Deborah Pearson

1996

Originally written for the Guardian.

Deborah Pearson wants to talk about white privilege – a desire the writer and performer recognises is a huge privilege in itself. For people of colour, she suggests, there is an expectation to be conscious of race relations, whereas “if you are white then you can not think about it, and not talk about it, and nobody will necessarily call you out on that”.

In her show at the Yard theatre in London, Made Visible, Pearson makes the choice to discuss these issues. The show is influenced by Peggy McIntosh’s 1988 essay White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, which lists 50 everyday examples of white privilege (No. 21: “I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group”; No. 32: “My culture gives me little fear about ignoring the perspectives and powers of people of other races”). Made Visible similarly reveals some of the ways in which invisible systems confer privilege on some at the expense of others.

“I don’t know if I really know how to talk about this,” Pearson admits. With the show, she is anxious to join ongoing conversations about racism and privilege in a way that is “productive and useful”, without replicating the same power structures she’s critiquing by taking over the debate. The show stages a conversation between three women – one white, two of Gujarati heritage – sitting on a bench in Victoria Park, east London. The conversation is undercut by interjections that expose the workings of privilege and debate the politics of representation. “The actors swap characters quite a lot and they are constantly complaining about particular forms of appropriation,” Pearson explains. One of the performers, for example, protests against the sari her character is forced to wear, calling out lazy representations of Indian culture. “So it becomes this meta-commentary on the consequences of a white writer approaching this kind of material,” says Pearson.

With its actors frequently disrupting the scene and addressing the audience, the play draws attention to the problematic assumptions we are all too used to seeing on stage, setting up racial and cultural stereotypes in order to undermine and question them. It’s deliberately messy – much like the complex conversations it is responding to. “It needs to be less tidy,” says Pearson, who is still making final tweaks to the script when we speak. “It needs to let the white character off the hook a little bit less.”

The difficult balance for Pearson in the process of writing Made Visible has been between unpacking her own privilege and giving room to other, non-white voices. “There was a draft of the piece where I just gave over the entire ending to different theorists of colour,” she says. “That was really dry and theatrically it didn’t work, but conceptually I know why that’s what I wanted to do, because it’s about using my privilege to amplify other voices.”

While attempts to address racism often focus on political and social institutions, Pearson is clear that “culture is not blameless in this”. If anything, she adds, culture has to answer for the dominant white narratives it reproduces. “I think that as people who work in culture, albeit a very small fringe area of culture, we have to be aware of the fact that we contribute hugely to this discourse,” she says.

These are issues for theatre to confront as a sector. Despite numerous diversity drives, theatre organisations remain overwhelmingly white. Last year the Warwick commission found that black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) workers represent only 6.7% of the workforce in music and performing and visual arts, while Arts Council England reported that 13.7% of those working in its national portfolio organisations in 2014-15 were BAME. “The fact that so few of the people who work professionally in theatre aren’t white is not an issue for people of colour to deal with – that’s an issue for all of us,” says Pearson. “As a white person who’s working in theatre, you have to think about it really carefully and just be aware of the choices that you make in terms of what you see, what you curate, which voices you’re paying attention to.”

In response to racially motivated hate crimes and police violence, novelist Marlon James has argued that being non-racist is not enough. “We need to stop being non and start being anti,” he insists. Pearson agrees that in an unjust, unequal society, staying silent is not an option.

“The easy thing for white people to do is to not talk about it,” says Pearson. “If we don’t talk about it we don’t risk being criticised. But at the same time, if you don’t talk about it then you are complicit in enabling that power structure to continue.”

Photo: Ian Willms.

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