Buckle up, Marissa is referencing Billy Idol.
Over the weekend, I attended my cousin’s wedding outside of Philadelphia. After the church service and the lengthy reception, there were some ad hoc after-parties in the hotel where many of us were staying, and I found myself in a room with a bunch of my cousin’s friends from college. The atmosphere was very “frat party” and I only stayed for five minutes, but that was enough time for me to overhear an unexpectedly interesting conversation: “This is the whitest wedding I’ve ever been to,” said an Asian-American young man.
“No kidding,” said his friend, who, like everyone else in the room, was white. And they proceeded to try to count up how many wedding guests were people of color. They thought of about three (out of 150+ attendees).
Overhearing this conversation really made clear to me just how much racial diversity is an active topic of discussion, in a way that it wasn’t even five or ten years ago. When even a bunch of drunken, mostly-white bros are counting people of color and complaining that my big Catholic family wedding has too many white people at it, that’s when you know that this topic has hit the mainstream.
This is happening in regards to gender diversity, too; witness the outcry this week when the cast of the upcoming Star Wars sequel turned out to include only one new female character (as opposed to 6 new male characters). And I find myself preoccupied with these topics all the time: I submit statistics to Valerie Weak’s “Counting Actors” project; I make little tallies of male vs. female writers whenever the winners of a playwriting contest are announced; I see a show with an all-white cast, and wonder if they were truly the best people for the job, or if racism is at work.
But at the same time… I kind of hate myself for doing these things. It’s easy to count actors and easy to work up a sense of outrage; it is much harder to actually change things for the better. Especially because I happen to believe that a lack of diversity most often results from abstract, sociological, systemic reasons, rather than from individual acts of racism or prejudice. Sure, the ethnic composition of the guests at my cousin’s wedding did not mirror the ethnic composition of the United States as a whole… but what were the bride and groom supposed to do about that?
Furthermore, if I think about these things too much, I start brooding over unanswerable questions. Is it “okay” that the new Star Wars actors are mostly male, because two of those men (John Boyega and Oscar Isaac) are people of color? Is it “okay” for me to celebrate a theater season that has 50% male and 50% female writers, if all of those writers are white and come from privileged backgrounds? Is strict adherence to ethnic and gender diversity, to dismantling the old racist and patriarchal power structures, my top priority — and if it isn’t, does that make me a horrible person?
I think that it feels petty and mean-spirited to spend so much of my time counting actors and getting outraged; and then I think no, the petty, mean-spirited people are the ones who want things to remain status quo. I wish that we spent more time online discussing philosophy, ethics, and aesthetics rather than identity politics, and then I realize that that makes me sound like a stereotypical White Person, stuck up in an ivory tower. I realize that to say “I don’t want to spend so much time thinking about race” merely reveals my immense privilege: society might allow me to ignore the fact of my whiteness, but it will not allow a black person to ignore her blackness.
But still… I want to be positive and receptive to change, not embittered or resentful or willfully ignorant. So perhaps I should just say that I am grateful that even drunken bros are counting people of color — this kind of awareness might be the first step toward the systemic, society-wide changes that we need — and I look forward to seeing where things go from here. I hope that the conversation goes deeper — and that the world moves forward.
Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. If you don’t mind hearing from yet another young, white, female voice, find her at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.