See for Yourself: Curtain Up on Racism in Theater

David Valdes
4 min readAug 24, 2020
In 2020, theaters are sending messages they can’t even see.

Most of the people who tell me they don’t believe in systemic racism are white. They’re not bad people. They (think) they haven’t seen it firsthand, so it’s hard to convince them it’s true. They (think they) don’t know a lot of white people who harbor ill will toward other races and, in their experience, people get treated pretty equally.

But systemic racism isn’t about whether people are nice (or, for that matter, not nice). Systemic racism is about patterns of behavior which continually advantage white people, often effortlessly so, by making whiteness the norm, the default, the thing you see so much that your mind immediately links whiteness to whatever the subject. What that means is when many white people are dealing with nonwhite people — in hiring, housing, banking, medicine, classrooms — they don’t even realize how much their own physical or emotional reactions are determined by seeing someone who is the exception to their internalized baseline for what the “norm” is.

The gap between “I’m a good person” and “my baseline associations are all white” accounts for why racist practices permeate so many institutions, including (perhaps especially) ones that bill themselves as progressive.

If you want to see systemic racism, take a good look at the institutions you love. For me, that means American theater.

This year, countless theaters announced that they were going to fight racism, champion inclusion, do better. These statements were a needed start and some also made admirable to-do lists, but it takes action — measurable, visible, difficult action — to start undoing systems.

That is the driving force behind the We See You White American Theater movement, which has been demanding change. This week, they started releasing images which clearly show the gap I mentioned before, the white space between the equity statements theaters are posting and the power structures they’re maintaining.

Photos: We See You WAT

Consider the top brass at three of New York theater’s most prestigious theaters. Manhattan is 36% nonwhite, but there are no nonwhite people leaders at Manhattan…

David Valdes

David Valdes is a Cuban-American author who writes about family, race, and LGBTQ issues. His book Brighter than the Moon releases in January 2023.