September 20, 2017 | 8 min read | by Quentin Williams
About a week ago, I was privileged with an invitation to watch the play Aida at Theatre Charlotte with a friend and some brilliant youngsters from a local school. We had an amazing dinner, full of stimulating conversation about the student’s diverse ambitions for making the world a better place. But by the end of the evening, I couldn’t help but feel acutely aware of the racism that I, and those well-intentioned youth, had just been unwittingly complicit in.
For those of you aren’t familiar with the play, Aida is a Broadway production adapted for Theatre Charlotte which is comprised of amazingly talented actors, like the stunning Maya Sistruck who starred as Aida. Sistruck is a high school senior at Northwest School of the Arts and she stole the show with her chillingly rich voice and her nuanced emotional range.
According to IMDB.com, “Aida is the story of forbidden love between the Egyptian leader Radames and the beautiful [Nubian] princess Aida. Aida is captured and forced to be a slave to the Pharaoh’s daughter, who is also in love with Radames.” Although Sistruck is an actress of color, the role of Amneris, the inheritor of the Egyptian throne, was played by the talented and beautiful Emily Witte- a white actress. As a person of African descent, I know that many of the Egyptian dynasty were ruled by black Africans and other people of color. I left the theater wondering, “Why was such a fair skinned actress cast as Amneris? How is it that people of color are constantly replaced or erased from stories, even fictional ones, that portray a whitewashed version of history?”
There is a long history of this sort of whitewashing in the arts. This includes Liv Taylor’s role as Cleopatra in the 1963 film and, more recently, Ed Skrein’s casting in HELLBOY. This leaves me to wonder about the the future of Black and native youth whose glorious past is often removed from the pages of history. How do these misrepresentations of history psychologically undermine the confidence of students of color? Such institutionalized racism cause the American dream and national anthem to fall flat for many people of color. Especially when “black” history shared in most public school systems is focused only on the enslavement of Africans and native people. This leaves the “white man’s” boot to perpetually rest on their necks. These historically depictions siege through the imbalanced pages of history books. This whitewashing of history effectively reinforce notions of white supremacy through the lack of more inclusive and balanced historical sketches.
It is then, no surprise that I’ve encounter people in Charlotte who are products of the public school system, who know nothing of the great accomplishments of black, and other minorities, outside of what their own adult memories can latch onto through contemporary news, social media, and the arts; which has a tendency to be an echo chamber reinforcing those narrative we’re comfortable with.
Much of the racism that I’ve experienced in Charlotte has been subtle and seemingly innocuous, similar to my experience at Charlotte Theater. Yet, this racism is as ingrained in the southern psyche as the systems of wealth that are fundamentally rooted in an economy of human trade. The inertia of which perpetuates the wealth gap between whites and “the other”. The lack of upward mobility in Charlotte, as identified by the infamous Harvard and California-Berkeley study, is grounded in these systems of racism which seem to live on, mostly unchallenged. These common threads are such omnipresent haunts that many of us have become numb to the trauma it conjures whenever we pass a Confederate monument in a public space or enter a theatre for entertainment.
It seems Americans a beginning to awaken from their slumber. And maybe I’m more sensitive than most Charlotteans having moved here three years ago after leaving a job in New York City where I worked at the right-wing talk radio and TV station home to Don Imus, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Mark Levin and Geraldo Rivera. I became aware of the stark contrast in the explicit racial insensitivity of certain of those personalities versus the more subtle form of southern pleasantries that mask the racial tensions and white advantage that persist in Charlotte like a detergent-resistant film coating our daily doings.
This southern charm seems strangely connected to the strong aversion I witnessed among many southerners when confronted to acknowledge, challenge or let go of white privilege as it lives on in its various incarnations as acceptable business practices and institutionalized racism. Such confrontations with the truth are often met with groggy shrugs and a plea for 5 more minutes of sleep, even after the alarm has been sounded. To attempt to call one out of their alluring American Dreams that entice us to believe we live in a post-racial society, is an unpleasantry that’s often not tolerated. And so, the racism drags behind us, just beneath the surface of everyday interactions in the workplace, at the theatre and sports arenas; barely beyond our consciousness, like historical debris caught in the wake of an enormous cargo vessel.
Just a few weeks ago, I was sitting in my office in Ballantyne, when a situation arose where I had to call my friend (and coworker) out on his racist behavior. My friend, who we’ll call Nick, is a beard-wearing, nature-loving, church-going country boy. But when Nick shared with our team that he would NEVER hire a person with locks or braids, I had to speak up. Meanwhile, there were two women sitting behind him who wore their hair in locks and they looked visibly put off by his statements.
I called him out for this culturally insensitive attitude because those hairstyles have been stylish in many African, Caribbean, Australian, North and South American cultures for millennia. To not hire someone based on their culturally inspired hairstyle is a bias rooted in what he, a straight white male, deemed as “professional” based on his limited ideas of what a professional environment should look like. A bias I challenged him to earnestly inspect. These sort of biases, when acted on, perpetuate the racism that perpetuate wage gaps and the lack of access to opportunity, despite laws that make such discriminatory hiring practices illegal. These discriminatory hiring practices are even more obvious, yet still acceptable behavior, in the entertainment industry.
Nick and I talked about the situation. Talking about it helped us process and unpacked our historically and emotionally charged exchange. We are two men, of different races and walks of life, who came together to examine the racism that he had demonstrated. Although it didn’t seem to be his intention, Nick’s narrow concept of what he felt were professional hairstyles, effectively reinforced white supremacist attitudes in the workplace by using Eurocentric aesthetics as the professional template by which all other people must conform. By this logic, an otherwise well qualified Native American applicant could be excluded from a pool of job candidates for wearing a Mohawk to a job interview. And while you may be thinking, “duh” or “it depends on the industry”; I encourage you to examine and challenge this logic.
If I had chosen to remain silent, this would have also been a story of racism that I was complicit in.
This moment was made possible because I chose not to remain silent AND because Nick chose to sit with his discomfort by making an earnest attempt to engage and understand after being called out on his racism. This conversation helped both Nick and me to uncover meaning in our exchange which built a pathway for growth by excavating previously unchallenged cultural bias. One that Nick admittedly acted on in the past when he had been in the position to make hiring decisions. An authority he’ll likely regain in the near future.
This is the kind of work that I’ve been committed to for the last 12 years of my life, especially my last 3 years here in Charlotte. The community organization that I founded, the Saint Harriet Equation, creates safe spaces where dialogue can occur across difference. I felt a demand for these kinds of conversations because, as stated above, I’ve personally witnessed, and have been affected by racism since moving to Charlotte from New York City three years ago.
The most recent dialogue that I co-facilitated was with Kevin Giriunas, in partnership with Advent Coworking and QC Marketing. Our “Unity Dialogue and March” occurred just a week after the events in Charlottesville, VA. We had a diverse panel, ranging in age, race, sex, religion and industry. This gave the Plaza Midwood community a space to collectively process their feelings and experiences, particularly as it impacted their families and workspaces.
So even though the casting of the Charlotte Theatre’s production of Aida seemed consistent with the original book by Linda Woolverton and the broadway performance, racism was write into the racial descriptions of the original characters and stage play castings. Everyone in the audience that night, including myself, supported this production, and through this financial investment, were complicit in the perpetuation of this subtle form of institutionalized racism.
We never know when we’ll find ourselves in a place where racism pops up or when we will become an agent of racism. In fact, topics of race and racism are more likely to arise now as we reach the one year anniversary of the shooting of Keith Lamont Scott and the Charlotte Uprising that ensued thereafter. If the topic arises, or if you find yourself in an environment where any form of racism persist, here are the 6 skills that I use to challenge issues of race, equity, diversity and inclusion.
Am I going to go with the flow or interrupt the pattern of racism?
I pause. I take a deep breath and ground myself in my body. I recognize that this HAS to be the right time to interrupt this pattern because confronting racism will NEVER be convenient. It is my responsibility, because the millions of people who have lost their lives to racism, will continue to have their voices smothered beneath my rationalizations that entice me to be silent and complicit. If I don’t say something, then it will weigh on me like the world sitting on Atlas’ back. While the one playing the role of “The Racist” walks on, unbothered and unquestionably empowered.
I’m not an expert
I’m not an expert on anyone else’s experience. While practicing mindfulness in these moments, and through the use of “I statements”, I’ll express how a statement or action has landed on me.
I practice active listening
I listen intently to the other person’s perspective. My even tone allows doorways of communication to remain open. The mindfulness demonstrated by both parties can be the forgiveness that invites one to walk through those doors so that they can see their implicit biases through a clearer, multi-spectrum lens.
I take responsibility
I take responsibility for my emotional reactions and encourage the same in others. This acceptance tends to help dissolve defensiveness. If we are capable of dissolving our defensive or combative attitude, then we might be able to excavate the historical roots of the patterns of racism that we are playing into.
I ask “why?”
If the defensiveness remains, I may choose to ask even, non-leading clarifying questions with the intent to uncover the deeper root of the statements or experiences shared, while checking my tone so that judgement doesn’t trigger resistance.
Once we’ve explored our experiences and feelings with patient non-judgement, only then can we make an attempt at empathy.
In closing, this experience with Aida was particularly poignant considering actor Ed Skrein’s statement that he released shortly after he rejected a major role in the upcoming movie “HELLBOY”, where he was cast to play a character who, in the original comic, was of mixed Asian heritage. Skrein, a white actor, shared on Twitter, “It is clear that representing this character in a culturally accurate way holds significance for people, and that to neglect this responsibility would continue a worrying tendency to obscure ethnic minority stories and voices in the Arts…” his full statement can be found on my instagram @quentinthepoet.
As we move forward and continue our commitment to progress, we must acknowledge the seemingly small or subtle forms of racism. We must challenge them as they surface in everyday conversations, business processes, and even entertainment. We must be as introspective and non-reactive as possible as we consider our place as actors on this grand stage of life if we are to clearly see ourselves on the continuum of time and establish our place in history as it pertains to equity, diversity, inclusion, and Charlotte’s response to our troubling problem with upward mobility. We must be mindful enough to examine those thoughts, behaviors, and tendencies which we have taken for granted for so long. I try to relate to people in love, authenticity, and shared human values before attempting to expose the excuse that profit legitimizes institutionalized racism. Even as it pertains to discriminatory hiring practices, whether in corporate Charlotte or the arts.
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