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You Want Me to Balance What?

Why the Argument That Fiscal Sustainability is More Important Than Investing in Racial Justice Needs to Go Away

It’s been over a year since We See You, White American Theater’s statement, principles, and demands highlighted how American theatre is complicit in systemic oppression. Some institutions made no mention of the insidious pandemic of racism following the release of We See You, WAT, while others issued statements denouncing racism as a result. I want to address those institutions willing to make statements. I’ve looked closely at many of these and the subsequent action plans, and I see that a lot of work went into them. They are crafted with laser precision.

But…

It doesn’t feel like their main goal is to curtail any more undue harm to Black folks, Indigenous folks, and folks of color. Instead, it feels like these statements merely address the movement while dancing a razor’s edge that keeps white, older, affluent bases of theatre supporters comfortable. Even when we as white theatre leaders and administrators have been asked to examine and respond to our own failings regarding race, we’ve somehow managed to center the feelings of our white audiences in the response.

The work we’ve been called on to do is not revolutionary—it merely demands equity. Some of us already have all the items in We See You, WAT’s demands available to us; we’re just being called on to share them. And that does require investment. What’s frustrating is that this particular need is being met largely with the same brand of moderation that has frustrated me since my first professional gig. Let me explain.

There’s already a lovely essay by Alix Rosenfeld on this platform about scarcity mindset in our field—and I don’t intend to rewrite that. I will just say, as a fundraiser, I’ve sat by quietly and listened to many conversations about scarcity. In the post-2008 recession it was “balancing financial prudence with artistic risk-taking”. In the years of recovery bolstered by what feels like three thousand productions of cash cow musicals and public domain adaptations of holiday classics, it was “balancing fiscal sustainability with investment in failing infrastructure”. “Balancing fiscal sustainability with wage increases (or lack thereof)” was in there, too, along with “balancing fiscal sustainability with, ‘sorry, we can’t pay any portion of your healthcare.’” The list goes on.

Honestly, insert any number of conditions after the phrase “balancing fiscal responsibility with” and I’ve likely heard it before. I’ve fondly coined this excuse as “balance du jour.” It’s the type of arithmetic that keeps so many of our organizations and workers limping along and surviving instead of thriving. However, I must draw the line at “balancing fiscal responsibility with racial justice work.”

This makes absolutely no sense to me. And, if you’ll indulge me, I would like to unpack a few ways in which this statement can be used as a neutral-sounding stand-in for ideas that are anti-Black, packed with bias, and rife with white fragility. I honestly never—ever—hope I hear this statement uttered again.

Before I dive in, I want to say to any leaders reading this: I do get it. I understand the fear of an institution failing on your watch. I understand how capitalism has conditioned us to see scarcity as the norm. But we are at a crucial moment where you can, and must, work against this mindset. As one of your young(ish) fundraisers who hasn’t burnt out and wants to see our field succeed in every sense of the word, shying away from anti-racism work is fiscally irresponsible and will cause our vulnerable institutions to fail.

Further, what I say must not be construed as a way to frame BIPOC folks as a resource from which white folks can extract. Their money, their bodies, their labor—none of these things are for us to leverage to “look” or “feel” better. However, if we choose to “be” better, we may eventually gain the trust necessary to transform our artistry and communities in ways we’ve yet to even envision.

Let’s dive in.

The work we’ve been called on to do is not revolutionary—it merely demands equity.

  1. Assuming Black people don’t have money to spend on art is anti-Black.

Read that again. Central to the statement, “Balancing fiscal responsibility with racial justice,” is an assumption that any amount of white flight on account of increased equity practices will leave an organization destitute. I’ve been around these conversations for about a decade now. Inevitably, when the topic of “diversifying audiences” comes up, the subject becomes about free programming. However, when the issue of “luring [white] millennials” is on the table, it’s all about lowering financial barriers to entry and hooking them early, so their value appreciates over time. Replenishing the base with the same faces seems to be the goal, with Black bodies meant to round out the audience as charity recipients only. This practice is racially coded at best and, frankly, gross.

It is true that Black families in the United States have substantially less wealth than white families (less than 4 percent of total household wealth in the second quarter of 2020). And yes, this has indeed remained relatively unchanged in fifty years. However, it is also true that millennials have five times less wealth than baby boomers did at their current ages. And we’re not doing an incredibly spectacular job as a field of acquiring audiences in either category. So why are institutions focusing so much time and so many resources on white millennials and so little on Black folks? I posit that it comes down to two assumptions: One, those in positions of power assume Black people as a whole don’t have money or don’t value Black dollars equally, and two, those same decision-makers are hoping white millennials will like the same theatre their parents do—thus they won’t have to change at all to attract new audiences.

Neither of these things are true. In fact, Black people give a larger share of their wealth to charity annually than white people do. Black families give away 25 percent more of their income than white families annually. And, according to a joint 2012 study from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, two-thirds of Black households donate to community-based organizations (no, not just their churches) every year. Adjusted for inflation, that’s over thirteen billion dollars a year.

Let’s stop assuming our institutions don’t have Black donors and ticket buyers because Black folks don’t have money and/or don’t like theatre. Institutions go after white millennials with no money who don’t like theatre. Instead, it’s time to start asking why the work being put up isn’t inspiring investment from all corners of our community.

Theatres exist to serve people and speak to the human condition. We do not exist to serve currency and amass more than we had the year before.

  1. White institutions, just say it: you’re letting fear and white fragility govern your choices.

Imagine: You work your entire life to become an artistic leader at a theatre company. You strive, sweat, network, collaborate, overcome obstacles, and finally—here you are. You love building an artistic community and forming bonds with trusted collaborators and staff. You’re raising hundreds of thousands of dollars to achieve your vision. You have an incredible production on stage right now, bringing in Black and Brown ticket buyers and sparking essential community conversations. It’s hitting 90 percent or more house capacity almost every night. The managing director is happy, your box office manager is doing cartwheels, and your marketing director is silently crying tears of joy in a corner. This show is special.

Its 11:07 p.m. on a Saturday night. It was a “no bones” day. You’re in your soft pants, trying to binge the latest streaming series so you can make small talk with your administrative staff in the office on Monday, when you look down at your cell phone to see one of your longest-supporting, “high-tier” donors calling you. You answer (you shouldn’t, but, that’s another essay), and proceed to get berated for putting yet another “social justice” play on your stage. Apparently, A Raisin in the Sun is triggering for Joe P. Platinum because it shows fully-realized Black people striving for autonomy and trying to build generational wealth. Go figure.

You feel the need to apologize. To coddle this donor. To preserve the relationship. To protect the donation. When you go into your planning meeting for next season the following week, that phone call is plaguing your mind and influencing your choices. Ultimately, you push aside a project your entire team was excited about for fear of more phone calls like that one. Instead, you program the company’s third iteration of Arsenic and Old Lace in as many decades.

Maybe this sounds extreme, but it’s not. And perhaps you picked Arsenic because you know that donor will bid high at your annual auction for a walk-on role to be shoved in a trunk—and you really, really want to see that—but what has happened is that you’ve let one person’s opinion and wallet derail everything you love about your job and your work.

A crowd of people at an indoor event.

Crowd shot at City Theatre Company's outdoor fundraiser, THE BASH (2019). Ferrebee worked in the development office at Pittsburgh’s City Theatre from 2015-2020.

Why do institutions assign a higher value to one donor’s opinions than to those of thousands of BIPOC theatre workers who labor, invest, and gift our field with their wisdom, skill, and passion? Sure, Mr. Platinum has been around for a while. His lifetime giving history is well over a million bucks. But he’s not as valuable as a thirty-page roadmap to being a better institution. Or five hundred new audience members. Or the ninety-five folks that came to a theatre’s joint community conversation on gentrification with their city’s redevelopment agency. Or the one artist who advocated for their needs and caused a policy change that benefitted hundreds. Theatres exist to serve people and speak to the human condition. We do not exist to serve currency and amass more than we had the year before.

That scarcity mindset gets people every time. And it is not a theatre leader’s responsibility to coddle white donors who approach the world with the fear that they’re losing something (they’re not). Wild, I know, but I believe we would all breathe a little easier if institutions lost “those” donors and subscribers. Personally, not having to worry about their microaggressions toward staff, audience members, and artists is worth losing their money. Break up with them. It will likely make the theatre more welcoming for many others, who now feel safe, will donate money, and have a genuine interest in what you’re doing next. Even if it is Arsenic and Old Lace.

Also, don’t sell yourselves short, theatre leaders! You’re surviving a global pandemic while serving communities, many of you on a budget that is half of what you’re used to working with. You’ve still got it! Your scrappy youth wasn’t for naught. You don’t need Mr. Platinum to do good work. His money and the money of the half dozen others like him in your organization isn’t going to make or break your programs.

Further, and I’m going out on a limb here—just a bit: If a theatre has genuine, honest-to-goodness support from their community, audiences, donors, corporate partners, and foundations, they will not let that theatre fail for being too inclusive, equitable, or just. Name one theatre that has closed for being too anti-racist. I’ll wait.

That scarcity mindset gets people every time. And it is not a theatre leader’s responsibility to coddle white donors who approach the world with the fear that they’re losing something (they’re not).

  1. Strike it from the lexicon.

Now that we’ve gone on this journey together, can we agree to bury this phrase in the Graveyard of Shame along with all the racist, ableist, discriminatory language we’ve promised not to use anymore in our diversity consciousness training? I really hope so. And I hope that the next time you hear someone say it, you feel empowered to counter their thinking.

Jokes aside, folks, many theatres are in areas that are already populated more heavily by people of the global majority than white folks. And those who aren’t yet, will be soon. If climate change spares us, that is. Organizations will not survive trying to balance fiscal responsibility with anything much longer—especially racial justice. It’s time for us white theatremakers to radically serve all within our communities, not just community members who look like us. Drop the fear, stop worrying about the balance, and start treating anti-racist work as the thing that will eventually save our theatres in America—because it is.

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