for you, from me. no justice. no peace.

“Not talking about racism in America, is racism.” 

The person who was first brave enough to look me in the eyes and say these words, no matter what it could cost him, shall not be named. This moment is not his labor, It’s mine. It’s yours. 

This moment is the moment for white people, and when I say white people I mean if you’ve got white or light skin in America, no matter what your lineage, I’m saying white – this moment is the moment for white people in America to reckon with ourselves. To reckon with our part in ignoring white supremacy, which means the very same thing as perpetuating white supremacy. To reckon with how many, many different ways we benefit from our privilege, at the cost of the livelihoods, health, safety, and actual lives of black people. We have been granted 400+ years of moments like this to put an end to white supremacy in America, and here we are still, looking at the lynching of a black man, and the continued lynching of so many more black people before George Floyd, and still centering OUR feelings. Our needs. 

“I want to re-open!”

“I want to make art!”

“Protests don’t work!”

“But why are they looting!”

At least that’s what I hear people saying. 

If we are feeling uncomfortable in this moment, so what. If we are feeling ill-equipped, so what. If we are feeling blamed and judged and attacked and indignant about our whiteness and proximity to whiteness instead of doing something actionable about racial injustice, we’ve failed again. And each time we feel compelled to say “this again??” at civil unrest, or suggest there is a “better way” to protest while we are the ones doing NOTHING to stop the injustices from continuing and therefore creating the need for protests, we fail again. 

If you haven’t figured out how to solve racism, I hear you. I don’t know how to either. I have lots of ways I think can work in conjunction with each other, but I do not have a one shot solve. But that is NOT a reason to not work really, really hard to do something about it. That does NOT mean that when I make a decision of any kind, I shouldn’t be pausing to ask myself, “How does this de-center my needs, in the hopes of advancing racial justice.”

In other words, for those of us in the arts sector, “By what right do I have to say I serve people, without taking FULL responsibility for my impact upon them.”

Artists all over New York City are looking to the places and people that claim to serve them for our transparency and our leadership – not answers. For the acknowledgment of our participation, funding, and profiteering through white supremacy. That’s right. They are wondering if yet another one of these “historic” moments will finally lead to a change in how predominantly white institutions operate. It’s coming at a time where institutions all over New York City are not in the throws of entertaining audiences, and instead are in this pandemic-related financial tail-spin directly because of our failure to address systemic racism. Some of us are working furiously to survive because it’s unlikely we will, some of us get to be simply “on pause” because they are super well funded enough to do so. 

So artists are thinking – well, shit. Now’s a good a time as any to ask again. Maybe THIS time, predominantly white institutions will dig in and do the work. 

They are right to ask. Until now, nothing has seemed to move us to nearly enough action in their lifetimes. And while we may not be considering that a financial shake-up of this magnitude may be the best possible opportunity to rethink exactly how we do what we do, and how to do better, our artists have the wisdom and foresight to know this is probably THE ONLY moment in their lifetimes that institutions could possibly be in a position to change everything, because everything has now been changed on us. 

They would be right in hoping that however we restructure and re-open, that we do so by making racial justice under our roofs, for them and others, our priority one. 

They would be right in being scared that not only were things not equitable and quite harmful under our roofs before COVID19, that the financial pressures we are now under will cause us to further roll back the little support and protection they may have received or were about to receive this season. That in the malaise of “we just don’t have the money” we will most likely de-prioritize racial equity if we haven’t already furloughed the most made-marginalized among us. They are worried that we will act like talking about race at a time like this when we can’t pay our rent, is inconvenient and unhelpful. That while we are shedding their jobs and opportunities, and redirecting the resources we promised them elsewhere, we’ll say something tantamount to “but what else is there to do. You get it, right?” 

But they won’t get it, nor should they. Not if all the folks left with jobs, opportunities, and resources will somehow end up white in the end.

Because most of us gatekeepers are white, and their key players are white. I’m white. 

No one is asking us to snap our fingers and solve racism. They are watching us moan about how to re-open our theaters, and they do not see us saying “You know what? We already know we cannot profit this season. We already know we cannot pack the house, and do what we usually do. So – how can we think about leveraging the spaces, money and resources we DO HAVE to do something very different for the rest of the year and beyond with justice for them in mind. How can we make inroads on NOT profiting off the pain of black people. How can we make our gilded palaces free black spaces?” 

Artists are wishing and hoping that we did the mental math they already did and said, “Well, do we really deserve to survive if we cannot serve black people better than we have been?”

It’s what I am doing. Even if it’s not what you were doing, I am hoping you read this and start. 

I am sitting here, a white woman, the person who runs a young space, fully on the hook and responsible for its survival, the jobs of those under my roof, the 74 fellows and residents under my roof, and fully responsibility for the failures and lessons I’ve learned in striving to make this place a safe and equitable one – even while white. Even with my own racism. Now, I don’t get a pat on the back for anything I may have accomplished, because George Floyd is still dead, so nothing I will ever do will ever be enough, and that’s how I live in my skin. Understanding its legacy and therefore my responsibility. I don’t get a day off from being responsible for racism, and I don’t get a goddamn day off from struggling with every fiber of my being, to restructure every single aspect of what I do on a regular basis, with the space I’ve made, for as long as I can hold onto to it, to leverage it towards action and justice, as black people are asking for it. I don’t get a day where I hide out wondering what I should say if I can’t say just the right thing. I am not in the habit of making a big glossy statement about how important the theater is. I love theater just as much as you love theater, but I am here for the PEOPLE making it. Not “it” itself. I am here in recognition that stages and screens are POWERFUL tools in white supremacy, and could be the same very POWERFUL tools in ending it. White people own and operate most of the stages locally. How will we use what we’ve built, to end racism? If we can’t answer that question, what does that tell us about the space we take up? 

Town Stages, as spacious as she may be, still does not produce theatre because I acknowledge there was literally no mathematical model that existed pre COVID19 in New York City, that didn’t profit off the pain of black people, nor pretended their lives don’t matter. Am I saying you shouldn’t have been producing theater? No. I’m saying if the collective braintrust of cultural gatekeepers in New York City theaters cannot commit to reopening plans centered on supporting black lives in America in the America THEY built for US, we better get to work scrapping all the old ways we used to under-pay and under-value black people while asking them to bring light and joy to our lives. I’m saying if we cannot create free black spaces and protect them with all our money and power and connections from police action, so we just don’t do “that show”….  Or we say, “but no one’s gonna pay for THAT play” meaning the black play written by and for black people…. we’ve definitely failed.

And if we can’t see how to stop profiting off their pain, then we have no business in the biz any longer. 

Who am I to say this? I dunno. I am just a chick sitting here with no outside funding, no city-backed land, no city-sponsored or foundation-sponsored COVID19 relief and I am watching $$$ get doled out to other institutions by the tens and hundreds of thousands, to places that do not even have to pay rent… And I am wondering – How are institutions going to take this opportunity, because it is a HUGE opportunity, to redistribute that wealth and power amassed for decades?

Why are we talking about getting back to normal. Before was NOT normal for anyone but white people, and it shouldn’t have felt normal for us to be killing black people. And it shouldn’t be normal that COVID19 is killing black people at astronomically higher rates than white people. While we are tossing around ideas about how to enforce mask wearing and social distancing, our workers are scared – knowing the new burden of crowd control and austerity measures we are engineering to turn a profit, will impact THEM the most, and chances are, we are still gonna pay them the least. 

While we are trying to figure out how to hold onto our theaters, our artists and staff are watching and wondering if they even want us to hold onto our theaters.

If all of our gorgeous and well-funded cultural spaces, our powerful players, boards, investors, and donors, cannot effectively lobby together in THIS moment of all moments- to not only appropriately bail out the few spaces run by the most made-marginalized and who support the most-made marginalized, I can see very clearly where all that remains after COVID19, is left white owned, operated, and profited. There will never be a better moment than right the hell now to stop white supremacy in the arts. 

If I can see it in my whiteness, I am hoping you can see it in yours. 

Are you clutching your pearls at how I talk about racism? What kind of leader of a cultural space sounds so blunt? You want me to put lipstick on a pig while helicopters are flying overhead, you go ahead, honey. You clutch your pearls. 

We should stop asking black people to be grateful we ever threw them a bone, we should stop asking them to tell us ever so gently about our racism. What if we start there. What if we get up in these streets and risk our skin to protest so black people can stay home and as safe as possible, because it’s our fault they’ve never been safe, and still aren’t as safe in their homes as we are in ours, let alone these streets, and that’s the truth. 

The people we serve deserve our fire! They deserve our skin in the streets. They deserve reparations, not our well tailored platitudes. We should be putting our white bodies between cops and black and brown protestors. At the very LEAST, we should be re-examining how we spend our money, our time, our resources, share our power, and can perhaps, relinquish it. 

I am speaking from my own heart, with my own words, as the leader of Town Stages. I am here to be in action with you in this moment. But I do want you to understand that #nojustice #nopeace, means you will not get peace from me, nor do I seek peace, until there is justice. I am not gonna say all the right things in all the right ways about racism, because racism is NOT RIGHT. It’s horrible, it is the real pandemic, which means WE are the real pandemic, and so it’s gonna sound just as bad as it is coming from me, because that’s what it is – horrible. 

My number is 212-634-7690. My email is robin@townstages.com. Come talk with me about it, because not doing anything about racism in America, is racism.

Robin Sokoloff

Chairwoman & CEO, Town Stages

Original post here – www.robinsokoloff.com/blog/2020/6/1/a-note-from-me

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