Stop Looking for the Exceptions; Change the Rules
Updated: Jan 3, 2022
Impostor syndrome seems to be a uniform experience for most artists. But the difference between white artists and racialized artists is that there are systems of convenience which perpetually serve one over the other.
This isn’t surprising –we’ve heard this sentiment–but white artists, and particularly white men, get to navigate their impostor syndrome in cultural infrastructure that serves their success: A teacher gives subtle cues of support because the student looks like their favorite cousin; the media delivers an unending stream of culturally reflective content. And even though universities have a concerted effort of affirmative action*, the work world that waits on the other side continues to reproduce the success of the white normative consciousness. (*a friend of mine pointed out it's important to note that universities are far from having completed the work of challenging white supremacy).
When I was 16, I told my dad that I will never pursue acting because "people like us don’t make it.”
My only models of success were Tony Shalhoub from Spy Kids and sort-of Shakira. I still excitedly announce “did you know she’s half Lebanese?!” whenever she’s mentioned. There was (and is) a discouraging lack of role modeling for a young queer Arab artist, to say the least. I hope I don’t need to make the point of why Arab representation is necessary in Canadian (and Western) media.
But right now, I’m speaking to the overwhelmingly white Artistic Directors (as well as prize jurors, granting officers, and other administrative and leadership positions) that are integral to a country’s artistic ecology.
Waiting for exceptional artists from the margins is not ground-breaking activism.
Waiting for the smartest, strongest, most robust of us is not ground-breaking activism.
What we need you to do is invest in us. Allow us to inform cultural production by allowing us to become cultural producers. The ways the benefit of the doubt is gifted to white artists needs to be extended to racialized artists. We need your energy, finances, and services (in short: your privilege) to redistribute the resources stolen from us through white supremacy the world over. This is only exacerbated when racialized artists face other forms of marginalization like queerness or disability.
Our parents told us to be “lawyers, doctors, and engineers” because they knew we were only invited here to be gears in the Feudal Capitalism of the white super classes. Colonization begins with the colonization of our imaginations. I look no further than my writing as a young boy where my lead characters were always James, Jason, Chris, and Eric: white boys.
A colonized imagination is the anchor which keeps the colonized subjects in their compartments.
And for us creative types among the black, brown, Indigenous, and racialized communities, we must fight that mutated imagination and return to a truer sense of self. We are in a process of self discovery and self regeneration as we write plays in two-hour pockets of time between evenings at a restaurant, running an anti-oppression workshop, teaching a class, and consulting on a project that doesn’t center our artistry but utilizes our experiences of marginalization.
We will be used for improving conditions of “diversity and inclusion” for theatre companies but when it comes to investing in our work, there’s tremendous caution.
I am quick to be hired to teach, consult, and curate, but being asked to generate art is a risky consideration for almost every theater company I have approached.
I have been faced with “your play is a coming out story, we’re a bit beyond that” by queer theaters to “our audiences are just not ready for this kind of work,” by mainstream theaters. I was even met with “we did a play by a Lebanese artist this past year, so we probably won’t be able to explore these themes again right now…”
Imagine a theatre company saying, “we already did a Hannah Moscavitch play this year; we can’t do another one by a white woman.” And I wouldn’t even think to approach the commercial theatre titans. Film? Television? Not a chance (prime example: An Iranian friend of mine got called Jihad for the first month of his new job with an acting agency in Toronto.)
I’m not asking for hand-outs. Don’t “give us a chance.” Give us the full spirited love, a specifically understood investment, and an ecology of care and nurture that is often the invisible face of remarkable talent.
Because we are remarkable talent in waiting.
My father could have been a philosopher, but he drives Uber instead and my mother is literally a studied Lebanese lawyer turned 60-year-old immigrant mall retail employee with no retirement in sight.
We are remarkable talent in waiting. Our parents knew this. They lived muted lives so we don’t have to. Ins Choi articulated it beautifully in Kim’s Convenience; did we not get it then? But our parents can’t do it alone.
We need a community of care. And you, White Artistic Directors, are a pivotal part of this community.
As a racialized and queer artist, I knew I had to have plan B, C, D, E, all the way to Z and back to A again before considering following the Arts. So many of my racialized friends have similar stories of “I did a Computer Science degree before going into Acting.” I myself studied Biology, Civil Engineering, and Education before finally submitting to Theatre.
But I don’t want to be a biologist, or an engineer, or always a teacher.
I want to be an artist because I am an artist.
Do we not deserve the dignity to recognize this in our lives?
The irony is that when racialized artists take the work upon themselves, it is met with adoration and success. When I write, independently produce, and build my own shows from the ground up, they have been met with critical and audience resonance and success. But still, theatre companies are reticent to invest. So long as the marginalized artist is doing all the work, the (typically white) audience will cheer, cry, and rally for the play. But once I ask the institutions to invest, there’s a radio silence.
For example, when my play Harun was nominated for two Elizabeth Sterling Haynes Awards in 2019, it lost both awards to shows by white men. Of course, I’m not advocating that Harun was necessarily the right choice to win, but alongside my nomination were other young, talented, and tenacious racialized, queer, and trans artists who were doing work pertinent to their marginalization as well as stylistically impactful (See: Whiteface and Scorch). It is in those moments that, in all dimensions, the opportunity to pass the mic was trampled.
And, of course, I recognize that my writing may need development, growth, and nurturing. But that’s exactly what’s being discussed here. We need investment in our potential abilities. Real, substantial, and centered investment— not minor tokens of “progress” in the form of small development opportunities or a staged reading or a shout out or an honorary mention.
And the phenomenally exceptional among us will always make it. We need more than Vivek Shraya, Wajdi Mouwad, Ins Choi, and Lin-Manuel Miranda to take space.
Don’t wait until we become famous before you stage us.
We need you to invest.
We need you to invest where it counts.
We need you to invest today.
We need those of us who are ordinary in our capacities today to be treated with the same faith as young white people. We need you to believe in our extraordinariness so that we will meet it.
Because we can. We already do so much while facing so many barriers.
In Toronto, look no further than Marjorie Chan, Nina Lee Aquino, and Weyni Mengesha to see what meaningful investment and integration of racialized artists looks like. In Edmonton, Nasra Adem rallies together Black (and other racialized) womxn in powerful ways. In Calgary, Jenna Rodgers carved the first culturally diverse theatre company and continues to create intentional conversations among various theatre communities. And in Vancouver, Fay Nass is incorporating refugee and newcomer artists with queer theatre in potent and legitimizing ways.
But of course, the labor can’t be entirely left to the womxn of color Artistic Directors.
White Artistic Directors, please take your leadership from these womxn and non-binary people named above. I know you’ve heard all of this before, so it’s that much more frustrating that we have to keep saying it.
The loneliness and self-doubt of being an artist is only amplified by marginalization. There is a razor edge to this conversation: I take careful measures not to place anything that is inside my locus of control outside of it. When I speak with my friends who are also racialized, we invest in our craft, we train, we write, we act, we attempt, we improve, we listen, we transform, we perpetually grow. But all of this lands nowhere if those in power do not dare to invest in us.
And yes, I do consider that maybe I’m wrong. Maybe this is a lesson learned by all artists, marginalized or not. Maybe this is a lesson learned in systemic change; maybe the path is always slow; maybe I need grace; maybe I need to have patience.
But right now, I am feeling the weight of White Supremacy as an immovable force. Each dismissal, each rejection, each unpaid opportunity, each justification for why my work is “just not ready” is starting to feel like one paper cut too many.
Resilience is said to be the marker of a successful artist. Maybe I’ve spent all mine trying to reconcile all the fractured parts of my identity.
But for us to get any where past this conversation, please stop looking for the exceptions; change the rules.