A Colored Conundrum
If it is true that conflict is at the heart of drama then the 2014 Theatre Communications Group (TCG) Crossing Borders conference in San Diego, California had its share, as is often the case when any group attempts to tackle the issues revolving around identity and ethnicity in a public forum. The drama in this case began when TCG conducted an experiment to see what would happen if they created a space for affinity groups to divide themselves based on how attendees self-identify in four areas: gender, ability, sexual orientation and race/ethnicity. However, the self-identifying process did not create the kind of clarity within each affinity group that was intended—some white people attended a race/ethnicity affinity group.
The event in question took place on the first day of the conference during an Intergenerational Leaders of Color meeting—when the white people who had decided to attend this session were asked to leave the room by the session’s moderator. Admittedly, I was not present when this dis-invitation took place and only learned of it shortly after it happened from a visibly shaken seventy-nine-year-old white female who was one of the people to leave the gathering (and then had the door to the room closed on her as she stood watching and listening to the session from the hallway). After I extended this woman an invitation to reenter the session as my personal guest (she declined), I made my way toward the door with the intent to communicate my disapproval to the full gathering inside the room. Had a friend of mine, who works for TCG, not been manning the door I would have done so. What I did instead was to boycott the session and search for any TCG representative to inform them of the event and then learn the reasoning behind allowing something like this to happen. My next task was to search for the “white allies” affinity group to see if they would dare ask me (a brown man) to support them by leaving their white only meeting. Unfortunately, I was not able to find them. The main question I had when I first learned of this event nags me still, why is it that creating a safe environment for people of color to communicate necessitates an officially segregated environment?
A large part of my motivation to speak out on what happened at the conference rests on my dissatisfaction with the glacial pace of change around the issues of diversity and inclusion, and also as someone committed to ethnic theatre. I suggest that we should focus our approach to identity, inclusion, and equality by joining forces across borders.
My refusal to participate in a meeting that would encourage exclusion based on ethnicity was a personal choice, and I do not wish to question or condemn any people who stayed in the meeting, in fact many people I know and respect were in the room and some even entered after they heard what had transpired. However, I do wonder why more people did not walk out of the meeting in solidarity with the group of white attendees? Would they have walked out if the group invited to leave were brown or black? I would hope. What exactly is the difference between an exclusively white meeting and an exclusively “colored” one? I struggle to understand the exact difference.
Some of the white people who were asked to leave the meeting are my friends and I know them to be actively working to ensure diversity and inclusion in their theaters. One white man in particular has (with his white wife) implemented many successful Latino outreach projects, the most recent one titled Teatro del Pueblo. My guess is that most of the white people who took the time to go to the meeting did so to stand in solidarity with us and if this is so, then why would we, as people of color, do anything but support this interest and solidarity in the cause of equity and inclusion? Is the thinking that no meaningful or safe discussion about identity amongst people of color can happen without homogeneity?
Clearly not all of the people of color who remained in the room agreed with what happened. Apparently, it was a black man that first spoke up against the dis-invitation and then others began to echo his concern, including a brown woman, from the TCG Board of Directors. Unfortunately, there was insufficient time to fully unpack the event during the meeting, so people were encouraged to continue the conversation on Conference 2.0.
As a brown male who grew up in the predominantly black neighborhood of Watts and who has for the past eighteen years lived with a white woman with whom I am married and have two brown and white children and who has recently experienced the consequences of being too brown, I was upset and saddened that in 2014 a group of theatermakers would ask any group of people to leave a gathering simply because of the way they self-identify, or because of who they choose to stand with in solidarity.
The most troubling element of this situation, however, is the schadenfreude expressed by some black and brown friends when I asked them about the event—a particularly witty quip came from a brown friend who said that it served “them” right for doing the same thing to “us.” A sentiment that echoed all the way to the final day of the conference, when during the Identity Affinity Groups check-in, a yellow artistic director stated that he experienced exclusion of the kind the white people did “every day.”
It is commendable that TCG is doing this daring work around diversity and inclusion and we all should acknowledge that they are one of the leaders in the field in this area. A large part of my motivation to speak out on what happened at the conference rests on my dissatisfaction with the glacial pace of change around the issues of diversity and inclusion, and also as someone committed to ethnic theatre. I suggest that we should focus our approach to identity, inclusion, and equality by joining forces across borders. I also make no assumptions about TCG’s motivation to organize the conference in this way, but I do question what I perceive to be the dangers inherent in promoting a segregated view of American theatre—one that hinders our ability to see each other as humans first. I support the creation of safe environments to discuss sensitive issues, but never if they are predicated on the public humiliation of any group or individual.