Always the Quota, Never the Norm

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Photo by Tuur Tisseghem on

“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?


3 thoughts

  1. Hello, José.

    I was apparently coming into ATCA as you were leaving in the fall of ’17, and yes I completely agree that it was an organization mired in outdated and illiberal thinking. I’d bet I could guess at the identities of those “elderly white men” who treated you so badly, but it doesn’t even matter: whoever they were that kind of thing is appalling. I came in as a transgender critic (I’m still the only one they have) and one of the first things that I did was join the newly forming Diversity and Inclusion Committee. At first, our efforts were met by the “why do we need this?” kind of reactions that wouldn’t surprise you in the least. However, over the last three years, as our committee has taken a greater and greater role in reshaping the organization (including placing several members on the Exec Committee), things are indeed changing.

    Every conference of convention now features events, panels, and seminars exploring diversity and inclusion issues. We’ve had entire conventions organized specifically to attend and discuss Black theatre and have formed what so far are loose affiliations with Latinx theatres as well. (We do have both Black and Latinx members on our committee.) We have created a database of diverse and female-identifying critics, and we are planning to place Diversity front and center on our redesigned website (coming in the fall). Even those elderly white men have started to understand how much they still need to learn and the importance of doing so.

    With theatre pretty much closed down right now, much of our current work is theoretical, but our committee has been meeting regularly throughout these difficult times and has come up with many new and creative ideas we’d like to implement as soon as we can. As an organization, we have a long way to go, but we’ve also come a long way since 2017. I’m sorry for what you experienced back then. Should you ever decide to try us again, I think you’ll find very different circumstances.

    Karen Topham

  2. Dear Jose,

    I am one of the elderly white members of ATCA, and I also was the organization’s chair 2013-2015. I am appalled by what you report about how you were treated by some members, and I also am ashamed if any such behavior happened on my watch as Chair, especially as I was unaware of it. Because I am based in Chicago, where the diversity of our theatre and our writers is assumed by everyone (or at least by most), perhaps I have not realized or understood the ignorance and thoughtlessness of some of my colleagues. Your comments and Karen Topham’s response are real eye-openers for me. Thank you.
    Jonathan Abarbanel

    1. As I read this comment, a few things come to the fore and stop me in my tracks.
      I am aware that this is not an apology, nowhere does it say, “I am sorry–both for what I did not see and did not change, and for the awful things you endured as part of an organization of which I am a member and have been a leader.” It says I am appalled and I am ashamed. Okay, with good reason, these are terrible things that Mr. Solis endured.
      What about the responsibility of anyone in ATCA–because I have no doubt these aggressions occurred on everyone’s watch–members and chairs alike, because these aggressions have always occurred by the dominant group upon the most marginalized groups.
      To not realize the “thoughtlessness and ignorance of some” of one’s colleagues is to also bear some responsibility for one’s own thoughtlessness and ignorance. Just because we look away, or don’t want to see what is inconvenient to our understanding of who we are or the clubs we belong to, doesn’t mean that the abuses aren’t happening, and that we are therefore absolved because we can say, but we didn’t know.
      A red flag is if one never looks around the professional group one is in and says, hmm, there seem to be very few people of color in this room. Or, very few women, or, very few people who are transgender, and then presses no further to inquire why this is so? (The answer is never because there aren’t any qualified people, it’s that qualified people are weeded out and/or made to feel unwelcome every step of the way) And upon self-inquiry to make changes to see that the group dynamics shift.
      To lead an organization requires curiosity about what isn’t in one’s field of vision. In fact, there are many people who would consider themselves elderly and white who are in the trenches for equality and representation and some even in the board rooms working to actively dismantle racist structures.
      A part that’s missing from this letter is, now that I know more about what I didn’t pay attention to, I’m going to listen and learn and take steps to see that the organization of which I am a member, or former member, doesn’t continue to repeat our past injustices. I am sorry for all that you’ve suffered as a member of this organization. I am committed to equity and will be thinking about metrics and ways that I can be held accountable for what I wish to change.

      In this way, those of us in the dominant group can acknowledge what we didn’t do (or in some cases, what we did do that was harmful) and take responsibility for that fact, apologize for the sufferings we caused, and take meaningful action to change the way the organization functions. A statement of anything less is the kind of thing we might say to make ourselves feel good, but it echoes with the hollowness of something said, not felt.

      We are never too elderly or too white to grow ourselves and to create change in the spaces we occupy, but we have to put the work in, and accept that process is filled with discomfort and joy and we will continue to make mistakes. But, we will be accountable for those two.

      Thank you Mr. Solis, for what you wrote and continue to write. You are easily one of my favorite critics writing and I wish many white (and male) critics would take pages from your playbook. I am pleased to see what Karen Topham writes about shifts which are occurring in the industry, and I hope we all keep holding the news outlets and dramatic organizations’ feet to the fire, because critics wield a lot of power. Let’s see it used in the service of thoughtful, meaningful reviews which encompass multiple povs and are nuanced to reflect the works of the widest range of theater artists. Thank you both for your willingness to persist in getting your voices heard and to lobby for more inclusivity.

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