Class, gender, race: a progressive glossary of thoughts
by Marie Yan
This year, the FRATZ 2020 symposium chose as its directing themes class. gender. race. asking, how do we represent class, race, gender for the very young? At this moment of wished-for social transformations while dialogues intensify and although inequalities keep growing?
As we were reviewing some of the articles you can find in our FRATZ Reflections 2019 (which will be published here soon), we thought it could be useful to stop on some of the terms we use and make them more visible, defining the cosmos we move in, to find a common ground before the 2020 Symposium takes place.
You find below a progressive glossary of thoughts and intersections relating to this year's symposium. Some explanations of why we use certain terms, trying to tie together theory and practice in the context of performing arts for the very young.
It progesses as we do and we invite you to interact with it by sending your own thoughts to: email@example.com
A concept encapsulated by “Black lesbian feminist socialist mother warrior poet” Audre Lorde's quote: “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle, because we do not live single-issue lives.1” Intersectionality is the understanding that multiple layers, axes, form one's identity, that therefore one's reality is multiple. A person can be a child or an adult, can be racialised – Black, Indigenous, Person of Colour (abbreviated as BIPoC2) – or white, can be disable or able, can belong to or identify with a certain religion, class, gender, sexual orientation etc. and these all determine differently and together a person's experience and particularly their specific position of privilege or oppression. Intersectionality is therefore the reason why the FRATZ 2020 symposium focuses on three categories at once and for a start!
Representation of class and children
In Returning to Reims, by Didier Eribon, the author describes an episode where, growing up in a working-class family, aged four or five, he witnessed his father smash bottles against a wall, caught in a fit of anger. He writes: “it established in me a disgust at this impoverishment, a refusal to accept the fate that had been meted out to me, and a secret feeling of woundedness, a wound that is still painful, related to having always to bear the burden of this memory.” He calls this episode “a social mirror stage”, one that was “an interpellation involving the discovery of a class-based sociological situation, one that assigns to you a place and a identit; it teaches you to recognize who you are and who you will be by means of an image someone else presents — someone else whom you are meant to become.” And he concludes: “as the child of a worker you experience in your very flesh the sense of belonging to the working class.”3
What if theatre, watched at four or five years old, could leave an impression on a child that soothes an already present consciousness of belonging to a class? What if it could offer alternative narratives, or a short respite to the everyday, that could help a child's construction of their own identity, not as one to be fled from, but one that can transform?
Didier Eribon argues that, as opposed to the oppressed, “the absence of the feeling of belonging to a class is characteristic of children of the bourgeoisie. People in a dominant class position do not notice that they are positioned, situated, within a specific world (...)”. Could then performing arts open the perception of class privilege for children?
Throughout its history, Theater o.N, has believed that the space audience and artists share during a performance, is one where they can briefly invent themselves together. Which is why it has strived to bring theatre to areas of Berlin with a lesser access to performing arts and to make theatre with children from diverse backgrounds. You cannot represent who you have not met. The moment of the symposium is one of reflection on a theme that has been running through o.N.'s work, as an update on the idea of the working-class and its present possible representations.
Class and race: intersection
The intersection of class and race is manyfold and could fill pages. In European societies with a colonial history like Germany, racial discrimination often equals – but cannot be reduced to – an economic disadvantage. And as a result, the working-class includes and has included a number of BIPoC, like in recent history when Germany encouraged the migration of Turkish so-called “guest-workers” (GastarbeiterInnen) to rebuild the country after WWII. Both BIPoC and working-class people are often excluded from the limited opportunities for social mobility4 by the structural racism and classism found in the education system, job market and the institutions at large.
In an essay called For those children in the lonely place: a reflection, published in the 2019 FRATZ Reflections (link to come), curator and filmmaker Karina Griffith, tells a personal story that to me highlights what it means to have to perform both one's race and class:
“I remember when, as a child, I first realized that I was being watched more closely than other children. My father had brought me to a birthday party. When I took off my shoes, he saw that I had a hole in my sock. “Put on your shoes,” he said to me sternly, and bashfully excused us with the explanation that he forgot something. We drove all the way back across town to our house in silence. “Doesn’t this child have a decent pair of socks?!” he bellowed when we entered the house. Back in the car, wearing a pair of his, I endured the silence again as we drove back to my white friend’s place.”
The story reflects the shared history of prejudiced narratives against Black and working-class children, with both involving suspicion of neglect, material deprivation, poor parenting.
Having a hole in one's sock, looking neglected or poor, does not carry the same weight for all children. For a Black child, it may mean running the risk of facing both racist and classist discrimination and as a result, being “less cared for” as Karina Griffith points out later on. The white gaze she analyses in her essay with this and further examples, just like the middle-class/bourgeois gaze, is an injunction to perform one's identity a certain way – e.g. in a certain outfit – in order to fit into the majority. Children learn from early on the importance of finding strategies to cater to these gazes.
I have no doubt that performing arts for the very young can still find many such truthful stories to show a similar overlap in experience. The episode Karina Griffith describes, as she details how her father went all the way to excuse themselves, drive back home, get her to change and come back without her daughter's friend or carer knowing about it, particularly makes me wonder: can performing arts show what an amazing, exhausting effort it takes for children and their relatives to have to adapt? And what it reveals of the complex caring relation between parents and children?
Race is a social construct that homogenises a group of people through a perceived set of characteristics, physical (skin tone, silhouette...) and cultural (skills, behaviours...), and hierarchises them. This process of racialisation, in the context of “western5” societies, has been for the benefit of white supremacy (see white supremacy).
In the modern times, the political idea of race gained popularity based on pseudo-scientific knowledge to state the superiority of the white race over all others, in order to justify colonialism, genocide and exploitation (see Racism).
Nowadays, the inequalities inherited from this history, and reproducing ever since, run through “western” societies: within their institutions, their representations, within the experiences of BIPoC themselves which can take the form of internalised racism – that is, self-demeaning practices. But these inequalities also go beyond “western” societies, when they maintain relations of domination with former colonies and with the global South, in the form of neocolonial practices like militarised intervention, “development” policies...
White supremacy is the social structure that benefits from these racial inequalities on different scales – be they local, national, global – and contributes to maintain them, consciously or not.
The challenge in using the term “race”, is that in a European, universalist context, that has vowed to discard the memory of its use long before and during WWII, it tends to be rejected on the ground that using it, would itself equal to being racist6. But suppressing the word is not addressing the phenomenon. As long as there is racism, race as a construct is present. That is why “race” has been since long reclaimed by Black scholars and activists in the U.S. in their work (see the article race / Rasse), and studied as a social construct. It serves as a basis for obtaining justice and gaining more equality for racialised people. In Germany, it is being used in activism and academia and increasingly as an act of self-determination by racialised people.
I have found in my practice as a playwright and dramaturge that reading performing arts from a racially critical perspective, being racialised myself, is not a negative reading, as in “what not to do”, it has to be a deeply creative one. Since it demands that I look at what has not been seen or done or told and that I dig into the psyche of the societies I have moved in. It is a real practice of understanding oneself.
“Racism. The belief in the inherent superiority of one race over all others and thereby the right to dominance, manifest and implied.” Audre Lorde7
Although many of us in the rather liberal circles of performing arts are aware of this definition, what is less acknowledged is how racism is far from being a thing of the past (see white supremacy). And the fact that Audre Lorde was still writing this definition in 1981, after WWII, after the Civil Rights Movement, reflects it. In Germany, it is still deeply embedded in institutions8 and representations9 in such a way that only a continuous and active questioning of it can contribute to reduce its impact.
Studies10 show that teaching colourblindness – as in, merely teaching “there are no races” – to children or watering down racism as something only “ignorant people do” does not help diminishing racial biases. Only complex thinking and the exposing of racial inequalities have a positive effect on forming antiracist thinking (see Race and children). Considering racism as a topic children should be spared is also ignoring BIPoCs children are never spared it, like our talk, at last year's Symposium of Hannah Biederman's piece Alle Jahre wieder showed it: adults complained that her Christmas show featured the story of Black Kenyan actor Mercy Dorcas Otieno, who was evicted by her white German Au-pair family on Christmas Eve, but what about her voice, and Black children's representation, who could have gone through similar experiences of rejection?
How could racism be extinguished by practices of repair11? How can performing arts contribute to heal the wounds of racism in “western” European societies and beyond?
Academic Alana Lentin in her Beginner's Guide to Racism argues in the most straightforward manner, how racism, as a political idea emanating from the bourgeoisie, served as one of the founding ideological pillars allowing the emergence of the Nation-States in Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries. An ideology that then allowed for the continuous exploitation, dehumanisation, and genocide of BIPoCs, for the profits of the capitalist overexploitation of the planet, which is now threatening the very present of the children who are today our audiences, collaborators and peers. Since what was formed collectively, can only be dismantled collectively, surely performing arts, from rehearsals to premieres have something to contribute?
race / Rasse : why use English?
In the material written in German for the festival we use race in English and in italics because the word “Rasse” has not yet been widely deconstructed in German-speaking context and remains heavily connotated by its racist, pseudo-scientific definition.
The English-speaking context is different. Since the apparition of the Critical Race Studies field in the 1970s, impulsed in particular by Black, female scholars and activists from the USA, race names a socially constructed and shape-shifting phenomenon, distinct from the earlier pseudo-scientific definition. The concept is therefore used to analyse inequalities, national and global dynamics, finding the evidences of its existence in collective (un)consciousness and institutions, at structural, cultural and personal levels. Race is understood as a political construct that appeared over time and never disappeared from the context of western European societies and among them, Germany.
Race and children
Children become aware of race from a very early age. In studies led in the USA, children are shown to differentiate between races from as early as six months. They can relate to race to deduce behaviour from two years old and express bias from three years old.12 Although data is lacking for Germany where race is not used as widely as an analytical tool, racialised people growing up in Germany can easily testify to racial discrimination starting from Kindergarten13.
Performing arts for the very young has had pioneering practices in seeing young children as active and sensitive agents of their own development. It is already aware that children tune in to the norms society produces around them, in order to belong. Regarding the perception of race, it is not that children “[don't know] what they are saying” or “heard that at home”, they actually integrate the norms the adult world all around them, not only in their family circle, articulates and reproduces.
"You can't be what you can't see" the quote attributed to Marian Wright Edelman, civil rights activist from the U.S., points at one way performing arts for the very young is an opportunity to present children with figures they can identify with, as they create themselves. I assume there is still a long way to go, as in Germany demeaning, racist practices such as blackface or yellowface were still debated as recently as 201814.
Privilege is having access to resources and positions, a certain quality of life, that others do not have access to. Privilege is not punctual or about luck, but systemic. The unequal distribution of power in society allows for privileged groups to pass on over time material and cultural advantages (like wealth or dominant representations) that shape the way a society functions.
One can be privileged and unaware of it, in fact it is rather the rule, since often the privileged person did not have to experience or care about the position of the not-privileged person. (see Representation of class and children)
White privilege means that a person read as white does not systematically face the specific experiences BIPOC individually as well as collectively do (lesser access to the job or the housing market, police violence, lack of representation etc.).15
I often hear in right-wing rhetoric that “white people are unemployed too” or “white people are homeless too”, it is maybe useful to ad this note: if the experience of white people and BIPOC overlap somewhere, then it is simply a fact irrelevant to understanding racial inequalities and does not erase the inequalities BIPOC otherwise experience. The point of understanding racial inequalities is to understand the living situation of BIPOC within the history of white supremacy in “western” societies (see white supremacy). The experiences of white people can be analysed using other categories (class, body ableness...) thanks to an intersectional perspective and in that case, their whiteness is not the determinant element in understanding other forms of oppression they may face.
In performing arts, white privilege for a child is for example to see themselves from an early age being represented and normalised, being offered models and narratives that include them, something that initiatives try to counter, like the diversity pledge of Offensive Tanz für junges Publikum that FRATZ 2020 is associated with. Thinking about children, talking about privilege seems emancipatory. When children are born with white privilege, they are shaped and shape in return a context that will pass on to them prejudices and advantages, unless they actively fight against them. Raising awareness of privilege in children seems then to me to encourage their agency over their own environment. (see Race and children)
White supremacy is the ensemble of individual and collective mechanisms, conscious and unconscious, that supports and reproduces white privilege.
My understanding of white supremacy is indebted to the prominent Black U.S. scholar and intellectual bell hooks. She considers white supremacy
(…) the ideology that most determines how white people in this society (irrespective of their political leanings to the right or left) perceive and relate to black people and other people of color. It is the very small but highly visible liberal movement away from the perpetuation of overtly racist discrimination, exploitation, and oppression of black people which often masks how all-pervasive white supremacy is in this society, both as ideology and as behavior. When liberal whites fail to understand how they can and/or do embody white-supremacist values and beliefs even though they may not embrace racism as prejudice or domination (especially domination that involves coercive control), they cannot recognize the ways their actions support and affirm the very structure of racist domination and oppression that they profess to wish to see eradicated.16
The community of performing arts is admittedly rather infused with liberal politics, in this context I find the way hooks reaffirms the notion of white supremacy – already thirty years ago – very powerful. It allows to look at the details of the experience of BIPOC, not only at the obvious, violent experiences at the hand of white nationalists or apparels of state violence, but also the insinuous acts, the passivity, the consequences of ignorance that reinforce the structure at large.
One anecdote comes to my mind. I took part a couple of years ago in a performance by U.S.-Korean artist kate-hers RHEE in Berlin, inspired by racial triangulation – that is, how the identity of Asian U.S.ans is shaped in tension with the relation between white and Black people in the U.S. The performance questioned the fetishisation of both Black men and Asian women bodies by showing two performers engaging in sado-masochist practice, while a third one watched. The performance was provoking and put the audience in a possibly accomplice and voyeuristic position. After the show a friend reported to me that one audience member had commented in disbelief the frontality of the piece with: “...racism in Berlin is not that bad.”
Berlin, where, in 2018, the ReachOut observatory counted that almost every day a child or a young person reported an aggression, 19 children saw their parents being hit, spat at or humiliated, and 50% of all these aggressions were explicitly racially motivated and the majority happened in the central neighbourhood of Mitte.17 Who gets to decide the threshold of what is acceptable?
The consequence of this “not that bad” is double. It undermines the experience of the Black and Asian artists – not to say simplifies it extremely – waving it off as exaggerated. This act of disbelief is in itself racist – the history of BIPOC's experiences being undermined or dismissed is the history of the “western” world's imperialism and colonialism. But also, as bell hooks brought me to understand, by the act of sharing this comment with an interlocutor, the speaker proposed to agree on a version of reality that denied credit to BIPOC's experiences, all the while the artists and their friends stood in the room. And this performative oral agreement is an act of pervasive white supremacy, an act far removed from the obviousness of physical attack or verbal abuse directed at BIPOC. It is a demonstration of how the denial of others' experience can be the foundation for belonging together by agreeing to remain within one's own unexamined perception. In that case, this act furthered white supremacist structures of thought, refusing to receive the experience of BIPOC through art as a nudge to one's beliefs. This refusal being in itself, a denial of what I believe to be one of the roles of art, to shake and disturb the status quo.
1 “Learning from the 60s,” in Sister Outsider: Essays & Speeches by Audre Lorde (Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press, 2007), 138.
2 The term “People of Color” was coined by USan Black justice activists in the 80s to encourage and support solidarity among racial minorities.
3 Returning to Reims, tr. Michael Lucey, Penguin: London, 2018, p.145-146.
4 about social mobility in Germany: “while the OECD average for advancement from the lower income brackets is four and a half generations (...), in Germany it is six generations (...)". source: https://www.bundestag.de/resource/blob/634368/071d34cdd0f392f049f3cc4894f2b61e/WD-9-095-18-pdf-data.pdf (p.5)
5 The notion of “western” is itself a shifting group, rooted in a hierarchy between the western and the non-western, which is why it is in inverted commas. See for reference, GoGwilt, Christopher Lloyd. The invention of the west: Joseph Conrad and the double-mapping of Europe and empire. Stanford University Press, 1995.
6 See for example how France erased the term from its Constitution in 2018 which, since 1946 and until then, had insured that all citizens were equal before the law "regardless of origin, race or religion". Similar debates exist in European Law.
7 Lorde, Audre. "The Uses of Anger." Women's Studies Quarterly 25, no. 1/2 (1997): 278-85. Accessed April 27, 2020. www.jstor.org/stable/40005441.
8 As in the case of the NSU trials that highlighted the racism of Germany's justice system: https://www.nsu-watch.info/2017/03/the-nsu-case-in-germany/
9 In 2018, 30,9% of Germans had explicit xenophobic opinions, 56% explicit islamophobic opinions, 60% explicit antiziganistic (against Sinti and Roma people) opinions, source: Die Leipziger Autoritarianismus Studie – 2018. https://www.boell.de/sites/default/files/20181107_flucht_ins_autoritare_pressekonferenz.pdf?dimension1=ds_leipziger_studie
10 Winkler, Erin N. "Children are not colorblind: How young children learn race." PACE: Practical Approaches for Continuing Education 3.3 (2009): 1-8.
11 The original notion of Reparations is first to be understood as how European societies can contribute to repair the damage caused by the Atlantic Slave Trade on Afrodescendants over several centuries: http://caricomreparations.org/caricom/caricoms-10-point-reparation-plan/
12 Winkler, Erin N. "Children are not colorblind: How young children learn race." PACE: Practical Approaches for Continuing Education 3.3 (2009): 1-8. https://www.academia.edu/3094721/Children_Are_Not_Colorblind_How_Young_Children_Learn_Race
13 Rassismus in der Kita: Expertinnen warnen vor schweren Folgen, https://www.tagesspiegel.de/politik/rassismus-in-der-kita-expertinnen-warnen-vor-schweren-folgen/25476606.html
14 source: https://www.nachtkritik.de/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=15467:presseschau-vom-31-mai-2018-die-taz-berichtet-ueber-einen-blackfacing-fall-am-theater-bremen&catid=242&Itemid=62
15 Peggy McIntosh in “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” first appeared in Peace and Freedom Magazine, July/August, 1989, pp. 10-12, provides a useful list of questions to identify common manifestations of white privilege: https://www.nationalseedproject.org/Key-SEED-Texts/white-privilege-unpacking-the-invisible-knapsack.
16 Talking Back: Thinking feminist, thinking black, bell hooks, New York: Routledge, (1989) 2015 p.113.