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Oh My God … I Think This Is Racist

Help.

As a young artist beginning to work on projects outside of the educational theatre sphere, I am thirsting to do something Big and Important. Something of value, that aligns with the sets of morals and fire for artistic activism that I am cultivating with peers at the university level.

So I take the risk. I make the jump to finally work on something with someone new. Something promising, something important.

Something that suddenly, without warning, does not adhere to my values.

This summer, I worked on a documentary about a specific region in the greater Boston area.

This documentary is aimed to tackle the experience of growing up in that specific region, produced by a woman who spent her childhood there.
This documentary tells the stories of some of the most beautiful people I have ever met.
This documentary redefines “community”.
This documentary features a wide span of  Boston activists, from the Civil Rights Movement to today.
This documentary, like this focused region, features mainly POC.
This documentary features stories on violence, the prison-industrial complex, and rape.
This documentary has a solid budget.
This documentary has the power to hold a microphone up to a community that deserves to be heard.

Throughout the process, I slowly became aware of my boss’ approach to material addressing the systematic oppression of Black Americans.
It was the exact type of racism that I fear most in the artistic community today.

By far, the most insidious form of racism is personified within a white artist who is resigned to the belief that they are PC enough, and therefore, never at fault.
Heart in the right place.
Mouth? Often not.
As white artists working on a project that handles sensitive narratives that are not our own, we MUST consistently check ourselves, at every single moment.

The turning point was June 19th.
Myself and the (all-white) film crew were told early that morning that we would be later covering an event called “Juneteenth”. We were told little else, other than the fact that it was a block-party style community celebration. I was excited, and curious.
I was stupid.
I was stupid not to Google the event.
I was so, so stupid.
And I felt stupid.
And the entire camera crew felt stupid
As we marched behind our director
We marched into a park full of hundreds of people
We marched with a heavy camera, tripod, and a heavy rolling bag
We marched through the music, the barbecues, the smiles, and dancing
We marched, and the smiles – just fractionally – dimmed.
We marched into Juneteenth.
And we were the only. white people. there.

Of course we were.

Because Juneteenth is the celebration of the end of slavery in the United States.
Juneteenth has a rich, nationwide history of renewal, reflection, progress, love, prayer, joy – and being denied funding/space in white communities. Celebrations have been surged and suppressed throughout the last 150 years – yet, Juneteenth has made its slow and triumphant return in the public sphere since the Civil Rights Movement.
More than anything: Juneteenth is no place for white allies. It is not our celebration.

 

Yet, there we were. White. Camera-strapped. Marching through.
Marching is the best word that can describe the action of my boss’ strappy heels moving with abandon through the grass of the park, weaving, blissfully unaware of any issue.
Watching this, a cameraman leaned over to me and sang through his teeth, “one of these things is not like the other“.
The crew and I lived in suspicious ignorance for about 20 minutes, as our boss found her target – the person she had come to interview today.
It was then we found out what was going on around us – and everything made sense. Our bodies locked.

I smiled meekly throughout the interview – wishing desperately that the words “I FUNDAMENTALLY DISAGREE WITH MY PRESENCE AT THIS EVENT AND UNDERSTAND IF YOU DO TOO, SORRY ABOUT THE CAMERAS” would suddenly appear across my shirt.

Finally, it was time to go home. My boss was thrilled at our results – and with good reason. The stories we had heard that day, and every day, were incredible, moving, one of a kind.

But at what cost? 

Regardless of the artistic outcome, regardless of somehow uplifting an untold narrative, I refuse to support oppressive or disrespectful behavior.

This documentary may come out in a year as a beautiful product, exposing a stigmatized region of the Boston area as the beautiful community it is.

However.
This documentary’s process is ridden with daily micro-aggressions.
This documentary is produced by an 60 year old white woman.
This documentary is produced by a privileged 60 year old white woman.
This documentary is produced by a privileged 60 year older white woman who would struggle to live in the subject city now.
This documentary is produced by a privileged 60 year old white woman who lives across the street from George Clooney. In Los Angeles. Literally.
This documentary feels a lot like a white person on the megaphone.

Here’s what I know:

As white artists (and people) we must use our privilege to lift up the Black voices around us, and continue avoid the front lines.

Here is what I don’t know yet:

How to move forward. I keep wondering what I could have done differently, how I could have spoken up to this woman who was so set in her ways, so disinterested in the active questioning of her own behavior.

I hope to always remember – even if I am someday 60 and living across the street from a 96 year old George Clooney – that I still have much to learn.

 

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