Race, Representation, and Good Intentions

Articles

By Bruno Cornellier

(originally posted March 7, 2014)

This morning, I read Chandra Mayor’s review of Debbie Paterson’s Sargent and Victor & Me (The Winnipeg Review, 28 February 2014). After reading Mayor’s text, I was shocked. Not by Debbie Paterson’s play (I haven’t seen it, and I know that she is a talented, clever, creative, and well-intended artist and performer). I was not shocked either by Chandra Mayor’s review (which I find quite insightful and useful for reasons other than her evaluation of the play itself). I was shocked by Gordon Tanner’s hostile response and Internet campaign against Mayor’s review. Tanner’s text is very revealing of the kind of unease I sometimes feel in Winnipeg when we attempt to do critical work about questions of race, identity, and representation. It seems that some of the only moments of real intensity in such debates correspond to the hostile backlash against the very people inviting us to think critically about these issues.

This is something that the few courageous people who publicly spoke about the problem of cultural appropriation around the WAG’s “well intended” celebration of “yellowface” a few weeks ago, also had to deal with: public outrage and extremely hostile responses and personal attacks. And why? Because these people/critics/intellectuals/students/citizens dared us to critically reflect on our own privilege as white subjects (regardless of our intentions, good or bad) when we encounter, represent, talk about, or mimic those who are implicitly designated as “others”. By simply disqualifying these critics’ intervention with statements akin to a reactionary  “How dare you,” these kinds of anti-intellectual “pushes back” end conversations, foreclose dialogue, and validate the comfort of those who think it is enough to have “good intentions” when faced with their own accountability as people who are unequally located in a deeply racialized society.

Nineteenth-century missionaries and anthropologists often had great intentions, and often felt genuine love, for the people they were living with and either trying to save, document, study, or represent. And yet, the lived, material, and persistent effect of their actions (and representations) on (or about) “these other people” can hardly be overlooked on account of the missionary’s or the anthropologist’s “good intentions”. And the fact that some of “these people” genuinely appreciated these actions or the way they were being represented by scholars or religious benefactors does not negate the importance of the critical work of others. Here again, I am not trying to compare Ms. Patterson to these missionaries (I repeat: I haven’t seen her play). Hence, my problem is not so much with Patterson’s work, as it is with Tanner’s dismissive response to criticism itself.

Race is much more complicated than racism. It is a malleable and multifaceted social and ideological phenomenon. It is not simply about designating who are the “bad racists” and who are the “good non-racists” (which is the least productive form of antiracist strategy). As subjects (white, black, brown, aboriginal, etc.), we are all located in a society and a modernity that has been constructed on race-thinking, and we differently profit from this powerful and residual legacy. We may want to think that we live in a post-racial world, but any attempt to deny the political traction of race in our society has the effect of reminding how powerfully these markers continue to structure our social and material lives. As such, we are all (consciously or not, and at different levels) understanding each other through race-thinking, and we are all speaking in a political and cultural language that is inflected by race and race-thinking.

What Chandra Mayor invites us to do is to be self-reflexive about the meaning and the power of our iterations (as white subjects) when we speak of/for “others”. And on my part, I invite us to stop hiding behind the liberal argument of “good intentions” (my intentions were good, therefore I have indemnity, I am a “good subject”). As white settlers in this country, we need to get involved in the difficult task of unlearning our racial privilege, and learn instead to be more accountable for the language we use and the representational tradition we locate ourselves in. Colonialism, in a settler state like Canada, is not simply something that was done in the past by “bad racists.” It is something that is happening in the present. It is about all of us because we do continue to profit from colonialism and indigenous dispossession (some more than others).

In our attempts to show sympathy towards Aboriginal people, we often unwillingly replicate some discursive or representational traditions stemming from missionary, “old school” anthropological, and colonial modes of thinking. This does not necessarily make us all “bad subjects” or “abject racists.” Instead of reactionary self-defense, what is needed from us is to acknowledge the reality of our colonial present, and to recognize that language and discourse are not simply about personal expression or sensitivity; the representational and discursive traditions we inherit and inhabit shape the way we perceive each other and understand each other. As such, they shape the way we experience each other, and ourselves, as well as the way we treat each other. In other words, representation shapes our material world. It shapes public policies. It shapes interests and indifferences. It shapes patronizing forms of pity/piety, as well as mediates our capacity for empathy. It shapes (for the better or the worse) our experiences and understandings of our social and material world.

We must stop taking language and representation for granted, and stop hiding behind our good intentions. To be accountable and self-critical is to have the humility to recognize that despite our best intentions, we may be wrong or misguided in our unintentional inhabitance of colonial modes of thinking, speaking, and representing. Once again, it doesn’t necessarily make us “bad subjects”. However, we must be ready to listen and to acknowledge the limitations of our intentions and knowledge. As a white Canadian man and settler, I still have a lot of unlearning to do myself when it comes to my own racial and gender privilege. And I thank Chandra Mayor for so eloquently and generously inviting me (and us) to be part of this pedagogical process of unlearning and accountability.

Be Sociable, Share!

6 Comments

  1. Kevin Longfield
    Posted March 17, 2014 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    The following is my response to Bruno Conellier’s response to Gord Tanner’s response to Chandra Mayor’s response to Sargent and Victor & Me:

    I had decided that I was going to let the discussion of Sargent and Victor & Me go—too many other distractions, too many minefields to navigate in continuing the discussion, too many other promises to keep, but my subconscious wouldn’t let me stop thinking about it, so here goes.

    Gord Tanner’s response to Chandra Mayor’s review has angered many people who responded, and earned charges of bullying. Mayor’s review has drawn an equally negative response—and some defenders, although not as many as her detractors. As a sometime theatre artist with a post-graduate credit in literary theory, and someone who has written a play with non-Caucasian characters and a term paper on colonialism, I am probably in a unique position to comment on this controversy.

    Following Gord’s policy of self-disclosure, I will mention that Gord is both a friend and former co-board member of Theatre Projects. I knew and loved Theatre Project’s founder, Harry Rintoul, and like Gord I have a sense of almost parental outrage when I feel the company is being attacked unfairly. Theatre Projects has not only hired many First Nations theatre artists, but has collaborated with First Nations theatre groups. They’ve walked the walk, as has Debbie Patterson. I also consider her a friend. I served on the board of Shakespeare in the Ruins with her when she spearheaded a program to institute theatre classes for Winnipeg Harvest clients. I have enormous respect for both people, both as artists and people. I cannot say that I know Chandra Mayor as well as I know Gord and Debbie, but I have read some of her works and admire them. I might have met her once or twice, but I am not sure. I do admire her grace in not (to my knowledge) responding to the criticism she has received. I am not sure I could have been as silent if I were in her shoes.

    Some of the backlash aimed at both Chandra and Gord can be attributed to tone. People have justifiably complained about Gord’s tone, and I will not defend it. Gord’s tone was insufficiently respectful and ultimately damaging to his argument. Normally he is pretty careful in expressing his thoughts, so what could have brought out the flame-thrower in him? I know for a fact that Gord regrets his tone, but the words are out there and cannot be undone.

    Similarly, though, Chandra’s pretentious tone contributed to the backlash her review generated. For example, “This play doesn’t particularly attempt to engage us intellectually. Instead, it seeks to get inside our guts, to make us feel things, and to find ourselves transformed through our emotional recognitions and reactions.” You are on slippery ground when you try to divine anyone’s motives, but to attempt define a play’s motives is, well, pretentious, especially when you pretend to speak for how it will affect *everyone*.

    Then there’s the unintentional racism angle. To use a baseball metaphor, criticizing Debbie Patterson or Theatre Projects was a little like someone in 1947 criticizing Branch Rickey because Jackie Robinson was the only black player on his roster. Further, her tone seemed to take on a mantle of moral and intellectual superiority over Debbie Patterson and the other artists, and it irritates in the same way that Nolan Ryan would be irritated if a bench-warmer on the Winnipeg Goldeyes roster were to offer him tips on how to strike out batters.

    Further, Chandra’s review had a major rookie inaccuracy. If Bruno Conrellier had seen the play, or read the script, he would have realized that a major underpinning of Chandra’s argument is based on false information or perhaps faulty memory; “She [Theresa] is also the only character who is portrayed as explicitly speaking to Gillian, rather than to the audience . . .” As inaccuracies go, this is akin to criticizing Hamlet because there are no soliloquies. This is the sort of thing that gets people’s bristles up, and damages the credibility of her other arguments. Gillian has an explicit conversation with the pastor at the opening of the play. As Chandra herself says in her review, Gillian also has conversations with her brother, one over the phone. These are obvious, repeated exceptions to Chandra’s assertion about explicit conversations that anyone who saw the play would notice, regardless of whether that person had ever been to the theatre before.

    Then there’s the statement that the other characters directly address the audience. They don’t. Debbie set up a convention in which the characters speak to her while they are volunteering, in the kind of matter-of-fact manner that people see when performing a common task. The audience gets to listen in through the fourth wall.

    It’s easy to say that Chandra should have caught that one, but we all make mistakes, and I am sure that anyone who rereads some of my reviews could find similar mistakes. Unfortunately, that mistake invalidates much of the rest of her discussion of theatre aesthetics as applied to this play.

    Another area where Chandra went off the rails is where she comments on the credibility or authenticity of the characters and their lives. She criticizes the Bob character by saying that “Bob is presented as Gillian’s brother; unlike the extremely articulate Gillian, however, he speaks with the exaggerated accent and vernacular of an early-80s Great White North hoser, which strains the credulity of this sibling relationship.” Except that anyone who rides the bus, as I do, would know that characters like Bob still exist and speak the way Bob does. Debbie’s brother speaks like Bob does. (Side note: the play started out as a monologue based on her brother Rob’s experiences when he moved onto Victor Street. The porch fire is a vestige of an earlier version.) Can one sibling be “extremely articulate” and another a bit of a hoser? In my experience, yes. Chandra should meet my extended family, or perhaps read Rick Skene’s Ce Weekend La, one of the most successful plays Theatre Projects ever produced.

    Similarly, in what was one of Gord’s major objections to her review, Chandra accuses Debbie of creating an unrealistic character in Theresa, and ascribes to Debbie conscious or unconscious motives for so doing: “The most problematic aspect of the production, however, is Patterson’s portrayal of Theresa, the young Aboriginal woman and the only explicit person of colour in the entire show; this in itself is strange, given the racial and cultural diversity of the neighbourhood in question, and the result is that the white voices and stories are necessarily privileged over the experiences and voices of people of colour – all of whom are collapsed into one representational character.” Unconscious racism, colonialism, and classism exist, sometimes, as Bruno Conrellier says, with the best intentions.

    We cannot know any writer’s intentions with certainty, but we can use some sensitivity when we approach works that come from a company and an artist who have established their credentials in the community—both the artistic community and the community portrayed. As we learned from Gord, and could have learned from reading the program, this work came out of a series on interviews Debbie conducted with residents of the area. Theresa is based on a real person; her dialogue is that of her real-life counterpart, and so are her experiences. Saying that “It begins to feel like spectacle, like Theresa is telling stories that are designed only to simultaneously shock and pruriently satisfy white middle-class expectations in a carnival of the grotesque kind of way,” therefore really crosses the line and verges on bullying. One can understand Gord’s anger after reading this passage, even if we don’t forgive his tone.

    Although I can understand Chandra’s objection to the lack of development of the other characters, I think this comes from a misplaced understanding of the play’s focus. (I would also point out that the same criticism of character development applies to Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac without having harmed the play’s longevity.)

    Another self-disclosure: I wrote a play in which only one character is Caucasian. The other three are of African descent. The play has had some success, but it has also taught me that when you write a play in which the main character is not Caucasian, audiences, reviewers and even other theatre artists will think the play is about race, even if race is only incidental to the action. I wish I had a nickel for every time the director of my first production admonished that cast that by saying “this play is not about race.” It’s a common trap to see a character only in terms of race instead of as a representative of humanity. One solution would be to create only characters who reflect the privileged mainstream, but I don’t think that’s what Chandra or Bruno want.

    Theresa is a major character in the play, but she is not the main character. She represents a common motif in literature and folklore, the seemingly more disadvantaged character who nonetheless rescues the main character, and teaches a valuable lesson in so doing. Brutal as this may seem, in dramatic terms, her character exists only to serve that purpose. She doesn’t get to be an independent agent. She doesn’t get to do “unmediated storytelling.” It’s not her story. It could be her story, but that would mean another play, and I don’t presume to tell Debbie Patterson or any other artist what stories they should tell. This isn’t the nightly news or a documentary. The play is not about her; the playwright’s duty to this type of character is to present an honest, sensitive portrayal of a complex human being whose actions serve to tell the main story and are justified by the character’s personality and station in life. If we take what Gord said in his response to Chandra’s review as accurate, the person on whom Debbie based Theresa approved of the portrayal, loved it in fact, as did people from her cohort in society.

    Since the play is about Gillian and not Theresa, the rest of Chandra’s criticism seems forced, to borrow a phrase. It does explain, though, why Chandra says “The intersectionality between disability and racist colonization feels contrived, and ultimately exists only to serve Gillian’s emotional trajectory.” That was the playwright’s intention, as far as I can tell: to explain how working with disadvantaged people in a food bank gave her the courage to face her own limitations, and at the same time to deepen her empathy with the rest of society. She could, of course, have written the play that Chandra seems to have preferred she write, but that’s not what we have in front of us.

    I am reminded of what one of my theatre profs said was the essence of criticism: what was the artist trying to do? Did the artist succeed? And finally and most importantly, was it worth the effort? For me, for the community Debbie portrayed and for almost everyone who saw the play, the answer is three resounding yeses. Chandra Mayor disagrees. She has every right to disagree. At the same time, if one were to apply that same test to her review, I am not sure how many yeses she would get. She might get a good grade from a university professor who had not read or seen the play, though.

    One final afterthought: I have noticed an interesting sensitivity, on this thread and elsewhere, to the idea of artists daring to criticize reviewers. It’s an interesting double standard: while it is seemingly OK use a review to attack the motives and attitudes of artists, among the most vulnerable segments of society, it is not OK for artists to respond in kind. It’s too bad they don’t know their place.

    Kevin Longfield

  2. Stephen McIntyre
    Posted March 8, 2014 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    Okay well meaning fools (and now myself included). Did the real character portrayed in the play object to the portrayal in the play? Would the character portrayed in the play have been celebrated as a survivor and a caring human being in an uncaring society without the play? If you haven’t seen the play how is it you are so certain of the context of the review or the reply to the review? How did the other real characters portrayed in the play feel about their portrayals? Did the character in the play contribute to the story? If the producing company could afford to pay eight actors would the review have ended with the review – or continued on to the essay on alluded racism because the writer would still be non-aboriginal? If the actor and writer and this beautiful play had excluded the voice of this character and her story would there be an automatic benefit or just a non issue of non existence? Would the silenced voice of that character still somehow be the lesson in compassion it is in the real writing and performance of this play (that I saw)? I would have appreciated two separate writings in this case. A review and simultaneously an op-ed. The passion for both could then be understood in both contexts and (I venture as these are my words on my thoughts) by all sides.

  3. Susie Moloney
    Posted March 8, 2014 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    Man, I gotta see this play.

  4. ted landrum
    Posted March 8, 2014 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    1) Good theatre generates interest and discussion about life, and about theatre. 2) Good theatre criticism generates discussion about life, about theatre, about theatre criticism, and about criticism in general. 3) My (unsolicited) conclusion: this was a very good and necessary play, and very good and necessary critique. Congratulations to Debbie and Chandra both, and their respective hosts (Theatre Projects Manitoba and The Winnipeg Review)!

  5. Kenton Smith
    Posted March 7, 2014 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    Addendum: Tanner’s blog post could be used as an ideal, textbook illustration of cringeworthy white privilege and how NOT to respond to charges of racism. It truly is a masterpiece of un-self-aware revelation.

  6. Kenton Smith
    Posted March 7, 2014 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    Let’s cut to the chase. What’s the outrage over Mayor’s review REALLY about?

    Let’s take a look at some significant bits of Tanner’s raging blog post reply:

    “Not only are you [Mayor] accusing them of being racist, you’re accusing them of being unintentionally racist. Well-meaning fools, too stupid to understand that what they thought was helping (or at the very least, doing no harm) was in fact hurting the very people they sought to help.”

    Let’s zero in on his use of the phrase “well-meaning fools.” Clearly he resents such an implication.

    Well in fact, yes — they ARE well-meaning fools, as are ALL white people, including Tanner, including myself, when it comes to approaching race and our own white privilege. We all wear blinders and it’s a constant effort to try to lift them.

    But for Tanner, even this suggestion is a heresy. How DARE Mayor — doesn’t she know TPM’s track record!?!?!??

    “Sidebar: I’m not going to get into Theatre Projects Manitoba’s history of First Nations production. Let me just say it speaks for itself. It speaks very, very plainly. And it is something to be proud of.”

    Oh, but Tanner certainly felt need to mention it, even though it is in fact irrelevant to Mayor’s review. Except that of course what is in effect saying is that TPM’s PAST actions somehow inoculate it from all charges of possible racism, now and in the future. “Why, it is simply INCONCEIVABLE that TPM could EVER be guilty of such a thing!!!”

    Note: I am not charging that TPM or those who put on the present show are racist. But Tanner’s suggestion that they are all so self-evidently BEYOND any POSSIBLE suggestion, ever, reveals breathtaking self-importance, arrogance, elitism, privilege and entitlement. “Hey Chandra Mayor, DON’T YOU KNOW WHO WE ARE!?!?!?”

    Oh yessah. Beggin’ yeh pardahn sah. Forgot I was speaking to mah (self-appointed) bettahs, sah. Won’t happen again, sah.

    Apparently the one taboo one dare not break is to impugn the smug, self-satisfied, self-flattering image of some in the local theatre community of being Unfailingly Right-Thinking People. God forbid.

Contributor

Bruno Cornellier


Bruno Cornellier is an assistant professor of English at the University of Winnipeg. The opinions he expresses here are strictly his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of his institution or colleagues.