Black and white and read all over

January 26, 2012

When I interviewed Timothy Douglas about his decision to resign as Artistic Director of Remy Bumppo, he said a series of gracious things about divergent artistic visions. These remarks were barely distinguishable from the equally gracious comments made by his successor Nick Sandys. So what is there to write about?

There’s this: When, at the end of the interview, I asked Douglas what else I should have asked him, this is what he said:

"Well, the question is bound to be, ‘Did this have anything to do with race?’ And yes, that was a part of the dynamic. There was no overt issue about that, but there are hard conversations to be had around race. As Artistic Director of the company, I found the daily conversation difficult. The profession remains primarily white, and though we talked initially about universality, when specifics come in, my approach as a black American male is going to be different from others’, and challenging to others. But if I’m not leading [from that perspective] a part of who I am is lost. . .    

“It’s remarkable that Chicago, a major city, should find the conversation [around race] so difficult. But it’s an American conundrum, and an issue too big to fundamentally address at a company the size of Remy Bumppo. It took too much time from my leadership. "

Sandys' perspective was different. "We hiired him because he was the best director. His being an African-American wasn’t relevant."

How is it that two smart, educated, capable and good-willed people can experience a situation so differently? I guess that must be what's known as "diversity," and it turns out to be less anodyne than we might hope.  

Anthropologists and sociologists have long observed that the issue of race is more salient in American culture to non-whites than to whites, because whiteness is the default position, what's expected, what passes without notice. The person in the minority is going to be aware of issues in a way majority-group members aren’t. Douglas himself said, “I understood where they were coming from, but how would they understand me?” This means not that the playing field isn't level but that the players aren't even in the same game, and the more race is ignored the less likely it is that the obstacles it presents can be removed. And thus Remy Bumppo's experience suggests that we have a long way to go before non-white artistic directors are able to operate in white companies without punching through a thicket of cultural assumptions of which most of their colleagues aren't even aware.

There was a time in my childhood (and probably in yours, too) when it was thought hilarious to stop a car in the middle of a block, have everyone jump out and run around it, and then jump back in and take off. When I referred to this process by its 1960s moniker “the Chinese fire drill,” a friend of Chinese descent laughed and asked, “Don't you mean a culturally-specific fire drill?”

The point? That transcending racial differences takes more than good faith and euphemisms. And that until we’re able to summon that “more”–which must include first an acknowledgment that those differences in culture, experience and expectations still exist–we’ll all just be running around in circles.

Read Jonathan Abarbanel's take on the Douglas resignation here.