This month the EXCEL Lab is THRILLED to be partnering with the Eastman School of Music’s Paul R. Judy Center for Innovation and Research on a three-part online symposium entitled Disruption Action Change! This week our featured guests, Joel Thompson (Composer) and Garrett McQueen (Trilloquy), discuss their experiences disrupting traditional organizational practice! Register below to see their live Q&A this Thursday, March 18th at 4:30pm EDT!
Garrett spent the first decade of his career as a professional bassoonist. Determined to impact a bigger change in the arts, Garrett later transitioned into the field of broadcast media, and since 2016, he’s been the host and producer behind nationally syndicated public media content at the intersection of race, contemporary culture, and “classical” music. Garrett also works as Executive Producer of the TRILLOQUY podcast, and as a member of the leadership teams of the American Composers Forum, the International Society for Black Musicians, and the Black Opera Alliance.
What if one day, someone told you that everything you knew to be true was a lie? How would you react to understanding that the things you believe in most, the things that you’d do anything to uphold, were false, incomplete, or even oppressive? I didn’t always want to believe that there was something “wrong” with the art form that I’d fallen in love with at such an early age, but after years of experience on and off the “classical” stage, I’ve dedicated my career to helping people understand the conditioning that is a music education in America, the ways in which people can overcome that conditioning, and the responsibility all artists (and all people) have in creating an anti-racist society.
Some musicians have the benefit of learning to sing or play according to their culture, but this is extremely rare among “classical” musicians. I can’t quite remember the very first tune I learned to play on the bassoon, but I’m sure it wasn’t something that spoke to being a Black kid in Memphis, TN. Works like “Hot Cross Buns” and “Mary Had a Little Lamb” aren’t intrinsically violent, but the propagation of Eurocentric culture as the primary entry point toward becoming an instrumentalist must be called what it is: white supremacy. I didn’t always understand that conditioning or music “training” started from those very early stages, but it’s clear when you look at what schools continue to teach. From Orff Schulwerk, all the way to the musical “canon” that serves as the foundation of most American conservatories, the Eurocentricity that has built the status quo surrounding “classical” music must be fully understood and completely disrupted for a more equitable arts ecosystem to be built.
It’s not easy coming to terms with one’s own conditioning, but it’s completely possible! After leaving my hometown to pursue a bassoon career, I made a point to be as Black as I could in all spaces. I refused to codeswitch, and even foregrounded music by Black composers when I had the opportunity to impact my or anyone else’s programming for the stage. My love for music by Black and living composers eventually earned me a spot on the radio airwaves, where I continued to take action in exposing listeners to the overlooked genius of composers other than Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. From there, I developed a love for being behind the microphone, and expanded my work into a weekly podcast called TRILLOQUY. Since its inception, I have worked to center conversations that not only shed light on some of “classical” music’s overlooked stories, but ones that also can inspire everyone to take action in their communities and institutions.
For generations, words like “racism” and “prejudice” have been pushed into a category that most people don’t think involves them. In reality, every person has a responsibility to take a look at themselves and to determine what they can do to inspire change. Through my work as a content creator, I’ve had the privilege of meeting so many people with such a wide array of experiences, identities, and stories. Being exposed to so much helped me understand my own prejudices, and the things I needed to do to change. When everyone takes the time to learn from and listen to people with whom they may not normally, a new arts ecosystem will be born. I am proud to help facilitate that in my work.
Meet Joel Thompson
Joel is an Atlanta-based composer, conductor, and educator, best known for the choral work, Seven Last Words of the Unarmed, which won the 2018 American Prize for Choral Composition. Currently a doctoral student at the Yale School of Music, Thompson was also a 2017 post-graduate fellow in Arizona State University’s Projecting All Voices Initiative and a composition fellow at the 2017 Aspen Music Festival and School, where he studied with composers Stephen Hartke and Christopher Theofanidis and won the 2017 Hermitage Prize. His opera, The Snowy Day, based on the book by Ezra Jack Keats, will premiere December 2021 at the Houston Grand Opera.
The exterior of the building looked unassuming – brick, one-story, yet still huge, like everything in Texas – but the inside was a resplendent treasure trove…like a secret dragon-guarded cave in a Tolkien novel. My old library in the Bahamas kept all the children’s books at the top of a mostly windowless non-airconditioned tower, which was coated in a benevolent Pepto-Bismol pink to hide the fact that it used to be a jail in colonial times. Still, it served as my time machine to centuries past and my Scotty-less transporter to foreign lands and magical wonders…like the Hennington-Alief Library, in which I now stood.
She must have seen the awe on my face in response to the expansive YA section. Or maybe she saw the undisguisable glee inspired by the new knowledge that I could check out more than two books at a time. In fact, they had those little baskets that you saw at the grocery store! I had already purposed to fill mine to the brim when she approached with that endearing Texas lilt. “Hey there! What’s your name, darlin’?” Bashfully, I said my name as I’ve always said it and as my parents said it. “Oh, you mean, Johl.” She smiled. “Can I help you with anything, Johl?”
When I came to the U.S., I possessed a distinct amalgam of the Bahamian and Jamaican accents. My name-changing encounter with Smaug the librarian was one of many steps in the attempted erasure of the natural rhythms and inflections of my speech. Also, sixth-grade Joel didn’t want to stand out as a target for ridicule, so the voice with which I currently speak was born. In the 20-plus years since then, I’ve been told that my accent is not “American,” but not able to be placed anywhere else really. Many times, I’ve also registered surprise on the faces of people who assumed I wasn’t Black after only interacting on the phone. I’d like to think the Texan librarian didn’t intend to do any damage. I guess she simply said my name the way she thought it was supposed to be said, but her choice has continually reminded me how fervently I must protect my voice. The ease and audacity with which she attempted to change my name, the avatar of my identity, to fit within a box for her comfort has always baffled me. I’d like to think that if she and her hypothetical son, Joel, went to Jamaica or even to the pink library tower in the Bahamas, that no one would tell her son his name was actually JO-ell when he introduced himself as “Johl.” However, when I take a step back, I realize that this country was founded with that same audacity – to steal the land, massacre its indigenous inhabitants, and name it the United States of America.
Today, as a composer in dialogue with the legacy of Western European art music, I have found that holding true to my name, to my voice, to my identity is a most disruptive act. Striving towards honesty in my music, centering Blackness, and holding the door open for Black and other marginalized voices in this space are disruptive acts. These acts of disruption are rooted in an unquenchable love for this music and the joy of making it. However, I continue to ask, “Why is this disruptive?” and “What am I disrupting?” The potential answers, as they relate to the genre of classical music, are downright depressing. They show me that disruption is not enough – disruption must be the catalyst for transformation.
I look forward to conversing with the amazing Garrett McQueen during the Disruption Action Change Symposium, and I hope to learn more about how we can continue to invest in the transformation of this artistic field and how we can continue to our artistic practices with the hope that we can be models for fundamental social change in the real world – a world in which my future children and grandchildren will be able to borrow books without casual threats to their identity, a world in which they’ll be able to create in any field without fear of being pigeonholed or dismissed, a world where they don’t have to change or hide their voices to remain safe, a world where they don’t have to worry about being killed extrajudicially because of their exterior, ignoring the treasure trove contained within. Until then…
Want to hear more?
Join us this Thursday, March 18th from 4:30-6:00pm EDT via Zoom for a Q&A with Joel and Garrett. They will delve into their posts in greater depth and explore questions like, “How must the definition of classical music change to become more inclusive, and what might that mean for the industry?” We hope to see you there as we expand this conversation around experiences making and spreading art that advocates for change. Participation is free, but registration is required via the link below.
This month the EXCEL Lab is THRILLED to be partnering with the Eastman School of Music’s Paul R. Judy Center for Innovation and Research on a three-part online symposium entitled Disruption Action Change! This week our featured guests, Ashleigh Gordon (Castle of Our Skins) and Margaret Lioi (Chamber Music America), discuss their experiences disrupting traditional organizational practice! Register below to see their live Q&A this Thursday, March 11th at 4:30pm EDT.
Ashleigh is co-founder, Artistic/Executive Director and violist of Castle of our Skins, a Boston-based concert and educational series devoted to celebrating Black Artistry through music. In recognition of her work, she has presented at IDEAS UMass Boston Conference and 180 Degrees Festival in Bulgaria; has been featured in the International Musician and Improper Bostonian magazines as well as the Boston Globe; and was awarded the 2016 Charles Walton Diversity Advocate Award from the American Federation of Musicians. Described as a “charismatic and captivating performer,” Ashleigh Gordon has recorded with Switzerland’s Ensemble Proton and Germany’s Ensemble Modern; performed with Grammy-award winning BMOP and Grammy-nominated A Far Cry string ensemble; and appeared at the prestigious BBC Proms Festival with the Chineke! Orchestra.
As a classically-trained musician, I fought for years against the external pressure to pursue an orchestral career when I knew the intimacy of chamber music spoke deeper to my heart. As an educator, I wrestled with how I could effectively reach a child in a classroom setting when I found one-on-one, mentor-mentee relationships more natural and impactful. I knew I was creative and found excitement bringing a daydream into a tangible reality. I enjoyed research, history, storytelling, having autonomy in my work, and connecting with my cultural roots. I grew to love my identity as a Black woman violist.
I share these as realizations about myself that took years to fully own and whole-heartedly embrace. These understandings – which now serve as the bedrock for how I authentically engage with the world – shape my work as Artistic and Executive Director of Castle of our Skins, a Boston-based concert and educational series dedicated to celebrating Black artistry through music.
For the past eight years (and counting), I have presented the works of African diasporic composers alongside spoken word, dance, visual arts and other mediums, flooding classrooms and concert stages with centuries worth of artistic excellence. Through performances, residencies, commissions, workshops, and more, I have made it a common mission for both myself and the organization to showcase a wide breadth of Black artistry that spans genres, generations, genders, and geographies. I have done – and continue to do – this from a place of authenticity, genuine passion, and deep-seeded purpose. Representation continues to be foundational in my work. Black voices continue to be centered on stage and off. Cultural exploration remains a constant reason to both celebrate and normalize diversity and is not conditional to an anniversary, date on a calendar, response to yet another example of injustice, or matter of convenience.
To encourage artists/arts organizations to join in this continual and intentional centering of the underrepresented, I would like to offer three simple thoughts:
Know your motivations; name your intentions: As this is not the work of a 100-meter dash but a marathon spanning generations, it is crucial to know what is driving your work and why. Keep those answers top of mind all the time as honesty and authenticity are the fuel that will drive your well-meaning efforts beyond the limits of pure passion and a reaction to the times.
Strength is in community: Collaboration not competition will make for more sustainable efforts as strength lies in numbers. Collectively, we have the ability to challenge, push, support, and inspire a movement that lasts beyond a headline or topical trend.
Share resources: Knowledge is power as we know and have heard countless times. Sharing what you know, have learned, have tried and failed, and tried and succeeded is essential to our collective understanding in how we can build a healthy arts ecosystem devoid of the inequities that continue to plague it (and us).
As said by writer, choreographer, activist and author Andrew Simonet in his Making Your Life as an Artist: “Culture needs you to do it (your art) and do it well.” We each, as cultural influencers, have an awesome and unique responsibility to fulfill. At the same time, it is imperative that we each remain steadfast and truly elevate the marginalized in all of our work if we are to disrupt a centuries old system of inequity. Our collective and creative future quite literally depends on it.
Meet Margaret Lioi
Margaret M. Lioi has been Chamber Music America’s Chief Executive Officer since 2000, serving as the longest-tenured executive in CMA’s 43-year history. During this time, CMA incorporated jazz into its small ensemble portfolio, increased its grant-making to more than $1.3 million annually, established May as National Chamber Music Month, and ratified the organization’s Commitment to Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity, solidifying its dedication to equitable practices in every area of its operations.
She holds a Masters in Piano Performance from New England Conservatory and an MBA in Arts Management from Binghamton University/SUNY. Prior to CMA, Lioi was the Director of Development at Spoleto U.S.A., Executive Director of The Eleanor Naylor Dana Charitable Trust, and Senior Director of External Affairs at The Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival. She serves on the Advisory Board of The Sphinx Organization, is a member of the Board of The Performing Arts Alliance, and is an adjunct faculty member in the MA in Arts Management Entrepreneurship program at The New School.
From Margaret: A Reflection on Disruption
I do not think of myself as a disrupter. For women of my background and generation, disrupting anything does not carry with it a positive connotation. Women are selfless peacemakers who bring people together, not break things apart—or so say the influential voices of my past.
When I arrived at Chamber Music America in 2000, CMA had accepted an initial grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation to fund new works for composer-led jazz ensembles. This made complete sense to me; it fit perfectly into CMA’s definition of chamber music: music for small ensembles between two and ten musicians, one musician per part, generally without a conductor. But I wasn’t prepared for the pushback, negative emails, and overall controversy the program created.
To an already marginalized field that was perennially under-resourced, it was a signal that funding would be siphoned from our classical grant programs and redirected to what was perceived as an interloping discipline. It didn’t matter that Doris Duke’s Will mandated that the Foundation’s funding in music be dedicated to jazz. None of CMA’s funding for its classical programs was in jeopardy because of the jazz grants, and further, the Duke Foundation would not fund classical music as it was not one of Doris Duke’s interests.
Unbelievably, this debate continued for nearly a decade. I often reflect on these early years in my tenure and wonder what I could have/should have done to make the inclusion of jazz into CMA’s portfolio easier for everyone to accept. Some CMA members were so outraged at the idea that jazz was becoming a permanent part of CMA that they signed a petition against its inclusion. I remember that it arrived in my In Box the evening before our national conference and took center stage as we attempted to finalize our strategic plan in 2007.
The organization, the Board, and I came under fire for “abandoning CMA’s core constituency,” “forcing jazz down presenters’ throats,” and “disregarding CMA’s founding mission”—all untrue. Despite the negative reactions, we persevered. Our jazz funding and number of programs continued to grow. Jazz artists began to see Chamber Music America as a home, and most rewarding of all, jazz and classical musicians began to learn from each other and collaborate on artistic projects. Was this disruption or bringing people together? One of my colleagues often reminds me that more than one thing can be true at the same time.
In my first ten years at CMA I learned to listen. The jazz musicians were happy to have a new funding source but wanted to make sure that CMA was not inviting them into the classical construct and expecting them to conform. And it was equally important to recognize and understand the anxieties and misgivings of our classical constituents, who felt that resources were being taken away from them.
This journey, arduous and exhausting, will never come to a complete conclusion, but the resulting jazz programs and participation continue to contribute to CMA’s success as a vibrant and relevant 21st-Century organization.
It was with the successes and missteps of this experience that we approached our racial equity work. We continue to disrupt and bring people together.
Want to hear more?
Join us this Thursday, March 11th from 4:30-6:00pm EDT via Zoom for a Q&A with Ashleigh and Margaret. They will delve into their posts in greater depth and explore questions like, “How do we design and support organizations that connect genuinely with their communities, enabling audiences to be ‘co-creators’?” We hope to see you there as we expand this conversation around disrupting traditional organizational practice and taking risks to advance ADEI/anti-racism policies in the arts. Participation is free, but registration is required via the link below.
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 Hamiltoncasting 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…
There is a robust history of excluding BIPOC actors, writers, producers, and directors from opportunities in theater, film, and dance.
There is a ROBUST history of the appropriation of BIPOC stories and cultures in theater, film, and dance.
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!
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!
“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 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.
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.
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…).
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.
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?
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!
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.”
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)
Today the EXCEL Log is featuring an EXCEL Highlight interview with the amazing Dr. Antonio C Cuyler! This interview took place on 9/30/2020 the day before the release of his first book. Make sure to check it out!
I log onto the zoom call nervously checking and double checking my interview questions, cyclically wondering if I compiled enough questions or did enough research, and then conversely wondering if I have too many questions and did too much research? What if I give off creepy stalker vibes, what if he — Dr. Cuyler logs on (Thank god).
A dapper Black man with a well trimmed beard, Dr. Cuyler has a friendly face, Black Panther artwork on his wall, and a slight southern drawl when he introduces himself that immediately puts me at ease (I realize Northern Virginia is only “technically” in the south but let me have this y’all). I try to rush through the pleasantries because I’m now convinced I do in fact have too many questions for the hour interview, but as a true southern gentleman he refuses to let me get to business before we’ve chatted about the weather, shared our life stories, and compared recipes on how to best burn down White supremacy.
Samantha Williams: Yeah, so I’m right in the middle of a quarter life crisis, I just earned my masters degree in opera performance, and also just realized that I kind of might maybe hate opera right now. So yeah, it’s fine. Everything’s fine. We’re just taking a break, it’s not an official separation but I’m definitely seeing other genres. I’m currently really pursuing my love of arts activism and exploring arts administration and trying to figure out what in the world I’m going to do with all these degrees.
Dr. Antonio Cuyler: Oh, that’s so beautiful. Because if you think about it, you’re liberated, in a way where you’re unencumbered by all of the conventions and all of the intricacies, and the idiosyncrasies of those conventions. You have the freedom to envision. You’re creating the space for yourself to really kind of sit back and go “What do I really want to do?”
SW: Absolutely. I mean, you just sold that as a lot more positive, great, and romantic than it could also be described [laughter] but I love that description, I’ll try to stay in that mindset.
AC: I think you should! Because, I think that’s what led me to where I am now because I studied voice at the undergraduate level. And so I had essentially about eight years of intensive voice studying. Before I came to the place that you’re at and I asked myself the same question. So you have these degrees in music, what do you want to do with them?
Dr. Cuyler surely made the most of his degrees. While he is “The first Black man to earn a Ph.D. in Arts Administration,” and “the first Black man to earn promotion and tenure in his discipline,” Dr. Cuyler is less concerned with achieving these types of superlatives. He cares more about the impact he has on enhancing and increasing the educational attainment of arts managers, especially those of color. He has published numerous articles researching Arts Administration Education, and Creative Justice Issues in the Cultural Sector. He earned his BM in Voice and Foreign Languages at Stetson University, his MA in Arts administration, and his Ph.D. in Arts Education/ Arts Administration from Florida State University, and is a Visiting Professor of Arts Management at UM this year.
SW: I noticed your black panther comic in the background!!
AC: Have you seen it?
AC: One of my favorite scenes in the movie is that scene where they’re in the museum, I thought it was so poignant. I believe that a recent report said that 90 to 95% of SubSaharan Africa’s cultural objects exist outside of the continent of Africa. And we have these European countries that say we’ll let you borrow your own things back, right? That’s where the importance of cultural capital and holding on to the cultural capital comes in.
For Black people, our cultural capital is the one thing that has always been there… and we have not always used our cultural capital in the same ways that the people who have exploited us for our cultural capital did. I would like to see us become more aware of our cultural capital, and to use our cultural capital in ways that dismantle White supremacy and challenge White supremacy but also give us the agency that we need to not internalize racial oppression.
SW: Do you have examples of what that might look like in an ideal world?
AC: Yeah, let’s say that an artist/ arts administrator like yourself, decided that they were going to create a collective of Black artists who focused on creating Black stories for opera. And I mean more than just those stories that basically turn our trauma into porn like police brutality. Yes, it is a very important thing, but I don’t know that I need to see another opera about police brutality. What about those common stories that show Black joy, Black love? You know, the ways in which we know that Black people exist that the rest of the population doesn’t understand.That would be a way of taking the cultural capital, being very protective of the cultural capital, but also sharing the cultural capital in ways that challenge those stories about our humanity and the quality of our humanity.
I love stories of artists like Prince, Michael Jackson, and even Millie Jackson.. where they said, this is my stuff.. And I’m going to participate in the conversation about how you use my stuff or don’t use my stuff, so that I maintain control of my stuff.
The story of Queen NZynga from Angola would make a really good opera. I was just telling my friend about this and how she participated in the slave trade. There came a point where she was negotiating with the Portuguese to limit the amount of slaves that they were taking from Angola and the Portuguese would not even provide her a seat to sit at the table. So she commanded one of her slaves to basically like get on their knees, and that slave basically served as a chair for her, to show them that you want something from me.
And the reason why I think that’s important is because we’ve seen the results of what happens when cultural objects of significant cultural value and import are taken and looted and pillaged and held in a place where they are not from.
SW: What drew you to want to be an educator in arts administration instead of going directly into arts administration yourself?
AC: At the time there were no full-time Black male faculty teaching arts administration in the country. I thought this would be a good way to kill two birds with one stone. I could teach students who look like me and other students, and help inform the way they think about arts administration.
SW: You’ve done a fair amount or research studying executive opera managers of color
AC: Yes it was the topic of my dissertation. Comparing the experiences of my BIPOC students who were trying to pursue careers and opera management with the white cisgender gay male students that I also taught.
You have to think about your proximity to power. And that’s another thing– intersectional identities! Think about it, if you had no privilege at all, like if you were gender non-conforming, trans, of color, poor, differently-abled… That’s the story that should be told in opera. The story of that person. Because we don’t know a lot about that person’s intersectional lived experiences.And the continued life of the art form is dependent upon the telling of new stories. New relevant stories to people’s lives.
SW: Ok so then why opera? It seems like much of opera’s appeal is its elitism. There is art that’s interested in being relevant and provocative, but it’s in other genres.
AC: So, you know, my gut reaction to your question is why not opera? And I say that because this is the way opera started. I think opera became what you just described in its transportation from Europe to the United States. To make opera fit within the U.S. cultural context we projected all of these ideas of elitism and who opera was for. Opera has always had the potential to be relevant to all people, but the gatekeepers are the ones who had these ideas about conventions and purism. If you were to go to France, Germany, or Italy they are pushing boundaries and making relevant art…
SW: Why do you think there’s something so redeemable about opera that it warrants you trying to change the system from within instead of going to a more inclusive art form?
AC: Those of us who have had that experience of being transported–of transcending ourselves, we know what the art form can do for people. So why in the world would you want to stop other people from experiencing that?
To be able to exclude and to hoard an experience, just for yourself and people like you is a form of White Supremacy. And so I’d like to see opera get to a point where it is actively pursuing creative justice as a form of fighting. You know, the past means of marginalization, subjugation, and oppression that it put on people kept them from being able to contribute as much creativity to the lifespan of the art form as possible.
SW: Who’s your favorite composer?
AC: I am probably the biggest fan of Puccini. Puccini wrote about stories that were relevant, like verismo opera– Hello??– is all about realism. And so we need to take that model and apply it to today
SW: In your article Steadfastly White, Female, Hetero and Able-Bodied, you said that the responsibility for any structural DEI changes and improvements will fall to a highly conscientious and overworked academic labor force and not to the institution’s themselves. That seems so problematic and sad. Why do you think that?
AC: The way colleges and universities are currently responding to the global racial reckoning is very chaotic. It’s like a bunch of chickens running around with their heads cut off. And there’s not a lot of mindful strategic action. There’s lots of discourse, lots of conversations but we as historically marginalized and oppressed groups are exhausted of discourses and conversations. Particularly because if our student populations are among the most privileged in societies across the world, who and what will compel them to care about Creative Justice, Access, Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Interculturalism, and trans culturalism?
Faculty who personally identify with a marginalized identity are more likely to teach about diversity issues in arts administration. That was a major finding of a study I did on arts administration faculty in the US in 2017. Conversely, if faculty didn’t identify with a marginalized identity they were less likely to teach about diversity issues. I’ve heard some faculty say “I wasn’t taught how to teach an anti-racism curriculum, I’m not qualified to do that.” To say that, and particularly if you are an educator is not an excuse not to do something. You’re supposed to be modeling lifelong learning! The curriculum you receive is not an excuse to not do something.
SW: Right, pick up a book like you do for other topics you don’t know enough about. That’s what you’re supposed to do in academia, research right?
AC: Some people think that a solution to students wanting a more diverse and inclusive curriculum is to develop something like an African American composers course. That’s an option. But, why can’t you integrate African American composers into the music history course or the music theory course? Why can’t you take the whole construct or the whole concept of music history or music theory and say: who are the people who have contributed to the discussion, the scholarly and the academic discourse on music history and music theory? Why can’t we reimagine how we can have everyone participating in this conversation because there are people of diverse backgrounds who contributed to the development of music history and music theory.
And if they’re not, then I think that students need to start turning towards activism, and pushing them because, again, students are, you know, consumers of education. So, students have a lot more power than I think they know they have to compel change.
So students we have our marching orders. Make some good trouble, watch Black Panther, read Dr. Cuyler’s new book, and always remember Wakanda Forever.
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.
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:
“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.
“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!
“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.
“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.
“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.“
“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.“
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:
“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 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
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:
“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.“
Meet Myah Paden, a Masters in Music student at U of M studying voice performance. Read her fabulous op-ed on her experience starting the Thorne & Thistle podcast.
This summer I started a podcast to cope.
Now, I’m not going to lie to you; 2020 has ultimately been a pretty good year for me, all things considered. If that makes you want to immediately stop reading this, I totally get it, but if it makes you feel any better, it did not start out that way. At the start of 2020, I was officially 2 months on antidepressants to treat acute symptoms of what was quickly turning into, arguably, the worst year of my life.
I graduated from my undergraduate program in August of 2019, moved across the country from the Deep South to the suburban Midwest, lived alone for the first time in my life, and started a Masters degree. I said ‘yes’ to every opportunity which happened to be exactly too many. I became consumed in grinding, and lost my sense of self in the process. By Winter semester, I was running on the fumes of clinical perfectionism.
The news cycle was pretty dismal then, too (do you remember when just Australia was on fire?). Spring break came and went, and I considered just giving it all up, moving to a foreign country, and recreating my identity anew as an eccentric young savant. I was begging the Universe for a break.
And then the world went still.
All at once, I was completely distanced from the friendships I had just barely begun to form and the life I was beginning to build. All of that disappeared in an instant, and I was alone with my thoughts and my emotional support cat dutifully keeping me company. The first month was the most surreal. Slowly, the apocalyptic haze that settled over the world began to clear, and I, too, began to settle into what would months later become “normal”. The moment I felt like I was finally lifting the thick quarantine depression from my shoulders–it was then that I heard about George Floyd.
Like most Black Americans, I have been desensitized to the brutalization of Black bodies and the apathy of white America. I am, to a degree, used to the cycle of grief that plagues my community every year or so when our trauma is a hot topic. The social media “activism” that follows and its companion of false allyship–these things are not new. Watching a Black man be unjustly murdered in front of my eyes and having distant Facebook friends perpetuate the gaslighting of the Black community under the guise of playing “devil’s advocate”–this is not new either. The crucial difference between George Floyd’s execution and the litany of Black names that flood our timelines year after year was timing.
It was the lack of ability to turn away from the screen and to move on. We had to look, and for many that was the first time bearing witness to the perverse reality of Black life in this country. For me, it was a tipping point.
To be clear, this is not an article about George Floyd. This is about identity, trauma, and healing. This is about me, and it’s about us.
I hit my breaking point watching the footage and fallout of George Floyd’s murder. I had so many emotions overflowing from me and spilling over tainting the simplest things in my life. I couldn’t cry or laugh or scream. I was numb. I only watched the video once, but I saw it played out thousands of times whenever I closed my eyes. Each time, the face of George Floyd was replaced by a Black loved one–my brother, cousin, father, myself. I could feel all of the similar traumatic moments I’d seen over the years crash into me at once. To make matters worse, I lived alone, so there was no consolation for me that wasn’t filtered through a Zoom call.
Like all good creatives do, I turned to art. I opened Audacity (free recording software) and just spoke. “Um…a lot is going on right now…,” I began.
I gave into my stream of consciousness and released the emotions I had been repressing without the expectation or desire that they would go beyond my IP address. I experienced an intense relief in the process. When I finally stopped the recording, I realized in the following silence that so much of what I was feeling was helplessness, and suddenly, I no longer felt helpless.
I am not built for protest. I have too much Anxiety to be at the frontlines of a movement.
What I have is a voice and the ADHD-given ability to present full oral dissertations to an invisible audience. With those spurring me on, I flung my story into the digital void for both no one and everyone. I released all of it, and in the face of a global pandemic, white and conservative apathy, and the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, I felt catharsis. This was my protest.
People began to reach out and share with me their feelings as well, stories which were nuanced–colored by each individual experience. More joined and months later, what began as a digital diary entry eventually grew beyond me.
The whole experience is teaching me something pivotal: our intersectional experiences, those points of life at which the multiplicity of identity and community meet, color our pain different shades of the same color, but ultimately, we are connected in the sharing of grief and hope.
So, that was June.
Since then, I decided to take a leave from school for a year. I started therapy for the first time since moving from Georgia, and I’ve started feeling my sense of self return to me after being lost for the last year and a half.
I have connected and shared conversation with truly amazing people through my growing platform like non-binary music artist and producer, London Beck, and internationally acclaimed biracial classical singer, Julia Bullock. I have deepened connections with friends and induced connections with strangers. In healing my own spirit and sharing my story, I have gained the platform to share the stories of others and facilitate empathy and healing together.
This has become the mission of my podcast Thorn & Thistle and my reason to continue: Cutting through the thorns and navigating a path through the complex griefs, joys, and experiences of life with the understanding that everyone’s path is unique. Some are steeper or more treacherous than others. All paths lead forward.
No doubt, this year has more in store for us. As a Black, neurodivergent, lesbian woman with a Bachelor’s degree in Music, I am sure to have plenty of content to keep my podcasting career afloat. I don’t mean to boast, but in the four months my show has been running, I’ve racked up a whopping four whole dollars. I guess you could say I’ve made it.
As voting rights are expressed and suppressed throughout the country, there is something intense and probably disappointing on the horizon no matter your political alignment.
Unfortunately, there really is no inspiring takeaway in this article. My story isn’t altogether profound, but it is honest.
I thought about how to write this in so many ways. I wondered if I should tell you all of my experience meeting and chatting with Julia Bullock who is one of my favorite living classical artists of the modern age. I could type my fingers numb expounding on the guiding philosophical principles which are, in some part, foundationally responsible for the creation of Thorn & Thistle (for the record: Womanism and Intersectional Feminism). I could write a very poignant piece on the plight of the Black Woman in America™ or on queering the classical space. I could talk about a lot of things because that’s what I’m good at, but to be perfectly honest, that’s what my show is for.
At its core, my podcast exists as a kind of group therapy session for BIPOC and LGBTQ+ people. I no longer create mission trip-esque content for white, cis, and/or heteronormative audiences to attempt to absolve guilt by deigning to listen whilst oggling at the natives like ravenous spectators at a human zoo.
However, on this platform, I wanted to share a story that shows me as I am: a person wrapped in complexity which uniquely colors my experience. A person attempting to do something good in a world where those in power profit from our helplessness and fear. A curious mind with a passion for storytelling and nurturing the connective tissue between myself and you.
I invite you to fearlessly follow your voice through the chaotic, thorn-covered bramble of the state of the world we’re in. Maybe you’ll find new connections or refresh old ones. Maybe you’ll start a podcast. Or maybe you’ll find, like I did, that we are never truly helpless.
EXCEL Highlights is a series where we feature students and faculty at UM that are changing the world and creating dope art! Make sure to look for the next post an interview with the amazing Arts in Color dance group. If you’d like to see your project featured, and get some free publicity, send an email to email@example.com!
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.
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.”
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 isA 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?
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?
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?
*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?).
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.”
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.
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.
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,9othersargue that–
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–
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.
-“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.
–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
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.
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
–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.
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!