Parents of Color and The Need For Anti-Racist Theatre Practices

I’m at a theatre conference, and I hear the children before I see them. Bubbly giggles erupt from their bodies as they take flight, running for the pure joy of the experience. For a moment I’m lost in thought as I measure the emotional cost of me being here—which is time away from my own children—and what it would mean for them to accompany me into these highly problematic, racist spaces. Confident I made the right decision to leave them at home, I return to the reality of the conference.

In another instance, I’m part of a convening planning committee for an organization that lives the justice it teaches others to fight for. During the planning process, we learn there will be two infants present. My reaction was: “We’re child friendly, the more the merrier!” But that thought was the extent of my support around their presence. Though my intention was to be inclusive, I mistook the term “child-friendly” as sufficient, which resulted in an exclusive gathering with no tangible plan for parental support and childcare, including having things like mats in the space and plush toys for the kids. Only when a parent spoke out during the gathering about the lack of support did any of us organizers realize our misstep. As a parent myself, I was dismayed I had upheld the narrative “parenthood is an independent issue for parents to overcome,” especially because my lived experience has been shaped by systemic inequities.

seven people pose for a photo

Cast, directors, and Stage Manager of Cry It Out by Simpatico Theatre, a production that created comprehensive support centered on work by artists of color, women, and parents—especially those at the intersection of all three: (L to R) Newton Buchanan, Anita Holland, Brandi Burgess, Angelica Jackson, Tamanya Garza (Director), Monica Flory (Assistant Director), Noelle Johnson (Stage Manager). Photo by Daniel Kontz.

Parenthood and Race

Dr. Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility says, “You cannot talk about any other issue without talking about how race informs that issue.” When we don’t view systematic inequity through the lens of race and racism, our anti-oppression practice remains rooted in oppressive values and inactive language.

The term “child friendly,” as I understand it, is an abstract noun, which is something that exists in thought without being concrete and, in many instances, operates to protect white supremacy culture through generality and vague unofficial policy. Due to the indeterminate nature of the conference’s family-friendly policy, I had intuited the space as inhospitable for my children to attend, which was further fortified by seeing only white children present.

When we don’t view systematic inequity through the lens of race and racism, our anti-oppression practice remains rooted in oppressive values and inactive language.

For the convening I helped plan, “child friendly” functioned as a demonstrative expression lacking application, which resulted in my failure to advocate for parent support. My personal lack of interrogation of the term is in part due to how normalized my experience of not being supported is, paired with the toxic exceptional Black womxn myth that reinforces that I should be able to carry the weight of everyone’s needs before attending to my own.

Certainly if the issue of parent support was reconstructed as an issue of race and racism, my response would have been activated to right the imbalance of superficial resources enacted to support parents of color in the arts.

Going Big to Go Small

Looking first at issues that parents of color face can provide a more holistic and deeper understanding of the obstacles in front of them, which informs what resources they may need in order to feel supported. For example, my gender and race make me susceptible to lower pay; people like me earn roughly $0.74 for every dollar a white man earns. Womxn are more likely to be penalized for taking time off work to care for children or aging family members than men. Black womxn stagnate in their careers and are less likely than white women to make it to executive level positions; when they do, they are often put in charge of organizations that are in disrepair. Black womxn are also more likely to be watched over by their white counterparts, which leads to lower performance reviews.

Knowing the roots of the theatre industrial complex are overwhelmingly capitalist, racist, patriarchal, and ableist—a sentinel of white feminism and staunch advocate of meritocracy—provides a wider framework for organizations to begin to effect the necessary long-lasting change that will have considerable impact for parent-artists. Enacting anti-racist policies and practices, which function to create equitable workplaces and events, changes the way we perceive the world and generates a ripple effect on the decisions we make. The task of uprooting oppression is for all of us to do and is more effective when we prioritize anti-racist and anti-oppressive ideology in our decision-making.

The task of uprooting oppression is for all of us to do and is more effective when we prioritize anti-racist and anti-oppressive ideology in our decision-making.

Steps to Supporting Parent-Artists with an Anti-Racist Lens

There is such a long history of mistrust between white people and Black, Indigenous, and people of color communities which cannot be remedied by a generic “family friendly” invitation to a conference. It’s difficult to repair trust when communication is not clear around whose experience and comfort is being prioritized.

In terms of parent-artist support, there needs to be an active acknowledgement and commitment through written policy about harm reduction, harm prevention, and relationship repair. These tenants provide the foundation of transparency, accountability, and admission, acknowledging both how American society utilizes policies to destabilize families of color and what is being done to counter those policies.

two actors onstage

Angelica Jackson (Jessie) and Newton Buchanan (Mitchell) in Cry It Out at Simpatico Theatre, a production that created comprehensive support centered on work by artists of color, women, and parents—especially those at the intersection of all three. Photo by Daniel Kontz.

Here some ways organizers and organizations can work to recognize, address, and counter bias and racism to standardize equitable support systems for parent-artists of color:

  • Make sure the historically invisible communities have a say and a stake in the resources provided for parents and caregivers.
  • Implement institutional-wide policy. The problem with case-by-case parent support is that it allows bias to influence language used to describe working parents, which in turn determines an institution’s willingness or reluctance to grant parent support. For instance, bias in language ascribes negative or positive words to different parents for doing the same action, e.g. a white mother who brings her infant to work is “hardworking” and a mother of color who brings her school-age child to work is “unprofessional”; a father who brings his children to work is “a good dad” but a mother who does the same is “a mess.” Rachel Spencer Hewitt, founder of the Parent Artist Advocacy League (PAAL) shares, “Without intentional parent support and protocol, implicit bias will always dictate the words we choose to describe contributors who are caregivers.”
  • Develop a written public anti-racist ethos outlining your commitment to anti-racist and anti-oppression parent support work. Be honest about your institution’s past and present bias, prejudice, and racist behavior toward parents and create pathways of accountability that ensure those oppressive values don’t resurface.
  • Sustain child-positive practices rather than child- or family-friendly practices. “Child positive” is a term I use to refer to the purposeful inclusion of children in any space by accounting for their needs, abilities, and limitations. All of these factors impact how children, parents, and non-parental people function in a space and determine whether or not the needs of all participants are being met, valued, and centered. “Child friendly,” on the other hand, is akin to tolerating the presence of children with minimal attention given to how they impact others and the space.
  • Invest in anti-bias training that provides people with resources to address and mitigate microaggressions to children from adults and from children to children.
  • Apply principles of restorative justice to how you integrate parent-support policies.

Recently, both my children and I were invited to the national PAAL Summit—me to present on anti-racist principles and my children to engage with other children of parent-artists via provided childcare. The invitation to do my heart’s works without leaving behind my heartbeats was a rare moment and one worth fighting to have again. It is now on us to decide where we are going from here, letting go of all that is unnecessary to cultivate embodied liberation for everyone. It is my hope us artists will be guided by, as theatre artist Douglas Turner Ward puts it, the desire to construct anew “not out of negative need but positive potential,” leaving for the next generation a more transformed and just society for us all.

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Thoughts from the curator

This series covers challenges faced by parent artists and builds on the work of the Parent Artist Advocacy League for the Performing Arts (PAAL), a national resource hub and all-parent, all-discipline league advocating for a national standard of best practices for parents in the performing arts. 

Parent-Artist Advocacy

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