RACE

Race and Trauma // Demi Nandhra

This piece is available as an audio recording below:

why do white people like watching trauma so much?

this is how im going to start. why do white people like watching trauma so much? that question, because thats what plagued me at fringe. plagued me? maybe not plagued but intrigued, kind of confused me. i kind of wanted an answer but also i think i knew the answer.

context first -

this was my first ever fringe. taking a show. i performed everyday at 1pm at summerhall in the tech cube 0 space. i had aaron, my partner and my dog on stage. I spent my time with theatre people and then aaron and the dog. most of the shows i watched were at summerhall because of ease and them being free. I started off watching as much as a could but then went down to maybe on a good day watching 2-3 shows. It went down to one a day and then many days…nothing at all. just netflix or romesh ranganathan’s many fucking shows (google him, he’s funny)… all afternoon at the nice flat that cost nearly £5,000. a flat that didn’t have a sharp knife or a cheese grater.

anyway….

i was choosing to watch shows from artists i respect/admire and artists who were also friends that i wanted to support. a lot of the work centred trauma - personal trauma, family trauma, generational trauma, collective trauma. alllls the traumas. The works were rich, nuanced and vulnerable and had the potential to be dangerous…for me the audience and maybe the artists. I’m going to make an assumption and say yes dangerous for the artists. As an artist who was also presenting trauma based work, i did my due diligence, i considered what support i needed and made those arrangements. (begged aaron to be there). I was safe and i can imagine others tried to do the same but like me the work still had the potential to be dangerous for them. I/we just had to monitor and stay vigilant.

so all that to say i was around of a lot of dangerous works.

i became more and more concerned for audiences, my audiences and others. I spent a lot of time trying to maintain safety for audiences in my shows and then trying to control my triggers as an audience member in other shows. one thing that would help was to come out of the work a little, now and then look at others in the space not just the ‘stage’.

i noticed things.

I noticed white audiences didn't seem to have an intolerance to trauma. Not all white audiences before you start.

i noticed white audiences actively seeking trauma based work and filling their day with it

like the whole day, back to back of despair, violence and danger.

wtf?

is that not a wtf?

i think thats a wtf, i would be so exhausted by just one work that i would try and honour that exhaustion and leave. get the fuck out the venue i was in and go breath and watch romesh do his best judge judy impression.

i would get angry in some instances.

this one made me angry -

i was watching Rachael Young’s NIGHTCLUBBING for the second time. I love Young and i love this work. someone i was with wanted to see it and i was very happy to see it again. i knew what to expect so i had a healthy distance, my danger meter was low.

————

Young, the performer is standing on black block platforms, hula hooping, hands up in the air and into the mic is listing apologies, for her blackness and looking good in neon pink. the hula hooping never seems to end.

her self and voice keep going and going she is exerting so much physical energy/spirit/heart. it’s an exchange, she is giving and giving, we must give back. give her our energy. honour this moment, in this work. honour it.

it has been a long time now and she is still hula hooping and still listing her apologies.

i hear a rustle and my gaze moves through the audience to a white man in the audience a few rows down. he is eating some nuts or crisps and is gulping his beer.

i am confused. what is he looking at?

because it can’t be what I'm looking at, Young performing at this moment.

this man looks like he’s watching a football game that just flicked on.

i’m confused. and then it settles, i know, you know.

i then to want to punch him in his head.

————

I wanted to lunge my leg into the side of his head and then, when he turns around i would pretend nothing happened and he would be well confused because of the unprovoked violence towards him.

because that is exactly what he was doing in that moment. His attitude, demeanour, his energy was violent, violence upon this performer and their work.

“deMi He wAs juSt eAtiNg nUts AnD drInKiNg beEr, nO BIg dEaL”

fuck off, you know what i mean and if you don’t you are probably that guy or like him. ready to consume trauma like its skittles.

another - a white women talking to me about the violence/pain of a show while she looked at a food menu.

and thats what Fringe is folx, white people looking at a giant fucking menu and picking what to have.

“ooo i fancy something exotic tonight? maybe Indigenous people’s trauma and a side of non-binary person with OCD and depression”

“naaa sally i fancy the mixed grill… refugee stories, HIV positive experience and the peppercorn sauce, i mean political depression.”

i felt sad and pain and anger and all the things at the context i was in and so many PoC/marginalised artists were in.

“bUt yoU deCidEd tO Go, yOu pUt YoUrsELF iN thAt eNviRonMeNT”

suck your mom.

We are bees and fringe is honey. The big fucking honey pot. NO we are loads of winnie the poohs and the fringe is the biggest pot of honey we have seen.

(I’ve changed it to winnie because bee’s are not wanting honey right? they go to pollen and make honey? and this, my friends is from a 29yr old who has a masters degree).

winnie the pooh is the better example because it is fictional. winnie the pooh doesn’t exist so their/our love for honey/fringe isn’t real so i could be all clever and say that the fringe is a false honey pot.

but we know it isn't.

i had a meeting with an agent last week. you see how i write and where my comma’s land, i have no business in writing but that opportunity came from fringe (i had a successful fringe).

fringe feels like an evil that must be done. a sticky, tasty, sickly evil honey.

i had a great time but this piece is not about the fun i had with aaron and the team, and the park and the beach and the scooter i bought from home bargins and toni giving me a massage, and katie this womxn i fucking loved meeting. and all the conversations i had with audiences who told me so many of their truths. that validation, that experience. me honing my craft. ETC.

this is about white audiences consuming trauma.

now i don’t necessarily blame these white people. it’s all plated up for you nicely. you can stay in the nice area of town. pop down to the venue at any point and land yourself in a trauma pie.

i blame capitalism and white people and colonialism.

because fringe is capitalism at its finest. saturation of the market, no regulations, unethical practices, consumerism and all the rest of those big words when it comes to capitalism.

what do i expect from white people in that context?

erm, maybe some fucking MANNERS. MANNERS WHEN YOU ARE EATING YOUR FUCKING MEAL!!

you see white people you’re getting this menu of amazement. be respectful, don’t over-order, don’t moan that things are too spicy, don’t moan if you don’t think its not authentic enough, don’t bring you manky caucasian food to this exquisite meal. put the fucking man beer down. that is not needed right now (i would like to talk about the lack of dry spaces at fringe but i wont.) just eat slowly, take your time, don’t overindulge, respect the fucking menu.

if you have a problem with my menu analogy and me acquainting PoC work to being on a menu and being consumed, i’m sorry that is exactly what i think fringe is.

————

i will finish with this

I asked aaron, my partner what he wanted to see, i told him all about the menu ,the honey on offer. i showed him a programme. he looked at it and put it down.

“whats up?”

“its too much”

“what do you mean, there’s so much good work you need to see”

“yeah i get that but its giving me a headache, its too much information. i’m overwhelmed. you pick something for me and i might go”

I picked Pizza Shop Heroes. ive been with aaron for 11years i know the art he likes and Pizza Shop Heroes was him.

it was sold out.

“see aaron you didn’t get chance to see it”

“thats fine, its good that they sold out, i might see it again so time”

“so we have been here nearly a whole month and you're not going to see anything?”

“yeh, probably not. can we put jurassic park on?”

————

i ate around 12 shows at fringe.

i had pencilled 54 on the app and programmes etc.

aaron ate one and loved it.

how many shows did you eat? and did you fucking tip?

- this was written by neurodiverse artist Demi Nandhra.

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