evidence.”

            As a counter argument, I had your study cited to me, with the following summary of your study:

            “the VAST MAJORITY of genetic variation occurs WITHIN populations rather than between populations”

            I see this again as a misunderstanding of your study. As I understand it, your study could be interpreted to support the statement “The amount of genetic difference between a black Kenyan and a black Ugandan is roughly comparable to the difference between a black Kenyan and a white Norwegian”. But the statement that began the debate still seems unsupported and logically impossible.

            If you have an interest in public debate, I’d love it if you could weigh in on this, either in reply to me or on the actual debate occurring. The conversation is in the comments section here.

            Thanks,
            Ben

            “Ben,

            Thanks for your question.

            The short answer is that you are correct.

            Rosenberg et al. (2002) reported that, across 377 microsatellite markers, genetic variation can be partitioned like this: 3.6% as between-continent, 2.4% as between-population-within-continent, and the remaining ~94% as within-population. These figures are slightly modified in the study I co-authored (Li et al. 2008, Science 319:1100) with 650,000 common SNPs, to 9.0%, 2.1%, and 88.9%, respectively. The results became the basis for the statement that “the vast majority of genetic variation occurs within populations rather than between populations”. Here we simply meant that two random individuals within any one population are nearly as different as two random individuals from different populations of the world. But the former (a pair within a population) is almost never more different than the latter (a pair sampled from two different populations).

            The estimates cited above are based on genotype data across a large number of DNA markers, and they may change somewhat according to the data type.

            This can be understood by the actual evolutionary scenario and by counting the time to the most recent common ancestor(s). Let’s say two individuals within a population are “related” in that they share one or more common ancestors 5,000 generations in the past, but two individuals from different continents usually have common ancestors much farther back in time, for example, 30,000 generations in the past. It is much harder to have a situation where two Europeans have an common ancestor much older than a European and an African.

            There are exceptions—this will make for some long answers. We know that non-African populations were likely descended from some ancient African populations. Sometimes the African individual we happen to measure can be very close to the group who founded the out-of-African populations, and can be unusually close to non-African populations. Another consideration is that there are pockets of “old populations” in Africa that have been self-isolated for a very long time, even predating the out-of-Africa migration. For example, if a “typical” European individual is related to a “typical” African individual by 30,000 generations of split time. It’s possible that there is an African individual in an isolated tribe who is more distant –more than 30,000 generations– from the “typical” African individuals. This is what people sometimes mean when they say that African populations are much older than many other populations.

            On the whole I think these are rare exceptions. In our data we don’t see any pair of African individuals who are more distant than any pair of African and non-African individuals. I copied below a heatmap for 938 individuals in our study, in a 938-by-938 distance matrix, where yellow is more similar, red is more distant. -Jun”

            Lemme know if you want to see the heat map. Given this, I’d request that you take down the Ted talk post, since it is incorrect.

        • Dezmond

          Then why not say that in your original post? It seems like your original critique was based on a understanding of population genetics that is generally not applicable to human history. I would also put forth that any good evolutionary biologist knows that not all traits are adaptive and selection pressures are only part of a much more complicated process. Sometimes it’s best to admit you didn’t know (or consider) something and accept the knowledge (and opportunity to practice humility) with grace. Ase.

          • Ben Hamm

            If you think my argument is stronger with the clarification, then aim your energy at the strongest argument. To do less is to shrink from the debate as it stands now.

  • Mark Jarzewiak

    One concern for people (caucasion/white/however makes sense for reference) becoming involved in such a discussion is the presumption that challenges to assertions of racial privilege will be dismissed as one of DiAngelo’s white-centric responses. While I understand the philosophy and social psychology behind these reasonings they simplify human response in the same unfair way those ‘of color’ might eb accused of playing the ‘race card’ simply by bringing up a discussion of race. It doesn’t make for constructive discussion to assume at the beginning of the discourse that defense is always defensive for the sake of protecting privilege. While there is certainly truth there it can also be said that some defense is realistic and not simply ‘privilege protection.’

    Your article is insightful on many levels but underlines a key polemic in social discourse – the presentation of any solution. What direction would you suggest?

    Unfortunately, audiences do guide the decisions of directors as it is necessity that guides much of what gets produced – necessity to pay bills and keep things running. I would love to see a shift in the typical American audiences and how they are willing to be challenged but the expectation of being ‘entertained’ is still strongly at the forefront of arts programming.

    • Mark,

      It’s actually CRUCIAL that white people speak up HONESTLY about what they’re thinking. White people shouldn’t be punished for being honest, however diversity experts also shouldn’t be criticized for identifying real, measurable, and consistent behaviors in white culture that are detrimental to diversity.

      These words from the article “White Fragility” address your thoughts more clearly than I can myself:

      “Whiteness scholars define racism as encompassing economic, political, social, and cultural structures, actions, and beliefs that systematize and perpetuate an unequal distribution of privileges, resources and power between white people and people of color (Hil-liard, 1992). This unequal distribution benefits whites and disadvantages people of color overall and as a group. Racism is not fluid in the U.S.; it does not flow back and forth, one day benefiting whites and another day (or even era) benefiting people of color. The direction of power between whites and people of color is historic, traditional, normalized, and deeply embedded in the fabric of U.S. society (Mills, 1999; Feagin, 2006). Whiteness itself refers to the specific dimensions of racism that serve to elevate white people over people of color. This definition counters the dominant representation of racism in mainstream education as isolated in discrete behaviors that some individuals may or may not demonstrate, and goes beyond naming specific privileges (McIntosh, 1988). Whites are theorized as actively shaped, affected, defined, and elevated through their racialization and the individual and collective consciousness’ formed within it (Frankenberg, 1997; Morrison, 1992; Tatum, 1997). Recognizing that the terms I am using are not “theory neutral ‘descriptors’ but theory-laden constructs inseparable from systems of injustice” (Allen, 1996, p.95), I use the terms white and Whiteness to describe a social process.” http://libjournal.uncg.edu/index.php/ijcp/article/view/249/116

      In other words, to a certain extent, white people are just as much a slave to our society as minorities. Some observable and consistent behavior in white populations are not a result of individuals, but rather our society as a whole. We must be able to talk about THOSE behaviors without the discussion being seen as an attack on the individuals themselves.

  • Kaydub

    An insightful article that I appreciate very much. I do want to
    understand more about this line, however “I’ll continue to politely
    dodge offers for black roles while I quietly
    long for a role that actually gives me an opportunity to draw on my real
    human experience separate from my racial identity.” As an actor, we
    have the job of reaching beyond our own experiences to embody the
    character’s experience. Yes, it’s sometimes easier to draw upon our own
    in the process, but why would you limit yourself to only those roles
    that mirror you so closely?

    • Kay, thank you for taking time to respond.

      I also state in my article: “I’m an actor who has already completed MANY character studies investigating the challenges of racial inequality or flat out racism against said black characters”

      As a thought experiment, lets replace “black character” with “psychotic murderer”. If I had already played 3 roles investigating a “psychotic murderer”, and then I were offered 10 more roles as a “psychotic murderer”, in that case would you understand why I would want to “limit [my]self to only those roles that mirror [me] so closely”

      A good actor should be able to reach beyond their own experience, I agree. But I shouldn’t HAVE to want a black role just because one is available. No actor should take a role simply because it’s available. If a piece doesn’t speak to you, why do it? You assume that I’m turning down a role JUST because its a black role, when in reality most race-specific roles I’m offered simply don’t inspire because of the text. Often, shows with black roles are picked by a producer hoping to pull in an audience (ie. Hairspray, The Color Purple, and right now Motown the Musical)

  • dombrassey

    Wonderful!

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  • Carlo Altomare

    Interesting article by J Reese. Also the DiAngelo article that she quotes. I do agree that racism will not evaporate through “white color blindness”. Whites don’t like to accept what she proposes here: That whites think of themselves as a primary race, and then there are “people of color.” These attitudes go very deep and are sub-conscious in many respects, and supported by the spectacle of a culture which constantly supports that view. My belief is that it takes generations, and diligent attention, to finally overcome these problems. The road is long. But we are on it and her article helps untangle the contradictions. On another note: I lived in Seattle twice in my life for about two years each time. I have to say that one of most compelling reasons why I left and returned to NYC is that I missed the diversity of NYC and did not feel the influence of black culture, music, the sharing of public space, etc in Seattle. I always joked that it was one of the whitest places I ever lived. And regretfully so, because Seattle has so many other qualities that I am drawn to.

  • Sherry R Boyd

    Oh Mr. Reese, this is a poignant and brilliant article. I teach a class on race, class, and gender in the media; and this article they need to read. Thank you for this beautiful piece. (Christal Boyd’s mom)

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  • Barbara Earl Thomas

    You are truly deep thinker and a bright young person. What else could compel me to wade into these waters, from which I so long ago (1980’s to present) removed myself, because I felt that the conversation was at such a low level that it didn’t warrant one more moment of my time. I’m guilty of being born here but I know the drill. I always count how many Black people in the room. I”ve traveled and done lots of reading. From my personal experience I’ve had the experience around race where it’s on my shoulders to have the conversation, and take care of the person I’m talking to. Moreover, I realized years ago that somehow conversations around race were created so I (or the person of color) could have what others believed was a well needed outlet for frustrations that required nothing of them but to listen. Once “they” listened then we went back to as we were. My biggest resentment was that some how I was supposed to spend my time thinking about and fixing the race issue while my White artist friends only had to spend their time doing their work and moving their lives and careers along. I thought my God what a rip off. You give me hope. I love theatre will be seeing you out there for sure.