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.
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 Theatre Club or Roundabout Theater (which both have stated anti-racist policies) or at Lincoln Center (which does not). This looks even worse in light of New York’s overall population, which is majority nonwhite at 57%.
But this isn’t just a New York thing; it’s true of regional powerhouses across the country. Houston is 43% nonwhite but nonwhite people compose just 12% of Alley Theatre leadership. Chicago is 51% nonwhite, but nonwhite people account for only 13% of the Goodman Theatre administrators.
And just look at the national Broadway League, which represents 700 member theaters nationwide; it boasts a mere 4 Black leaders out of more than 50. Its leadership roster might fairly reflect some pockets of Maine and Vermont, but it doesn’t at all look like America.
All of these theaters do have people of color working for them (the Goodman, for instance, has a cohort of associated artists, many of color) and their websites show that they value diversity. Some of them regularly program work by artists of color, and I have no doubt that they wish for Americamn theater to be more equitable.
But when the gatekeepers remain this white, it’s no surprise that shows about white lives, written and directed by white people, and meant to appeal to white audiences still remain so dominant. Too many nice theater people who (think they) haven’t seen systemic racism are naturally inclined to amplify the art that matches the images in their heads, the ones planted there by other nice people.
Those images affect artists of color: how they get hired (or don’t), how they are compensated, how they treated while working, and whether they work again. Those images determine which work by nonwhite creators will get produced and how their work must look to speak to a white audience. Those images signal limits: if nonwhite people come to the theater at all, they belong in the seats , not on the stage, much less in the boardroom.
As long as all-or nearly all-white leadership does the gatekeeping — even if they throw the gates wide a couple of times a year — nonwhite work and nonwhite artists will remain the exception, not the norm. We will never change the baseline ; we won’t change what people think theater is and can be, as long the power structure remains static.
It’s time not just to mean well but do well, and doing well is hard.
It is high time for some nice white theater people need to step down, making room for nonwhite artists and administrators to step up. That would be painful and challenging for sure, but no less painful and challenging than the conditions which have made it necessary. And it would demonstrate a lot more commitment than a mission statement ever could.
You may think you haven’t seen systemic racism, but you’re looking at it right now with your own two eyes. There’s no more looking away.