What Are White People Risking?

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This may be a controversial statement, but I’m grateful for COVID-19. Not because of the death toll or the economic instability for many. But because it’s given all of us something that we didn’t have before: time and focus. As I write this, in New York City, we’re on our 12th continuous day of protest. On June 14, over 15,000 people showed up to Brooklyn, dressed in white, for a protest in support of Black trans lives (Riah Milton and Dominique Fells were murdered last week). Would we still be protesting if we all had to get up and go to work? Or would the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks barely register in the minds of non-Black people and then fall by the wayside due to the distractions of regular life?   

Last week, I was tuning into the New York Times’ Offstage broadcast on Youtube, where they were showcasing musical numbers from Broadway shows this season. The event opened up with a panel of Black artists talking about racism on Broadway. During one emotional moment, Adrienne Warren, the star of Tina: The Tina Turner Musical on Broadway, said this: 

“I’m not thinking about Broadway right now. I’m thinking about how I can help my people. And that is what I care about right now. I will not perform. I will not sing a song that does not mean anything. When I get back to my art, if my art doesn’t mean something, then what am I doing?”

Adrienne Warren

For so long, artists have been told to stay in their lane, that audiences want them to entertain, not be political. But with the pandemic and no way to create art, art has become activism. Last week, Beyoncé wrote a letter to Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron calling him to press charges against the three police officers who murdered Breonna Taylor. Taylor Swift called for the take down of Confederate monuments. More than 50,000 theater artists (including Sandra Oh and Lin-Manuel Miranda) signed an open letter decrying racism in the theater industry in a letter that read, in part: 

“We have watched you program play after play, written, directed, cast, choreographed, designed, acted, dramaturged and produced by your rosters of white theatermakers for white audiences, while relegating a token, if any, slot for a BIPOC play. We see you.”

Last Friday, I was on a Zoom call with over 200 artists and we were phone banking, calling the New York City Council to tell them to cut the budget of the NYPD by $1 billion. At night, I signed onto the third night of the #BwayforBLM, a three-day virtual event organized by the Broadway Advocacy Coalition, to discuss racism in the American theater and what can be done to make change. Right now, artists are bringing their power to build community, and to sway hearts and minds, to bear. They are pushing for both societal transformation and a better theater industry. 

The lanes no longer exist, because systemic racism affects everyone. At the same time, maybe those lanes were a function of white supremacy to begin with, as a way to tell BIPOC artists that their lived personal experiences did not matter. And allowed white artists to live in blissful ignorance. These productions and institutions call themselves a family, and yet in the past two weeks, countless artists have spoken up about the painful racism they have encountered in those very spaces. Being an artist doesn’t render you immune from police brutality, sexual assault or income inequality. When your own body is political and the powers that be tell you to not be political, it is an erasure of the self.

BIPOC artists are creating change through first-hand accounts of their experience with racism in the theater industry. Day one and two of #BwayforBLM was for Black artists to tell their stories, first for each other, then for allies. “I and every speaker on this program is risking something in honor of honesty, humanity and restoring justice into our community,” said actor Britton Smith, who is also the president and cofounder of Broadway Advocacy Coalition. 

But for BIPOC artists, there is a cost to speaking out, whether that’s an emotional cost that comes from reliving trauma, or financial one that comes from the blacklisting that inevitably happens. Black pain once again being put on a platter for white consumption. At #BwayforBLM, Tony-nominated director Liesl Tommy spoke frankly about how she’s blacklisted from multiple theaters because she’s spoken up against racism in theater. 

While Black artists are telling their own stories as part of a call to action, white people need to ask themselves: What am I risking? As Tre Johnson writes in the Washington Post, “When black people are in pain, white people join book clubs.” On Friday, a bunch of white Hollywood celebrities released a video where they said variations of “I see you” and “I take responsibility” to a camera. They were rightly criticized for their superficial display. Because what good are these phrases of solidarity when Black people are still being lynched? As author Adrienne Lawson wrote on Twitter

“I encourage each of these actors to hire a team of BIPOC feminists knowledgeable on intersectionality to review and advise them on script choices. No more white savior films, racially tokenized roles, and stereotype-perpetuating shenanigans. Take responsibility AND take action.”

Adrienne Lawson

Last week, chef Sohla El-Waylly took to Instagram to call for the resignation of Bon Appetit editor-in-chief Adam Rapoport, because the magazine underpaid staffers of color in comparison to its white staffers. El-Waylly’s white co-workers joined her in that call, refusing to appear in any more Bon Appetit videos. Rapoport stepped down from the magazine a day later, something that wouldn’t have happened had El-Waylly not bravely put herself on the line, and had her white colleagues not supported her.

In order for change to happen, it’s going to take every single person, BiPOC and white, risking something. Black artists are risking their careers and future employment. The activists on the streets are risking their health. What are white people risking? Are they able to call out the most powerful, and the most inequitable, among them?

During #BwayforBLM, Broadway Advocacy Coalition board member Richard Gray said: “In these moments, it forces you to rethink whether you actually are a good white person—you shouldn’t be thinking that. You should be thinking, how can I become a better one. You live in a place of change. If you just dwell on what you think you’ve done well in the past, you are never going to change because you are going to be satisfied.” He said that white people need to think about what they’re “not doing.” 

The creators of the We See You White American Theatre campaign said in a statement that they are currently gathering a list of demands for the white powers-that-be in theater. Meanwhile, #BwayforBLM is collecting signatures for a Public Accountability Pledge that reads, in part, “I pledge to use my social, cultural, and financial capital to amplify institutions and productions led by people of color, and to call out those that do not involve this leadership.”

The letter ends with: “Hold me accountable.” But as we move forward, I hope it’s not just BIPOC artists holding white people accountable. I hope white people continue to hold each other, and themselves, accountable. 

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