“I don’t want to be a quota, I want to be the norm.”
At first I didn’t recognize those words, although I wrote them almost three years ago. They were the opening statement in an unfinished draft I titled “Why I Left the American Theatre Critics Association,” back in the fall of 2017. After a honeymoon period during which I felt welcome into an organization of my peers, it didn’t take me long to realize the feeling wasn’t mutual.
To the elderly white members who congratulated me for learning their language (I’m fluent in two languages and can read and understand two more), who joked around asking me if I was with the catering when I wore a suit, who advised me not to wear jeans to a cocktail party (although most of them were also wearing denim), and who told me “I didn’t know racism,” I wasn’t a peer, I was an invader.
The exoticism of someone with a darker skin tone, a different accent, and life experiences based not in all-white suburbia but a developing country with inhuman amounts of poverty, wore off pretty quickly. Suddenly I became the person who knew more about technology than most of their members, but couldn’t be trusted to take the reins of their social media (in a volunteer position), because how dare I know more than them? How dare I know how to schedule a tweet, and how dare I know it without asking their permission?
The microaggressions (which are often macro, but POC are also told to minimize their pain in order to show gratefulness) continued to escalate and by the time we held a conference in New York I’d had enough. Elderly white members announced to an Asian colleague that they wouldn’t even try pronouncing their name right, someone else said I stole their dinner roll during a luncheon (insert me singing “What Have I Done?” from Les Mis), and during one of the most humiliating moments I’ve encountered as a professional critic, staff at an event had to set up a table for me to sit on my own, because none of my peers welcomed me at their tables.
As a person of color in America I’m often bound to make a compromise with myself: I will endure x number of indignities in order to fit in. After I met my x number, I left the organization.
The systematic racism they were encouraging and refusing to acknowledge (“you don’t know racism, kid”) was too much for my soul to bear, too exhausting for my body to engage with. And yet, everytime I join a predominantly white organization, I go in with the purpose of opening doors for my fellow journalists of color, who most of the time don’t even know they’re allowed to enter.
By the time I left ATCA, I had become a member of the Drama Desk Awards. As a journalist based in New York, it presented me with more benefits, and less of the constant justifying of my existence I encountered in the national organization. I was welcomed with open arms for the most part, but even surrounded by fellow New York journalists, the so-called “liberal elites,” so feared by the xenophobic commander in chief, I’ve faced an uphill battle when it comes to the decolonization of white spaces.
I’m the only POC who’s on the board of the organization, and the only POC who serves in their nominating committee, which means I spend a lot of time surrounded by white men and women whose backgrounds could not be more different from mine.
This also means I’ve had to be in rooms where I’m the only person asked to separate their “politics” from their “profession.” I’ve had to sit and listen to white men and women question whether works by playwrights like Aleshea Harris and Jeremy O. Harris are “even theatre to begin with,” but delight themselves in the umpteenth Chekhov adaptation they saw that week. I’ve sat appalled in silence as white men and women choose to abstain from selecting from lineups comprised of POC, because they didn’t believe they met their standards of what quality theatre was.
When I’ve spoken out, I’ve been silenced. When I rose my objections about a work that actively erased POC and humanized white supremacists, white men told me “this is not the room to have those discussions,” and that I was making things “awkward,” when I explained I couldn’t easily divorce the way the world saw me from who I was. Without wanting to or asking to, POC become banners for their “politics,” because every single day in the United States we’re reminded of the slogans, ideals, and threats we represent for the status quo.
Although in an ideal world these would serve as the perfect “teachable moments” white allies constantly crave in fiction, in real life they despise them. These moments remind them that things are rotten even in the progressive apple they call home.
And so I’ve often left those rooms where “objectivity” is placed above “humanity” with weeks of material to discuss with my analyst. But it’s not fair I’m the only one who ends up taking the traumas of their “profession” home with them.
It’s also not fair that I spend so much time trying to convince my POC colleagues to join me in these organizations. When they ask me “why should I join?” I can’t tell them lies. I tell them the pros and the cons; the latter of which often outweigh the former.
When I was a kid I loved spy stories, I spent hours imagining myself as a James Bond-type conducting secret missions behind our couch or under the kitchen table. As a teenager I dreamt of being Sydney Bristow, the fabulous CIA agent played by Jennifer Garner on Alias. As an adult theatre critic trying to convince POC to join all-white organizations I feel like the villain those spies battled.
Why would I want POC to deal with aggressions and have folks question their professionalism, temper or civility? I tell myself it’s to make change happen. Only if we infiltrate (I’ve even appropriated the language of spies) these organizations can we change them from inside. Only if we work twice as hard, hide our emotions, and gently place our tushies on the seats we’re constantly reminded to take, will we be able to see tangible progress.
I’ve never fashioned myself as a martyr, for starters I don’t suffer fools gladly. Secondly, self-immolation doesn’t suit me when I have such a fire already burning inside.
Three years ago I couldn’t finish the post I began. After sitting with it for a while, I smiled and told myself that by the next year, things would have improved. I would have accomplished something.
Year after year, I’ve been working too hard, choosing to put myself in a drawer, overanalyzing how each of my reactions might get me kicked out of places where I can work for change.
So now, rather than making a plea for other POC to deal with my emails, texts, DMs and coffee chats and hear me out, I will finish this post because I want to ask my white colleagues to take a seat and listen.
Why is it OK to tell me theatre in my language proves too hard to sit through when I’ve sat through your art for 34 years?
Why is it objective to ask me to forget myself as you tell me your perspective is infallible?
Why is it OK to let your male white colleagues scream at a queer, immigrant of color who escaped persecution from two developing world countries when they’re trying to explain their worldview? (If I’m asked to pull my diversity cards and guilt you I will, it should provide me with a few seconds of silence during which I can finish my sentences)
Why do you claim to defend art when at its core art is the weapon we use against injustice?
Why can you only look at yourselves and refuse to look at the rest of us?
Why are you universal and I’m not?
Why am I still a quota?
When will you see me as good enough to be the norm?