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: yan@theatre-on.de


Intersectionality

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!


CLASS

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 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 / 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 U.S., 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.

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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)