On November 12, 2020, the Diversity and Inclusion Department and Equal Employment Opportunity Committee of Actors' Equity held a diversity webinar on race and ethnicity, presented by Kaja Dunn, UNC Charlotte Assistant Professor of Theatre.
Dunn began by framing the goals for the webinar, which were to discuss what race and racism are, bias and language, “rocking ally ship," and race and the theatre, as well as share further resources.
Dunn began by asking participants what they thought race and racism mean, and how despite their great impact on the country, our understanding and language we use about them are constantly evolving.
“The thing that we don't talk about with racism is racism affects all areas of life. And it's structural,” she said. Dunn shared just a few statistics to undergird her point, such as higher mortality rates for people of color from certain medical conditions, incarceration rates and the wage gap.
Dunn explained more about the history of race in America, as a result of chattel slavery: “It was created as a way of keeping poor whites, immigrants, from uniting with marginalized groups of color," explained Dunn. "It was created to keep plantation owners and titans of industry in power. America's economics depended on labor exploitation, and the dehumanization of blacks for slavery, other groups for labor, and the indigenous for land.”
Dunn explained how this history has perpetuated through time and continues to touch all aspects of American life, including the arts and those who create it. This is evident in casting:
“When a casting call comes out, that doesn't list the race. But until recently, we knew that meant a white person unless it said ‘open ethnicity,’ or it said a specific race, but otherwise, to be white means that you get to be the jock, or the quirky person, or the pretty girl. But we don't say the ‘white jock,’ right?"
"Bias kills creativity. There are so many creative choices that we could make if we weren't dealing with our own biases and blind spots.”
Dunn spoke about unconscious bias, the subconscious cognitive system by which we absorb negative messaging about other groups and then internalize – behaving as though the messaging is fact - and repeat it.
"Bias kills creativity,” she said. "There are so many creative choices that we could make if we weren't dealing with our own biases and blind spots.” Theatre and media in general, are a hotbed for this. “We assume because we're in an art form, we're all liberal, there could be no bias, we do theatre. And we all know that that's not true, right?" Everyone is susceptible to unconscious bias, even if they intend no harm.
Dunn and attendees discussed other ways in which bias and racism affect the theatre, including how the theatre “canon” is from white voices, or even the idea of Standard American Speech erasing other dialects. She also offered that those with artistic resources needed to consider the needs of marginalized communities when reaching out:
“Oftentimes, the communities that major institutions do outreach to have their own culture, of art, of celebration of theater of dance of music, and those cannot be ignored in favor of bringing, for instance, a Shakespeare play.”
This brought the topic to “rocking allyship.” Listening to communities also means listening to individuals. Dunn explained that when a person of color shares a racist experience they had, the listener should not defend or contradict. Instead, they should listen, empathize and leverage their privilege to step up when they witness injustice. Having social privilege means that the society has positive biases and associations for your group and therefore takes you seriously, assumes best intentions, and gives you the benefit of the doubt. Dunn offered herself as an example:
“As a professor, as a director, I have privilege that I bring into a room. Utilize your privilege, so that you don't go to somebody after a meeting and say, ‘Wow, that was awful. Are you okay?’ Instead, you can speak up.”
"Listen, empathize and leverage your privilege to speak up when you witness injustice."
Dunn also explained that when you make a mistake in perpetuating racism or using inappropriate language, you should learn to apologize and improve your behavior, not express guilt in a way that centers yourself, rather than those who have been hurt.
The group finished by discussing takeaways attendees had to fight racism in theatrical workplaces, such pay transparency, diversifying stage management teams as well as casts and examining scripts through a racial justice lens. Dunn offered further resources like the Black Theatre Network, Latinx Theatre Commons and X Casting, an antiracist casting company.
Equity members can watch this full dialogue and access the transcript through the member portal.