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The Art of Stealing Narratives and Other Things White Women Do

When I moved to New York City in the summer of 2008 to attend acting conservatory, Lin Manuel-Miranda’s musical, In the Heights, about Latino-Americans, swept the Tony awards and by fall, Barack Obama had been elected as our country’s first African-American president. It seemed as if America was on the precipice of a post-racial reality; however, by winter, events like the senseless killing of Oscar Grant at the Fruitvale BART Station in the Bay area by white policeman, Johannes Mehserle, served as a glaring reminder that racial tension, no matter how deeply hidden to white people, continued to exist.

Halfway through my training, a teacher of mine, who spoke ad nauseam about the many productions of West Side Story he’d directed around the world, began assigning me one Maria number after another. As a mezzo-soprano, I enjoyed the challenge of strengthening my soprano in “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love” duet, and, as an actress, I enjoyed the challenge of staging other actors in my performance of “I Feel Pretty”- a song I otherwise found completely insufferable to perform. Either he was grooming me to audition for future productions, or he enjoyed destroying every choice I made so he could tell me, in front of the entire class, to do it his way. We had a few Spanish-speaking actresses in my class, but he insisted on giving me West Side Story numbers and suggested I capitalize on my perceived ethnic ambiguity, despite my being white, because of my Hispanic sounding name and my dark hair color. “It’s so in to look like you” I heard from this teacher and many others at the time. It was so in to look Latina, to look ethnic. The broadway production of West Side Story was casting Maria's who were bilingual, In The Heights was soon casting for the national tours. So, I took a dialects elective to work on my Puerto-Rican dialect, and I added “ethnic” monologues to my repertoire. Choosing my ethnicity on a day-to-day basis seemed like a normal thing for a white actress like me to do.

I wanted to work, and I wanted to be successful immediately after graduation, so I tried fitting to a type. As actors, it’s what we learn to do. At nineteen, I had no idea who I was, but I knew what I looked like and what I didn't look like. I tried passing as Latino until it was no longer in to cast Latino-American driven plays and TV shows. So, I stopped dying my hair dark, and I tried auditioning as who I’d been underneath: a dirty blond Italian-American from Virginia who spoke in proper American standard.

Ten years later in 2018, again, the common phrase being flung around by my actor friends and other industry professionals sang something to the tune of: “it’s just not in to be a white girl in your twenties right now.” I admit I have gone through many masks due in part to the acting industry’s normalization of trading one ethnicity for another and my passionate commitment to gaining access to more roles but, in retrospect, I realize that that was problematic. Though I never colored my skin, I had, in the past, been encouraged to present an image of myself not consistent with my identity. My practice of exaggerating those of my physical characteristics which insinuated a Hispanic heritage was indeed an iteration of minstrel performance. I now understand that maybe the concept of typing and white women playing up their ethnic ambiguity should be reevaluated.

I do not accede to this notion of the great struggle of the white actress today in 2018. I have seen the actor breakdowns, or lists of available roles, for plays and films day after day and I continue to look at an in-demand market predominately weighted in favor of the white actress. For example, you might see a breakdown for a play that cites specific characters to be white, but only a few characters are “open to all ethnicities.” Does this represent the true nature of the diversity of our country or is this just a recognition of the preference of a whole swath of America to see a white hero? Moreover, if it is true that I, as a white woman, am facing daunting competition for roles, what must the woman of color face as she competes for far fewer parts?

I have paid my dues as a struggling, starving actress working dozens of odd jobs while running from one audition to the next, changing clothes in cabs I couldn’t afford and emotionally blacking out after every casting so I wouldn’t spend the rest of the day obsessing over how I performed and if. they. liked. me. I have lived through the panic-y but the invigorating cycle of getting a gig just before rent is due and waiting and threatening to quit and then boom, oh yes, another job comes. Rejection is soul-crushing. It is personal. It’s part of the gig. It's part of why I needed to do it less, to redirect away from hating every part of myself. I don’t miss auditioning and being rejected but I do miss working and, now, because I am a full-time student, I work less but my distance from performing has helped me grow. With respect to my experience of trying on non-white ethnicities and what I know now, the truth I would offer to the struggling white actress who fears her race is not in is this: the role is not yours not because you are white or a woman, it’s because you’re not right for the role.

The anger of the American female was palpable during last year’s #metoo moment. It was exciting and necessary but, like all movements, would suffer an inevitable death. The #meetoo movement was hijacked by Hollywood and rebranded as #timesup and, in turn, actresses were lauded for their efforts. #Metoo transmuted into the narrative of celebrities who had been sexually harassed by Weinstein and other men in positions of power. It was no longer about the everyday female in the workplace who cannot afford to leave her job. Female celebrities claimed they were speaking out on behalf of those who did not have a voice, as opposed to giving a platform to those whom they perceived as voiceless. It was odd: the Ashley Judds and Taylor Swifts on magazine covers and the Reese Witherspoons parading around in their black protest gowns with the Frances McDormands saying “Inclusion Rider” at the end of Academy Award acceptance speech. How could we not agree? I certainly did, they were standing up for something good and empowering. I'm a woman. They are women. Then, some distance. I now see what most of these women share: the same white skin color.

“I’m trying very hard not to be the black woman who is trotted out when you all need to validate your work,” #metoo founder, Tarana Burke said to actress, Michelle Williams, after Williams had asked Burke to walk the Golden Globes red carpet together. Williams explained this was not her motive. To make this worth her while, Burke suggested other activists accompany actresses on the red carpet too where female leaders would discuss leading organizations like Alianza Nacional de Campesinas which seeks to protect female farmworkers or Imkaan which protects women against domestic violence or Burke’s own, Girls for Gender Equality. Despite Burke’s efforts, the red-carpet #timesup moment still looked like the white women saviors pulling up the oppressed woman of color-women who had founded and lead the very organizations these Hollywood actresses discovered and decided to insert themselves into. It made me angry and it made me angrier that Williams probably did feel validated. By walking with Tarana and by receiving compliments and support, she gave permission to white feminists everywhere to continue to be "the voice.”

What I wish these white actresses knew, like I now know, is that, though what they say matters, their voice is not the voice begging to be heard. It’s a tough pill to swallow. White women say that they are only trying to benefit all women but look at Hollywood: these Hollywood actresses will never have to go back to feeling ignored or hidden. These actresses will be remembered for being seen because they are white because they have always been seen. Tarana Burke had to humbly accept that she was never going to receive the recognition for her movement the moment Ashley Judd hashtagged the words #metoo into the Twitter-sphere last year. White women have found the only thing they can identify which has oppressed them: man. All women have waged a relentless gender war. I wouldn’t disagree with the sentiment at all, but I have to ask white women, in particular: who are you truly representing?

In a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly, director and actress, Olivia Wilde, talks about her experience directing her debut feature film, "Book Smart." The interviewer asks Wilde how she accomplished her goal of hiring a “diverse” and “inclusive” crew. Wilde, a white performer, responds that there is “no lack of female talent in the industry” and that when it comes to hiring, she focuses on talent and passion, not their resume: “There is simply no way to judge someone’s merit on their resume because they may not have been given the opportunities afforded to them by white men.” Her eloquence regarding passion and talent over experience is admirable, but I have trouble understanding how words like “diverse” and “inclusive” automatically relate to gender. Perhaps, she associates these words with gender because she is a female but isn't this thinking part of the great white feminist problem? White women talk about women like "we" are all the same but fail to recognize history. "We", "Us" or white women time and again fail to recognize that women of color have always had it worse. We cannot speak on their experience, correct, so I argue to pass the mic. Release your grip. Stop stealing and start learning.

Wilde mentions these opportunities may not have been offered to them because of white men but is Wilde, aiming for inter-sectional feminism here or is she conflating gender inequality with racial inequality? I ask this because I want to understand what her social media followers mean when they call her "bold" and "brave" for making a statement in an interview that seems limited in scope. I want to know why she is using this language when promoting a film where I see not one person of color represented in her cast.

White actresses like Olivia Wilde say they should speak because they, as privileged white women, have a platform but where does that show in their work? White actresses and white women want to stand up and speak out, but it might be worth forgetting white female rage for a second to offer an ear instead to hear what our fellow women couldn't say over us.

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