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.”