At first, this post was going to be called “Rachel Goes to Camp” and talk about Barrington Stage Company, the workshop process, meeting a ton of the cool people and how fleeting it all is. But with a play called Well-Intentioned White People, I’ve found myself talking about race A LOT. To strangers, to friends, to family members. And each time the conversation gets…wild. And messy. And uncomfortable.
So, I promise both posts in August will be about Barrington/The Berkshires/Pittsfield (a city I cannot wait to learn more about).
But today, I wanna talk about what it means to travel across the nation when you’re Black & Afro-Latinx.
When I was younger, I didn’t really get race. My dad is Black, my mom is Afro-Latinx, and my step-mother (who has been in my life since I was four) is white. My dad and my step mom tried real hard to make me see a “color blind” world and told me frequently that race wasn’t an issue. That I was treated no differently than white people. My mom, on the other hand, who had to live in this middle existence of not being Black enough and not being Latinx enough, told me everything, everything, everything has to do with race.
In other words, while my dad and stepmom tried to gaslight me, my mom kept it real from the jump.
And so, as I navigate this playwriting world, I also have to navigate this world as a woman of color. And part of traveling frequently means I need to be conscious of both the unconscious bias people around me carry and the unconscious bias I carry.
Before I really dive deep into this: Dear white theatre artists, there are some things you need to know. I do not know a single person of color who doesn’t code-switch. It’s a constant reality for us that we have to be on our best behavior if we want to stay alive. This doesn’t mean all white people are racists (we’ll have that talk later); it means this is how we have been conditioned. So even when it’s not asked of us, sometimes we still do it out of habit. I work at an amazing and welcoming company that is 50% POC, 50% white, and 100% women. It’s amazing. I’ve never felt more comfortable to be myself than I do now. The women I work with are alert, they are smart, and they are totally down with the get down. AND EVEN THERE at diversity paradise, I still catch myself code-switching. Not because they make me. But because it’s so deeply ingrained in me at this point that even in the safest place it still feels dangerous to turn it off. The difference between where I work now and where I’ve worked before is now when I catch myself code-switching, I stop myself and try to come to an understanding with my co-workers. Until now, I have never felt comfortable to do that. So, my dear white theatre friends, are you bad people? No. Is systemic oppression that deep? Yeah, it is. And before you can really get this blog posts, you need to understand that first.
Okay. Where was I?
Right. Traveling while being a person of color. There are things I cannot help. I cannot help that when people see me, they see an average-looking, fat black woman who is occupying their space. I cannot help that even if I were white, women are not supposed to occupy space. We’re supposed to take as little space as possible so being a black woman….it ain’t gettin easier. And I have to always have my guard up. Which sucks, yes but I’ve had to do it so long it’s a habit. It immediately turns itself on, whether I’m conscious of it or not.
And this is where things get really messy.
I’ve already admitted on this blog before that I’m a Slytherin. Well, I like to joke with one of my friends that she’s on the recruitment team for Slytherin, like she’s probably a prefect. And I’m the warning sign. I’ve been code-switching since I was four. I have perfected this shit. I can switch back and forth within seconds.
Another friend of mine (who’s black) like to joke that I have “infiltrated” the camp. I can sing Taylor Swift and call James Taylor the “OG JT” one second and then go outside, see black people, and talk about how I didn’t even know who James Taylor was until I was 22 and how James Taylor can’t hold a candle to Michael (sorry not sorry). I can throw bones (google it, white people. It doesn’t mean fighting. It’s a game) and I can win at Scrabble. Every time. It’s not hard for me.
Actually, it’s so easy for me that I forget that this isn’t how it should be. I shouldn’t have to feel like I need to turn off my culture to safely travel from one destination to another.
(Not to mention, I never, ever, ever feel comfortable showing my Latina side. It took me years to even show it to my husband. And he’s my favorite white person. When you code-switch and you’re biracial or bi-cultural, you have to pick one. But again, that’s for another time as well.)
It sucks to have this in the back of your mind. Because here I am, getting to be a part of this amazing adventure, working on my plays, meeting new theatre artists, living this unbelievable and impossible dream. And yet there’s still a part of me thinking “Am I talking too loud?” “Am I smiling enough?” “Am I standing in a way that is welcoming and not threatening?” “Have I talked about race too much?” “Have I not talked about race enough?” “Do I need to straighten my hair?” “Do I have to wear my hair curly?” “Should I cover my tattoos?” “Should I show them because one of them is in Russian and that makes me look hip for some reason I don’t feel like unpacking right now?”
And again, I can’t reiterate enough to white theatre artists who might be feeling kind of bummed (or defensive) at this point: sometimes it isn’t you. I do this every day. I’ve done with all of my partners. I even do with black and Latinx people.
It’s constant and relentless.
Now to talk to the artists of color: Y’all. It’s hard out here in these streets we call the “art world.” I am aware of my code-switching and I am aware sometimes I forget to turn it off. I have been guilty of leaving behind a fellow person of color in the past so I could succeed. Crabs in barrel. I sometimes had to climb on the backs of people of color to get where I am and I am sorry. I was in survival mode. I want you to know, there will always be a person of color in my plays.
To my queer fam, there will always be a queer character in my plays.
I write these characters because the more of us you get in a room, the more likely our voices will be heard. At the end of the day, I’m doing this for us. For the fam, the marginalized and the oppressed.
Back to everyone: Is shit hard? Yes, for so many of us. That doesn’t make the journey any less fun. That doesn’t make what we’re doing or saying any less important.
We’re all working towards something really great. And as long as we remember to check in with ourselves every once in while, we’re gonna be alright. And maybe even learn how to be better humans to each other.
Pro-tip: Pittsfield is adorable. It actually reminds a lot of Fayetteville, AR (where I live). I got an amazing breakfast bowl at Marketplace not far from Barrington Stage Company. Eat there. Here’s a cute street picture from the town.