When it comes to race, my default instinct is to just be afraid. Why would I ever have the answers to the thorniest issue in the world? I’m a very average white guy, so what do I know about anything outside of my own white experience?
It turns out, that experience in itself is something I found out I need to be shining a light on in order to make any valuable difference in the greater conversation surrounding inequality between white people and every minority.
The White Card, which was put on from Feb. 24 to April 1 at the Paramount Theatre by ArtsEmerson, directed by Diane Paulus and written by Claudia Rankine. It’s a production about perspective—white, black, female, male. It’s a play about relationships—mother and son, father and son, white and black, and many more. It’s a play about a lot of things—as many plays are—but The White Card makes you think about them.
From its set, to its dialogue, to the redness surrounding Alex’s (Colton Ryan) eyes as he gets more and more upset by the circumstances surrounding the dinner party that serves as the White Card’s main setting, everything about this play is thought-provoking.
I saw it on March 31. I sat in an uncomfortable white chair, looking out on an entirely white set, surrounded by more white chairs and white walls and white doors. The red exit signs stood out much more than usual.
The audience around me was not all white. In fact, during Act II of the play, which was really an audience-wide discussion session after the conclusion of the first and only official act of The White Card, one of the discussion leaders—who had seen the production multiple times—said that she had begun to watch the audience watch the play instead of watching the play itself.
I understand why she gravitated toward that action. Whenever an audience member spoke, it became clear that the beauty of the play was how it resonated with each audience member differently.
One mother in the audience empathized deeply with the struggle Virginia (Patricia Kalember) was going through, watching Alex, her son, find himself in potentially dangerous situations in his role as a white member of the Black Lives Matter protests.
Another audience member said she couldn’t take her eyes off Charlotte (Karen Pittman), the lone African-American actor on stage—her face contorted as she struggled with each decision she needed to make, each realization that dawned on her about her dinner hosts, about the society she participates in, about her art, about black art, about charity, about relationships, about family, about blackness, about whiteness.
For me, it was Charles (Daniel Gerroll), the rich, white host of the dinner party and sponsor of many pieces of art put together by black artists, specifically those that depict black suffering—in his eyes, a reminder to the world of darkness surrounding the daily black experience—whose experience resonated the most with me.
Charles’ fortune comes from his real estate empire, and he, Charlotte, and Charles’ art agent/dealer/facilitator Eric (Jim Poulos) all reference the immense power the head of the household possesses wherever he goes. Charlotte describes him as Moses—wherever he moves, the waves of people part to let Charles through.
I am literally nothing like this man. I hold no power, people do not care when I enter a room, the only thing I share with Charles is the color of our skin.
But what hit me the hardest was how wrong he was.
This man, thinking he is helping the black community through his foundation, is blinded by a few things, but most importantly it comes down to his unwillingness to reckon with his own actions. He invests in real estate used to construct private prisons and he believes that the artwork he purchases only depicts black suffering, which Charlotte tries to teach him is turning the eye away from the more dastardly aspects of what it means to be white.
But I didn’t realize that. My initial reaction to the play was that I needed to do more to reach out to the black community, outside of the various bubbles—BC, white, Northeast, middle to upper class, left-leaning, attendee of a Catholic private high school in New England, you name it I’m probably in it—to try to make a difference, whether that was through charity—as Charles did—politics, or wherever else I was needed—I thought that’s where my attention should be going.
Luckily, the person sitting next to me at this play happened to be its playwright, Rankine. So, when she turned to me during Act II and asked me what I resonated with most, I told her the truth. And she asked me why. If Charles resonated with me the most, the ultimate lesson—that an effort to try to break into the black community to try to “save” it isn’t the point—led me to give into my fear of what it means to be white rather than trying to reckon with my skin color.
And that is how I realized the title of the play had a much bigger role in my life than I realized. In a sense, every time I read something related to the increasingly public troubles surrounding race-related issues in America over the past 10 years, and more specifically within the last two, I wanted to run from it. The dialogue scares me on a multitude of levels. Most notably for me, I just don’t feel qualified to be an authority on what goes on when it comes to race relations in this country—I’m just a guy at a play.
But I’m playing the white card the wrong way. I’m very much an expert on what it means to be white—I’m living that privileged experience every day. As afraid as I am to face up to the darker aspects of the history of people who share my skin color, The White Card has opened my eyes to the idea that I should at least try to face up to how my privilege can warp the way I treat or allow other people to treat the different races, genders, and minority populations that surround me as I begin to emerge from the bubble I’ve grown up in.
Although I’m afraid I don’t have any of the right answers to any kind of race related problem ever because … well because I’m really white, if anything that makes me more qualified to look at the privileges my skin color grants me in American society. Maybe by looking more closely at my advantages and the darkness behind them, I’ll be able to brandish my white card for the greater good of society rather than the way Charles does.
Can I actually create change? I don’t know, probably not. But if I try, maybe I’m doing right by people my ancestors have oppressed for centuries, and at least that’s a good thing. Watching The White Card and what Rankine said to me wrecked my brain for three days. It bothered me so much—what scared me the most was how misguided my initial fears pushed me to be.
So rather than acquiesce to the distraction my fear engenders and turning away from the issue at the heart of this play—the danger of the white card—I’m at least going to try to be an agent of change, even if the only thing I’m agent-ing is my own personal actions and experience.
Featured Graphic by Anna Tierney / Graphics Editor