Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Agree and Disagree

I ran into Josh at one of many holiday parties last night that the conversation that had begun primarily focused on talking about racial diversity had morphed into a conversation largely about class diversity. Obviously both are important to discuss. I happen to think they're intimately intertwined and we actually learn a lot simply by the way we talk about class and the assumptions that inform the conversation.

Isaac brings the topic back around with this list of conversation-starters. Each one could spawn a blog of its own. Since I already have one, I'm just going to bite off a little bit and take up one of Isaac's hot button issues: suing theatres for workplace discrimination. I agree with a lot, well, let's be honest, most of what Isaac has to say, but I think this particular idea is a bit off the mark, but in a useful way to discuss and in a way that ties into our thinking about diversity and class.

Some folks seem to get the vapors when someone brings up the idea of suing a theatre, because, I guess, they're poor and struggling and therefore don't have to do the right thing. Whatever. That's not why I think this kind of suit would be hard to bring and especially hard to win.

To stick with Isaac's clarification, I'm going to take off my "playwright" hat and put on my "theatre administrator" hat and focus, as much as I can, on staffing and infrastructure and not on programming. In Isaac's parlance, we're talking about intracompany diversity.

In my time, I've applied for many a theatre job, at various levels, gotten some, missed out on others. At no time, in all honesty, have I ever felt like my race came into play in a negative way. If I'm being absolutely honest, I'd have to say that once or twice, it probably helped a bit. Not that I got those jobs, but I was a more attractive candidate because of my race. I'll also say that, as in most of my life, my race was probably a surprise more than once. I have a "mainstream" name, no traces of an accent in my over-educated voice, my resume is not dotted with very racially specific positions. Now, I also have to say that I'm pretty much a poster child for the thoroughly assimilated negro, so I don't have a very sensitive radar to that kind of thing. But I think that many other black theatre professionals would have similar experiences. I'm EXTREMELY open to being contradicted on this, so feel free to comment, e-mail or whatever any contradictory examples.

Suing an individual theatre for a specific job would require a fairly precise set of circumstances: two candidates of relatively equal work histories, experience and education. Or a theatre that had regularly and systematically rejected minority candidates at several levels, if not all levels. On the second point, most theatres would be pretty adept at making the case that they hadn't rejected minority candidates using every actor they'd ever hired. No matter how lily-white a theatre is, some black folks have to cross their stage sooner or later, even just in a reading. Those stats, as they say, can be juked, at least enough to pass a smell test.

Theatres are also, in general, staffed and run by highly educated, fairly well cultured people, so the other standard tact for this kind of suit, an unfair or unsafe work environment, is also remarkably hard to find (except if you're a woman, in which case, I'm sorry to say, it's pretty easy to encounter...but that's another diversity post for another day). An off-color joke here or there or some casual hipster racism, sure. (H/T to the Prof and RVCBard on that link.) For some, that may qualify, but I think that, outside of being called the N-word to your face, on a regular basis, it would be hard to make it fly.

The first kind, though, with the two people of equal backgrounds, that's the pernicious one, and the one where the institutional racism of this country comes into play. Because it's just plain unlikely that, for most positions available in a theatre, there will be a black person who's equally qualified. As I write that sentence, it sounds harsh and scary and I'm concerned about the appearance of internalized racism or prejudice with it, but I still think it's right on. Before you get upset, let me back it up a bit.

As I broke down here and as the Prof broke down here, and as most people know, our education system is largely unfair and full of inequities. One of those is that minority students, particularly African-Americans, have less of a shot at even making it to college. And those that do are generally coming out of the gate with less support and more debt. Most theatre jobs, particularly entry level, pay for shit. Even if a black student has an impulse towards working in the theatre, that's an impediment. Even as theatres become more specialized, the entry level positions are filled with people who, at least, started off as actors or directors or writers and are looking for career advancement. But even at that level, a lot of young white people are starting off with a leg up, particularly those from the upper classes.

One of my theatre jobs was working at a summer theatre with an apprentice program. High school and college students paid thousands of dollars for six weeks of classes and working behind the scenes. I did it for two summers and, over the course of the two summers, there was maybe 1 minority student. Out of about 40, 45 students. All of those students, coming out of college and applying to a theatre for a job, have a qualification that a minority student doesn't have. And that matters.

That kind of inequity increases as the years go by and the general numbers dwindle. So, going back to the start, if you have two applicants for the same position, one white and one black, the chances are the white person will have more qualifications. If you took the race off the resumes, the white person would get it. If the interviews were phone interviews or held blind, the white person would get it. Because, chances are, they've had advantages.

There's also the ghetto-ization factor. Most minorities who work in mainstream theatres are working very specific briefs, usually on minority issues. They're hired to run "hip-hop" theatre programs, do outreach to the Latino communities, program after-school events for the Asian community. The assumption, across most of our culture, is that while a white person can connect with anyone, given the right training or attitude, but a minority can only really connect with their minority group. If you hire a black person as your development director, the concern is that they won't be able to connect to your white donors. I guess the fear is that they'll start busting into jive or that the donors will be counting the silverware after they leave the fancy dinner. The same fear goes for a black lit manager; all of a sudden you'll be running a "black" theatre (Once you invite one, they always invite their friends over...). And no one wants that.

These are culture-wide assumptions, but in theatre, what that means is that, in general, minorities' work experience is far more limited that most white workers. Their resumes are dotted with short-term, grant-based jobs, limited briefs and limited exposure to the larger theatre community. Again, we're at a disadvantage.

But these are the macro issues. On the micro, despite what I've said in the past, I think most theatres aren't run by racists who are resistant to hire minorities. I simply think there aren't enough qualified applicants. If we want to diversify our theatre staffs, starting there would be a good thing. Sue the schools and the summer training programs.


joshcon80 said...

I was walking by from D'agnistos on Greenwich because I'm making a charceuterie plate as a surprise for my office mates, thinking about race etc.

I was going to quickly stop in at the Starbucks in my building to get a coffee, when I noticed there were two lines coming out of the door. A helpful employee was acting as a door man and told me, "Go straight to the front of the line. All of these people are here for a job fair."

The crowds of miserable looking people with Starbucks applications on either side of me as I was whisked up to the register to buy a latte were solidly black and Latino.

Again, what is true of the whole wide world will also be true of theater, yes?

In any rate, it made me feel awful and embarrassed. Just thought I'd share.

isaac butler said...

Hey 99,

Just wanted to say I love this post, and also just to clarify: I don't actually think we should be suing theaters, but I think it's a good provocation and worth discussing because it leads to exactly these kinds of thought provoking conversations.

joshcon80 said...

Oh, right.

I'd meant to write before my brush with my own little privilege that it never seemed to me like Isaac was REALLY advocating for suing theaters, but trying to make a point with hyperbole. Just my take, but I was surprised when certain coo coo birds took that little post and ran with it to once again label Isaac a PC Policeman.

Also, I just read that hipster racism piece. Wow. I'm SUPER guilty of that, I think. There's a sassy black widow spider in MilkMilkLemonade that speaks in a stereotypical "ghetto" voice. I could see that a lot of people were offended in the audience.

I guess I would say (at the risk of being super pretentious and also a hipster racist) that I was commenting on how childrens theater/film/etc uses black stereotypes in a really weird way, from the crows in Dumbo to the donkey in Shrek. Also, I was trying to make fun of white people's fears of black women.

Anyway. Turns out I might be racist.

99 said...

Isaac - Glad you liked it! And do I get that you're not suggesting lawsuits are the way to go (despite what some folks seem to think), but I think what I'm trying to get at is why that kind of thinking doesn't enter it.

joshcon: A) I want to give you a hug and heal your racist heart and B) you're no worse than Perez Hilton. http://theassimilatednegro.blogspot.com/2009/10/dear-tan-is-perez-hilton-always-this.html

In fact, you're much better.

I did have a small issue with the spider in MML, but it felt authentic, so it didn't take me out of the play. So...if you are a racist, you're an authentic one?

joshcon80 said...

Well, I do whole heartedly reject the notion that I can't use issues like racism, sexism, homophobia etc in comedy. I write satires, and I purposely write about things that people are uncomfortable with or try to avoid discussing.

There is a line between enshrouding one's self in bigotry in order to expose how ugly it is. I think Sarah Silverman is brilliant about this, as opposed to, say, Lisa Lampanelli, who is just exploiting racism to make people laugh. It's a tricky line to walk, and I'm big enough to admit that maybe I fail sometimes in walking it.

I guess all I'm saying is that I do think there is value in irony, as much people are all hipster irony backlash-y right now. I think I'm one of those people who might say, "don't be so sensitive."

All of this deserves some more soul searching. Not to get off topic or anything.

99 said...

I think it's exactly the topic. How artists deal with race guides how the organizations deal with it. And I hope it's obvious that I completely agree: no words, no topics, no ideas should be off limits. But the question should be how the words are used. A lot of people think that if they throw the n-word in a script, they're being both edgy and discussing race. But generally, they're not.

Scott Walters said...

Great post as always, 99. Damn, I wish you had been in DC.

I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss Isaac's suggestion (even if he is quick to do so). Here's why: the threat of a lawsuit is all it takes to change behavior in an institution that has no money to pay a lawyer to defend itself. Look at the music industry: first, it started out bringing lawsuits against individual young people who were downloading music illegally. Result: they look like bullies. Now they have a new tactic: threaten to sue UNIVERSITIES for not taking enough action to prevent students from downloading music illegally. Result: universities are scared shitless and taking action (mine is, and I hear the same from others).

Also, I think this is a class action suit, not about individual cases.

99 said...

I guess the question is how many people are we thinking would be a party to the suit? What would be the criteria? I think it's an interesting thought experiment, but I think it reveals more about the way our theatres operate by thinking about the ways it wouldn't work.

The threat of a lawsuit can often spur action, but it would need to have some basis for success. Wouldn't it?