December 8, 2010

what doesn't work

One of the things that I often get asked when it comes to anti-oppression in radical, collective, and other non-hierarchical spaces is something along the lines of, "What should we be doing? Tell us what to do! Help us be less racist/sexist/homophobic/classist! We feel really bad about not having enough women/minorities/gays/poor folks in our organization. Tell us how to fix it!"

I'm not going to get into how incredibly fucked up and entitled it is for anyone with a particular privilege to demand that of anyone who does not share that privilege. If you still can't wrap your head around it, read this and get back to me.

I can't fix people's problems with race, gender, sexuality, or class on someone else's whim, and I certainly can't shit out viable solutions just because someone asked me to. It's not on me to do the heavy lifting of solving these problems just because I point out how they affect me and those who share certain things with me. What I can do is speak from my own experiences about what does and doesn't work. I'm going to limit myself to institutions and organizations that are - at least in principle - progressive.

Honestly, there is no One True Way To Undo Racism/Sexism/Homophobia/Classism. How that plays out is different for every group and their analysis of the problem. However, to save you a bit of time and heartache, I'm going to tell you what doesn't work.

1. Using one person or group as a buffer between your organization and underprivileged individuals.

I've seen this a lot. Instead of examining and transforming the ways that the systems and procedures you have is place are stacked against women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and working class/poor people, there's a separate little group or task force where people who don't fit the dominant group are sort of guided in that direction so that the organization as a whole does not have to deal with them.

This is fucked up for a few reasons. First of all, it forces that person or group into the role of gatekeeper even if that is against their intent and best interests. Secondly, different people have different needs and different reasons for being involved. Sloughing them off onto a person or group just because they share a specific trait may set them up for failure and/or disappointment because that person or group is not equipped to really give these individuals what they need.

2. Creating programs and initiatives based on symptoms instead of systemic problems.

"Oops," some folks say. "We put diversity in or mission statement but we don't do a lot of work by people of color. I know! Let's serve fried chicken and malt liquor at our shows so more Black people will come!"

"Oh no!" some would say, "It's a total sausage fest in our group! Hey, let's make pink flyers so women (and flaming homos) will come!"

You get the idea.

You have a group, organization or institution finally noticing that something is rotten in the state of Denmark but instead of addressing how they set things up to exclude people and transforming how they do things, they tack on some sort of diversity initiative.

What's wrong with it? Well . . .

Instead of basing your actions on what we have to say for and about ourselves, you're going by what you think we want. Instead of asking us what would make your organization more attractive to us, you keep focusing on what you want out of us and setting yourself up as the one we have to prove our worth to. You're still putting us in the position of having to beg to sit at your table instead of you creating a space where we feel invited to do so. This is the same shit we have to deal with everywhere else.

Those are the top two that come to mind. I'm sure you can think of others.

6 rules for allies

In this video, Dr. Omi Osun Joni L. Jones gives 6 rules for allies in social justice.

Transcript here.

You can also take a look at this article for some more concrete ideas.

December 4, 2010

thought experiment: racial power analysis of indie theatre scene

I want you to participate in a little thought experiment. But first, I need to give you some background information.

I came across an article by Zora Neale Hurston called "What White Publishers Won't Print," and I'm sighing and shaking my head at how relevant it still is.

I've recently been involved with The People's Institute for Survival and Beyond's women of color anti-racist organizing group. What I really enjoy about this group is that it's not about tools and skills. It's not about rhetoric. It's about transforming institutions through anti-racist principles. In other words, The People's Institute forces us to look at what we take for granted and see how it contributes to racial marginalization and oppression. This is the most crucial aspect of anti-racist organizing*. Without a grounding in these core principles, we risk perpetuating racial marginalization and oppression despite our best intentions.

* What I love about The People's Institute is how they demystify organizing as something that only "experts" can do. The process of anti-racist organizing is extremely accessible to anyone who cares enough to put a little time and energy into it.

While racism is the focus of The People's Institute, the principles they use can apply to other forms of oppression as well. This does not mean that you should rip off their work and apply it to other forms of oppression without first wrestling with race. No, no, hell no. What I do mean is that once you understand how racism works, you have a leg up in understanding and counteracting other marginalizations and oppressions.

* Seriously, the last thing people of color need is yet another White person coming in, stealing our shit, and profiting off of it.

If you ever get a chance to attend one of their workshops, I highly recommend that you go. But for now I'd like to focus on a few ideas that really stood out to me as highly relevant to the indie theatre scene. All of the principles connect with each other. However, let's examine two or three: analyzing power and gatekeeping.

This is where we come to the thought experiment. It's very simple. I'm going to ask a few questions, and you answer as fully as you can. But first, a few ground rules.

  1. Focus on race. Too often, when it comes to discussing race, the temptation is to ignore or erase that and make it all about something else. Without question, all systems of oppression are linked, but let's not pretend that we already know everything there is to know about race and how it functions in our lives.
  2. This is engagement, not debate. This is a place for thinking and reflection, not judgment. Practice active listening. Nobody is on trial. Racism is not a charge you have to defend against. It's merely the situation we're dealing with because it was built into the fabric of our society.
  3. Speak from your own experience. Talk from your own life. It's OK not to know this right away because we're trained not to think or talk about it like this. Parroting what somebody else said or regurgitating something you read or heard somewhere else turns this from a human interaction into an academic one.
Power analysis

  1. Where is power concentrated? 
  2. Who exercises power?
  3. Who controls and/or has access to resources?
  4. What barriers prevent full participation?
  5. What are the effects of the power structures?
In your experience, how does the indie theatre scene do the following?
  1. Exclude
  2. Exploit
  3. Oppress
  4. Underserve

  1. Which institutions and/or organizations do you work with?
  2. What community does it serve?
  3. Who is in that community? Where do people of color fit into that community?
  4. Where does your organization or institution interact with that community?
  5. Who describes that community?
  6. Who represents that community?
  7. Who speaks for that community?
  8. Who mediates with or for that community?
  9. Who evaluates the people within that community?
  10. Who speaks for that community?
  11. Who helps people navigate the system?
  12. Who has access to your organization or institution?
  13. Who are the leaders in your organization or institution? Who is represented in that leadership?
  14. Who gets people to join your organization or institution?

Of course, there's no pressure to answer all of these questions right away. Just some things to think about. Feel free to leave answers here or to link to this post on your own blog with your answers.

December 1, 2010

synchronicity and doubt

I read a post linked to from the Community Dish Yahoo group where fledgling playwright Natalie Wilson talks about the period shortly following a successful reading. She describes it as a kind of post-partum depression.
I’m ashamed -- I feel like if I haven’t landed anything then it must not be that good. Or at least that is what people must think, because the only way to know in the arts that something you have done has merit is if other people give it a stamp of approval. Without the mark of commercial success on something, what you have created (or what talent you may possess) is all so much drivel. At least that is how I feel. I can say my play is good until I’m blue in the face, but without an external stamp of approval no one else has any reason to believe that.
You know what? I know exactly how she feels because that's where I am right now. Brian M. Rosen gives a fantastic response about the difference between success and merit:
I think the trick for the emerging creative is to keep a rock solid wall between the concepts of merit and success. You need to be able to look at your output and see its merit without the coloration of success (or lack thereof). It’s the internal voice that defines your creative output, not the external. That’s the voice that will make decisions, this note or that note? Transition to a new section or keep repeating this idea? Who speaks next? What do they say?

That’s the voice that needs to look at your work and say, “Yeah. This is good. I need to make more of this.”
That's a sentiment I can definitely get behind. Nevertheless, I can't shake the feeling that it's not quite getting to the core of the playwright's dilemma. Natalie presses the idea when she says (bold mine):
We've all known those artists/performers/writers who think they have this amazing talent, but they just... don't.  I can think my play is great, but if no one wants to hear it, or if when they do hear it, no one responds to it, then I don't think I can really call it great.  I do rely on what other people think - not to the exclusion of own instincts, but along with - because my goal is to create art that speaks to people, that touches people, that causes them to look at something in life a bit differently than they did before.  To me, my instinctual feeling that my work has merit can only be validated by achieving that goal.  Which I can't know unless I put it up in front of an audience and observe their response.
To which I say: exactly.

Am I the only one in the theatre blogosphere who has anything to say about my play? This is not hyperbole. I mean this is all seriousness. Is my time better spent talking via e-mail with the handful of people who will respond to me as opposed to putting everything out here and making myself look like the homeless person talking to herself?