2 Considerations for Representation in Implicit Bias Work

In the video below, team member and Impact Research Lead Nadia Ganesh, speaks on representation in applied theatre work on implicit bias.

Written Transcript of Video

As we began to film scenes for this Implicit Bias project, we often would switch roles between actors, as we normally do. In Mirror Theatre, we usually believe that characters can be played by almost any member. But while we were exploring Implicit Bias, we began to realize that this project required specific care, because many characters’ experiences are particularly relevant to their actor’s marginalized identities. For one thing, this is about representation, which can be very important in spreading and amplifying the voices of marginalized communities, who often feel unheard or ignored. I’ll give you an example: in the scene called “Role Call”, Rosie’s character experiences a microaggression by being the only student to be asked “where she is from” on the first day of class, rather than more benign questions that the rest of her White classmates received.  Being asked where one is from is a common experience of people of colour and this question often can be perceived as expressing beliefs that we do not belong here. We might feel that way even if it wasn’t the intention of the person asking the question. As a person of colour, I relate to this story because I have also experienced similar questions of my origin, and these types of questions make me feel othered, even though I was born in Canada. This microaggression is specific to being a Person of Colour, because people of colour as a group experience being asked where we are from far more often than White people.  So in this scene, if we were to recast Rosie with a different person of colour, we would still be drawing upon the lived experiences of people of Colour. But, if we were to recast this character with a White person, I believe that this would undermine the fact that this is a microaggression particularly faced by People of Colour. Not only would it be changing the intention behind the scene, but it would be ignoring their lived-experiences and the additional marginalization and discrimination that we experience as People of Colour. As a Person of Colour, if I were a student learning through the facilitation of this scene, I would feel hurt if a professor were to recast this character as a White person. I would feel like this would discount or even erase my similar lived experiences to Rosie’s character. However, recasting Rosie’s character as another Person of Colour, would still honor the lived experiences that inspired this scene.

The scene I just described is one of the early scenes that we developed. We soon realized that representation could become an even stickier topic. For example, in the scene entitled “Missed Interpretations”, my character is mistaken as a babysitter to her own children. This is yet another  experience that is common for Woman of Colour. The scene was actually inspired by the lived experiences of Dr. Boni Wozole, who is herself a woman of colour. In rehearsals, we discussed the possibility of substituting the actor playing my character with a White woman, and whether this could result in discussion on how we interpret behaviour depending on the race of the character. We became more and more aware of how complex the issue or representation is and we started considering it very deeply. I personally feel that if we were to recast my character to be portrayed by someone White, the recasting could be seen as diminishing the lived experiences of Women of Colour. This could also lead to ignoring how much more common this type of experience is for women of Colour compared with White women, and it could be hurtful and diminishing to Women of Colour students who have similar experiences to my character.

There is more: recasting this character as a non-Woman of Colour might encourage participants to think that their own levels of marginalization are equivalent to other people’s experience of marginalization. For example, a well-intentioned White woman portraying my role may later believe that the sexism that they experience is equivalent to the racism that Women of Colour experience, which is untrue and both hurtful and harmful to Women of Colour. Making sure that my character is represented as a Woman of Colour encourages participants to learn of the unique discrimination faced by Women of Colour compared to other marginalized groups.

Marginalized students are often particularly encouraged or ‘voluntold’ to be vocal when topics of race/gender/discrimination etc. come up and I personally can attest to the fact this can place a great deal of pressure and mental and emotional energy on marginalized students to describe and clarify their experiences of marginalization to their peers. If marginalized students don’t want to roleplay marginalized roles, this is important to respect.

My overall takeaway is that we should respect that some of these scenes were inspired by the lived experiences of marginalized groups by ensuring that these roles are portrayed by people belonging to the groups. Although we hope that our program will assist participants in gaining the ability to perspective take and learn insights on what it may be like to experience marginalization or bias, we acknowledge that taking part in short improvisational situations will never be enough to truly understand the lived experiences of people who belong to marginalized groups that we are not apart of. In fact, as much as we can try and perspective take, empathize, it’s impossible to truly understand their experiences if we do not belong to these groups. This workshop isn’t about learning what it’s like to be a part of a marginalized group—it’s about learning about our own biases and working to reduce them so that we can all be better people.

Representation is a challenging issue and there isn’t always a right or wrong answer about what we should do. In fact, our team has often-times struggled with issues surrounding representation, trying our best to be as respectful as possible while realizing we, ourselves, aren’t always sure how to approach it. I believe that drawing upon the lived-experiences in the room will both aid in allowing students to gain perspective on the experiences of marginalization while still being respectful of the lived-experiences of prejudice and discrimination experienced by specific marginalized groups.

As facilitators of this program, you have the opportunity to really listen to your students, particularly the marginalized students who will have similar lived experiences to the characters in these scenes, on how to tackle any issues of representation. We are all on the lifelong journey of reducing our bias together and representation is one way we can attempt to ensure that our students feel comfortable and safe when exploring topics of bias. Thank you!


Haunting our Biases: Using Participatory Theatre to Interrupt Implicit Bias Copyright © 2022 by Kevin Hobbs; Michael Martin Metz; Nadia Ganesh; Sheila O'Keefe-McCarthy; Joe Norris; Sandy Howe; and Valerie Michaelson. All Rights Reserved.

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