This is the first of two “What Is to Be Done” columns from Michael J. Bobbitt; look for the second in the coming weeks.
If you had a mold problem, would you paint over it and expect it to go away? And yet isn’t this sort of what we do at our theatres when trying to eradicate racism?
Predominantly white institutions exist for one main reason: racism. However you view it—whether it’s explicit, implicit, or complicit—the reason they are predominantly white is the same: racism. If this is an uncomfortable realization, embrace the discomfort and use it to make change. Change requires confession, redesign, investigation, reflection, and the pursuit of growth. The Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) folks I know love theatre—just maybe not at predominantly white theatres. And why should they? Those theatres are not meant for them, except on occasion.
To heal the sickness of racism, we can’t simply medicate the symptoms. This doesn’t work for any sickness. We must instead heal the root causes. Programs and programmatic initiatives are like medicating the symptoms. As creatives, we are drawn to programs. But the sickness of racism will not be healed with programs like:
- Discount ticketing to marginalized communities. This approach is a transaction. It doesn’t build deep connection, and is instead often designed to assuage guilt. Look at the affordability of ticket prices across the board.
- Producing one or two BIPOC-centered shows each season. Is your theatre a white affinity space that BIPOC folks occasionally get to experience? It’s great to see our stories onstage, but if all other aspects of your organization cater to white audiences, donors, artists, board members, and staff, we most likely won’t come back. Your space doesn’t feel like it’s for us. Maybe it is for our money, but it’s not for us.
- Community engagement programs. These initiatives are chronically underfunded and under-resourced, and tend to be side programs of theatres that get little attention from leadership. Additionally, the time relegated to true engagement is fleeting.
- Equity, Diversity and Inclusion committees (EDI). If we understand that racism is everywhere—not the shark in the water, but the water itself—why relegate this work to a committee and not the full institution? A committee like this, which usually doesn’t have decision-making power, is often tasked with the job of fixing racism in your organization, without the legal authority or social power to actually change things. This committee, usually comprised of BIPOC folks, is then re-injured because they are not able to effect real change, but have simply been performatively asked to do so. This work should be done by everyone. Either that, or give your EDI committee real power to rewrite bylaws, veto decisions that are inequitable, remove racist board members, etc.
- Hiring BIPOC folks in lead diversity positions. If your white-led organization is not ready to confess its racism and make significant changes, then any BIPOC person in a lead diversity position is at risk of harm and they will get little done. I have seen it dozens of times: the discomfort from the white boss about the changes the BIPOC diversity person wants to make too often trumps any anti-racist actions. A similar thing happens when a small number of BIPOC folks are added to boards and staff. If they are in the minority and their white colleagues are not ready to listen or execute their suggestions, the risk of harm is great. And we wonder why BIPOC folks don’t stick around! In many ways, a well-trained anti-racist white person in a diversity position can get more done, not least by helping other white people see the light and wake up. After all, we keep saying that fixing racism is white people’s problem, because they have social power and legal authority. BIPOC folks in these positions work best when the organization has made significant leaps into building an anti-racist culture.
- Hiring consultants to teach about the 400-year U.S. institution of racism. Can you do this in a few workshops? And doesn’t Google do this for free? To learn the full scope of this history would require a double doctorate. People participate in these workshops, yet still perpetuate racist ideas and actions. And we often leave these learnings with no new anti-racist actions or anti-racist ideas. So what’s the point? If you are going to use limited resources to bring in an expert, use them to assist in the identifying, adjusting, eradicating, revising, and dismantling of racist policies, practices, “how we’ve always done it”s, and other harmful procedures. Use that expert time to help put in place tactics to shift a culture. Use that expert to help you identify and excise overtly racist people from the organization. Come to these consultancy gatherings informed by the self-work that you have already done, and use that knowledge to support anti-racist actions and ideas.
These medications may make you feel better for a little while. They can attract small numbers of BIPOC audience members and support small groups of BIPOC artists. But they will not eradicate the racism and white supremacy that may exist in your organization. All of us have used and sampled these sorts of medications. But if we were grading them on their effectiveness, how many would receive a failing grade? We are still very, very sick with racism.
Some of us get bogged down in trying to change people’s hearts and minds first. The belief system is powerful, and has been composed for many individuals over the course of 20 to 80 years of life. Is it possible for ingrained white supremacist beliefs or learned behaviors to change in a few workshops over the course of a few months? I’m not so sure. Maybe a decade. A few workshops may teach some racist people to practice better behavior, and may open their eyes a bit, etc. But true change in beliefs takes years of unlearning and relearning. How many of you know people who have had significant race equity training, have read all the books, have marched and protested, and still say things that support racist ideology? Especially if it means they may lose power or privilege? Many people profess to be progressive liberals, but when faced with the loss of privilege and power, many show their true colors. They areprogressive liberals with conditions. Numerous Civil Rights Acts made it illegal to discriminate against people. They didn’t change bigots into non-bigots.
“Culture eats policy,” goes a popular saying. Clearly, even with all the laws and policies in our country to address inequities—the Equal Pay Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Civil Rights Acts of 1866, 1875, 1964, 1968, 1991, and so on—people still get away with being prejudiced assholes. Policy without culture shift won’t work. As Ibram X. Kendi has said: Because racism is everywhere, policies that aren’t anti-racist are inherently racist.
Racist policies must be thrown out. Glue, tape, and bandages won’t fix this; sometimes trash needs to be tossed. As with the mold I mentioned earlier, you have to pull down the drywall or plaster, figure out where the mold is coming from, fix that, kill the mold, then repair and paint the wall. If you are not ready to let go of racist, marginalizing policies, practices, and procedures, be transparent and accept that you are perpetuating white supremacy with those decisions.
Or, instead, you can spend your time both changing culture and putting policy in place that make it difficult for racists to be racists in your theatre. The best way to change the culture of an organization is to make sure that it is determined by all involved, and not just a committee, the board, or leadership. This shift should include artists and staff—the people carrying the mission. In this work, follow the lead of the most marginalized, because they know. All of the people you do business with—vendors, funders, audience members, board—should be made aware of the culture you want. There should be an expectation of adherence to continue the relationship. If an audience member, vendor, volunteer, staff person, director, or funder displays racist behavior or promotes racist ideology, they should no longer be welcome.
Building your culture can be discussed and documented in an anti-racism action plan. Solidarity statements without action mean nothing. If you have personally been betrayed or cheated on, hypervigilance sets in—wanting to know extreme detail about the betrayer’s whereabouts, who they were talking to, etc. When they tell you to “trust them,” it doesn’t mean much if their actions to rebuild that trust aren’t clearly stated or enacted. BIPOC folks have heard, “Trust me, I stand in solidarity with you,” for centuries! Centuries! And yet we are still abused by the sickness with racism. Actions speak louder than words. Without action, what you say means little.
Lastly, consider this: that diversity is good for business too. Equity and anti-racism can help with COVID recovery. They can open your doors to a lot of people who may not have felt safe, welcome, or comfortable in your spaces before. Frankly, given the racial reckoning we are in the midst of, I’m not sure that predominantly white institutions will survive. In the old days, if you had a complaint, you could send a letter to customer service. Now complaints about your organization’s lack of diversity, history of abuse, and lack of transparency can be sent to everyone, and everyone can resend it to everyone else. If you aren’t inspired by the notion of showing love to people who have never been loved before by this country by building anti-racism into the culture of your organization, then do it for the survival of your business. It’s in the interest of your bottom line and the common interest of making the world a better place.
Addressing racism with programs and programmatic initiatives can work, but only in partnership with building an anti-racist culture and adding policy that enables that culture to exist and thrive.
Michael J. Bobbitt (he/him) is the artistic director of New Repertory Theatre in Watertown, Mass. He recently took the job of executive director for Mass Cultural Council, which he will begin in February 2021.
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