Not all discriminations are equal

11 Dec

I just read a blog on cross-racial casting in a HS theater production that you can read here: http://bittergertrude.com/2013/12/06/high-school-yellowface/.

In “High School Yellowface” (which took me back to my own high school’s almost exclusively white productions of The King and I and South Pacific), Bitter Gertrude makes some really thought-provoking points…

On how theater is vital in education:

There’s a reason theatre education belongs in schools. It teaches kids about the challenges and joys of creating art collaboratively. It helps kids learn how to extract meaning from text in very concrete ways. It teaches kids how to work under an utterly unforgiving deadline. It teaches kids about the massive, gorgeous, messy pile of dramatic literature available to us in the 21st century, which are all windows open to different places, times, experiences, and points of view. Theatre education is a life-changing, mind-expanding experience.

This is precisely why this is so disappointing to me. These kids are being taught that it’s acceptable for white people to play characters of color.

… If that’s the case, then what does ANY educational activity matter? Why not blow it all off and let them all play CoD: Ghosts instead of reading Catcher in the Rye or doing those calculus problems? I guarantee you that the skills theatre kids are learning are more likely to be useful to them in their future day-to-day lives as adults than calculus will be. If you believe education is important, then it follows that teaching kids that something highly controversial and racially problematic is just fine is shockingly irresponsible. Either education matters or it does not.

Speaking of what kids are being taught: in my own high school theater education, I learned repeatedly and consistently that while it’s acceptable for white people to play characters of color, it’s also acceptable for people of color to play people of any other color (hence a black “King of Siam”). But it is unacceptable for a person of color to play a well-known white character (so it was fine to paint “Asian eyes” on all the white people, but an Asian girl lost the role of “Anna” to a white girl who sang off-key and needed to be mic’d because no one could hear her). Yes, education does matter. Regardless of whether we intend the lesson or not.

And Bitter Gertrude has her own thoughts on how not all cross-racial casting is equal.

Now before you read what she has to say, what’s your perspective? If people of color can (and some might argue should) play traditionally white roles, is it only fair, just the same or not at all OK for white people to play non-white roles? Notice not just what you think, but your gut feeling about this question and where it comes from.

Here’s what Gertrude says (and repeats from a previous blog post):

It’s a common misconception that “multicultural casting” means that white people should be able to play characters of color because we cast people of color in roles originally written for white actors. To pretentiously quote [myself from a previous blog post:]

“Using a white actor as [a character of color] has a very different impact on the narrative than casting a person of color in a traditionally white role. It erases the physical presence of the person of color and substitutes it with blackface/yellowface, imperialism and cultural appropriation. The West has a long history of casting white actors in racist portrayals of people of color, of appropriating the narratives of people of color and reshaping them through a white lens, and of shutting artists of color out of positions of importance. An American audience viewing a white person portraying a person of color will be reminded of all of these, and of blackface, of yellowface, of the history of racism with which we still struggle. These are all present in any production wherein a white actor is cast as a person of color because they are so palpably present within our culture. Again, race is always part of the narrative.”

I have to agree. When I hear people talk about “reverse discrimination,” what I hear them suggesting is that all discrimination is equal. As if all people and groups are equal. As if all individuals and groups enjoy equal social, historical and institutional backing.

And that’s simply not true. It’s not that discrimination is ever OK. It’s that all discrimination isn’t equal, and pretending that it is, is just an extension of the power of normatively privileged groups.

** Thanks to my colleague NS for sharing the link.

One Response to “Not all discriminations are equal”

  1. iCheckOther December 11, 2013 at 11:17 am #

    I am also thinking about marked and unmarked race within the world of a play. Often times Western theater including a person or people of color means that in some way the theme of the piece is about that person or those people’s marked-ness either in contrast to the whiteness of other characters, and/or in contrast to the society existing within the world of the piece if not directly on its stage. This is true in a way that, for example, Annie is not about her whiteness, nor about her non-person of colored-ness (but the viewing of Annie might be). This complicates doing theater where people of color are not in roles of people of color in a way that imagine is different if, say, a Chinese play were chosen to be done which is written about people who happen to be Chinese but a central theme of the play is not about their Chinese-ness perhaps (and to prove the un-markedness of the play, things like “Asian Eyes” would not be drawn on people’s faces”)? Thoughts?

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