Gus Cuddy | Essays:

Two-dimensional racism

28 November 2018

In theatre, film, and the performing arts in general, there is a very common case of what I call two-dimensional racism. This is the sort of optics-based casting that is simply meant to check off casting people of color like there’s a quota to fill; there is no depth to the diversity—it is two-dimensional.

Of course, two-dimensional racism is often well-meaning. There’s a sense of old, white theatre-makers wanting to feel progressive and congratulate themselves for the great work they’re doing by having a diverse show. And yet, the make-up of people in the theater that aren’t performers is a generally homogenous sea of white.

The issue runs deeper than just optics. As Rembert Browne eloquently tweeted when ESPN fired Jemele Hill: “espn wants black faces not black minds”.

The same is true for so many theaters. They want the feeling of diversity without doing any of the deeper work, without facing the systemic problems that run from the roots, not from the leaves. They look for brown and black faces to make themselves feel better, to present themselves as diverse—but not to rock the old and white boat too much, please. Fact is, that boat is still the dominant mode of thinking and perception for most theaters.

Worse, two-dimensional racism is often mixed with lazy directing choices, as if having people of color in a show will solve its problems, absolve the play of any issues it might have, do all the heavy lifting for them. It’s a signaling device that arguably does more harm than good when combined with a lack of rigor.

Think things through. Make good choices that consider complexity and depth. White supremacy is not tackled by shallow, white thinking.