Over the past several months, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced theatre pedagogues around the world to rethink ways of delivering teaching. In addition to the ongoing health crisis, the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, following the custodial killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, USA, led to protests across the world against systemic racism endemic in various fields and disciplines, including theatre and other performing arts.
Earlier in August, an informal network of Black and Global Majority scholars in UK Theatre, Dance and Performance Studies published an open letter White Colleagues Listen! (https://medium.com/@revolutionornothing/white-colleague-listen-2d098d6a4a5d) , urging their white colleagues, as an ally and an accomplice, to address racism within the field with the same sense of urgency as was demonstrated in the ability to adapt curriculum delivery for the academic year.
Following protests against racism, institutions reaffirmed their commitment to address it through solidarity statements noting “there is more work to do” without providing a concrete plan of action.
Calling this out, the letter, signed by 49 academics, states: “It is therefore no longer enough to intend not to be racist; we need you to be actively antiracist. What we need from you is actionable and meaningful change. And so we urge you to move from private expressions of solidarity to real public actions that enable meaningful change for us, your Black and Global Majority colleagues and students.”
The letter also highlights instances where Black, Asian or People of Colour academics felt isolated, not taken seriously for their work due to racism prevalent in the field.
“It makes me anxious, the feeling that I have to protect myself. The risk, pain and trauma reminds me of all the racism and racist incidents that I’ve been through,” shares Dr. Mojisola Adebayo, one of the signatories to the open letter, during a recent Unrehearsed Futures conversation.
“It costs me and other People of Colour, Black people, Asian people in white environments. It costs us many breaths, many, many extra breaths. It costs us many extra heartbeats, minutes, hours, weeks, months from our lives. It’s a great cost to just exist, especially when we’re in a very white context, when we’re trying to challenge racism in our work. There are voices in my head that make me question if I am invalid and worthless just by my existence. There is trauma in that. I can feel it in my breath, in my body. I can feel it in my chest. I can feel it in my heart.”
Adebayo, who is also a lecturer at Queen Mary University, London, believes this moment in time is a crucial opportunity to dismantle whiteness in performing arts departments and schools in the UK. “And dismantling whiteness is not about hurting white people or killing white people or ending white people themselves, whatever ‘white people’ means. Whiteness is a social construct that has to be dismantled. We’re all in this together,” she says.
When white colleagues listen
What would happen if white people listened as the open letter urges them to? If they did everything as suggested in the letter, Adebayo believes the curriculum would be much more exciting and challenging. Pedagogues would be forced to do a lot more research and spend time understanding another form. There will be more jobs for people of African, Asian, Caribbean, Latinx and indigenous descent, she says. “I think we’d all be learning new stuff. And we’ll be sharing ideas,” she feels. “I think the students would get very, very excited because they’re always way ahead of us. It would be an opportunity for our teaching to be more relevant, more contemporary, and more diverse.”
However, she also cautions that there is a danger in using such measures and reforms to only “spice up the curriculum” and not create any change within power structures inherent within racism.
“It could become very tokenistic. And still, whiteness wouldn’t be undone and dismantled. Everybody would just look better. Everybody would just be a bit cooler. And I think ‘cool’ has done nothing for blackness,” Adebayo asserts.
The letter also highlighted dangers of institutions hiring people of African, Asian descent and People of Colour as “diversity hires” and giving an impression of diverse representation in a predominantly white environment and considering it as action against racism. It is not enough to be the only Black person in a department at a low level job where one is often not supported by the institution as a whole, says Adebayo.
“Everybody is expecting you to be the voice of the rest of the world. And, then you’ve massive pressure to get everything right, pressure that you put on yourself too. There is massive pressure to know everything from Japanese Noh theatre, to Beijing opera, to West African storytelling and to be the voice against racism,” she asserts.
Being the only Black person in the room
Adebayo also speaks of the exhaustion that comes with being the only Black person in the room, among some white friends and colleagues. “I’m a kind of a badge of honor, a kind of passport, without saying the most clichéd thing of all, ‘I’ve got a black friend, and she doesn’t feel like that’. I’m often invited by my white colleagues to shine their medals of anti-racism. It is tiring and really boring,” she says, emphasizing that reflective action on behalf of her white colleagues is the need of the hour.
Adebayo also subscribes to the idea of abundance and questions what it would mean for capitalist structures, white people to have less, do less, be less successful in order to create space for marginalized communities. “What if a professor’s ambition and aim is to get out of higher education, to become redundant and make space for people who are much less privileged? That could be on your job description,” she wonders.
The open letter also addressed how racism manifests as both, epistemic erasures and appropriations, as well as microaggressions and overt racist behaviours. Addressing this, Adebayo shares that keeping a record of all the instances of racism she faces helps her assert to her herself what is happening is “crazy” and not a figment of her imagination. “One of the ways in which racism works is that it gets inside your head and makes you question yourself. It makes you massively doubt yourself. It’s a psychological condition we’re experiencing,” she shares, adding one does get angry with oneself when one does not stand up for oneself.
“It is not about courage, it is about abuse,” Adebayo believes. “What we need to address is the abuser and the abuse of institution that makes you feel that you’re that you’re not good enough. So I’d say that keeping a record, even for yourself, that you might use at a particular time can be really helpful. Many years ago, I took a theatre company to court for racial discrimination. And it was the keeping of my records that helped. I won that case effectively, and then we settled.”
Dismantling whiteness in UK’s higher education institutions
Adebayo recalls an incident at her first academic job when she was given the recommended reading list for theatre students for the summer. She found that every single play on the list was written by a white European, and almost all of them were dead, except Caryl Churchill. It affected her deeply and she couldn’t do anything about it at that time. If given a chance to turn the clock back, she says, she would have given the list back and pointed out how problematic it was. She admits she was scared at the time but as the years have passed, Adebayo resolved to dismantle whiteness by using any money that came her way.
“When I’d have a little bit of the budget and I decided to make sure that any pound, any euro that came my way, I would use it to dismantle whiteness,” she says, encouraging her colleagues to do the same.
When she noticed there was not a single play by a Black person in the library at the first university she worked at, she used the budget to stock up on plays write by people of African and Asian descent. “I use my budget and I only ever bring in Black, Asian, People of Colour and Middle Eastern people to teach on my courses. So, I have more power than I think I have sometimes. I focus on my teaching, and what I can do with the students in the space,” she shares.
She also points out that one of the things institutions must keep in mind while dismantling racism and whiteness is the cost and toll it takes on those who go through racism. When it comes to changing curriculum and letting go of a white playwright on the list, it is crucial to ask what it costs to make this sacrifice, she says.
“In terms of racism, I can say with total confidence that it’s cost me heartbeats. It’s cost me my breath. It’s cost me my mental health, it’s cost me my physical body, sometimes in terms of physical abuse. It’s cost my income, my ancestors, 60 million of them transported across the sea. It’s cost lynching, murders and inequality. One can’t even express the personal and cultural cost involved,” she argues, adding that it is time to let go of what one calls “tradition” and come up with a new tradition, a new ritual in order to undo history. She admits the work is messy and chaotic, but it is possible if people work together.
“As theatre-makers, we have to improvise our way to some other way of being messy, full of mistakes, and being clumsy, but we have to. Because it costs someone else far too much. Because it just hurts,” she says.
Adebayo’s experience of racial discrimination has been painful and what’s been more painful is having white people tell her how much it hurt reading the open letter. “Stop worrying about feelings. Get involved collectively, see what you can do, make something happen, change something, let it cost you something. If you’re losing some money, it’s probably a good thing,” she says, adding that whiteness and white supremacy is an evil construct born out of racism. She passionately urges her colleagues and pedagogues around the world to dismantle, disrupt and pull down whiteness. It is the time to create a new equitable system in its place because white people in higher education institutes have gotten away with it for too long, she says before signing off.