Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Okay, then. Let's Talk About Race.

Read this. Now read this. (Not to mention this.) Now watch this:

Now. Let's have a little chat about diversity and the need for diversity in the arts.

I recently went to see a friend's show. Before I go further, I just want to say this: I liked it. I enjoyed the show, the performances, the whole shebang. Okay? Can you trust me on that? Thanks. Anyway. I go to see this show that is about race. No, it's not this. (Though what a lovely website you have, Mr. Mamet.) It was a small little show about the racial divide. And, in it, I saw a scene that practically made me roll my eyes out of my head. It's a scene we've all seen in every play, movie or TV show where a white person who "doesn't know black people" encounters a black person for the first time. The white person makes some offhand, casual remark with racial overtones. The black person (usually a male) responds, "...What?" Suddenly there's tension in the air. After a beat, the black guy smiles and says something along the lines of "Just kidding!" And we all have a laugh. But we all know that he wasn't kidding, that he was offended and in the climax of the play, there will be fisticuffs over it. It's a standard trope of plays written by white people about how they interact with black people.

Here's the thing: I've never, in my life, seen it happen. I've lived, as I've mentioned before, an exceedingly assimilated life. I'm very aware that I'm, generally, the only black person most of my white friends are close to, probably, in most cases, the only black person they really know. Since I was young, I was the first black person a lot of people have encountered. And, trust me, I've gotten almost all of the racially insensitive questions, remarks, observations. (Yes, I know my hair is just like steel wool, thank you very much. And no, I don't play ball.)

But this scenario, repeated over and over, I've never encountered. Usually, when I'm meeting a white person for the first time and they make an insensitive or bigoted remark, it's not casual. It doesn't slip out. It's part of a testing mechanism to see what my reaction is. And, in general, my reaction is to either get offended and make that known or get offended and let it slide for any number of reasons. I'm pretty sure that most of my assimilated black friends have similar calculations in their head. But this gotcha? Never seen it.

Granted, early on, I made a choice about the kind of person I would be in the world. Angry black men don't go far in this world, so I've generally opted for affable, easygoing. And people generally respond in kind. They may think and say some awful, horrible shit when I'm around the corner (and I bet they do), but they actually know better than to say it when I'm around. Even the most insensitive, obnoxious people I know know better.

But this scene...this scene is important, I think, to understanding what happens when a white person writes about black people. In Rob Weinert-Kendt's think piece about race on Broadway, he makes these observations:
With few exceptions, though, America's black playwrights write about race— when they choose to write about race at all—as it's lived within their own families and communities; precious few have chosen race relations as their main subject.
When white playwrights, on the other hand, write about race, they gravitate toward redemptive civil rights dramas, wary-friendship-between-the-colors buddy comedies, racial "problem" plays.
This, I think, sums up the Dances With Wolves/Avatar problem and leads us to the problem of why black people on TV are treated so poorly. In the Gotcha scene, the writer is setting us up with one central character trait for the black guy: he's an Angry Black Man With A Chip On His Shoulder, even if he's hiding it right now. It's the gun in the first act. We're just waiting for him to explode.

The white person may be insensitive, but he (or sometimes she) is insensitive out of inexperience and naivete. The Angry Black Person, though, is angry out of experience and needs to learn that this white person is different. And they almost always are, by the end of the play. The journey is all on the white person to learn about another person's experience and grow. The Angry Black Person, if they even survive, has only to learn some grudging respect for the newly enlightened white person and it's all good. Hell, half the time, the play or movie ends with the black person pulling the same Gotcha on someone else. The anger is always there.

When I was a kid, the only black kid in my class, we had a class discussion about race. And sure enough, I was being called on to defend all manners of bad behavior. One thing that still sticks with me was this one girl telling a story about how she tried to get on a bus and some black girl called her "Whitey" and told her to get out of her way. The white girl wanted me to explain why this girl would do that to her, when she hadn't done anything, and how wasn't that racism? And I did. I tried to explain that sometimes people have bad days and take it out on strangers. The girl wasn't having it. At that early age, I realized that for too many people, their brief interactions with people of other races were largely unpleasant and somewhat mysterious. We were all the other, moving through life according some bizarre, dream-logic that made no sense to a rational, young woman like her. Maybe that's when I opted for Nice Guy. I don't know. But I see this pattern repeat again and again.

Art is one of the places where we can have an effect on this. And we have. But too often it's the wrong effect. Think about your favorite show with a single black regular character. (Or even semi-regular.) What kind of person is that character? I'm betting they're either arrogant and talented or angry, talented and arrogant. They usually have escaped some urban hellhole to get where they are and are constantly throwing that in people's faces. Sure, they have a soft underbelly, but they're hard. And chances are, they're a subordinate to the main character. Maybe they're an equal in another department. Maybe. But if they are equals, they're rivals.

This happens because so many shows and movies and plays are written and conceived by white people. Honestly, it's not just because they don't have a lot of experience with black people or minorities, exactly. It's because, as white people, they're trying to fix a long history of doing wrong, I think. On some unconscious level, they're thinking, Maybe this play, this movie, this script can make a difference. That it's up to them to show that black people aren't all that bad. So to begin with, they kind of have to be all that bad.

This matters, though, because it affects the way people think and act in the real world. It affects the expectations of the real world. If people expect black people to be overly sensitive (as most black characters are), they don't want to hang around them for fear of an explosion. Hell, just thinking that sooner or later, this person is going to explode in a fit of Keeping It Real Gone Wrong, is reason enough to keep your distance.

We do have a chance to make things better, to make this a better world, but, in order to do that, we need more variety, more diversity, more voices. One of the great things about this novel is that it brings the world of the minority nerd to the forefront. We exist, just like y'all. It might be good for you to meet us.

When Freeman asks what I mean by diversity, it's my one place to get all racialist: I want more black people on stage, more black people in administrative positions, more black people in the house. To do that, we have to stop teaching black people that, deep down inside, they're all okay. They know that.

PS - I meant to say, H/T to the irreplaceable Josh Conkel for the HP video.


macrogers said...

I've never written a play on the subject of race, and probably never will. One key reason is that I've never had an idea for one. The other is that there's this voice inside me that tells me that I will get it wrong, no matter how I try to be honest, even-handed, whatever - that within weeks of writing it, I will read an essay somewhere explaining why my play was actually racist, in a subtle, condescending way, and I'll end up agreeing with them. So I won't write one.

It's not like it's a huge loss. Other people will write plays on the subject (and it's many sub-subjects) better than I would have. It just interests me that it's the only subject I'm too scared to touch.

Anyway. I liked this essay, 99, and it hit me where I live.

joshcon80 said...

What Mac said. Writing about race for whitey's is SCARY AS HELL.

That said, I'm writing a play right now about two women, one of whom is black in my imagination. The play is about feminism, not race, so I wonder how to treat it if I do end up saying, "this character is black." Meaning, do I have to give her a culturally neutral name like "Kris" or something? Is she allowed to have angry outbursts, or is that offensive considering the stereotypes surrounding black women (women tend to be the ballsy ones in my plays)? Also, since it's a play about women realizing that they hate their children, is that way too offensive when one of them is black? I can't help thinking people would take this subject matter more easily with an all white cast.

Scott Walters said...

Nicely done. And each of us focuses on different aspects of diversity, which is fine as long as we don't get into a my-diversity-isbetter-than-yours discussion. If a farmer grows only corn, it is a monoculture; if he adds soybeans, it still isn't a diverse culture, it's just the first step. We need a diverse theatrical culture. Thanks for making the case.

P.S. I'd like to hear your reaction to the book "The Trouble With Diversity."

99 said...

I'll definitely check out the book. And, yes! No "my oppression is worse than yours" here. We need all the voices we can, but we can't all work for all of them. If we're coming at it from all sides, though, we overwhelm 'em. And we win.

cgeye said...

It's about time the designated 'nice' person stop playing the Speaker to Animals part -- and that black people get to have more than anger in their emotional skill set.

Howzabout letting black characters be the centered ones in a non-ghetto environment? To be more than the expositional fonts, or faces of the bureaucracy? Ones who don't have the answers, but in whose journey we're invested?

As soon as I learn how to write like that, I'll let you know....

Duncan Pflaster said...

Interestingly, as a gay playwright, I tend to write gay-straight buddy comedies, rather than writing about homophobia. Maybe because the performing arts are already saturated with the 'mos, so I'm in the majority?

And being the first [minority] people meet rings very true for me, as well. I've fielded my own stupid questions. I feel your pain.

Ian Thal said...

Interesting thing is that it's taken me a few days since reading this post that I had written something parallel to the racial trope you're describing (and of course, I have seen numerous times.) The scene featured a set of goyische characters who had little if any contact with Jews before, encountering a Jewish character, and of course, say all the wrong things. Some of those "wrong things" were genuine well-intentioned faux pas, but some were clues to actual bigotry-- and rather than resulting in some sort of bonding, it ensured that these characters never engage in constructive dialogue (even the well-intended faux pas is potentially damaging.) I hadn't even begun to notice a potential black/white parallel until the stage manager pointed it out to me after a reading.

And I hadn't noticed that I wasn't recycling the "inter-racial buddy trope."