Happy June! I’ll begin this post with an update: Flora received her Benefits! Thanks to everyone who read my last post for keeping her in your minds! Such a relief! Phew!
I began my last post, about Flora’s struggle to secure Disability Benefits, by mentioning that there are a ton of posts that I’ve been drafting and thinking about in the last weeks. Here’s the first of those.
Last month, something wonderful happened in my acting class. The topic of the day was Status. Or more specifically, how status can affect or influence choices we make in characterizations. For instance, a king will probably behave in a way that is different from a servant, and it’s important to have those ideas in mind when developing characters.
To start the exploration of status, I had the kids play a game in which they each took a playing card that they stuck to their foreheads without looking at. They then acted as though they were at a party, each student treating the others based on the statuses they saw on the others’ cards: 2 as the lowest status, and King being the highest. At the end, they would have to line themselves up in status order, based on how they felt they had been treated.
The kids ended up literally prostrating themselves in front of the King and Queen card holders, and running away from the lowest numbers. After a bit of this, the King and Queen started to walk with their heads high, a little embarrassed by the pomp they were receiving, and the girl with the 2 on her forehead began reveling in the repulsion that her mere presence seemed to instill in the other “partygoers.” She ran after people who were running away from her, and grabbed at people who were yelling at her not to touch them. And then there was everyone in the middle, all of whom almost seemed happy to treat higher status folks with respect, and relieved that no one was running from them. When it was time to line up, I was a little surprised at how quickly the students were able to fit themselves in the proper order. They requested that I take the picture, which is the main pic of this post.
I asked if anyone’s emotional state changed by virtue of the treatment they were receiving. I was most interested in hearing from the girl with the 2. She said that her emotional state wasn’t changed at all. I think that’s partially because the kids are all friends and she knew that her treatment was just an acting exercise, nothing personal. But I found it interesting that she literally ran wild with the idea, “If they think I’m annoying and repulsive, I’ll be those things as hard as I can.” This was how I saw her draw power from the situation.
I explained this observation to the class, and explained that this sort of behavior is something that people employ in reaction to society’s forced social construct in real life. Then it occurred to me that this had everything to do with what we were seeing in the Black Lives Matter movement, and the arguments stemming from the question many (specifically White America) were asking in response to the Baltimore Uprising, “Why do they burn down their own neighborhood?”
To give a better sense of the timeline here, the class I’m describing was on Thursday, April 30, and I had just read an article on the Daily Kos of the same title night before. Though it was written in response to the rioting in Ferguson, MO last fall, it was circulating again in the wake of Freddie Grey’s death and the Baltimore Uprising, which started that Monday. In a nutshell, the writer’s argument was that to the small group of people looting and rioting, nothing about the neighborhood was actually theirs:
If you lived 365 days a year for some 20 or so years as these young black men are forced to live, under constant racial and economic oppression, with all the nifty consumer products of white America just out of reach, for life, you’d be burning these businesses down tonight yourself. First order of business is to get back at, to get rid of, your immediate oppressors.
They aren’t burning down their own neighborhood. They’re burning down the palaces of white consumer culture shoved into their neighborhood to suck away their money and labor while leaving them with nothing. No future, no safety, no life.
So I asked the class if they saw any relationship between the forced aspect of status–the assumptions that people will automatically make about a person’s status solely based on visual cues: the the number they have on their head, the color of someone’s skin–and what was happening in Baltimore.
This turned into one of the most honest, detailed conversations about race that I think I’ve ever been witness to. Down to a person, every one of my students had experienced racism and discrimination. One of my students, a black freshman girl who has grown up all over the world, explained that her experience with discrimination in the US is worse than anything she experienced growing up in Europe. (Except in Switzerland, where she thought the vast majority of people, including teachers at her international school, were extremely close-minded). Her reason was that in America, her “blackness” is called into question by virtue of the way she speaks, the way she presents herself, and her awesome smarts. Because those are “white” things.
Another student, the daughter of a Dominican woman and a black man, said that she would probably be cut off from her family if she ever dated a white man, because her Grandmother had been raped by a white man, and her father was so scarred by this that he doesn’t trust white men. Another student, half Puerto Rican and half Irish, told me that her white Grandmother has said to her face that it’s a “shame that she has Hispanic blood,” and that neither side of the family are able to get along. We talked about discrimination between DR and PR and Mexican. We talked about classism and being lumped into certain categories of people, based on friend groups. At one point, one of my students said, “You should lead a class about race.” Everyone, including myself, agreed.
As a native New Yorker, I have seen a fair share of discrimination and racism directed towards myself and others. I shared some stories, too. But at the end of the day, my “white female” card gets me very different things than many of the people that share the city I call home. Very different things than many of my students receive.
I am still amazed at the open honesty of my class. At the end, everyone requested a group hug and we laughed that it looked like a travel ad for some “diverse tour company,” and all that was missing was pictures of our different colored hands holding each others’ and a starfish next to our different colored feet.
I sent the class away with the thought that everything we talked about has to do with assumptions, and how important it is not to make them based on surface observations, one of the most glaring and noticeable being skin color.
You never know what path an acting class will take. But life experience and stories heard are what we as actors have to pull from when establishing character. Another important aspect of acting class is that the space be a safe one, where everyone feels trust for the room so that they can make personally truthful acting choices without fear of falling on their faces. We might not have gotten to all of the improv games that I originally planned, but judging by the level of conversation and sharing that happened for the last hour of my class, the level of trust in the room couldn’t be higher amoung my class. In short, they rock. And if more young people across the country are willing to have these conversations and listen, the world will truly become a better place.
I’ve always been a fan of Lupe Fiasco, especially his outspokenness when it comes to social and political issues. This one speaks volumes about Prisoners in America, which is a whole other conversation about status, class and race.
Or is it?