The Privilege of Privilege
Keeping privileged white guys engaged in a conversation that is inherently challenging to them is probably the most important part of my job—since we can't make progress on equity issues without you.—Aftab Erfan, facilitator, Equity in Theatre, Vancouver
If I’d realized earlier how privileged I am, I’d have enjoyed it more.
Now that privilege is being challenged, and is no longer unconscious, or taken for granted.
Don’t worry. I’m not going to slather myself in liberal guilt and whine about it. That’s a waste of time. The energy required to wallow in guilt is energy that is better spent unpacking my privilege, acknowledging the damage it has done to me and to others, and doing what I can to use it positively or help to dismantle it.
I’m a well-educated, older, white, middle-class Jewish male in North America, where many kinds of social privilege for people like me are strongly embedded in the culture. I certainly didn’t earn much of that privilege; most of it was handed to me in embarrassingly automatic ways. I’m grateful for a lot of it, but on balance it’s done quite a lot of harm, and not just to me.
Thanks to various social movements, and to a few individuals who have challenged me to examine my unexamined life, I’m now more conscious of this unearned privilege: how it works, what it means, and what to do about it. Stephen Jay Gould’s book The Mismeasure of Man was one influence that led me to question the received “wisdom” that the world that I live in is the world, the part that counts, anyway. White men are in charge because we deserve to be, God wants it that way, and so on. Such bogus rationalizations of things as they are had to be examined, found wanting, then discarded.
Discarded. And replaced by what? I have to do something; I’m a produced and published playwright and translator, and an experienced professional dramaturg. Using one’s gifts in the service of raising human consciousness is what theatre people do.
If I need to see reflections of myself, I have mirrors, and I don’t need to buy a ticket to look into them. The theatre is much more interesting when it shows me characters, situations, stories, and outcomes that are not like me … I do not need or want to be coddled or soothed in the theatre, seductive though that sometimes is.
Among its other beauties, the theatre is a place where audiences can experience the variety and differences of other human beings without fear or anxiety, which isn’t always the case in the street. Now, I’m part of your stereotypical bourgeois audience, at least some of the time. I enjoy seeing people just like me on stage, in familiar situations, with cozy or at least not too disturbing outcomes. Who doesn’t? But not always. Not even usually. Yet not everyone has the privilege of this choice.
If I need to see reflections of myself, I have mirrors, and I don’t need to buy a ticket to look into them. The theatre is much more interesting when it shows me characters, situations, stories, and outcomes that are not like me and what I’m used to in my daily life. I do not need or want to be coddled or soothed in the theatre, seductive though that sometimes is. One reason I am suspicious of the frequent question, “Which character am I supposed to root for?” is that, aside from the inappropriate sports metaphor, it’s just too easy to privilege the character in a play who is most like ourselves, and therefore to diminish the other characters.
And yet, I’m divided. As a playwright, I want my plays produced. Women, people of color, and others who are not fully represented on our stages rightly demand to be included in theatres’ season programming, but that means that my plays probably need to be a lot better than they are to compete successfully with a more diverse set of scripts. What’s more, my voice, my insights, and the kinds of stories I tell may be so familiar to audiences and artistic directors that they don’t jump out of the slush pile and compel production. Not often enough for me to earn a living, anyway. It feels a little weird to be encouraging more competition, rather than less. Am I working against my own interests? Wouldn’t be the first time. But what, exactly, are my interests?
When I became conscious of the fact that theatre is not an equal playing field, that certain people have been effectively excluded from sharing their creative work on stage, I was troubled. This consciousness did not come instantly, but it did come, and now it won’t go away. For example: If the population of the world is roughly half male and half female, what reason can there be for continuing to give men’s stories primacy on our stages? I’ve heard all kinds of excuses for this, none of them persuasive. We can change that, diversify our stages, working from the top of the theatrical food chain as well as from the bottom.
This struggle for inclusion is not new. My late aunt, Laura Wilck, produced six plays on Broadway in the 1920s and 1930s. She and other individual members of otherwise excluded groups have sometimes had very visible and successful careers in the theatre. While these are milestones worth remembering, their very unusualness is telling.
More recently, when I was literary manager of the Mark Taper Forum, back in the mid-1970s, the theatre received nearly 800 new scripts each year. By far, the majority of these plays were written by men, about men, from a male perspective. However, in 1976, Gordon Davidson programmed Susan Miller’s play Cross Country. Moreover, he hired Victoria Rue to stage it. The play contained material that would still be considered shocking in some parts of the country, and not everyone in the Taper’s audience understood why it was important to do it. But many did. It was the right thing to do. So was producing Zoot Suit, written and directed by Luis Valdez, in a following season. And not just because these shows fit into Gordon’s delight in programming “provocative” plays.
At that time, the Taper took serious and laudable artistic risks, and many of them paid off artistically. Gordon Davidson understood that white bourgeois male privilege could be enlisted to support and enfranchise artists who were not themselves in the so-called “majority” categories. So it was progressive. But was it adequate? Did it really change the status quo, or just conceal it in a homey cloud of benevolence, leaving intact the Taper’s traditional structure of command and decision-making?
Well, that was in the 1970s. It’s now 2015. Has there been progress in opening up our theatres to a diverse multiplicity of voices? Yes. Has that progress been steady? Has it been adequate? Has it been ubiquitous in the theatres of North America? No.
Is it wise to assume that certain plays only appeal to a certain kind of audience, that there is little possibility of mixing and mingling and crossing inherited boundaries? I think not. That’s a patronizing and ultimately reactionary notion. The demographic to which I currently belong is often classified, and disparaged, as “the blue rinse crowd,” or “cottontops.” According to the ageist stereotype, we just want to digest the bland dinners that we have recently gummed and swallowed while snoozing through a nice show with a happy ending. No dirty words, please, no confusing dramaturgy, no shocking events. Just “nice plays for nice people.” To which I reply: Bullshit.
We older folk are not monolithic in our attitudes; we are human, and therefore diverse. Please, producers, engage with that diversity, encourage it, seek it out, celebrate it! Even scripts by “dead white males” are not automatically a threat. I achieved two-thirds of that category just by being born, so how dangerous can it be? If you have an imagination, there’s room for all of dramatic literature. Don’t throw any of it away.
No, I am not in favor of “museum” theatre. I want theatres to take risks. But in a capitalist society, the risks must be managed wisely. Every artistic director, every board of trustees, every critic, every audience member, will have a different idea of what “wisely” means in this context. Tastes differ. Diversity is fun. Keep the theatre’s doors open. Keep ticket prices affordable. Get rich people to donate money, then do plays that question the system that enriches them enough to support you! Once in a while, you can get away with that.
Needing to check out my sense of what privilege means for privileged decision-makers, I spoke with Libby Appel and Bill Rauch, the former and current artistic directors of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
I asked Libby how her unconscious privilege as a white middle-class Jewish woman affected her artistic choices. She said,
I had very supportive parents, social liberals who believed that justice for all was good, while privilege only for some was bad. Being a woman has certainly made a difference; all the jobs I’ve had were the province of men before I had them. I did experience some personal prejudice because of my gender. Proving myself was part of the challenge. I think that being a woman has sensitized me to certain kinds of oppression.
I discovered that people from diverse backgrounds bring more interesting points of view to making theatre. Casting minority actors in roles traditionally played by white actors can enrich the art, as audiences see the character in a new light. I learned this in the 1970s when I directed Lanford Wilson’s Hot L Baltimore. I cast a white actor as one twin, a black actor as the other. Why? Because they were the best actors for the roles. The choice underlined one of the play’s themes, that human beings may seem mismatched, but they are not necessarily so. That experience helped me to embrace racial and cultural diversity as important and natural.
Bill Rauch is white, male, middle-class, and a Harvard graduate. I asked him how he deals with his own unearned privilege. He replied,
I try to be conscious of it. It’s a lifelong struggle. My race, my gender, my education, and my social class have given me not just privilege, but also access to things that others have to work very hard for. I’m sometimes crushed by my own mistakes. But being a gay man has been a great blessing in my life. Not all oppression is equal, but I have felt some by virtue of my sexual orientation. Still, I can’t be satisfied with the way things are. I’m aware of some missed opportunities for OSF’s diversity and inclusion initiatives, but I’ve been working on these issues since my days with the Cornerstone Theater. At OSF, there’s a progressive tradition that I’m happy to continue.
The privilege that I have, and the access that goes with it, is certainly an asset, but it can also become a liability. When I collaborate with members of various groups that I am not a member of—such as women, such as First Nations—they may well not start out automatically trusting me. Given the history of the dominant culture oppressing others, I’m just another white male who says he means well. How can trust possibly be earned in that context?
Within my lifetime, the United States will no longer have a white majority, and this is one of the most exciting and promising developments I can imagine. Without ever forgetting the damage that has been done throughout our history, maybe our society can begin to move forward and create true equity.
To the privileged, the burgeoning consciousness that unearned privilege is both indefensible and unsustainable feels like loss. Yes, it does. But this loss brings with it new opportunities for collegiality, new ways of making theatre that matters, and an end to fake ownership of the means as well as the ways of production. After all, we still have the privileges of life, imagination, hindsight, and insight.
So we privileged folk learn, slowly and painfully, to listen, ideally to learn, without defending the unearned privilege that we never sought, that we do not need.