Category Archives: TypeCaste

TypeCaste is a blog series completely devoted to DEI and anti-racism in the arts! We’re gonna talk about everything: cancel culture, Kanye West, race in casting, cultural appropriation, This is Us. We can’t wait, so stay ready and look for the latest post!

Disability in Casting

Friends, for today’s blog post, I need you to think back to a year ago today. We were 8 months into the pandemic and couldn’t tell Monday from Friday. I, for, one was crawling, and I mean crawling to the Thanksgiving break, which to be honest is not that different from where I am now. But Nov 20th, 2020 stands out from the rest of the pandemic haze as that was the day I stumbled across an infamous Twitter thread from the pop singer Sia. Yes, folks, today’s post is talking about Sia’s movie Music which is definitely problematic, but not for the reason you think.

To catch up any of the boomers reading this today (or genx I aspire to be inclusive here). What had happened was…Sia made her directorial debut with Music a movie about a non-verbal autistic girl, Music, who loses her primary caregiver and is then raised by her estranged sister, Zu, struggling with drug addiction. Zu, played by Kate Hudson, has to learn to grow up and be a responsible adult so that she can be there for her sister Music. Throughout the movie, Music conveys her thoughts and perspectives on the world through… wait for it… music. Sia decided to cast Maddie-Ziegler, a neurotypical (non-autistic) actress to portray Music, and the internet was not having it! We’re canceling you, your mama, your whole family.

Sia’s Music is problematic for fifteyleven reasons, which I’ll get into shortly. But while the majority of the cancel Sia headlines focused on the casting of a non-autistic actress as the autistic main character, I believe the bigger issue… the real issue… was Sia’s lack of credibility to tell a story other than her own. And her ignorance to the fact that that was important.


Series Overview

​​Welcome back to the EXCEL Log’s series on Marginalized Representation and Casting, where I advocate for a paradigm shift in the performing arts industry from a focus on authentic casting to a demand for intentional (and nuanced) casting! If you’re new to the series, check out the first post, where I explain why using authenticity as a yardstick for creative teams is reductive and counterproductive. I’ve written about how Hamilton, Birth of a Nation, and Fires in the Mirror handled casting characters of marginalized races in “inauthentic ways.” And graded them based off on the Samantha Williams Intentionality Test ™(Pending):

  1. Does it have a diverse production team?
  2. Did it engage in collaborative processes with the marginalized community(ies) in question?
  3. Did they have intentional, transparent, and accessible explanations for any controversial or non-traditional casting choices?
  4. Did they present marginalized identities with intentionality and nuance not as irresponsible caricatures?

This week I’ll be testing out my new protocols to see how Music fares! Let’s dive in!


  1. Does it have a diverse production team?
Judge Judy GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

NO

The production team consisted of co-writers Sia (white able-bodied female) and Dallas Clayton (white able-bodied male), director Ryan Heffington (white able-bodied male), and allegedly two alleged advisors on the spectrum (more on this later I suspect these advisors are fake news). 

Verdict: Honor code violation plagiarism suspected!

  1. Did it engage in collaborative processes with the marginalized community(ies) in question?

Sia says yes but…..

Where are the receipts?? Sia didn’t discuss having any partnerships or collaborations with the autistic community BEFORE she started getting criticism over Twitter. Once she started receiving negative feedback Sia responded in an immature and defensive tweetstorm [link] where she made a bunch of highly suspicious claims.

First, she claimed that “I had two had two people on the spectrum advising me at all times.” Who, what, where, when? Literally, give me a drop more proof and I’ll consider it.

Then Sia proudly stated that she partnered with Autism Speaks….

While Autism Speaks is the largest autism lobbying group in the US it is WIDELY condemned by members of the autistic community as being ableist and problematic at best, and a eugenicist hate group at worst (read more about how Autism Speaks spent years promoting ideas and information that furthered stigma and misunderstanding about the condition in this Washington Post article). So Sia touting her partnership with Autism Speaks in an attempt to show her credibility to represent the autistic experience makes me incredibly suspicious that she’d done much (and by much I mean any) research. I don’t understand how she genuinely thought that would win over her critics.

Then there was the time Sia tweeted…. “I’ve never referred to (the primary character) as disabled. Special abilities is what I’ve always said.” I’m sorry WHO ASKED FOR THIS???? No one. Not a single person. “Special” is an outdated term that “has come to be seen as patronizing and derogatory in these contexts, while “disabled” has been widely embraced.”

“Sia being ableist AF while claiming she meant well is some serious abled savior bullshit,” tweeted Kristen Parisi, the founder of @MediaDisabled. “I can’t believe so many people green-lit this project & the press team approved the ‘special abilities’ language. Disabled people clearly weren’t part of this production team.”

I’m HIGHLY skeptical that Sia would have made the following claims, been blindsided by the concern and criticism from members of the autistic community, and responded as pettily and defensively as she did to valid and predictable concerns if she really had two advisors on the spectrum with her at all times. BUT I try to give people the benefit of the doubt whenever I have the emotional capacity to do so. So I was curious, is it possible that Sia found two autistic advisors who raised no concerns with all of the elements above?

It is possible. No group or identity is a monolith. It’s possible that Sia found the disabled equivalent to Ben Carson, whose views represent a minority of the groups they represent, which is why asking two unnamed “representatives” isn’t enough! You couldn’t write a book about an entire subject after reading two articles. If you’re gonna attempt to represent a whole community, then you need to show some good faith that you’ve worked hard to get immersed in that community.

Did she do some reading, some good old-fashioned research? Is it possible that she could have done that and still made the same gaffes? Could she have found sources saying that special abilities was acceptable terminology?

I did a few quick google searches myself. I googled “special abilities”, “special ability terminology”, “disability”, “disability terminology”, and “politically correct terminology for disabilities.” While there was some disagreement over whether the term disabled or person with a disability is the best language (person first or identity first language), I found nowhere that said that special abilities was a good choice of language… not a single place… The National Center on Disability in Journalism has a disability language style guide, Ability Magazine has a guideline to terminology, The National Disability Authority has a list of Appropriate Terms to Use none of which support Sia’s language choices. So I’m going to call BS as to the effort she supposedly put into it…

Verdict: Inconceivable! Shame on you!

  1. Did they have intentional, transparent, and accessible explanations for any controversial or non-traditional casting choices?

Ummmm…

 No

Sia provided an incredibly sus “rationale” for her non-traditional casting choice of Maddie Ziegler as Music. It’s unclear if she would have provided any of this information without the twitter drama, so she’s not getting many points for accessible or transparent reasoning.

In response to tweets asking why she didn’t use an autistic actress, Sia responded that: “I actually tried working with a beautiful young girl non-verbal on the spectrum and she found it unpleasant and stressful. So that’s why I cast Maddie.” Elsewhere, she said, “Casting someone at (the character’s) level of functioning was cruel, not kind, so I made the executive decision that we would do our best to lovingly represent the community. … I did try. It felt more compassionate to use Maddie. That was my call.”

And as this amazing individual summed it up 

That’s the problem. She’s missing the point. Saying that she chose not to use an autistic actor because she chose not to adjust the work environment to make it more accessible is just blatantly able-ist and unacceptable. A half-baked and untested casting excuse like this is a clear sign that Sia wasn’t qualified to make this movie. This is patently unacceptable.

Verdict: Please pay the aggrieved party all your coins.

  1. Did they present marginalized identities with intentionality and nuance not as irresponsible caricatures?

Absolutely not!

Judge Judy Do Not Want GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

While I am a firm believer that portraying an identity other than your own isn’t inherently mocking or a caricature, the reality is that even with the best intentions, the impact of portraying an identity other than ones own can be offensive, harmful, or upsetting to the group in question. It’s important to be very intentional and thoughtful in what one is portraying, being mindful of stereotypes and communal sensitivities, but it’s also important to acknowledge that the line between a respectful or offensive portrayal is not fixed. As seen in my Fires in the Mirror post,  even with an intentional and accomplished actor, sometimes the final word on whether a performance was genuine or a caricature can come down to an audience’s assessment of a performer’s skill. If the audience finds you believable, they’re more willing to give you the benefit of the doubt when it comes to your intentions in the portrayal. Unfortunately for her, Maddie wasn’t a believable actress in this role.

Verdict– CONVICTED ON ALL COUNTS

At the end of the day, I can understand how Sia may have gotten here. I can understand the desire to help, the desire to make an impact. I’m a freaking ENFJ for chrissakes I get the burning feeling that you aren’t doing enough and you’re already behind. BUT this whole movie reeks of moving too quickly, lacking awareness, not taking the moment to edit and collaborate outside of yourself. Sia filmed this in 2017 and then spent three years editing it… what if she’d spent three years collaborating… I mean, truly, just imagine. I think there’s a world in which Sia could have made a compelling movie on autism and expression through music that would have passed the Samantha Williams Intentionality Test even if the main character wasn’t played by someone autistic. But I think it would have been co-created with autistic artists. Or more simply nothing about us without us.

Closing

Thanks for following my series on Marginalized Representation in Casting! This is the last post in the series for now, as I’m itching to talk about other things but I’d like to be sappy for a moment and end this series with my hopes for the future of marginalized representation in casting. 

 I hope that we can create a world in which creatives don’t feel empowered to bulldoze their way through marginalized communities and cause harm without a second thought. I hope we as art consumers continue to hold creative teams accountable for their choices and I hope we as audiences can hold space for differences of opinions on provocative art when artists can show their receipts. I hope to be a part of an artistic world that values the intent, process, and credibility of a creative team as well as their impact. I hope that we as art consumers can hold space for others to view provocative and controversial art and be differently impacted than ourselves. I hope to come across more art that I don’t “agree” with but where I respect the creative team’s process and credibility enough to acknowledge/ value their intent. I hope we can begin to expect nuanced and intentional representation of marginalized communities in the art we consume. And lastly, I hope we as art consumers and creators will keep questioning, musing, and thinking critically about the ways in which we tell stories other than our own. 

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” —African Proverb 

Hamilton: Marginalized Representation in Casting (Part Two)

We’re BACK! 

How are we? Hanging on by a thread? I’m just going to assume that everyone reading this is in the same boat: counting the seconds until the end of the semester, eating our body weight in Swedish Fish, and giving Jeff Bezos every dollar of our stimulus check (don’t judge me, I’ve decided if Amazon unionizes I can feel less guilty). I’m so excited to be back and equally excited with the success of EXCEL’s virtual symposium last month on Disruption. Action. Change. It’s sure to be an Emmy favorite, and I think has a real shot at ousting Schitt’s Creek from its current spot as the most quality art to consume in a panorama. If you missed it, there’s still time! Click here to listen to Classically Black’s podcast covering the highlights of the series. You can also go back and view the guest panelists’ blog posts, which were truly amazing! But probably not as cringingly humorous as mine? Am I right? I do accept pity laughs. Well, as promised, I’m picking up where I left off with the Marginalized Representation in Casting Series!!  Since it has been so long here’s a quick overview of what that is:


In the first installment of this series I advocated for a paradigm shift in the performing arts industry from a focus on authentic casting to a demand for intentional (and nuanced) casting! There’s a popular circulating belief that marginalized characters “should be played only by actors who share those characters’ essential experiences.” The well-meaning attempts to reach this ambiguously defined ideal, have led to concerning practices, and flawed but rarely contested schools of thought. We have to acknowledge that race, disability, sexuality, gender, size are each one of many aspects of a person’s identity, and that characters are a conglomeration of many identities. Thus there will always be ambiguity and room for interpretation as to which identity is the most “essential” to the integrity of a character. When it comes to characters of marginalized identities the stakes in how and who makes these interpretations are raised. I believe that using authenticity as a yardstick for creative teams is reductive and counterproductive and that we should instead use a new metric that evaluates intentional and nuanced representation and casting practices. 

So I’ve proposed my own– a framework of protocols that art consumers and creators can implement to evaluate how well-performing art productions have handled the representation of marginalized identities in casting.

  1. Does it have a diverse production team?
  2. Did it engage in collaborative processes with the marginalized community(ies) in question?
  3. Did they have intentional, transparent, and accessible explanations for any controversial or non-traditional casting choices?
  4. Did they present marginalized identities with intentionality and nuance not as irresponsible caricatures?

I hope to find ways to explore how responsible art consumers and art creators can hold creative teams accountable for the choices they make in who gets to tell marginalized stories, while also allowing space for differences in opinion and can have conversations about the space between intent and impact. If you’re not ready to drink the kool-aid, or you have more questions read, the first blog post in the series where I talk about this in more depth!

This week I’m tackling how Hamilton handled casting characters of marginalized races in “inauthentic ways.” I’ll be testing out my new protocols to see how these productions fare! Let’s Dive in!


Hamilton Synopsis

Can we even have a conversation about race in casting without talking about Hamilton? I can’t even bring myself to write a synopsis because I can’t think of a single good explanation for why someone wouldn’t know everything there is to know about this musical. In my personal, humble, and completely humble opinion, Hamilton is the best thing that ever happened to Broadway. I mean this musical:

  • Created opportunities for BIPOC Broadway performers to play roles that aren’t simply defined by trauma 
  • Created Ham4Ham productions
  • Was bought by Disney for 75 Million dollars for streaming rights on Disney +
  • Won all the Awards. 11 Tony’s, a Grammy, a Kennedy Center Honors, and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama 

BUT will it get a passing grade on the Samantha Williams Intentionality Test for Marginalized Representation ™ (pending)? Let’s find out!

1. Does it have a diverse production team?

YES… ish

Schitts Creek Comedy GIF by CBC - Find & Share on GIPHY

Lin-Manuel Miranda (Latino), Thomas Kail (Jewish), Alex Lacamoire (Latino), Andy Blankenbuehler (White), and Jeffrey Seller (a Jewish UM alum GO BLUE) made for a production “coalition” of Latino, Jewish, and white male perspectives. The book “Alexander Hamilton,” which inspired Miranda’s libretto was written by Ron Chernow (White).

The casting was handled by Bethany Knox (white) from Telsey and Company (THANK GOD A WOMAN FINALLY). Though Knox affirms that the concept for diverse representation in casting didn’t come from her, “… Lin-Manuel Miranda and Tommy Kail, the director and Jeffrey Seller, the producer, they were insistent. I mean, ‘this is what I wrote, this is what I want, this is what you and Beth and your office need to find me.’ I love that this show gets so much attention and accolades for its diversity, but it starts with the creators, and they wanted it. And that was the story they wanted to tell. And it’s beautiful.1” 

Miranda, Kail, Blankenbuehler, Sellers, and Knox are a Broadway Dream team. They’ve all had their hands in some of Broadway’s biggest successes and are incredibly accomplished in their respective fields. Furthermore, their careers show that they are committed to allyship, DEI, and all that great stuff. They aren’t just posting a black square on Instagram, they’re devoted to a lifetime of promoting equity and inclusion. Let’s be clear they would all be invited to the proverbial cookout. I mean Jeffrey Sellers INVENTED Broadway rush tickets. He’s literally out here enabling starving artists like myself to see great art (did I mention he’s a UM alum some of y’all should reach out for an informational interview, can we spell networking)? 

BUT for a show that grapples with questions of “who tells our stories” and “who gets to be in the room where it happens,” it isn’t lost on me that there were no Black identities, no Asian identities, and very few women in the main creative team. And to be completely honest, I struggle with bringing this up. I don’t want to advocate for a quota, or tokenism, or God forbid, any new “Chief diversity officer” positions, but I also want more. With a show like Hamilton where the faces that represent the show are Black, Asian American, Latinx folks and many more, it seems particularly important to try to spread a wide net in terms of who gets to be in the room where it happened. 

Lin Manuel Miranda (Left Composer), Thomas Kail (2nd from left Director), Andy Blankenbuehler (Choreographer 2nd from right), and Alex Lacamoire (Music Director right)

Intentional creative teams should be self-aware enough to acknowledge their own perspectives and limitations and in situations like this, they should make it a PRIORITY to have the missing perspectives invited to collaborate with the team during the creative process. The line between exploitation and partnership can be ambiguous and I want to know if creative teams are engaged in collaboration with communities other than their own to gain cultural ethos and credibility. Which brings us to question #2.

Samantha Williams Intentionality Test Rating: A Silver Star Sticker

2. Did it engage in collaborative processes with the marginalized community(ies) in question?

YES!


When it comes to Hamilton, no one can say they haven’t partnered with the marginalized communities represented in the show. Hamilton has made sweeping efforts to include and uplift the BIPOC cultures their story represents in the show’s success. They’ve done performances as fundraisers for Biden’s campaign, Puerto Rican Hurricane Relief (slight controversy on that), and the March For Our Lives protests. They publicly addressed Mike Pence and their concern with the president’s policies for BIPOC Americans when he came to the show, and implemented Ham4Ham productions and a lottery system to increase accessibility to BIPOC communities. They released the Hamilton Mixtape and the song “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done)” won the 2017 VMA for Best Fight Against the System. Lin Manual Miranda made a powerful video stating Hamilton’s support for BLM and apologizing for the delay in making an official statement of support.

So it’s clear that Hamilton has used its platform as a Broadway hit to support the communities whose stories it tells, and that is HUGE! This is what partnering with communities looks like, this is what committed allyship looks like, this is what sharing your resources looks like. This makes me want to get happy, give a good Black Baptist shout, and start to dance. 

BUTTT, Hamilton still has room for improvement. As stated in my last post, I believe that we should ask creative teams to show us their “works cited page” in the form of sharing the creative and collaborative processes that they feel give them the ethos to portray a story other than their own. The Hamilton creative team addresses this to varying degrees, leaving room for improvement. As stated earlier the creators were largely white, Latino, and Jewish men, a great start towards diverse perspectives that can speak to the American identity, but I want to know what they did to collaborate with the missing perspectives in their creative processes.

Andy Blankenbuehler, the choreographer, does a great job of talking about his process of collaboration. In this interview with Playbill, he discusses how important these conversations are as the consensus on who should tell which stories is currently changing and that there are some roles that white choreographers should say no to. He goes on to talk about looking forward to moments of mentorship in the future with burgeoning choreographers of color. 

It was much harder to find these candid conversations on collaborative creative processes with unrepresented perspectives by Miranda, Kail, Knox, or Seller. That’s not to say that those processes didn’t happen but the team wasn’t as transparent and intentional about centering those as they could have been. Why harp on this, why can’t I just leave well enough alone? 

Because I think that if they had, that might have mitigated some of the recent critiques of Hamilton that came up in the Cancel Hamilton campaign in 2020. These critiques center not on Hamilton’s casting choices, but on the story’s fundamental overlooking of slavery, black and brown revolutionaries of the time, and the fact that while the Schuyler Sisters is an absolute bop, Hamilton doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test.  

Now clearly it’s much easier to be a critic than to create (and I personally feel that until you can recite the entire Hercules Mulligan rap in Guns and Ships, I don’t want to hear your critiques of the artistic genius that is Lin Manuel Miranda). But I do think these critiques are valid, and Miranda, himself agrees. 

 For his part, Miranda responded to these critiques with humility and accountability which I respect wholeheartedly. As he says in his response he grappled with this project for 6 years and did his best, a valiant and largely successful effort. However, I believe it may have been better addressed if there had been a more targeted coalition of perspectives in the creative team.

Samantha Williams Intentionality Test Rating:

3. Did they have intentional, transparent, and accessible explanations for any controversial or non-traditional casting choices?

Duh!

Clearly, the casting process and rationale for Hamilton have sparked A LOT of questions, controversy, adoration, and intrigue. The blog posts, JSTOR articles, Op-eds, theater reviews, and tweets that discuss the brilliance and/or problems of the Hamilton casting choices are a substantial part of the Hamilton craze. So I thought researching this section would be just a formality, just looking for an official quote on what I already knew, and was surprised to find that the official statements from the creative team are intentionally vague and guarded on this issue. 

Ever since the controversy surrounding the Hamilton casting call in 2016, calling for “non-white” actors, the official statements on how race factors into the casting process have become increasingly vague. Tommy Kail describes it as “the story about America then, told by America now.” In an effort to stay above legal crosshairs the creative team has chosen to let the show speak for itself as to what that means. In every tour, West End production, Regional Production, and Broadway Show, all the major roles except for King George are performed by BIPOC actors while King George is played by a white actor. So I’ll leave it up to you to deduce what they’re saying about America now versus America then. 

Samantha Williams Intentionality Test Rating: 50 points for Gryffindor (minus 1)

Did they present BIPOC identities with intentionality and nuance not as irresponsible caricatures?

Obviously!

Yes! Part of why people love analyzing and talking about Hamilton is that its handling of issues like race and representation is incredibly hard to pin down. By purposefully retelling the founding fathers’ stories with BIPOC bodies, Hamilton inverts the paradigm and allows the BIPOC characters to be dynamic and fully developed while making a caricature out of the one main white character, King George. Every one of the central roles played by a BIPOC actor is a fully developed character (well except for poor Peggy).  

As Miranda masterfully said “I believe great art is like bypass surgery. It allows us to go around all of the psychological distancing mechanisms that turn people cold to the most vulnerable among us.” And in this lies some of its power! By freeing black performers by allowing them to inhabit characters of privilege with freedom, mobility, and limitless possibilities, we allow our audience to see these same possibilities for the brown identities embodying them.

Samantha Williams Intentionality Test Rating: JAzz Hands

Closing

Overall, after painstakingly tabulating, converting, and calculating my results, it is apparent that Hamilton has passed the Samantha Williams Intentionality Test for Marginalized Representation ™ (pending) with flying colors. It handles the representation of BIPOC identities with intentionality and nuance! My biggest desire for Hamilton would simply be for there to have been more collaboration with targeted diverse perspectives in the initial creation process.

 That being said, the original creative team didn’t know Hamilton would become the amazing Pulitzer/Grammy/Tony winning success that would have people selling their left kidney to get a ticket. The creative team was juggling countless priorities and goals just to get this completely radical concept off the ground. They sought to make great art, to create opportunities for BIPOC Broadway performers, to create conversation as to the casting practices on Broadway, to reclaim American History and the American Dream as belonging to all Americans, and to do so while representing marginalized identities intentionally. In those respects, it was successful beyond their wildest imaginations. Was it without fault? No. Does it deserve some grace for being the first to realize something that wasn’t seen as possible beforehand? Absolutely. Hamilton set a pretty good bar and now it’s up to future creative teams who are interested in representing BIPOC stories with intentionality and nuance to see how they might raise it. 

Marginalized Representation in Casting (Part One)

Last weekend my friends and I held a presentation party. For any of you who aren’t familiar with them, presentation parties are arguably the worst thing to come out of the pandemic, after Covid-19 of course. Presentation parties are marketed as cool, fun, hip, social events where creative and clever millennials gather over zoom and each present a PowerPoint on a topic that they find interesting. If this sounds suspiciously like an additional homework assignment to you, then you are in good company. And anyone who disagrees with us is unfortunately in the sunken place. As someone whose bullet journal was telling them in color-coded bubble letters “do not pass go, do not collect $200, sit down and write for the rest of your foreseeable future,” it was the last thing I had time for. So why was I there you might ask? Because I’d realized that this was the perfect opportunity to have a captive audience, sorry, engaged focus group to help me flesh out my latest blog post. 

My last blog post was all about the current practices and conversations about casting race in productions. The more I researched the pros and cons of color-blind casting, color-conscious casting, and as written/ for us by us casting the more I became concerned about a cultural obsession with “authenticity” in casting that is rife with contradiction. I came across one particularly compelling Los Angeles Times Article Authenticity in casting: from ‘colorblind’ to ‘color conscious’ new rules are anything but black and white, that I used as the basis for my presentation. After my friends gave well researched presentations on the true zodiac signs of all the characters in Avatar, whether Cardi B, Megan the Stallion, or Rico Nasty would be the best addition to our friend group, and why Star Wars The Last Jedi was objectively the best of the new trilogy, I presented “I Swear I’m not Advocating for Blackface: A Plea for Intentional Rather Than Authentic Casting.”

I explained how current casting scandals from a Jewish voice actress portraying a biracial cartoon character in Netflix’s Big Mouth to Scarlet Johansen portraying a Japanese cyber-enhanced woman in Ghost in the Shell, to the Hamilton casting notice public outrage shows that our society is trying to hold creative teams responsible for the choices they make in who gets to tell certain stories. And this, as a concept, is amazing! I mean it took us long enough…

AAPAC charts representing the 2016-2017 season Broadway and non-profit actors, playwrights and directors, broken out by ethnicity.

There is a robust history of excluding BIPOC actors, writers, producers, and directors from opportunities in theater, film, and dance.

Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby is one of the Uncle Remus books. Uncle Remus books are a series of books written in 1881 by, Joel Chandler Harris, a white man who collected the stories of black slaves and published them as his own, to great commercial success.

There is a ROBUST history of the appropriation of BIPOC stories and cultures in theater, film, and dance.

Mickey Rooney portraying Mr. Yunioshi, a caricature of an Asian American, in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

And America CONTINUES to perpetrate harmful caricatures and representations of BIPOC individuals.

So it’s AMAZING that people in our society are now using public opinion to pressure creative teams to address a lack of diversity in stories and performances! But using the “authenticity” of the actors cast, as the yardstick to measure their success is problematic and antithetical to the foundation of acting itself. This belief that “certain types of characters should be played only by actors who share those characters’ essential experiences,1” is a noble idea. But, as it has spread in the public consciousness, the intent has been warped into an indiscriminate crusade for authentic casting. These well-meaning attempts to reach this ambiguously defined ideal, have led to concerning practices, and flawed but rarely contested schools of thought.

Campaigns for all BIPOC characters to be played by an actor of the aligning race, campaigns for all disabled characters to be portrayed by disabled actors, campaigns for all trans characters to be played by trans actors in the name of authenticity boil people of marginalized identities down to that one factor. It’s essentialist and reductive. It assumes that race, or disability, or gender is the most defining characteristic of one’s identity when that is not universally true. Intersectionality (check out my post on that), social identity salience theory, and my own life experience as a woman of color show that that’s a simplistic perspective. Race, disability, sexuality, gender, size are each one of many aspects of a person’s identity. 

Who’s to say which identity is the most “essential” to the integrity of a character who is a conglomeration of many different identities? Should the last word on that go to the creative teams (writers, directors, actors) who supposedly know these characters intimately? 

We can call for an increase in diverse stories in theater, film, and dance, as well as more nuanced representation without all joining the cult of authenticity. Particularly when we are inconsistently applying authenticity as a paradigm. What about identities that aren’t visible? There are no campaigns for authenticity in casting socio-economic class status, mental illness, or age? Sexuality is another invisible identity that doesn’t fit into the current authenticity paradigm as it is illegal to ask actors about their sexuality in regards to hiring (here’s a really interesting article on this). These are all aspects of identity that have the potential to be ‘essential experiences’ in the portrayal of a character and yet, they aren’t included in the sweeping “authenticity in casting” movement. Which begs the question: is authenticity really what we’re searching for or are we looking for nuanced and intentional representation?

Furthermore, “isn’t the point of acting: to suspend audience disbelief to the point of personal reinvention?2” These are fictitious works of art, not documentaries; they are interpretations, not facts. I am a 26 year old black female performer and I don’t want to be pigeonholed into roles that were expressly written for 26 year old black women. Not only would that be frustrating and limiting for my own artistic development, but I probably wouldn’t be able to have much of a career.

So how can conversations around handling representation in casting change to encompass that too? How can we create more room for creative teams to acknowledge that race is simply one aspect of a person’s identity without contributing to the inevitable next wave of Hollywood whitewashed movie productions? Cause a white-washed version of the live-action Mulan is NOT IT.


After pitching that to my friends, I asked them to help me come up with a more nuanced set of protocols to evaluate how well a performance handled marginalized representation in performance. After lots of hilarious and heated discussion I condensed our concerns into this list. Henceforth and forever after, all productions that want our (and hopefully your) stamp of approval in handling marginalized representation in the performing arts should:

1. Have a diverse production team.

Putting bodies of color on stage and on screen is a political act, and thus requires a deep level of intentionality and sensitivity in casting choices. Diverse production teams: writers, directors, and producers, are better equipped to create responsible and nuanced portrayals of marginalized characters. 

2. Engage in collaborative processes with the marginalized community(ies) in question.

SHOW US YOUR WORKS CITED PAGE! We expect writers, scholars, and any other type of authority on a topic to make their sources freely available, why should we expect any less from creative teams? The question of who has the right to tell certain stories is increasingly important as our society becomes increasingly diverse. The line between exploitation and partnership can be ambiguous, particularly when the process of creating and casting a show is often kept behind closed doors. But responsible audiences have a right to know if creative teams did their research? I want to know what ethos and credibility this creative team has to tell this story about a marginalized community. And since no marginalized community is a monolith, establishing ethos requires more than interviewing one person or reading one book and feeling qualified to portray that experience. 

Engaged collaboration with a community is the best way to gain cultural ethos and a nuanced perspective of a story that is not your own. Thus I think it is important for creative teams to “show us their works cited page” in the form of sharing their creative and collaborative processes that they feel give them the ethos to portray this story. Not only will this make the breadth of an intentional creative team’s engagement transparent, but it also will serve to bring attention to the community that they are in partnership with! 

If you’re doing what you’re supposed to do, if you value your social responsibility as a storyteller of historically marginalized perspectives, and if you feel confident in your creative choices then this shouldn’t be a problem…  And if you aren’t comfortable doing that, then maybe this practice could serve as a reminder that you need to do a little more work behind the scenes.

3. Have intentional, transparent, and accessible explanations for any controversial or non-traditional casting choices.

When there’s tension around the aspects of an actors identity and that of the character they’re portraying, was the creative team prepared to handle it? How did they handle it? Did they lean in or did they run away? If there’s a huge controversy is there any proof that they had thought about it prior to the public scrutiny? There are examples of very engaging shows that intentionally and responsibly made highly controversial casting choices. Having transparency around the reasoning is critical. Cause if the reasoning is that you simply couldn’t find a marginalized actor to play the part… then odds are high you shouldn’t be doing that production. 

4. Present marginalized identities with intentionality and nuance not as irresponsible caricatures.

Not all performance of an identity other than one’s own is inherently mocking. That being said, performances of BIPOC characters that are based on mocking caricatures are often harmful to those communities in real life. The impacts of minstrelsy, yellow face, and portrayals of the “noble savage” in performances have had lasting impacts on BIPOC communities in the real world. Thus irresponsible caricatures of marginalized identities is gonna be a no from me dawg. 


Times are changing. The Office is no longer on Netflix, Brandy’s Cinderella is streaming on Disney +, and we need a paradigm shift for casting marginalized identities in the performing arts industry. Just as color-blind casting gave way to color-conscious casting, authentic casting needs to give way to intentional casting. Our world is only getting more diverse, more intersectional, and more connected, and thus questions as to how and who gets to tell which stories will become increasingly prominent. It is my hope art creators and art consumers alike who read this post will begin to have more nuanced expectations for marginalized representation in the art they inhabit, which will eventually lead to a shift in the type of representation we see!

Soo…

What are your thoughts on my new protocols? Do you still believe authenticity is king? Whether you think I’m full of it or that I stumbled upon greatness, please drop any comments or critiques in the comments below because….. Drum roll please…  I will be launching a new mini-series on Marginalized Representation in Casting!!! Using these protocols as a guide I will evaluate how various productions have dealt with race in casting, disability in casting, and gender in casting. So if you think I’ve completely overlooked something, speak now or forever hold your peace. 

Stay tuned for the next installment of the series where I’ll apply our new set of protocols to some pertinent examples of race in casting such as Hamilton, Miss Saigon, Birth of a Nation, and more to see how well they fare! If you have other suggestions for plays, films, or dances that attempt to handle the representation of race and casting that you’d like me to evaluate, drop them in the comments below! 

Coloring Outside the Lines: A Look Into Color-Conscious, Colorblind, and For Us By Us Casting Practices

“A not so fair My Fair Lady.” That was the title of the review that I most remember from my first experience in professional theater. As a sophomore in college, I had been tapped to star in my first professional theater gig and I was a bundle of nerves. At 20 I was beyond thrilled to be given the role of Eliza Doolittle in a real regional theater’s production of My Fair Lady. In the same breath, I was filled with imposter syndrome as I was the youngest in the cast, had no experience with accent work, and had to juggle all these rehearsals on top of a busy course load. Queue the Disney movie montage of HOURS spent practicing ballroom dance choreo in a corset, biking 5 miles daily for extra accent coachings, and pulling all nighters to finish stats psets. So when I read my first review, to see what the world thought of my hard work I didn’t know how to process this first review which seemed solely concerned with my race rather than my performance. “A not so fair My Fair Lady.” The reviewer went on to write how my casting as a black female in the lead role was distracting to the cohesion of the show because the issue of race wasn’t properly addressed in our production, because the show had never been meant to address a black female transformation story. My director and mentor at the time, an amazingly gifted POC artist told me that I would have to get used to this, that anytime you put a body of color on a stage you were making a political statement.

As a black artist I’ve spent much of my career wrestling with what it means to put a body of color on stage. What does it mean to say that bodies of color on stage are inherently political statements? Is that something we should accept? What if I don’t want to be a political statement? Sometimes I might simply want to be the shallowly developed ingenue character whose arc is to be pretty, find love, and live happily ever after. Sometimes I don’t want to be a source of controversy just for existing. Do I get any say in that? Is that even possible? I’ve spent much of my early career looking for opportunities where I had the freedom to simply perform; to be seen as an artist first and a political statement second. I’ve explored the differences in opera, theater, music, and dance’s approaches to race and casting and it has become clear to me that everyone is stuck on the first question.

How SHOULD we deal with race?

In the performing arts, how race should factor into casting is a controversial, complicated, and contradictory debate. The main approaches can be divided into three schools of thought.

Colorblind casting

Have y’all seen the Brandy Cinderella movie from 1997 cause how a Black queen and a White king make a Filipino prince is still one of the biggest genetic mysteries of our world but production was everything??? The ONLY Cinderella as far as I’m concerned.

Colorblind casting or “non-traditional casting” is when directors cast a performance without regard to race, gender, etc. Springing to prominence in the 1980’s, color-blind casting is an idealistic attempt to create more opportunities for performers of color. 

Critiques:

We DON’T live in a post-racial society. It can be problematic because it assumes that because a casting director has decided to ignore race, that an audience will also ignore the race of the characters. Some critics have gone as to call it erasure wrapped up as benevolence. If you cast a show where just by happenstance all of the black artists portray villains that is sending a message to the audience whether you intentionally meant that or not. Regardless of how it happens creative teams often aren’t prepared to address the racial implications created by colorblind casting.

Additional critiques of colorblind casting include that it can be used as an excuse for directors refusing to look for diverse artists of color to work with and excuse casting white actors as BIPOC characters and that it doesn’t pressure the arts industry to tell stories centered on BIPOC lives.

Color conscious casting

Color conscious casting is open to casting people in roles that they may not have traditionally been written for, but also understand and think about the way that their race, now affect this role and affects the story. It asks creative teams to be willing to engage with the racial stereotypes and the deepness that comes with putting POC actors into these traditionally white spaces.

Critiques:

Color conscious casting seems to put a lot of pressure, stress, and responsibility on directors who choose to work with actors of color. When putting BIPOC artists in roles that weren’t originally written for them, even the most imaginative creative team has some limitations in what they can do to make space for inclusivity in a pre-written work. In our current culture of calling out and canceling this puts an unfair burden on actors of color and directors who want to do this work when they’re going to be critiqued based off of things that are sometimes outside of their control.

“For us by us”/ as written casting

The third school of thought is “for us by us” or as written casting. As written casting practices advocate for casting performers in roles that are written for their specified race, and advocate for the creation of new art portraying more diverse stories and more identities. August Wilson, a hugely influential black playwright in the 80’s and 90’s, was an early advocate for a “for us by us” approach. He felt that putting black actors in any play that was “conceived for white people” was an assault on black history and an insult to black artists worldwide. He very strongly advocated for an end to color-blind casting and more resources towards black theatres and the creation of new black drama. Even Hamilton has been critiqued for the ways in which placing people of color in the roles of America’s founding fathers perpetuates erasure of black culture (I almost didn’t include this because I’m half convinced critiquing Hamilton is heretical but apparently objectivity is important…).

Critique:

So while creating a bunch of new BIPOC centered plays sounds AMAZING (hint hint wink wink BIPOC playwrights/ composers slide in my dms please) is it that practical a solution? Right now the canon, the set of commonly performed shows by arts organizations, consists mainly of pieces that were written for white bodies. If “for us by us” casting calls for BIPOC artists being placed in works written for them, then that essentially forces all artists of color to find sustainable careers solely in new work outside of the standard canon.

What if you’re an Audra McDonald, a black singer with a voice perfect for golden age musicals? No more Sound of Music for you missy you better learn to screlt along to the Color Purple like everybody else.

An additional critique with “as written” casting is that it assumes that race is the most defining characteristic of one’s identity when that is far from a universal truth. Every single person is a conglomeration of a bunch of different identities. Stryker’s theory of social identity salience says that we have multiple identities and which aspects of our identity we feel most strongly shift depending on our environments. Who’s to say which identity is the most salient to the integrity of a character when we’re all a combination of many different identities.

A perfect example of this is the recent controversy over the voice actor for the biracial character Missy in the Netflix show Big Mouth. In the show the cartoon character of Missy is half Jewish and half Black. The original voice actress, Jenny Slate, was Jewish and left the show stating that characters of color should be played by actors of color, but genetically she shared just as much of Missy’s identity as Ayo Edebiri, the black voice actress who replaced her. Who’s to say that the black part of Missy’s personality is more salient than her Jewish identity?

More Questions

What about identities that aren’t visible? Does that mean we can never have an actor play a sexuality that they are not, a gender that they are not (mezzos can kiss half of their rep goodbye), a body type, an age? At that point what is the measure of a good performance? The word performance implies that one is putting on a form other than of their natural state and the art of casting reflects the limits or the extents of our imagination. Should race be a deciding factor just because it’s visible, while other marginalized identifiers may have more bearing but are less easy to see?

Even when we aren’t acting, identity is complex and sometimes nebulous. How do we allow artists enough room to wrestle with their own interpretations? Stay Tuned!

Intersectionality in the Arts

The week of November 16th was a crazy time. The last week of classes before Thanksgiving break is a struggle in a normal semester, but with fall break being canceled on account of the worldwide pandemic– I’ll be honest I’d seen better days. Beyonce’s latest IVY PARK collection dropped, just in time to remind me that I’m still a broke college student who can’t afford an IVY PARK price tag; I beat my own record for how many days I could wear the same pair of leggings in a row without anyone else being the wiser; and I finally fell asleep on a zoom lecture with my camera on (the horror). As captivating as my social life has become these days in quarantine, none of this came close to my excitement around the EXCEL and DEI Intersectionality in the Arts Event which was hosted on Nov 17th.

If you weren’t able to attend, stop, and take a moment to reevaluate your priorities. Don’t worry I’ll wait. Just know that some experiences in life don’t come around every dynasty and you missed a good one… but luckily for you, I’m here to give you the highlights. 

What IS intersectionality?

There are certain words that are like the literary equivalent of Franks Red Hot…

Interdisciplinary, interdepartmental, and recently intersectionality seem to have that effect (any linguists able to tell me what’s up with the prefix inter?). Throw it in a grant BAM approved. Throw it in an essay BAM A+. Throw it in a risky text BAM boo’ed up. But what does it ACTUALLY MEAN? Why does it make liberal academics sophisticatedly begin snapping, squint their eyes, and regard you with a new profound respect as the lights mysteriously dim? (no that only happens to me? Weird…)

Intersectionality is a term that developed in the late 80’s and early 90’s and comes out of Critical Race Theory. It was coined by Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw, a black female legal scholar at Stanford University. According to the all knowing Wikipedia, “ Intersectionality is a theoretical framework for understanding how aspects of a person’s social and political identities combine to create different modes of discrimination and privilege.” It seeks to embrace the complexity of identities that make up group dynamics and not to essentialize a group’s experiences.

The approach selects different aspects of a person’s identity and then analyzes the effects of these intersecting and overlapping identities. The classic triad compares race, gender, and class but any aspect of identity can be studied: sexuality, size, nationality, caste, religion, disability, physical appearance, etc. 

Need an example?

When looking at a diverse group of women, all of those women may face discrimination based on their gender, but the intersection of their other identities such as race, class, or physical appearance may complicate or alter the way they experience gender discrimination.

In her first essay “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex,” Crenshaw looks at examples of court case where black women were uniquely disadvantaged because of their dual identity as a black woman. The law was only set up to address discrimination based off of race or gender but these women were falling through the cracks as they faced oppression based on the intersection of the two. 

Intersectionality is particularly relevant in conversations around social movements which are historically founded upon identity politics to help delineate the “us” from the “other.”1 This has a nasty side-effect of at best conflating and at worst ignoring intragroup differences, a problem that unequally affects members who sit at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities.2

Dr. Naomi André, a speaker at the Intersectionality in the Arts event, discussed how one of the strongest applications of intersectional theory is in the creation of coalitions. When seeking to create social change or gather opinions on a topic organizing a group around a common cause instead of identity politics can be really effective at creating space for inclusivity and building bridges across groups who may not normally be allies. 

Intersectionality seeks to reframe the way that identity and identity politics are thought about. It asks individuals and movements seeking to address one form of oppression, to incorporate other intersecting types of oppression. It asks us to acknowledge how while we may identify as oppressed in one aspect we may be an oppressor in another. 

“The true force of revolutionary change is never merely the oppressive situations we seek to escape, but that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within each of us.”

-Audre Lorde

How does this pertain to the performing arts?

The Arts + Intersectionality = LIZZO

Everyone loves Lizzo. Everyone. Dare I say that in a nation as polarized and divided as we are we can all come together around the notion that it is UNAMERICAN to not love Lizzo. (I am not above initiating a McCarthyesque witch hunt for Lizzo haters. Don’t test me.) 

Why is Lizzo so dang likeable? She’s authentically and unabashedly herself. She doesn’t attempt to be an idealized media icon. She doesn’t seek to fit into the prescribed cookie cutter mold for black pop stars. She is a multi-faceted person who contains multitudes. 

“Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.”

– Walt Whitman Lizzo

She writes songs about what it’s like to be a black, body normative, sensitive, flute playing, goal setting woman. While most of her fans don’t share all those identities her confident claiming of her intersectional identities has resulted in fans forming their own coalitions around these different aspects of her identity. Fans flock to Lizzo because she loves being black, because she loves being a woman, because she loves her body as it is, because she loves her band kid nerd status (and honestly band geeks need all the street cred they can get)… She is paving the way for how music, public opinion, and social movements can espouse the values of intersectionality and build coalitions around common causes. 

Looking at Lizzo’s fanbase is a great case study into how intersectionality and coalition- making, create bridges across groups that may not have otherwise been allies. By realistically portraying her unique perspective on the world due to the intersection of her different identities, Lizzo is able to create a group of fans who are united by their similarities rather than their differences. Whether you’re a band geek, Rihanna, a varsity twerk team captain, or simply a shower karaoke artist, Lizzo reminds us that focusing on intersectionality can unite us all. 

Where can I find more resources about this?

Dr. Naomi André (a real life superhero). Professor of Arts and Ideas in the Humanities Program, Department of Afroamerican and African Studies, and Women’s Studies.  One of the speakers at EXCEL’s intersectionality in the Arts event and a national treasure. 

Dr. Marc Hannaford’s class Beyond Boundaries: radical black experimental music explores Intersectionality in Music Theory.

  • The class explores case studies of musical groups such as the Jazz Composers Guild and explores how the impact and power of these groups depends on one’s perspective and calls for a more nuanced and intersectional analysis than just thinking in terms of race or sexuality. Intersectional identities help shed light on the complex and overlapping meanings of various forms of identity and the ways that they filter and distribute power. 
  • Wouldn’t it be cool if intersectionality was a lens used throughout art history, musicology, and theater history courses to study the effectiveness of art pieces or art periods, for a more inclusive and more holistic representation. Just a thought… (Sips tea)

Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs (MESA)

Booklist for Break

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intersectionality (I know I know wikipedia isn’t a credible source BUT this is a particularly well-written article and a great starting place if you want to read more about it)
  • This Bridge Called My Back: Writings of Radical Women of Color- Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzuldua
  • Demarginallizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics– Kimberlé Crenshaw
  • Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color- Kimberlé Crenshaw
  • Toward a New Vision: Race, Class, and Gender as Categories of Analysis and Connections- Patricia Hill Collins
  • Anything by Audre Lorde
    • Sister Outsider, if you read it comment below so we can gush about it together.

Nine Non-Profits for Non-Profit November

Good Morning all you cool cats and kittens! Did you think Tiger King references were overused and outdated? Did you think my humor got more sophisticated with my week off? Think again. In the midst of the absolute hot mess that is November 2020, I thought we could all use some light cat therapy. I just got a kitten and as a proud cat mom just beware that one of my clever hyperlinks may or may not be an unrequested picture of M’Baku, the cutest kitten that ever lived. You’re welcome. Ok ok back to the post.

NONPROFIT NOVEMBER! 

You may have heard of No Shave November, you may have even heard of No Decided President November, but today I’m here to talk about Non-Profit November [pew pew pew]!!  This post is dedicated to uplifting non-profit arts organizations that are DOING THE THING when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion work. 

1. First up, an exemplary example of the Michigan Difference (I have to be honest I still don’t really know what that is, please someone, anyone, explain it to me). Recent UM grad, Jaimie Sharp is the CEO of this outright original, outstanding opera non-profit focused on inclusion and diversity:

OperaNexGen

“Opera NexGen’s mission is to provide unparalleled operatic performances with a diverse artistic community. We seek to discover the next generation of talent with our company founded on equality, equity, inclusivity, and excellence. It is our aim to cast solely on vocal ability above all other credentials. Our goal is to ensure that opera will continue to thrive for generations to come by pioneering the scope of live virtual performance.”

Check out their Benefit Gala What Did I Miss November 21st at 5pm EST 

Wanna get involved? Audition for their Virtual Cosi fan tutte Concert by December 4th. Get more information about it here.

Check out their insta @operanexgen


2. Dance classes may currently be on hold cause Ms. Rona isn’t here to make friends, but that hasn’t stopped this dazzling, dedicated dance non- profit from making a difference:

Brown Girls Do Ballet

“We seek to increase participation of underrepresented populations in ballet programs through organizing and arranging ballet performances, photo exhibitions, and providing resources and scholarships to assist young girls in their ballet development and training.”

Looking to get involved? Are you a dancer desperate for an internship to get your parents off your back about what you’re doing with your life in the midst of the pandemic-filled, politically charged, hot mess of a world we’re currently living in? Apply for one of their internships, they’re looking for interns with dance experience!

Check out their insta @browngirlsdoballet


3. BIPOC wouldn’t be pronounceable without our integral Indigenous communities. Check out this insanely innovative, impactful, and inimitable indigenous arts non-profit:

Native Arts and Culture Foundation

“The Native Arts and Cultures Foundation advances equity and cultural knowledge, focusing on the power of arts and collaboration to strengthen Native communities and promote positive social change with American Indian, Native Hawaiian, and Alaska Native peoples in the United States. They provide fellowships, community engagement programs, and education resources for Native communities.

Looking to get involved check out these volunteer opportunities

Check out their insta @native_art_culure


4. If you’re looking for a quintessentially, quanitfiably queer arts non-profit then look no further:

Queer | Arts

QUEER|ART was launched in 2009 to support a generation of LGBTQ+ artists that lost mentors to the AIDS Crisis of the 1980s. By fostering the confident expression of LGBTQ+ artists’ perspectives, stories, and identities, Queer|Art amplifies the voice of a population that has been historically suppressed, disenfranchised, and often overlooked by traditional institutional and economic support systems.

Looking to get involved? Look at their really cool mentorship program here, next round of applications are open Summer of 2021. Also look into the Eva Yaa Asantewaa Grant for Queer Women(+) Dance Artists- Dance artist funding opportunity here.

Check out there insta @queerinsta


5. The conscientious, compassionate, and chic Center for Arts Activism is Clearly the non-profit for you if you’re interested in connecting arts activist research with art organizations:

 The Center for Arts Activism

The Center for Artistic Activism trains and advises organizations, artists and activists to help them increase the efficacy and affecacy of their artistic activism. We conduct innovative research to figure out what exactly efficacy and affecacy mean when it comes to artistic activist projects. And we share our trainings and research findings broadly, to provide the broadest possible access.

Check out their podcast here and stay up to date!


6. Does social injustice make you want to grab your upright double bass and RAGE all over those unruly strings? Understandably, the upbeat Urban Playground non-profit may be calling your name:

Urban Playground

Urban Playground was formed out of the urge to develop a distinctively 21st century orchestra: Collaboration amongst artists from disparate backgrounds and experiences with respect to genre, and working in non-traditional venues. That changed when Eric Garner was killed by New York City police on July 17, 2014. The orchestra felt that there had to be a musical response to the broader national conversations regarding police brutality and systems of oppression. The orchestra shifted to prioritizing the works of composers of color and female composers, in order to expand and enliven the classical canon. The thriving cultural institutions of New York City will always offer outstanding performances of music from the predominately white, male European tradition; Urban Playground’s mission is to broadcast that which has not been heard, and to give opportunity to new and dormant voices.

Follow them on insta @upchamberorchestra


7. To any of my Music Education friends who’ve felt woefully neglected by the focus of my previous posts, I’m sorry I forgot about you  I didn’t forget about you. This amazing, activist arts education non- profit is lit:

The Black School

We are an experimental art school teaching Black/PoC students and allies to become agents of change through art workshops on radical Black politics and public interventions that address local community needs. With socially engaged artists, designers, and educators working at the intersections of K-12/university teaching, art, design, and activism, all TBS programming is structured around our core principles of Black Love, self-determination, and wellness.” 

Based in New Orleans’ 7th Ward, The Black School has really cool merch to rival Beyonce’s latest Ivy Park release. Check it out here!


8. Do phrases like “disruption”, “intersectional storytelling”, and “investing in cultural power” get you all hot and bothered? Then I have just the wonderfully women led won-profit for you (don’t judge me alliteration is hard. Pitbull rhymed Kodak with Kodak, just remember that.):

The Center For Cultural Power

The Center for Cultural Power is a women of color, artist-led organization, inspiring artists and culture makers to imagine a world where power is distributed equitably and where we live in harmony with nature. We support artists through fellowships, training and opportunities for activation. We create intersectional stories and content addressing issues of migration, climate, gender and racial justice. We engage groups in cultural strategy and organize artists in issues that inspire them. Together with allies, we are co-creating a field of cultural strategy with organizations and practitioners through convenings, design teams and strategy tables.

Looking to get involved? Apply for their Disrupters Fellowship. It has a disability cohort, undocumented/ formerly undocumented cohort, and trans and nonbinary cohort

Follow them on instagram @culturestrike


9. Did I read three articles on why I’m bad at finishing things instead of coming up with a decent alliteration for this last non-profit? Yes yes I did. Is it because I’m a Sagittarius? Is it because my moon rising is in transition and my slight tendency for scorpiatic psychosis means that I know nothing about astrology but am willing to search anywhere for a decent excuse? Is it because my cat keeps running across my laptop? Unclear, but what is clear is that this next non-profit is changing the world one play at a time:

Theater of the Oppressed (NYC)

Theatre of the Oppressed NYC partners with community members at local organizations to form theatre troupes. These troupes devise and perform plays based on their challenges confronting economic inequality, racism, and other social, health and human rights injustices. After each performance, actors and audiences engage in theatrical brainstorming – called Forum Theatre – with the aim of catalyzing creative change on the individual, community, and political levels.

You can see videos of their work here.

Check out their insta @forumtheatrenyc


Are you that rare unicorn of an arts student who’s drowning in extra funds and don’t know where to spend them? Well lucky for you all of these Non Profits are accepting donations so feel free to send some coins their way Brown Girls Do Ballet, Opera NexGen, Center for Cultural Power, Queer Art, Urban Playground, The Black School, Theatre of the Oppressed NYC, Center for Artistic Activism, Native Arts and Cultures Foundation


Honorable Mentions

Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue– SOO COOL, I legitimately cold emailed this founder to see if she needed an intern. Check them out! 

The power of performing artsby Johanna Kepler (Not technically a non-profit but a UM grad and an up and coming arts leader to keep your eye on!)

Guerilla Girls inc– Are they a non profit? I don’t know but they’re really really cool! I mean who doesn’t want to dress up in a gorilla mask and dismantle the patriarchy?

M’Baku the cutest kitten that ever lived.

If you haven’t seen Black Panther yet, what are you doing?


Did I miss your favorite arts non-profit? Do you want more photos of my cat? Let me know in the comments section!

Thanks for reading, tune in next time when I write a list of the top 100 reasons I should be hired by Buzzfeed. 

It’s Over, It’s Done, It’s Canceled Pt. 2

Welcome to It’s Over, It’s Done, It’s Canceled part 2! If you read part 1 skip this section, if you missed it I talked about the history of canceling and how it has the potential to create a more inclusive society and elevate the voices of marginalized identities, but it also has the power to be incredibly punitive and dangerous if used frivolously. We looked at the 7 tropes of toxic canceling and I hypothesized that through intention and awareness of our actions, it might be possible to maximize canceling’s societal benefits and minimize the negative effects.


Part 2

Because I’m unimpressed with hypothetical musings that can’t be clearly disseminated to real life and actionable items, this post is dedicated to wrestling with the real life canceling cases of R Kelly, Kanye West, and Wagner. What does intentional and responsible canceling look like? Are there times when it IS morally right to condemn a person? Is there a line that an artist can cross that justifies demonization of the person, and not just the act? And what about artists who live somewhere in the nebulous gray area of morality? Artists who allegedly did truly atrocious things, but are 6 feet under– is it simply virtue-signaling to boycott their art today (Wagner, Michael Jackson…)? What about artists who haven’t directly harmed anyone but say things that conflict with my moral and ethical code? How does mental health factor into the equation? Is it possible to separate the artist from the art?

I have questions and I need answers because if it turns out that I have to stop listening to the Jackson 5, then I’m going to need to schedule some extra therapy sessions yesterday. So let’s begin (cause therapy is expensive y’all and I’m trying to save my coins)!

R Kelly- Are there times when it IS morally right to condemn a person? 

Spoiler alert. YES!!! The #MuteRKelly Campaign was founded by Kenyette Barnes and Oronike Odeleye to expose and halt R Kelly’s abuse and exploitation of young black girls.1 It was quickly folded into the #metoo movement and became a public reference for cancel culture, as a social media campaign focused on deplatforming, defunding, and ending a famous artist’s career.2 The intent of the #MuteRKelly movement and his subsequent canceling was definitely not about rehabilitation. It sought to condemn a man – not just his actions or his art – something that was heavily criticized by ContraPoints in my last post. And yet it seems morally sound? Why is that? Let’s explore– where is the line that demarcates when it is morally right to condemn a person?

The 3 reasons why I believe that the #MuteRKelly movement was morally sound. 

1.Clear and Transparent Organizers

It was fleshed out, organized, the leaders were known, they had a website, and were established organizers.3 This way people could check out who the organizers were and see if they had any ulterior motives.

2. They had a clear goal/ desired outcome and mission statement. 

They called for a financial boycott of R Kelly’s music because they wanted him to have a fair trial and his fortune was circumventing that. R Kelly was repeatedly using his fortune to bribe, silence, and intimidate potential witnesses and their families in an effort to keep them from testifying against him.4

“R Kelly dragged out one case for 6 years, until the victim ran out of resources and dropped the case. He is able, time and time again, to use his money to get him out of a conviction. It’s not for lack of court cases against him. When families discover what’s happened, they do what they’re supposed to do. They call the police. It is the court system that is failing them and we the people that are failing them.”5

They wanted to spread awareness to how people were unknowingly supporting R Kelly’s ability to flout justice for crimes against the black community, by continuing to listen to his music. 

“by financially supporting the career of a known sexual predator, they help maintain and perpetuate a system of sexual abuse against young black women.  Every radio spin of his record helps him to continue to book shows, to make new music, and to amass a wealth that has insulated him from the consequences of his crimes.  It’s time to take a stand on the side of justice and end any and all associations that the radio station has with him, his music and his brand.”6 

Clear and specific ask from participants with rationale as to how that contributes to the cause!

3. Their ultimate goal was a fair trial in the legal sphere– not just condemning him in the court of public opinion.

They weren’t seeking judgement and execution in the public sector, but rather sought sharing the concerning pile of evidence and allegations against R Kelly with the public.7 If people were similarly concerned, they were welcome to join this movement calling for a fair trial.

They consistently provided a terrifying amount of EVIDENCE (not screenshots from people’s twitter feed), videos, witness testimonies, marriage documents, indictments, NDA’s that show that R Kelly was systematically preying on minors! This is completely different then an argument about intention from a phrase pulled out of context from a twitter thread.

The legal system failed to protect black girls (not exactly shocking), 2 black women organized to find solutions to circumvent R Kelly’s privilege and get him a fair trial, with indicting information a marginalized community who had exhausted every other option for legal recourse, made an intentional decision to boycott R Kelly’s music so that they weren’t actively aiding R Kelly evade justice by funding his career. This is restorative justice, this is seeking accountability, this is canceling at its best. I can’t say the same about the cancel Kanye movement.


Why are we canceling Kanye?

Now before I begin, I would like to note that I think it is negligent to discuss canceling Kanye without giving proper due to how Bipolar Disorder plays into this equation, but that being said it’s 2020 and we have the collective attention span of a gnat so unfortunately I don’t have the space to go into that as much as I would like. But I encourage anyone who’s interested to look at some of the resources linked at the end about Bipolar Disorder.

While R Kelly strikes me as an example of seeking restorative justice and accountability, I genuinely have so many questions about the purpose of canceling Kanye. Now part of my confusion can easily be attributed to the fact that Kanye is a known Provocateur and as such there have been numerous overlapping cancel Kanye campaigns. The most recent and arguably visible8 canceling of Kanye happened after the infamous TMZ interview where he said “when you hear about slavery for 400 years, 400 years? That sounds like a choice.” 

Words do have consequences as Van Lathan the TMZ worker so eloquently put it

Let’s be clear Kanye isn’t the only person to say egregious things about slavery, and he isn’t even the worst offender. Remember when McGraw-Hill Education, one of the biggest publishing companies, printed in Texas Textbooks that the Atlantic slave trade was a “pattern of immigration” that “brought millions of [immigrant] workers to work on agricultural plantations”9?!?! Unlike Kanye, McGraw is actually charged with educating the masses, and we didn’t cancel that whole company. We simply asked them to fix their mistake.10 So why wasn’t an apology enough for Kanye? 

What’s the focus of the movement? Why are we actually canceling Kanye? Is it for the slavery comment? He apologized for that. And while his comment was wild, completely unfounded, and hurtful to many– that’s been Kanye’s brand since day one. People cheered when he blurted out that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” People cackled and made memes when he told Taylor Swift she could never rival Beyonce (WHERE IS THE LIE??? And don’t @ me T Swift fans, I said what I said). It’s hard for me to believe that the movement to cancel Kanye is because he’s a loose cannon– that’s old news. 

So is it because he recently started wearing MAGA hats and championing conservative politicians?11 Unpopular opinion: He is actually allowed to like Trump if he wants. I’m not comfortable saying I only want to listen to artists whose politics I agree with. Are you? Am I canceling him simply because I don’t agree with him and pretending it’s about something else? In Part 1 I called that Pseudo-Moralism and discussed the dangers of “disguising unflattering motivations between the guise of righteous indignation.”12

That being said, Kanye is not an example of the under resourced, marginalized identity who ContraPoints was concerned with, who will become vulnerable if they lose their internet community from cancelation. Yes the cancel Kanye twitter storm and the media’s continual mocking and denouncement of him must weigh on his mental and emotional health (to what degree I can only imagine)… but… Kanye is A BILLIONAIRE. As such, he’s insulated from losing the physical, financial, and community safety nets that might occur if he wasn’t a celebrity. If the goal is to defund, deplatform, or end Kanye’s career, his career can weather this cancelation and the fiftyleven times he says something foolish in the future. If the goal is to rehabilitate him, to ask him to repent– he already apologized.13 So what do we want? What’s the point? What has to happen for us to feel appeased?

What am I trying to say about Kanye?

Mental health aside, which again I do think should be a part of the conversation here, I think there’s something fundamentally disturbing in the canceling Kanye movement. If I don’t know what canceling Kanye even means, or why I’m doing it, how can I possibly know if I agree with it? What does it mean if we’re comfortable with canceling Kanye for the wrong reasons? What does it mean if we normalize publicly throwing our support behind ideals we can’t explain, nebulous concepts we don’t fully understand, and organizers we can’t name? What type of societal norms are we creating?

Have y’all seen this Black Mirror episode “Hated in the Nation”??? I’m just saying Black Mirror has nothing on the current events of 2020 so maybe we should be paying attention.

The reason matters. Publicly canceling someone because you’re trying to fit in with everyone else is irresponsible. Posting a black square on your instagram story without reading a single article from a news source outside of your social media feed about BLM protests is irresponsible. Becoming a mindless cog in the machine is irresponsible! Make the decision for yourself! Make sure your decisions align with your moral code, hold yourself accountable. Do it because you have thought it through and decided to, not because it’s easy to click share and get some more likes.In an example like Kanye’s, canceling’s negative effects may be limited but maybe what’s more concerning is the way in which we contribute to it without taking responsibility for our actions.

Point of Clarification

I’m not saying you have to like Kanye and I’m not saying you have to listen to his music. I don’t even know how I feel about Kanye at the moment. If you enjoyed listening to Kanye’s music because it made you feel relaxed and understood, and now his recent actions make it a negative experience for you, then by all means stop listening to that music. BUT There’s something different in choosing to stop listening to Kanye because it personally distresses you, and publicly adding to this canceling movement because it’s the in thing to do, particularly if you’re not clear on if you agree that he deserves to be canceled.

Which brings me to my last example -Wagner. 


Should we be canceling Wagner and what could it look like?

Ok so for those who don’t know– Wagner in a nutshell. Wickedly talented composer in Germany in the 1800’s.14 Was really inspired by mythology15, popularized the term Gesamtkunstwerk, “a total art experience,” in opera, and innovated many of the elements that are foundational to current performance practice.16 He wanted to create a transportational, immersive, theater experience. Really cool right? 

Yeah but…

He was also an anti-semite and published the article Judaism in Music in 1850 where he explained how Jews only option for redemption was what some argue translates as “assimilate” and others translate as “destruction”17 (Yikes). Wagner was anti-semitic, AND his music (which may or may not have had racist undertones) was co-opted by the Nazi movement,18 AND he made incredible innovations to theater and performance practice,19 AND he wrote some of the best operas of the classical canon. So what do we do with that?

Do we cancel Wagner and his art? Do we cancel him but save the art? Do we forgive him for being a product of his time and try to salvage the man alongside his art?

While I do think it is possible to condemn the artist and salvage the art, I think there is a responsible and intentional approach that can be taken and an irresponsible one. It seems negligent to close our eyes to the historical and modern impact of his music on our society at large. How can we actively address the change we want to see? What might intentional canceling look like?

He’s dead and I’m not worried that listening to his music now will encourage a swell in Aryan German Nazi propaganda and a new Hitler rising to power (no that might happen from xenophobia much closer to home…) but regardless, unlike with R Kelly, boycotting Wagner’s music isn’t helping fight anti-semitism in any tangible way. But what if we sought to recontextualize or reclaim his music?

What if the Met decided to donate a percentage of all proceeds from Wagner performances to the Holocaust Museum or Anti-Xenophobic non-profits? That way we’re acknowledging the impact of these works and also making positive societal change!


Final Thoughts and Musings

I’m personally past cancelling artists who are dead. I’m not actively contributing to immoral behaviors, but I don’t think that means I shouldn’t think about their impact or legacy. I’m interested in exploring how we can reallocate proceeds to address issues of restorative justice. What if all the royalties for listening to Michael Jackson’s music go towards survivors of sexual assault non profits? Then I could feel ok listening to ABC and knowing I was subverting the negative aspects of Michael Jackson’s legacy. Let’s pressure arts organizations and artists’ estates to adopt these types of policies!

It’s hard to be an artist. There’s a demand for artists to always be authentic but then to also be ideal role models, and responsible wielders of their platforms. Inherently we should realize that means artists are going to fall short, they’re going to make mistakes, because all humans do, just maybe less publicly. We as a society could afford to lend more grace and understanding. If we’re seeking rehabilitation, and growth I think it’s important to allow for the time it would take all of us to lower our defenses, listen, learn, grow, and seriously reflect on what we may have done. That can take days, or weeks, months, or even generations (I’m still waiting for my 40 acres and a mule)…

So now for the final question

is it possible to separate the artist from the art?

I don’t know.

The End


R Kelly

Definitions and Terminology and Random asides made

Kanye

Wagner

Bipolar Disorder

It’s Over, It’s Done, It’s Canceled* Part 1

*Disclaimers

*Disclaimer #1: I’m not an expert. I’ve spent ~19 hours doing intensive google searching, 3 hours debating with friends, and most of my life thinking about what does and doesn’t sit right with me. I value experts and their opinions and so I’ve tried to include as many resources and quotes that I thought were relevant to give you the opportunity to investigate on your own (though I of course did curate the list so there’s some bias there I can’t do much about). I encourage you to disagree with me, educate me, question me, change my mind, and help me to grow. PLEASE write your thoughts in the comment section and I’ll do my best to engage with all of your ideas. I genuinely think this a deeply complex topic and I’m not done exploring it, but I have a deadline so this is what I have, please come on this journey with me!

*Disclaimer #2: I am aware of the precedent where people hide racist and hateful rhetoric behind the guise of critiquing “cancel culture” and advocating for free speech. I personally think that’s deplorable, and this is not that (I would love to be able to reclaim free speech as a less polarized topic, but that’s another post for another day).

*Disclaimer #3: I’m also aware that the internet is all about condensing context and finding sound bites and quotes that are inflammatory and controversial. I realize that I have no control over how people quote or condense this post, and that talking about any controversial issues increases the opportunity for nuance to be lost in favor of sensationalism. This is a post about nuance so to be quite honest I’m terrified of being misquoted but I think that this conversation needs to be had so I’m trusting you all to step into the abyss with me (Can you tell that I’m a performance major? The drama right?).

Cancel It

I don’t remember exactly when it happened, but one day my college career was forever changed when my friends and I discovered Joanne the Scammer. For those who haven’t seen Caucasian Living, this will be a much-needed brain break from your regularly programmed lives. 

In this viral video, Joanne the Scammer sneaks into someone’s mansion, the epitome of “Caucasian Living” and gives a tour pretending that she lives there. This hilarious video had some of the most iconic quotes of my college experience. Shakespeare, Goethe, Adiche, couldn’t compete with the literary prowess that went into “welcome to my Caucasian household.” But the quote that we latched onto above all the rest was the infamous “It’s over, it’s done, it’s canceled.” 

Brandon Miller a.k.a Joanne the Scammer

You see, when Joanne flippantly “canceled” a fancy espresso machine that refused to work, she inadvertently gave me and my friends the power to cancel anything we set our minds to. Thus commenced months of our college career where you could find us huddled together at a table, cackling loudly, as we canceled– our homework, any teachers who assigned too much reading, racism, ableism, stubbing our toes, being ghosted on dating apps (I mean who in their right minds would ghost us, their phones must have spontaneously combusted… only possibility), the word moist. Literally, any and everything was up for canceling, and we would laugh ourselves into fits finding the most ridiculous and mundane parts of life to cancel. 

Short History of Canceling

Like many good things that start off on black twitter, it was only a matter of time until it got ruined…

…sigh (is there a term for twitter terminology gentrification? If not there should be). 

While “canceling” was only intended to be a flippant and humorous phrase without any associated behavior or moral code, it quickly spread from black twitter to the internet at large and merged with “call-out culture”. Once the two were melded together “cancel culture” was supposedly born– where people on the internet, publicly shame, ostracize, and distance themselves from an individual who has done something deemed as socially or morally reprehensible.1

Cancel Culture. What does it even mean?

Between now and then “Cancel Culture” has become an incredibly politicized term with arguments ranging from it endangers democracy to “it doesn’t exist.”2

The Daily tackled cancel culture and described it as “a suitcase term, people will end up packing a whole variety of completely disparate terms and ideas into this one phrase,”3 this makes discussions about cancel culture incredibly frustrating at best and impossible at worst. How can one possibly know what elements are being referenced when cancel culture has been used to refer to calling people out online, boycotting celebrities, cyber bullying, the “very definition of totalitarianism”4, mob rule, the powerless seeking accountability from the powerful, doxing, swatting, seeking long-overdue accountability, educating people on places for growth interchangeably, and more. If a term can mean so many vastly different things and there’s no way to deduce someone’s intentions or an audience’s associated connotations, then from a practical perspective the word is rendered meaningless.5

So I find myself faced with a problem of trying to discuss a topic that’s riddled with confusing and charged language.

  • Option 1: Follow in the footsteps of famous writers and simply make up a new word to fit my own selfish purposes( I’m not saying I’m of the same caliber of Dickens or Carroll but there is a precedent).
  • Option 2: Stand in solidarity with my black twitter ancestors and demand reparations for this verbal gentrification. Use this platform, foolishly entrusted to me, to set out to do what no man has done before– reclaim the term “canceling.”

Needless to say I’m choosing Option 2.

So from here on out I’m talking about canceling the negative association with “cancel culture.” Any association with doxing, swatting, or the end of democracy– is over, it’s done, it’s cancelled, forget her name. I’m optimistic we can all agree that that’s less than ideal behavior and should not be condoned. The ends simply do not justify the means.

I’m interested in looking at what responsibility we have to respond to artists, living and dead, that have created art that we enjoy and have also committed acts that go against our moral codes and values. I’m interested in looking at what that response would look like in an intentional and responsible world. I’m interested in exploring how we might use “canceling,” hereby and henceforth defined as public awareness, public pressure, boycotts, shaming, and or fundraising, for good. 

Benefits of Canceling

While at first glance promoting my newly reclaimed term “canceling” may seem like a shoddy euphemism for internet vigilante justice, the distinctions are important and noteworthy. First, canceling artists in terms of raising public awareness, building public pressure, establishing boycotts, and shaming has been present in human society since humans had two pennies to rub together and spend on art.

“Henceforth and forevermore ye canceled!”

While the internet and particularly social media have acted as a catalyst for the speed and reach of canceling movements, using the power of public opinion to shape society is timeless, and not inherently bad.

1. Community Growth

In a truly incredible article by Chi Luu, a computational linguist who investigates cancel culture, she writes of the societal benefits of canceling (It’s really taking all of my self-control not to copy and paste the entire article here so please, please, PLEASE check it out for yourself if you have a minute, she’s amazing!). She argues that groups calling out unacceptable behavior and publicly discussing what will and won’t be allowed is critical to community building and growth.  “Public call outs may not be always what a community wants to hear. It’s certainly not nice, but it’s what needs to be said for the same values to be debated, formed, shared, and upheld by everyone who belongs to the group.”6 She even goes on to discuss how dangerous using language like “mobs, witch hunts, and vigilante justice” for groups that seek to call out or change the status quo can be.

Coded language like mobs, sends connotations that the group’s beliefs are irrational, criminal, or anti-democratic, often justifying the use of government force to suppress them. And while “no one could argue that it’s pleasant to be the bottom of a pile on, virtual or not. It’s true that people can band together for the wrong reasons, but, funnily enough, they can also band together for very good reasons.7 Case in point: The March on Washington, The Boston Tea Party, The Women’s Suffrage Movement. All examples of rational, logical, pro-democratic groups of people banding together to use the power of public opinion to reshape society, who could easily have been labeled mobs and vigilantes.

Vigilante justice never looked so hot

2. A Platform for Marginalized Voices

One of the strongest arguments in its defense highlights how canceling gives power to the otherwise powerless — people from marginalized communities. Social media has allowed individuals from marginalized communities to influence societal norms and to directly address problematic behaviors from people whose privilege previously protected them from public critique.8 Social media undercuts gatekeeping tactics from traditional outlets of power and allows for BIPOC people to have a seat at the proverbial table. And while some argue that “canceling” has a puritanical silencing effect on public figures,9 others argue that–

“When people who believe cancel culture is a problem speak out about its supposed silencing effect… instead of reckoning with the reasons I might find certain actions or jokes dehumanizing, I’m led to one conclusion: they’d prefer I was powerless against my own oppression.”

“Cancel Culture is Not Real- At Least Not in the Way People Think” Time Magazine by Sarah Hagi

I think it is applaudable that many in our society seek to denounce racist, transphobic, ableist, sexist, and bigoted behavior, and I don’t think that would be the case if it wasn’t for canceling and social media’s ability to highlight the voices of marginalized identities. 

So if canceling has such incredible potential, why does it so often go wrong? What pitfalls have given it such a bad reputation? Is there a way to learn from them so we can keep the good effects and lose the bad?

The Dangers of Canceling

Natalie Wynn is a social commentator with degrees in philosophy from Georgetown and Northwestern, who created the youtube channel ContraPoints. In ContraPoints, Natalie uses philosophy, her own life experiences, and witty humor to produce extremely nuanced, critical, and darkly humorous video essays on race, politics, gender, ethics, and other controversial topics. Wynn, a trans woman, was canceled in 2019 for a twitter controversy where she was accused of being a transmedicalist10 and made an EPIC (I use that in the literal meaning of the world), GROUNDBREAKING video on canceling in response.

It’s almost 2 hours long so while you should definitely watch it, maybe save it for date night this weekend, it will spice up your relationship and definitely give you all something to talk about beyond how your day was (I mean we’re in quarantine all of our days are the same, I know you’re desperate for something new to talk to each other about. You’re welcome).

In this sundance worthy film, which you are so going to watch later, Natalie talks about how as someone who is committed to anti-racism and anti-transphobia she is deeply concerned and increasingly disillusioned with the way canceling on social media is used to “escalate conflict instead of promote understanding,” and by how it’s “weaponized to destroy people who have made mistakes, but maybe don’t deserve to be destroyed.” She meticulously researches various examples of canceling that went wrong. Where individuals who may have made a mistake were demonized, ostracized, punished, and denied an opportunity for rehabilitation. There’s a difference between criticism and condemnation.

Natalie goes on to note that the impact of canceling, rarely has long-term effects on celebrities’ lives. Assuming that this is an example where the individual didn’t break the law but rather broke socially acceptable actions, people with privilege usually have a short period of discomfort and then their careers survive to be canceled another day. However, canceling in actuality has the most damning effects on individuals from marginalized communities who may not have any other resources when they’re canceled from their community. Natalie shares stories of sex workers and BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ people who relied on internet communities for support, whether emotional or material, and were canceled to tragic effect.

The feeling of being canceled as a vulnerable identity is described as–

“…making you feel that your very existence is inimical to the movement and that nothing can change this short of ceasing to exist. These feelings are reinforced when you are isolated from your friends as they become convinced that their association with you is similarly inimical to the Movement and to themselves. Any support of you will taint them. Eventually all your colleagues join in a chorus of condemnation which cannot be silenced, and you are reduced to a mere parody of your previous self.”

Trashing by Jo Freeman

Luckily, Natalie is a goddess come to earth in human form to show us the way (join the fan club yes we have T-shirts), so she deduces the 7 traits that define toxic and counterproductive canceling. I, as a hopeless romantic and eternal optimist, hope that if we can be aware of and avoid these problematic pitfalls, we can through intention and awareness of our actions, maximize canceling’s societal benefits and minimize the negative effects.

The 7 Destructive Tropes of Canceling

1. Presumption of Guilt

When canceling weaponizes the progressive slogan “believe victims,” it abuses a well intentioned model that can allow the dichotomy of victim and abuser to be placed on situations that don’t warrant it. Additionally because canceling isn’t a legal proceeding, accusations can be equated to truth with little to no proof, and in the world of twitter, often zero context. 

We all know no one is the victim here!

2. Abstraction

-“Abstraction replaces the specific, concrete details of a claim with a more generic statement.”-Natalie Wynn

Social media and internet culture lend themselves to a constant collapse of context as information is shared so that the original specifics and intention are often lost as information is shared. Thus one line of a tweet, pulled from a larger thread, can be abstracted from what it literally says, into someone’s interpretation of that line’s intention. 

“Girl he LOOKED at me. So you can start planning the wedding now!”

3. Essentialism

Essentialism is when we go from criticizing a person’s actions to criticizing the person themselves. We’re not just saying they did bad things. We’re saying they’re a bad person.” – Natalie Wynn

He’s a failure!

4. Pseudo-Moralism or Pseudo-Intellectualism

Providing a phony pretext for the call–out designed to make people feel justified in their harmful actions, and less guilty.

The point is Pseudo-moralism is that it often disguises an intent of unflattering motivations, behind the guise of righteous indignation to be more palatable to a wider audience, a dangerous combination.

“I know slavery sucks but it’s God’s will for you all.”
(*sigh* Shall we create a drinking game for every time the bible is problematically used to oppress people? Too far? I’m a pastor’s kid, do I get a free pass? What if we drink communion wine? Ok ok I take it back)

5. No Forgiveness

What is the point of canceling again? To hold people accountable? To educate people with privilege on how their ignorance is “dehumanizing” to others’ existence? So then the ultimate goal would logically be an apology and changed behavior in the future. 

However Natalie describes dangerous trope number 5 where apologies are dismissed as insincere, whether convincingly written or delivered, and past mistakes are compounded together while ignoring any growth or apologies.

6. Transitive Property of Cancellation

“Cancellation is infectious. If you associate with a canceled person, the cancellation rubs off. It’s like gonorrhea, except doxycycline won’t save you this time sweetie.” – Natalie Wynn

Do you all remember how upset people got when Chance the Rapper tried to support his friend Kanye through rough times? People tried to cancel Chance! Chance!?!? He has a heart of gold, he wrote a song about how much he loves his grandma! But the transitive property of canceling says he must be thrown in the trash as well. 

7. Dualism

Binary thinking means people are either good or bad. We should “interpret that [any mistake made] as the mask slipping, as a momentary glimpse of their essential wickedness.” 

“All bad people are equally bad.” so associating with someone who was cancelled is as bad as having done the action yourself.

Sometimes people aren’t all good or all bad. Adam Driver I am LIVING for your shades of gray!

If you disagree, have questions with, or want to discuss any of these tropes. WATCH THE VIDEO. This post is already way too long and my fingers are tired so I can’t get anymore into it but here is the link again (wink, wink, hint, hint, nudge, nudge. Watch it for yourself)!

But What Does It All Mean?

So maybe the frivolous canceling of my teachers, my homework, my hinge dates, has to give way to a more responsible model. But what does that look like concretely? I have questions!  Are there times when it IS morally right to condemn a person? Is there a line that an artist can cross that justifies demonization of the person, and not just the act (I’m looking at you R Kelly)? Do I have to stop listening to Michael Jackson and boycott any Met productions of Wagner’s ring cycle even though they’re dead? Is it possible to separate the artist from the art? 

Stay tuned for Part 2 where I will answer all these questions or die trying (cue nervous laughter, good thing I never bite off more than I can chew. As a grad student and a supposed adult I’m really glad I learned how to stop overpromising, otherwise these next two weeks could be really stressful for me).


If somehow you made it to the end of this incredibly long post and still want more (you go glen coco), here are all the articles I referenced and a bunch of articles I wasn’t able to fit into this post but had really interesting points to add to this discussion. Check them out!

Resources for further exploration

Articles

https://www.insider.com/cancel-culture-meaning-history-origin-phrase-used-negatively-2020-7

https://time.com/5735403/cancel-culture-is-not-real/

https://daily.jstor.org/collapse-of-meaning-in-a-post-truth-world/

https://daily.jstor.org/cancel-culture-is-chaotic-good/

https://www.breitbart.com/politics/2020/07/03/trump-cancel-culture-farleft-fascism-totalitarianism/

https://search-proquest-com.proxy.lib.umich.edu/docview/2426389939/D274353F6D7B4AB0PQ/1?accountid=14667

https://harpers.org/a-letter-on-justice-and-open-debate/

https://www.wired.com/story/r-kelly-black-twitter/

https://news.virginia.edu/content/black-twitter-101-what-it-where-did-it-originate-where-it-headed

https://www.dictionary.com/e/pop-culture/cancel-culture/#:~:text=Cancel%20culture%20refers%20to%20the,the%20form%20of%20group%20shaming.

‘Cancel culture’ origin: History of the phrase and public cancellation

Trashing by Jo Freeman

https://time.com/5735403/cancel-culture-is-not-real/

.https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/17/opinion/sunday/cancel-culture-call-out.html

https://theconversation.com/is-cancel-culture-silencing-open-debate-there-are-risks-to-shutting-down-opinions-we-disagree-with-142377


The Complexities of Supporting Art by Problematic Artists

https://www.pride.com/firstperson/2019/10/21/what-does-contrapoints-controversy-say-about-way-we-criticize

Videos and Podcasts

Extra credit for the super nerds like me

How To Be An Anti-racist Artist

This summer was a lot. That may be the understatement of the year. Between George Floyd, BLM, Covid, and Killer Hornets, my social media feeds were POPPING. Almost overnight I found myself surrounded by the term Anti-Racist. Angela Davis’ “In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be antiracist,” was suddenly the hashtag in everybody’s insta stories; articles in the NYT described the best anti-racist training programs; my inbox was flooded with anti-racist art events and talks, and I looked up and realized that I didn’t know what anti-racist meant and had no clue what anti-racist art entailed.

As a black woman and a self-proclaimed activist I was horrified and ashamed by this realization. Was I exempt just by being a black female? Was this something only for my well-meaning white friends? Was this another social media fad like the instagram blackout that didn’t really mean anything in actuality and would burn out after 24 hours? And what in the world was Anti-Racist Art?

So as a good millennial who is crippled by fear at the notion of having to ask a real live person something, I turned to the internet. I googled “What is anti-racist art” and the all-knowing search engine that has 431 million results for “why can’t I own a Canadian” had nothing. The results kept linking me to large arts organizations’ statements of support of diversity and inclusion, but nothing about the art itself.

So I bit the bullet. I girded my loins, put on my big girl pants, and picked up my phone and called someone other than my mom for help. Just kidding I sent an email, do you think I’m a boomer or something! I asked the EXCEL team 2 questions about anti-racist art and they blew my mind with their responses. God I love my job.

What does Anti-Racist Art mean to you?

Anti-racist art confronts racism head on, challenges accepted norms, and centers on BIPOC artists and their stories.-Caitlin

It sounds great for arts administrators, composers and those who plan to make their own works: just pick more art that focuses on BIPOC stories and artists. But for many of us, we don’t have much control over the content of the art we got hired to make. What does confronting racism head on look like for a violinist who signs a contract with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra? What about a latinx actress who keeps getting TypeCaste (see what I did there) as maid roles?

The reality for many of us is that while a career in the arts may have “freed” us to follow our passions, many of us feel “bound” to the will of casting agents, artistic directors, conductors, and the incredibly eurocentric focus of classical art. So what does anti-racist art mean for the rest of us?

To me, anti-racist art means creating work that strives to be inclusive and seeks to challenge the audience to think deeper about their own anti-racist agendas.  -Kayla  

To me, anti-racist art is art that takes into consideration the responsibility we all have to stand up for the equality of people of all races, particularly Black people and artists in present day America. Anti-racist art tells stories that the artist can genuinely tell from their own experiences and heritage (i.e., the art does not appropriate another person’s culture). Anti-racist art considers accessibility and audience from a position of equity: Who is this work for? Who will it affect, positively or negatively? How can audiences/viewers access this art (e.g., physically, financially, etc.)? Anti-racist art uplifts those fighting for equity, and this can occur in many ways, from direct storytelling to promotional materials. -Gala

This focus on audience strikes me as a really important and often missed opportunity. I know as a perpetually overbooked and sleep-deprived student myself, that sometimes  in our attempt to simply get everything technically ready and learned, we skip considering audience engagement. But taking steps to diversify the audience base of performances we are a part of is something that we can all do. We have more agency than we allow ourselves. Whether that’s putting pressure on the organizations we are a part of to prioritize outreach and accessibility or taking it into our own hands and using social media and emails to publicize events in more inclusive circles, we have options. And while the most elitist organizations may not take those steps themselves, if we reach out as individual artists and create connections and partnerships with targeted communities, I can’t imagine any theater or hall turning their nose up at additional ticket sales.

2. Do you think art has a responsibility to be socially responsible or is it ok for it to simply entertain?

I don’t think art has to have a responsibility to be socially responsible, unless the intent of the work is to do so.- Kayla

I don’t know that art itself necessarily has a responsibility, but I believe that artists should always be mindful of the impact that their work can have. I also believe that art can serve multiple purposes at once and may be entertainment for some, but meaningful and purposeful on a larger scale for others. -Melissa

Art has power. There’a a reason art is targeted in almost all dictatorships and countries trying to suppress dissent. With power comes great responsibility but what is art responsible to? Art can be used to cause great harm. Jeffrey Mason talks about this power of art within the context of theater and fiction and he says that,

“Both myth and theater create fictions that can displace the actualities– the putative referents– that inspire them. Any fictional process, through selection and interpretation, both obscures and reveals its subject… Thus, the actor [artist] is a virtual mythmaker, one who can either reinforce or challenge the fictions that the audience cherishes.”

That’s a lot of responsibility. I wish more artists thought about their role in creating, perpetrating, or challenging the narratives they’re apart of.

Art DOES have the responsibility to be socially responsible, especially in this day and age. As artists, we have an opportunity and responsibility to use our voice to be a part of the conversation: the change. Not making the effort to learn nor understand the extremity of the state of the world and call to anti-racist action puts you on the side of the oppressor, neutrality is oppression. Knowledge IS power, speak up and speak loud, generally AND artistically. -Karen

Once we start explicitly adding ideology to art, the line between art and propaganda begins to blur. While of course we can attempt to influence people towards beneficial outcomes, what does it mean to try to persuade an audience? How do we hold ourselves accountable? Those seem to be important questions to have answers to before we jump in headfirst (Do I get a sticker for talking about propaganda and not bringing up the Nazi’s? I mean that would have been a perfect opportunity to drop a Bertolt Brecht reference but I restrained myself).

While the revolutionary possibilities are exactly what calls me to art, I don’t know that I feel comfortable “requiring” all artists to follow suit (I have no power to require anything anyways so I’m not sure what I’m concerned about lol). What about beauty? What about art that tries to capture and reflect nature and emotions? What about art that makes us laugh? That matters too.

We all need art in our lives for individual reasons, which we should recognize will fluctuate over time and content.  Sometimes I want to delve into “serious” art, and sometimes I need to escape through “entertainment.” And of course, art-making can achieve both ends at once — so much powerful, socially-driven work can also be compellingly engaging, and yes, even fun (see my recommendations below)! And yet, in my view, just because a work of art can be aimed at escapism doesn’t mean we can excuse artistic creators from the social responsibilities in the context of that expression, whether we are talking about representation, racial inequity, or any other social issue that is relevant to the story. I also personally think the “escapist” stories that do justice to real-life contexts often are more compelling stories and, perhaps, more likely to resonate with audiences not just in terms of niche interest, but in the broadest sense. -Jonathan

Exactly! What do we do when art that’s seen as “feel good” entertainment, perpetuates violence on marginalized communities (I’m looking at you Porgy and Bess)? Escapism and entertainment is necessary, but does that give a free pass on being socially conscious?

I don’t think these two categories are mutually exclusive! I think socially responsible art definitely can be entertaining and enjoyable. However, the downside to a work originating only from the desire to have it entertain would be that perhaps the creator is not conscious of when a trope or joke is at the expense of a marginalized group, or how the production of the art could be insensitive or harmful. So I guess as I’m typing this, I’m realizing that my true hope is that all art be created from a caring, questioning, intentional perspective. And the result of that reflection is going to look different to different artists. A quote by Nina Simone comes to mind here: “An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.” -Gala

What Do I Think?

So what do I think? I hope that all artists try to be good stewards of the power of art. I think that great art does reflect the times, that it’s a reflection of society, but if our polarized world tells us anything, it tells us that we all have very different views of what that looks like. I think all humans have a responsibility to protect and care for each other, and I think we need to continually push ourselves to see who we are labeling as “other” and thus not our responsibility. I think if we see anti-racism as helping us to better care for each other, and we happen to also identify as artists, than we have a responsibility to be mindful that the art we create aligns with our own values and moral codes. We need to be aware of and feel comfortable standing behind the ideology inherent in our art. I’m not saying we have to be perfect or all knowing. Times change, people grow, opinions shift, and I once thought denim on denim was chic, but we should be willing to engage, discuss, learn, and push ourselves out of our comfort zones. I think I now have way more questions than answers, but maybe just maybe as I investigate these topics in this series I’ll find some more clarity. Stay Tuned!


Want to do more exploring? Here are the EXCEL Team’s recommendations for our favorite artists creating anti-racist art or at least what it means to us.


Upcoming Anti-Racist info events

DEI Virtual Summit Arts+Social Change: Building an Anti-Racist World Through the Arts Mon Oct 16th