I still have two posts left about last year’s trip through Europe. One of them is even finished and ready to go up. But I feel strange putting up those posts without acknowledging what’s been happening since then—what’s happening now. It seemed pretty tone-deaf to keep writing about the kind of trip that, this year, has been impossible. Especially while black folks continue getting shot by police. And protestors for black lives get tear-gassed in the streets and beaten by cops. Or they get killed by a white teenager with an automatic weapon, who then faces no consequences when law enforcement drives by in full military gear. I guess I’ve been putting off posting anything at all, to avoid examining these thoughts and feelings publicly.
But it’s time. And that isn’t to say that my perspective has any kind of special import or significance. But our perspectives impact the way we move through the world. And as we move through the world (even if for most of this year, “moving through the world” has amounted to interacting through a computer screen and emerging to buy groceries once every couple of weeks), we shape it. We affect people. We create or uphold, maintain or dismantle, or even rebuild the structures that shape the world around us. Even if it’s just in minuscule ways; collectively, it all adds up. So if my perspective is shaping me and what I do in the world whether or not I look at it—whether or not I put in the effort to understand that perspective, so that I can start shaping it—then it is the least I can do to stop hiding from it, and take responsibility for it. Which for me frequently starts with writing.
So. 2020. You weird, monstrous alien of a year. You rude little jerk. You wise, blunt hand that holds the mirror, and forces us to look into it without closing our eyes. What can I say about you?
Well, I’ve had plenty of reason (and time) to reflect. To ask myself who I am in the world. It’s a question I’ve asked myself before. But in the past when I’ve asked myself this question, I’ve consistently overlooked one massive puzzle piece. My whiteness.
I’m embarrassingly inexperienced at talking about race. And honestly, I’m scared of it. I’m nervous about looking stupid, or worse, looking like a white supremacist or a racist myself. But the fact is, I was born and bred in a white supremacist, racist system. So the fact is, that has shaped me. Even if I don’t consciously hold racist values, even if I do consciously believe that all people should be equal, I still hold biases and assumptions and levels of willful ignorance. I took those in just by breathing the air of Western colonialism (and by being white in a Western colonial society).
So, I very well might look stupid. I’ll likely make missteps (and I’ll commit to learning from them). But I think that these conversations need to be had. And as a white person, I hardly realized how reluctant and even resistant I was to talking about race. Which is exactly how I managed to justify not taking any serious actions against racism, while still believing myself to be a good, just, non-racist person. If there wasn’t a problem, then I didn’t need to choose between being part of the problem or part of the solution.
I’m getting a little ahead of myself, though. Like I said, I don’t think I’m very good at talking about this. I’m struggling with two coexisting facts: that I have a whole lot of feelings about this subject; and that if my feelings as a white person become the center of any conversation about race, then that conversation has become utterly counterproductive. I can only write from my own perspective; but my white perspective is only relevant insofar as I actively use it to uplift the cause of anti-racism. To that end, I have been striving to do my homework. So, if you’d like to hear from people who know much more than I do, please check out this awesome Google doc. It lists resources that explore race, racism, white supremacy, history, current events, and all of the relevant context with an authority that I absolutely do not have.
With all of that in mind, as limited as my perspective is, it’s clear to me that I do need to start talking about racism and anti-racism. I think we all do. If we don’t look around us and talk honestly about what we see, we’ll never be able to change it.
So I’m going to give it my best shot, even if it means being uncomfortable and embarrassed (especially then). Even if a post like this hardly even scratches the surface of this subject, and feels woefully inadequate. I’m going to continue giving it my best shot, over and over again. I definitely intend to check myself and not drown out non-white voices. I’m trying to learn as much as I can, and to do my best to avoid hurting anyone. And I’m also going to take the risk of making mistakes, because the alternative—not talking about it, not looking at it, not doing anything—well, I’ve been taking that route for way too long already. It hasn’t served anyone, myself included.
So yeah. I’ve been doing some reading and seeing a whole lot of truths that I didn’t want to see. I had a safe and sheltered childhood in the suburbs, where I thought racism was a thing of the past. Eventually, probably in college, I started recognizing my white privilege through conversations that we had in some of my theatre and history classes. I slowly understood that racism was alive and well—in systems including, but not limited to: policing, the for-profit prison system and the school-to-prison pipeline, the justice system, gerrymandering, housing inequality and gentrification, barred access to education and job opportunities, income inequality, and individual acts like bad-taste jokes. And yeah, that’s a lot. But I still thought it was only certain systems that were corrupted by racism. Some systems were fair and equal. And some systems were just marred by a few bad apples. Racism existed, and white privilege existed, but segregation and slavery were over, and I wasn’t racist…
It’s only been in the past few months that I’ve (finally) recognized that racism is everywhere. Including in my own subconscious, coming out in my actions and speech, even without me knowing it. At first, my whole body wanted to violently reject this idea, that I could be racist. But the more I read and watched and learned, the more I looked around, the less I could deny it. I saw it all around me, too. And I started to use the word “racist” a little differently in my head.
In the past, I regarded “racist” as essentially the equivalent of “bad person.” Because of that, any implication that “racism” could be connected with me was absurd and wrong and something to vehemently deny, prove false. Because I thought of “racist” or “not racist” as the definition of a person—an unalterable and defining aspect of their personality—I wouldn’t be able to listen to someone pointing out a behavior as racist and take it as constructive criticism. But what if “racist” isn’t a defining personality trait, but rather something that is possible within all of us sometimes, like “rude” or “inconsiderate” or “selfish” or “greedy” or “mean”? Sure, some people act in one or more of these ways more often than others. And yes, sometimes people act this way often enough that it can become a way that others define them. But more often than not, that isn’t the case. If I accidentally say something inconsiderate, and someone tells me they were hurt by my words, I’m able to apologize and not make the same mistake again. I assume they’re talking about that moment, not telling me, “You’re a bad person and there’s nothing you can do about it.” Everyone has the capacity for rudeness, meanness, greed. Usually we don’t do it on purpose. But we do all get to choose how we deal with those things within ourselves. We can do better next time. Maybe racism—at least on the individual level—is the same.
So I’ve been asking myself, “What does it look like to practice anti-racism in Wandering Theatre?”
Some things come to mind pretty easily. Like expanding our majority-white personal bubble of the artist community, and embracing more diverse perspectives (which also means not expecting collaborators to donate their time and creativity, but always compensating our fellow artists). Right now, we have just one show, few to no performances (thanks Covid!), and only the resources we can pull from our own little pockets. And Wandering Theatre consists of just Aaron and me. So the kind of collaboration where we can compensate fellow artists for their work is a future we are striving for rather than a current reality. But even brainstorming show ideas is enough to get me feeling at least a little bit of hope for the future. Art and theatre don’t happen in a vacuum; and as we create more, we’re looking forward to growing our circle of artists, creators, and friends.
Similarly, it’s our responsibility to really do our homework about the organizations, people, and places we perform for. We can ensure we work only with organizations that actively prioritize fighting racism and actively value black lives. Also, for a long time it’s been our hope to apply for grant funding that would allow us to perform in schools that don’t have money in their budget for arts programming. And due to racial inequality in education (and a whole lot of other systems at play that contribute to this) this applies disproportionately to schools in non-white communities. Granted, school shows haven’t happened at all this year, and who knows when they might become an option again. But it’s still well worth thinking about.
And thinking about school performances led my mind to another handful of questions.
Aaron and I are two white performers. That is a simple, immovable fact. This means that as things stand, our audiences are seeing exclusively white bodies telling our stories. Sure, they’re seeing puppets also, and that’s a definite tool that we can use to strive toward as much inclusivity as possible. But still, they are watching two white performers. And that is what it is. We are a couple pursuing our passion, not an organization with the means to hire and pay additional performers.
So I’ve been asking myself, how do we move forward being conscious of that? How do we tell stories that are inclusive, but not appropriative? Can we move away from always centering a white perspective, but not misrepresent, tokenize, or drown out the actual voices of BIPOC people and cultures? I think that we can and we must. But how to do so is, so far, not the easiest question to answer.
I don’t want to perpetuate stories that leave kids believing that you have to be white to have a story worth telling. And even if that isn’t the intended message of most stories, a lot of kids still come away with that impression when we as a society continue to focus on white characters and white heroes.
But also, I personally have only lived a white American experience. I do believe that the magic of storytelling is in the way it allows us to see through others’ eyes, feel what others feel, and nurture our own empathy. I think we need to write not only what we know, but also what we can imagine. However. Any and all stories are only useful if there are truths we can take from them. Even in the wild bounds of our imagination, we can only suspend our disbelief if the core, essential element of what we are imagining resonates as true. Therefore, I cannot presume to tell a story that truthfully speaks to BIPOC’s experiences. Some things are universal to the human experience; and some things that BIPOC live with every day, and have lived with for generations…without having lived through that, there is only so far that a person’s imagination can take them. And it isn’t far enough to be able to speak those kinds of truths.
But I hope that it can be enough to listen to those truths. To keep working to understand them and feel them. To let those truths in, even when it hurts.
And actually, although I’m definitely still a bit lost in this wilderness that is American race relations, I feel like writing this out did help me orient myself a little. I’ve been feeling lost about what stories I can tell, what stories are productive to tell and need to be told, and what stories can be told by me. And maybe it’s at least a start to take a look at what truths are in the story. Is this truth universal, shared by us all? Or does this truth seem universal, but actually only applies to white folks because it takes white privilege for granted as a given? And if the latter is the case, that can at least be a sign that perhaps this isn’t the story that needs telling right now.
It’s definitely not a full answer. But maybe it’s a start.
This post—my personal 2020 story—is bursting with white privilege. I hope, though, that it isn’t taking that privilege for granted as a standard part of reality, and thus perpetuating the current status quo. I hope instead that it acknowledges the dissonance and separation white privilege creates—acknowledges that white privilege and white supremacy exist and, in a just world, they wouldn’t. I hope that talking about it can be a first step toward tearing those things down, and building something better.
I guess I want to tell stories that help us imagine what we can build.