Prognosis 3: Slippery Now Because - Alexandrina Hemsley

Standing Alongside Performers and Audiences of Colour

Summer 2017’s political backdrop (Charlottesville, UK detention centre guard arrests, drug seizures in the run-up to the Notting Hill Carnival and L’Oreal hiring and then firing their first transgender model because she spoke about systematic white supremacy) is what liberal white media might call ‘heightened racial tensions’ and what I and others might call a painful and tragic reveal of shit that’s been there forever, always tense, always heightened but horrifying when it explodes. In some ways, Edinburgh was somewhere I hung out for a bit experiencing the same painful, tragic shit in a different place.

‘Racial tensions’ are slippery now in this moment of ‘wokeness’, and something seductive occurs in how often and comfortably white privilege gets spoken about. Venues and arts programmes actively profile work by people of colour and more and more artists are speaking out about industry shortcomings when it comes to engaging with diverse audiences. Within this landscape I am fooled into thinking I/we are on a level of understanding about what needs to be (un)done to have meaningful change. 

But white privilege hits and disorientates. The majority white spaces of Edinburgh are purported as spaces that welcome work by people of colour, but morph into hostile ones when I hear of and experience how alienated people of colour can feel within them, both as audiences and performers. I may walk in like I can be there unhindered, supported by the illusion of a shorthand between me and white ‘woke’ people, but then…

I don’t get flyered. I sit alone. My tongue spills out times when a white person has ignored me. A white friend’s shoulders tense and I realise I’ve said too much about race at friendly drinks. I wish I could wrap the words back up into me. I disrupt without intending to disrupt. I’m too tired. I think white audiences will only hear the incredible voice of a performer and not recognise the violence of the golliwog she’s purposely dressed up as. I think white audiences will assume the golliwog or minstrel are now archaic rather than see that our times are in close dialogue with these terrible exaggerations - particularly as I/we/they spectate work by people of colour. I feel terrible for judging them. I must remember to watch Bamboozled. I feel terrible for judging them. I sit alone. I don’t get flyered. I nearly text my white friend to apologise for bringing up racism over drinks. I feel terrible for judging them. I see two black figures of ‘the mammy’ and the house servant’ in a charity shop window on my way to leaving Edinburgh. For sale. For charity. It’s obscene. I can’t buy them because I do not want to stand next to these objects and have the sales assistant look from me to them and back again. Even though I am impotent, the figures need to be gone. I tweet Brian Lobel. He buys them. They are gone. I resent his freedom in this instance. I am thankful for his actions. 

Moments of watching work by people of colour are slippery now because majority white spaces are on my mind, in my mind and on my tongue as brown is on my skin for others to see and engage with. Whether I like it or not. Whether others like it or not. Whether they are aware of white and brown mediating all our interactions and projections, or not. Like Selina Thompson’s diaries that expose her own experiences of Edinburgh, my time there and afterwards was accompanied by the layered image of racism and its many impacts as an infinitely adaptive creature, insurmountable from any edge. With the obstacle so high and roots entrenched deep into this colonising UK soil, what are the implications of making work in front of majority white audiences? How do you acknowledge and undo a white gaze that is both outside and within, that carries with it problematic spectatorship of work made by people of colour?

The sounds of white folk gasping in salt. fall on my ears. 

They gasp at what I would consider to be lived experiences that many people of colour could identify with. Often they were stories I perceive as totally expected through their frequent repetitions both in the life of one person of colour and the multiplied, overlapping collective experiences of people of colour in the UK. This is not to minimise the violence and impact of these experiences, but something in the shocked gasping of white folk is hard not to rage at because of how it carries with it a sense of white disbelief that illustrates unequal experiences of racism with such potency. 

As people of colour, I/we need to move through racist experiences in order to live within an environment where our bodies are under threat. For us, the first moment of shock is over, but re-tell the story we have learnt to live alongside and the white person gasps. They have not had to do the same navigating. Bodies of colour have navigated around them invisibly. In the gasp are the sounds of someone waking up and I am jealous because racism made me/us awake except we did not get to gasp loudly - a racist insult got hurled at us as children and we had to bury it silently until a white person would believe us. 

An example came to mind when thinking about how to frame white spectatorship: women have been calling Beyonce and Jay-Z's five year old daughter Blue-Ivy ugly. The venom directed towards a black child disgusts and terrifies. Recent studies have shown that young black girls are perceived as less innocent than white girls. The scrutiny that the black female body is placed under within white supremacist patriarchy leads to an environment where not only are we measured against whiteness and fall short, but racial biases systematically leave our bodies unprotected. Within the arts, this might manifest as a limited understanding of the emotional and practical support that artists of colour might need when presenting their work in majority-white spaces.

Perhaps no work can slice through the tendencies for (white) audiences to enjoy the exotic? To treat brown and black bodies as booty shaking, ground stomping, sexy divas…the enjoyment is slippery now because buying a ticket for the show and sitting in your seat aligns yourself with a politic that speaks of liberation, undoing, overthrowing. Yes, yes, yes, we squeal. We want this. We are AWAKE. Applause. More applause.

In Hot Brown Honey I saw the revolution but I could not will my body to cheer for it amongst the hive of white faces. What does it mean if I’m not going to dance with these white spectators because it is a work that you want to sit still with, relieved that someone else sees you? What if the work tells parts of your story but white people are more into it than you are? Like, seriously into it. Shrieking, stamping, laughing, crying, standing ovation INTO IT.

I see the merch. Plastic Afro combs and guitar picks with ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’ blazing across them. ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’ is one of many requests for a right to body-privacy that so many people of colour fight to make heard every day. It is also frequently and unfairly personalised, i.e. ‘I know you have a thing about people touching your hair…’ For a request that at one time felt so invisible to have grown into an accessible mainstream slogan is energising, but exposes it to processes of privilege and appropriation. 

Again, this hive of white. White grabbing hands. How did I get into this scrum? I’m standing near the middle of the merch table and getting served last. I stand silently, my own pair of earrings in my hand like a candle at a vigil. My hopes for feeling something (anything) by buying this empowerment, begin to morph from solidarity I can connect with into a fashion accessory white people are clamouring over. Sometimes I hear that they are buying the merch ‘for a friend’ and I think, ‘How is that friend going to feel about you giving them this?!’ I mourn. The slogan becomes vulnerable once more. 

These earring and badges could be ones that a white person feels safer wearing than a brown person. Sometimes, I can walk into a room or join in a discussion and I know I am being read as angry or as a disturbance. Sometimes, I cry in front of a white person and they think I’m angry (no lie). If the the starting point is a body whose attitudes and emotions are being misread, wearing the badge or the earrings adds to this already complicated mix. A dance of questioning and need for justification may begin. The anxiety of well-intentioned but racist behaviour happening is one of many spectres that accompany a brown body as it meets its environment. 

I am increasingly concerned with how people of colour can continue to make and passionately advocate for work that needs to be seen, heard and felt, while also knowing that the work is simultaneously used to entertain, sell and increase white folk’s cultural capital. Poet Vanessa Kisuule articulated the implications of this in a twitter thread with that started with “Watching so many shows at fringe around the issues of race whilst surrounded by overwhelmingly white audiences has been a trip. #edfringe”. Within it was a fear of minstrel-ling herself in her own performances - becoming complicit in the exoticising she fears is there within the gazes of her audiences. The thread captures a sense that fight for space for representation on our own terms is shifting/slipping. 

I hope these words sit alongside the currents of others. Adding one more to the volume of voices carrying on and hoping these moments amplify, to drag us out of this marshy terrain. 

Related Diagnoses: salt., Out, Yvette, Hot Brown Honey

Further Reading: Being Black in the Age of 'Wokeness', Pravesh Kumar: Radical Change Required, Theatre's Diversity Problem, Theatre's Lack of Diversity is Inexcusable