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Devoted & Disgruntled 12: What Shall We Do About Theatre and the Performing Arts Now?

Your Whiteness - how to make work about it and should we?

Caroline Williams - 16 January 2017

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Calling a session that rather than demanding access for diverse artists asked instead for focus on the majority- on whiteness- is potentially an uncomfortable and even, some might argue, unnecessary area of discussion. I had an instinct that it wouldn't be well attended. But as the rules of the Open Space reminded me: whoever comes are the right people.
The first lady to sit down was psychotherapist Charlene Agostini. Charlene is a white lady from Trinidad and we began the session by discussing her experiences of growing up in Trinidad within a family where relationships with the black community were deemed as unacceptable. Charlene realised her whiteness and railed against the privilege it allowed her, finally separating herself from her family because of their different views. At that time in Trinidad the lines of racism appeared clear: she could get a job in bank while her black friends couldn't. When the stakes around race are this high it becomes increasingly vital to know and tackle your racial identity. Charlene spent her academic life studying racism and it's emotional impacts.
A question to all the group emerged: when did you realise your whiteness? (The group at that point were all white females, we were later joined by Asian and Black artists both male and female) And how can you, if it's even possible, recognise the privilege that allows you? And where, even in the context of a liberal racially conscious group, are the invisible racial barriers that white people sail through while people of colour may stumble? What are the patterns of behaviour that might reinforce segregation? As one participant put it - what are the shadow parts of me, the unconscious parts that allow bigotry in?
It was pointed out that with Brexit and Trump, the increase in xenophobia is irrevocably bound up with class and privilege. That the white population that heralded these new political faces are reportedly working class ( of course there are huge numbers of exceptions ) and that the fear of the other comes from a survival instinct- a protection of culture and identity. These are difficult topics and are bound up with primal notions of place and belonging. In short inequality has bred resentment and possibly scapegoating. There has been a cry against globalisation from the people who feel left behind. A report by Oxfam which came out today reported that eight individuals hold as much wealth as 50% of the world's poorest. Inequality is rife and you can see that in any British city, let alone within the global north/south divide.
I tried to imagine a space where the DandD participants suddenly didn't call sessions on diversity anymore. Life is equal now- the arts reflect the world as it should be. We are colour blind but people awake. A more equal economy has enabled people of all backgrounds to express their artistic selves. Is it possible? What would need to change, not just on a bureaucratic level but on a personal level?
The theatre maker Amy Rose described a video that her mother, a child psychologist, had found particularly interesting. In it three children from a mixed race couple sat amongst themselves pointing out the different shades of their skin. Amy's mother found it remarkable seeing this exchange because the children had no notion of the cultural weight which their remarks had. It was an innocent appreciation of skin tone without cultural meaning.
So what does skin colour actually mean? It holds the possible signalling of a cultural experience. And within culture there are stories. Stories of history that hold scars and war cries. We discussed colonialism and how it lives still. A lady working in Asian arts reminded us that bigotry isn't just a white phenomenon.
It was wonderful for me to hold the space for all of these reflections. It made me feel more sure about the form of the work I am about to undertake - looking at segregation in Bristol as part of an Ignite residency at Trinity this spring. I was provoked by a report by Open Democracy that stated that although integration within ethnic minorities is increasing in British cities, white communities are increasingly segregating themselves. I want to find out if this is true and if so why.
I can't do this work alone. I will need to be fed by the people I meet and the communities that I work with. They will tell me their own responses to these provocations and I will learn from them.
Before I launch into this work I feel it is important to be rigorous and look at my own racial and cultural identity: I am white, I am middle class, I am a left leaning artist who doesn't eat gluten. I can do all the rallying for integration I want but if I don't recognise the invisible forces that sustain and draw lines around my own identity then making work about segregation feels like a dumb trick.
I left the session knowing how complicated the territory I had taken on was but feeling committed to finding the kernels within it that could shed some light on the city of Bristol and, if nothing else, provide some fun exchanges that might not have otherwise happened- a bit of social acupuncture at a time when the world needs to be looking after itself better.

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