Katherine Seto- Racism in the Arts
The arts have always been white dominated and focused on stories written by white authors, played by white actors, and highlighting white saviorship or white history. These notions are harmful because they highlight the white experience and discredit the experience of all people of color.
One of the art forms with roots in racism is theater. While some shows, such as Hamilton and The Color Purple were revolutionary for people of color, however progress in theatre has been much slower than in other forms of art and media. In comparison to film, the first all black cast of a movie was released in 1912 while the first all black Broadway show was not performed until 1921. Now there are hundreds of movies with all black casts, but for Broadway shows there have only been 40. The wealth inequality among white people and people of color has much to do with the inequalities that are persistent in theatre. As far as awards, the first black person to ever win an Oscar was Hattie McDaniel in 1940, the first black person to ever win a Tony award was Juanita Hall in 1949. Theatre has been historically known for having systemic issues when it comes to racism and discrimination. In the early days of theatre all characters were portrayed by white men, no matter the race, gender, or description of the character. This is responsible for the early roots of blackface in theatre, an issue still prevalent in the world today.
While some roles are not limited to white actors and actresses there are trends in casting. Dear Evan Hansen, a Broadway musical that started it’s run around the time of Hamilton has received a lot of flack for having little to no diversity among the cast. This frustrated many people who believed shows like Hamilton were changing notions within Broadway. There is nothing in the show that would keep a person of color from playing a more important role, however they are seldom cast for this show. This is not the only show critiqued for racism, lots of Broadway shows so not have diverse actors. Racism is not limited to theater, it is also present in other art forms such as dance and music.
Ballet has been a white dominated art form for centuries. In 2015 Misty Copeland was the first Africa American woman to ever be the female principal dancer in the American Ballet. Ballerinas are only offered pointe shoes in a pale pink color, while this color may blend into the skin tone of some ballerinas many ballerinas of color have to paint their shoes in order to achieve the seamless look. Some ballet companies force their dancers to paint themselves white in order to fit the story line better. One dancer in the Berlin Ballet company faces racism when she was told that she must put on more white makeup than the other girls to create the illusion that her skin is lighter. While this practice of painting skin white is not to promote white supremacy it supports the subtle racism present in ballet and dance as a whole.
Another prevalent issue is how the music industry places artists of color at a disadvantage when it comes to categorizing and being nominated for awards. After the Black Lives Matter movement started to gain more traction in the summer of 2020, the Grammys decided to remove the title “Urban” and replace it with “progressive R&B”. While making steps toward inclusion is wonderful renaming an inherently racist category will not be enough. The category “urban” is not racist by nature, but most often singers of color were only nominated for Grammys in the “urban” category. Now that the Grammy’s have received flack for this problematic behavior hopefully they will adjust their awards and nominations.
In the beginning of US history the arts were only made available to white people. Due to segregation black people and other minorities started their own performance based shows where performers would dance to lively jazz music. For the most part, white people performed for other white people and black people performed for other black people. While today anyone in the United States anyone can buy a ticket to a performance. However, people of color have a much harder time attending these luxuries. The income inequality makes theatre and dance performances difficult to obtain for people of lower income which tends to set black people and people of color at a disadvantage for just enjoyment of the arts. As a whole the arts are much more expensive than sports, many of these activities require private lessons, multiple instructors, and elaborate costumes, all things that come with a hefty price tag. Because, statistically, black people make less than white people it is apparent why it would be much more cost effective to have your child be involved in something more inexpensive. In participation local theaters tend to be in affluent areas, if there is one in a lower income area they are often underfunded and outdated. Many roles were also not written for people of color to play, which leads to yet another barrier for people of color and the arts. Many minority parents do not have the chance to look into, pay for, and take their children to arts programs in their area.
Issues of racism are not just present in Broadway, The music industry, or the American ballet but in smaller theaters and art centers that infiltrate neighborhoods, small towns, and large cities. Many People of color do not have the privilege to afford private art education and public art education is limited and hard to come by in areas that are dominated by minorities. This inequality has affected the lives of many individuals who are talented and excelled naturally in the arts. Dr. Jesse Perez talked about his experience being a hispanic boy trying to pursue the arts with immigrant parents who did not have the money or resources to support his dreams. He had to go through a path that was very unique, having natural talent and overcoming many difficult setbacks. Not all people have the natural talent or luck that Dr. Perez had. This is why it is crucial to remember that people of color are not any less than, they just lack the same opportunity that others have. As people we should work to remedy the issues that racism in the arts have caused rather than allowing these systems to stay in place.
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