I’m white. I’m white-bread, Western European, privileged as they come. My Irish heritage provides me this small sliver of oppression I might be tempted to cling to.
But come on.
I’m white as fuck.
All the characters in everything I write are super-white too. I make an attempt not to racialize any of my characters. I would like to think that an all-black cast could pick up one of my plays and still put on the same show.
But I think that’s naive. I’m not black, or Latino, or Asian, or any other non-white person. My entire experience is white. Even when we lived in a small town that was 90% Latino, we mostly hung out with white people.
The experience that informs how my characters behave, why they behave that way, and how they react to each other, is a uniformly white experience.
I was reading an article on TCG, Mfoniso Udofia’s Unfolding Immigrant Family Epic, which got me thinking along these lines. Especially disconcerting was my blindness of the nuanced experience of Udofia in contrast to the black stereotypes that I just assume so readily. From the interview:
There’s a paucity of immigrants and first-generation Americans on U.S. stages; are you conscious of that when you’re writing?
I’m very conscious of it, because part of the reason I started writing was because I didn’t see enough of it. When there were opportunities for me as an actor they were really exotic, poverty porn, Africa-in-a petri-dish, let’s-watch-cry-a-little-send-some-dollars-go home-and-get-on-with-my-life shows. I wanted to see variants of what I knew, so I did start writing from there. I just started writing about the people and the stories and I knew that would fulfill the rage from which I started writing.
I read this section over several times. It struck me that the problem, which she as much as said, was that she was being offered black roles through the eyes of white people. Now I don’t know who wrote the roles she was being offered in actuality, but the description: really exotic, poverty porn, Africa-in-a petri-dish, let’s-watch-cry-a-little-send-some-dollars-go home-and-get-on-with-my-life sounds an awful lot like a horribly white, reductionist view of the black experience. When we “progressive-minded” people think about the black community (and there it is – as if it’s a single community of a single shared experience) we think of someone to feel sorry for, someone for whom we have to ride in and white knight. Not on purpose, and not one-to-one, I’m sure, but I would bet that recognition of the problems people of color face in our society quite overshadow our vision of the vibrance and diversity of their communities, backgrounds, and individuality.
Truth is, all I really know about the black experience is that I’m not having it at all. It is very outside my experience, which is totally fucking white.
A while back I was working on a screenplay and I had written in a character who was specifically black – African-American. I didn’t use any racist vernacular in his dialogue. I didn’t describe him in any reductionist manner or apply any visual stereotypes. I was discussing this character with someone and they asked me, “Why is he black.”
I had no fucking idea. I suppose I lived in a world where there are people of color, and I wanted my characters to live in a world where there are people of color.
But looking back, I think he was black because I wanted to be perceived as an inclusive, diversity-minded, progressive writer. There are black people in the world, so I’ll make *this* one black.
You know, a token?
That is, of course, racist.
And that was the end of that character being black.
But I do live in a world where people are black, Latino, Asian, Polynesian, and a myriad shades within. As a playwright, as a writer, is it up to me to diversify my characters in recognition? Or do I leave it up to the director to cast the play in accordance with the cultural balance in which she finds herself immersed?
Part of me thinks it’s the latter. That I should write plays that are as human as I can make them, and trust the director and actors to find the right cultural niche for their venue.
The other part of me thinks I’m a fucking coward.
I don’t know who is right.
If the character you created was black because you “wanted to be perceived as an inclusive, diversity-minded, progressive writer” then I suppose tokenism was at work, and that is a form of racism … relatively benign, as it was tokenism that started the transformation of popular culture towards at least some level of inclusiveness, but racism all the same.
But was that your motive? Was it really just about how you wished to be seen? For myself, if a character is black and he’s part of my cultural mainstream, he might just reflect people I’ve known and be black for the same reason someone else is a redhead. A distinguishing factor, etc. And besides, that cultural sameness can be done away with immediately by having a conversation that references his grandparents and their experience. Suddenly your cast of characters is more interesting, simply by reflecting people you know in real life.
It can be up to you to diversify your cast in recognition of your community. I wouldn’t say it should be. I would say it’s fair to be open to adjustments your collaborators might make. This matter might be more important to them than to you, or they might have better ideas how to present it, etc. You certainly should make all characters as human as you can. But was pulling back the “blackness” of a character an act of cowardice? I think that’s pretty harsh. If you sense a black audience will see your character as reflecting a white man’s experience, then it wasn’t cowardice, it was probably good judgment. The question for you as a playwright is, how can you then learn to write authentically from outside the white male experience?