fbpx Anti-Racism and the Institution | HowlRound Theatre Commons

Anti-Racism and the Institution

“Theatre seems mired in the interest of stating some point... In no other artform are the intentions so slim!” — Suzan-Lori Parks, “Elements of Style

This past summer you may have noticed one very clear intention mobilize across the New York and American regional theatre communities: to signal justice. In rapid succession, statements of varying lengths committing to institutional solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement have populated our inboxes and social spaces from arts organizations across the country. But what will become of this? Why now, and what next?

It’s important to note that I am a white, male, cisgender, able-bodied administrator working for a large and predominantly white arts organization in New York City. In February I published a piece on HowlRound called “Woke Supremacy,” tracing relevant frameworks around why I find the intersection of “white” and “woke” identities to be a harmful and pervasive permutation of American racism. Then March came, and our industry was rocked by a global health crisis that swiftly halted all live performance, followed closely by a groundswell of newly energized calls for direct action in support of racial justice and an end to white supremacy. As a result, with the great privilege of watching whiteness at work at a particularly historic moment in our industry, I’m writing to continue pulling on some important threads from that initial conversation.

graphic of a seated audience and text reading "anti-racism and the institution"

In what world are we to finally believe that the proclamations coming from our overwhelmingly white institutions are going to bring about the justice and reform these institutions have long been espousing—especially when some organizations still won’t even speak up at all? Perhaps the difference this time is that, with the help of increasing and ongoing demands from coalitions growing in size and strength across our industry, organizations have responded by making specific commitments to designate seats for Black and Brown bodies at their illustrious tables. However, one of the many misunderstood mythologies in our theatre community is the concept of universalism—that once we’re all seated at the same table, we’re all here to do the same work.

In a hasty effort to be on the right side of history, I fear this industry is neglecting the historically precedented and exceedingly unspoken costs of forcing this kind of assimilation to white institutional power in this country. Doors are swinging open and white institutional leaders are ushering tokenized theatremakers into their broken homes. And in exchange for closer proximity to once tightly held resources, in a cavalier and unblinking gesture, our white leaders have laid at their feet long legacies of institutional harm and oppression. Do with this what you will.

To put it simply, racial justice needs a new inclusion paradigm. We can’t afford to offer any more “seats at the table.” It’s over. The platitude didn’t work. The following is a proposal for predominantly white arts institutions and their white leadership to reflect much more deeply on this historic opportunity to finally pursue real and lasting change.

Doors are swinging open and white institutional leaders are ushering tokenized theatremakers into their broken homes.

Put the “I” Back in Institution

First and foremost, I know it’s topical, but please let’s approach any use of the phrase “systemic racism” with a little more care and awareness. White people, we are the system. So when you name that racism is systemic without an “I” statement, what you’ve done is very cleverly granted yourself a personal exoneration. Your organization is not, in fact, your branding, your building, or your season—it’s the group of individuals holding power. White people, as long as we remain the woeful majority across our industry, we must acknowledge that we are the system of racism we’re speaking out against. We are the agents of harm and oppression. Racism is not “systemic,” it is a “system I am complicit in,” it is “a system I, knowingly or not, opt into every single day.”

The good news is that racist and antiracist are not fixed identities. We can be a racist one minute and an antiracist the next. What we say about race, what we do about race, in each moment, determines what—not who—we are. — Ibram X. Kendi, How to Be an Antiracist

What would happen if our leaders stood in front of their institutions, showed their faces, said their own names, and used “I” statements with their institutional branding at their backs—speaking openly about the white supremacy they knowingly or not have opted into, about how they’ve come up short in the past, about how they might have inflicted harm on their very own community of artists, administrators, and audiences, and about why Black lives matter to them? I believe then we’d finally begin arriving at words that carry some authenticity—and hopefully then anti-racist action that has some real human buy-in.

And I want to be very clear. There is a fundamental difference between diversity, equity, and inclusion work, and anti-racism. Right now, those two subjects are being proliferated loosely and interchangeably. But the function of promoting greater diversity, equity, and inclusion is about shaping external systems, it’s about creating parity and inclusion from the organizational perspective—it’s about looking outward. The other side of that coin is anti-racism, which is the function of looking inward, acknowledging how your power is white power tied to your white privilege, acknowledging supremacy, acknowledging complicity and transgression, and clarifying the roles we play in racist systems.

White artistic leaders: it is no longer enough to hide behind board-approved statements, or behind a season you’re working on, behind artists you have hired in the past, behind artists you plan to hire in the future. You, we, all of us must acknowledge harm—and we must do it explicitly, publicly, personally—and often. It’s not an exercise in remorse or humility, it’s a radical shift in the way this work is being framed, from language that absolves us, defends us, or outsources responsibility to a self-relying and reinforcing practice of accepting responsibility—so that we can finally begin to move ahead looking at the same goal posts.

When we admit our part of the problem, we free ourselves from the burden of constant self-serving justification. We influence others by letting them influence us, which awakens their sense of responsibility. We create a power that is not contrary to compassion and cooperation but is compassion and cooperation. — Eric Liu, You Are More Powerful Than You Think

Helen Shaw recently interviewed Baltimore Center Stage’s artistic director, Stephanie Ybarra, to discuss industry leadership on the heels of an ongoing “We See You, White American Theater” campaign. Shaw writes, “Learning and unlearning in public can be embarrassing and painful” and then quotes Ybarra: “This work requires thick skin (…) and deep humility. When somebody comes and tells you This is a problem or What you said is problematic, it is one of the hardest things to understand—but you can receive that as a gift, like, Oh, somebody just turned on a light.

In all of our conversations about inclusion, white people, what we so conveniently forget to name is how exactly we’re prepared to negotiate the way power dynamics must necessarily be restructured.

Power Is Infinite

In all of our conversations about inclusion, white people, what we so conveniently forget to name is how exactly we’re prepared to negotiate the way power dynamics must necessarily be restructured. (Power hoarding: a tenet of white supremacy.) If there were ever a time to uproot the way power moves through our organizations, a global pandemic that has forced a radical shift in the way we are able to bring services to market might just be that moment.

The American theatre, like most vestiges of our capitalist economy, utilizes a hierarchical power structure in its administration. The visionaries sit at the top and all of the necessary functional roles are structured firmly below in support of the artistic vision. But ironically, we’re talking about administrating theatre—famously the most collaborative art form. Our rehearsal rooms are necessarily designed to be generative, generous, and interdependent spaces of collaboration, and yet down the hall our administrative offices employ the opposite strategies: illusions of transparency blatantly undermined by closed doors, curated distribution channels, and a resounding lack of trust.

Ybarra and Shaw continued their conversation in Vulture, noting that “The kernel of all anti-racism work [is] reallocating power… Hierarchy concentrates power, which turns out to be very difficult to give up.” Looking back, Ybarra says, “While I never doubted who was the boss of the Public Theater while I worked there, that structure of having multiple program directors driving their own curatorial processes is one of the closest structures I’ve seen to a major institution with some element of decentralization operating inside of it.” Redressing white supremacy means addressing the way power moves. Who has it and how—but, perhaps more importantly, why?

“Why? Well this is the way we’ve always done it.” This phrase is brought to you by a scarcity of time, attention, and resources—all hallmarks of the nonprofit sector. (Only One Right Way: a tenet of white supremacy.) Exacerbating the use of this refrain is a theatre industry so richly mired in tradition.

Ybarra continues, “In Baltimore, the anti-oppression staff group is decentralized because ‘subverting the hierarchical structure and encouraging staff to self-organize in this work creates shared accountability.” Fundamentally we have to reorient our centers. (Paternalism: a tenet of white supremacy.) What does it look like to revolutionize your power systems? Democratize them. How do you foster cultures of accountability? Let your staff organize themselves.

All it requires is your yes. Grant yourself the abundance of better feedback. Open yourself to channels of support from people who represent the integrity of your organization but who have their boots on the ground, who are less insulated from the truth. I guarantee they already see your organization’s blind spots and opportunities for growth—so let them show you. Look around, and instead of seeing all the support you’ve asked for, what if you began to get curious about all the support your staff might be willing to offer. Imagine for a moment a world where feedback flows upward as much—if not more—than it flows downward. Power, in fact, is infinite. It’s a positive-sum operation. The more there is, the more you’re able to leverage.

Radical Partnership

In order to fully embrace the collective liberation of our theatre industry, we must radically reform our relationship not only to our power vested in human capital, but more obviously in financial capital. In a recent Live at the Lortel interview, Ty Jones, Classical Theatre of Harlem’s producing artistic director, noted, “Foundations have been going around saying ‘We believe in diversity, equity, and inclusion, and the big institutions do something during Black History Month—they make whatever gesture they need to make to be able to get that money. And then organizations like mine get the crumbs.”

Collective liberation is only possible through mutual support. And beyond sharing capital, in order to undermine white support for white supremacy and help build a more racially just society, we must align our larger organizations with the leadership operating in communities of color. Strong accountability relationships operating both inside and outside our organizations must be a central tenet in our theories of change.

If Black lives matter to you, how are you protecting and propagating Black history and culture? You need to lift up Black institutions. You must radically embrace co-ownership. A ticket purchased to Classical Theatre of Harlem is not a ticket lost at Roundabout. We can create symbiotic, mutually supportive platforms—wherein we each leverage our individual strengths for the collective health and well-being of our communities and our industry.

To resist racism, we cannot think of oppression as a system existing outside of ourselves.

Holding the Whole

As I mentioned, white people, we have become experts in exceptionalism, framing our own personal behavior in such a way that exempts us from collective white reproach. But in order for white people to be fully committed to undermining white supremacy, we must remain increasingly aware of how our own personal behavior resembles larger patterns of oppression. (Individualism: a tenet of white supremacy.) To resist racism, we cannot think of oppression as a system existing outside of ourselves.

This summer, the remarks Ginny Louloudes, former executive director of A.R.T/New York, made on tape, alongside an unfortunate list of recorded abuses, led to her very immediate placement on administrative leave by the organization’s executive committee. In her recorded comments she states, “A.R.T./New York is valuing everything but cisgender white people… And if you’re going to do that, and you have a white straight executive director, it doesn’t make sense. You know, I don’t feel like I should be running A.R.T./New York if you’re going to shift the power. You need to have somebody else.” (Defensiveness: a tenet of white supremacy.)

Upon hearing this news, while it might have been your impulse, as it was mine, to distance yourself from one artistic leader’s astonishingly unambiguous response to increased racial awareness, it’s more important to recognize how this remark resembles a much larger pattern of white inaction. And to close the loop: being white is not under attack. A white racial identity in itself is not a relevant criteria for evaluating leadership, but the privilege it holds, the fragility it protects, the misdirection it invokes, the doors it can close behind itself—these are some of the ways harmful white behavior propagates itself, and these are the actions that must continue to be placed under greater scrutiny when evaluating our leaders and the anti-racist work they’re espousing.

So if you’ve read all this, and you’re looking for a place to start—I’ll conclude with one short yet profoundly actionable list that was very helpful to me, from adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy.

  • Small is good, small is all.
  • Change is constant.
  • There is always enough time for the right kind of work.
  • There is a conversation in the room that only these people at this moment can have. Find it.
  • Never a failure, always a lesson.
  • Trust the people (If you trust the people, they become trustworthy).
  • Move at the speed of trust.
  • Less prep, more presence.
  • What you pay attention to grows.

Bookmark this page

Log in to add a bookmark


Add Comment

The article is just the start of the conversation—we want to know what you think about this subject, too! HowlRound is a space for knowledge-sharing, and we welcome spirited, thoughtful, and on-topic dialogue. Find our full comments policy here

Newest First