On Thursday, June 3, Equity’s Equal Employment Opportunity Committee held its biannual dialogue on race, with theatre artist and activist Kaja Dunn.
Dunn began with asking participants to define race and racism, and shared information about the way they function in the United States, how people of color are at greater risk of discrimination in everything from housing to healthcare to incarceration, and how there is ample evidence that these outcomes are not innate.
“Race is not biological,” she explained, going into the history of American colonialism and chattel slavery spawning the progenitor of the modern notion of race, the notion that “whiteness” is a default in contrast to so-called “other” groups.
Dunn related this notion to the theatre, " Shakespeare's not ‘a bard for certain people,’ he's just ‘the bard,’ right?," she said. "But when we describe people like Katori Hall or Dominique Morisseau or August Wilson, we talk about, ‘Oh, that's the “Black theatre canon.”’ It's this idea that whiteness is universality.”
Dunn also spoke about cultural differences between different ethnic or racial groups, and how not perceiving that gap can lead to racist incidents. This can range from white people perceiving police officers as a sign of safety when Black people would feel threatened to Black actors being labelled as “difficult” for pushing back against microaggressions in the workplace.
Dunn talked about white supremacy, not necessarily individual acts of overt racism but existing in a system that rewards whiteness and punishes being racially “other.” She also explained the difference between conscious and unconscious bias, the idea that we carry preconceived notions we might not even be aware that we hold.
“We all carry around history and contexts to justify the decisions we make,” she said. "We don't understand the history and context of other people. And that's especially true when people come from cultures or backgrounds that we are unfamiliar with. And that's one of the ways that we have bias ‘blind spots’ where we're not recognizing where we're being biased towards other people.”
Dunn went on to explain more about microaggressions, sometimes subtle ways in which white people and culture treat racial minorities. This might include having assumptions about a person based on their race, or treating them rudely. She shared studies that show that the constant stress of experiencing microaggressions can have negative long term health effects.
Dunn addressed what allies can do to not put the onus on people of color to fight for themselves alone. This can include listening to others share their experiences without trying to speak over them, or offering to intervene in the face of a microaggression or other act of racism. Above all, people with privilege need to educate themselves on the realities of racism.
In theatre-specific spaces, white artists can try to produce theatre not only about people of color, but not designed to present them to solely white audiences. They can also make sure that hair and makeup professionals know how to work with non-white skin and hair. Some theaters can also hire sensitivity consultants to support members from marginalized groups working on a production.
Equity’s National Diversity and Inclusion Strategist Bliss Griffin chimed in to note that anyone experiencing on-the-job harassment can always reach out to the union for support.
“Each of us is entitled to a safe workplace where they do not feel oppressed because of their marginalized characteristics,” she said. “Sometimes theaters don't know that they're doing that, and you don't want to open the conversation. Somebody at Actors’ Equity is very, very happy to have a conversation with the employer about how they can become compliant with their CBA [collective bargaining agreement].”
"Above all, people with privilege need to educate themselves on the realities of racism."
Dunn then took questions from participants. The first was about the fear of giving race too much power by articulating so much in racial terms, even for a good reason. Dunn replied how so much of the negative effects of racism are going unacknowledged that we as a society need to call attention to them in order to address them.
“There's a false equivalency made about racism or discrimination because we're finally naming the thing we're not allowing whiteness to be universal anymore,” she said.
Dunn also addressed questions on evolving language to discuss race, the historical connection between Christianity and racism, casting non-white actors in villain roles and people from marginalized groups joining creative teams.
Dunn concluded by offering further resources to the group. Members can access the full recording of the webinar, along with the transcript that includes these resources in the member portal.