Some background, then a story.
I teach improv. In the tradition I learned, our classes pull a lot from summer camp exercises. Like camp, an improv class hopes to quickly forge connection among strangers. We used to do that just by being silly - introduce yourself using your superhero name and your superhero stance, whatever that means to you! I was always Aardvark Anne and I always made my arm a long tongue with a little finger flick at the end.
As our culture began to wrestle more with the malleability of gender identity, the New York improv scene pretty quickly normed that class introductions included our pronouns. So now, we’d do a round of names and pronouns, then get to the superheroing. I took an amazing workshop tackling hard issues onstage with John Gebretatose. Up top, we introduced ourselves with our racial identities as well. He explained how important it was for white people to acknowledge their whiteness in the room; how even all-white improv spaces need to say this out loud. That, in fact, it may be even more important to do so in all-white spaces. And improv has many, many all-white spaces. My experience in this workshop was enlightening and heartening. I couldn’t wait to bring these concepts into my own classes.
I did so patchily, awkwardly, and self-consciously. The theatre where I had been teaching closed shortly after taking this workshop, so I was mostly coaching established groups and entering spaces where everyone already knew each other. And even then, far enough back on my journey to decolonize my mind that I didn’t even know the term yet, I caught the whiff of righteousness and performative goodness that underpinned my desire for these identity-acknowledging introductions. This made me second guess myself so instead of leading with openness and bravery, I led with awkwardness. I never felt great about it when I did it yet knew I wanted to keep trying.
Which brings me to the last class I taught before the pandemic killed everything I love about improv. I had been awkward during my last few attempts at these intro’s and was dead set I wouldn’t be this time. It was a smaller group which meant we’d have lots of time to get to know each other as individuals. It was also one of the most diverse classes I had ever taught, and for once white men were a minority in the room. This was going to be the time when it would go well and give me the confidence to lead it with ease in even white majority rooms down the line. I practiced in my bedroom. I was ready to be easy and open, framing the request for sharing your racial identity as the most natural thing in the world.
In my mind, I nailed it. As we went around the circle, the first two people were equally easy in their sharing. And then we got to the first of the white men.
Not a single one of them could handle my request.
They made jokes. They winkingly mentioned minor factoids, as if “watch-wearer” had affected their life commensurately to someone else’s trans or racial identity. They stared blankly as if this was the first time anyone had ever asked them to define themselves. They rocked back and forth, hands shoved in pockets, staring at their feet. One half-mumbled “I don’t know, I’m the normal things?”
What not a single one of them did was say “white” or “man.” Not. A. One.
* * *
The word “identity” can mean so much. It is easy to get lost between derisive misunderstandings of “identity politics,” the generational divide in our willingness to see gender identity as a construct, and the self-actualizing search for the boundaries of “your own” identity. Is identity the true internal Self? Is it the persona you show others? Is it a complex negotiation between you-as-you-see-yourself and you-as-the-world-sees-you? Is it a collection of labels? If so, who chooses them? Is it intrinsic or mutable? Or is it beyond these: unnameable, ineffable, undefinable?
What do we mean when we talk about identity?
Our imprecise relationship to this word, this concept, is more than a semantic issue. Even the question above is imprecise enough to potentially be perpetuating the very thing I hope to take aim against, the “assumed white normal.” Should I be using an all-inclusive “we” to talk about identity confusion? Honestly, as a white person can I ever use an all-inclusive “we” statement without running the risk of white blindness? At this stage in my journey, it’s not something I feel very comfortable with. So, really, I’m talking about a specific “we” - white people. Whiteness has to have a reckoning with the concept of its own identity if we hope to dismantle its power and structures.
One of the fundamental weapons of patriarchal white supremacy is defining the identity of Others. The act of defining, of identifying, is an expression of power. According to Genesis, God named Adam and then gave him the power to name all other creatures. If one follows this religious tradition (which the vast majority of white America does), then one sees this as the original transfer of hereditary power-over. The power to name and the power to define others, as given by God. And no one but God had the power to name Adam.
Thus, the need for whiteness to reinforce its power by continually defining others while refusing to define itself. A cishet white man is simply a person. Other people are a Black person or a Muslim person or a disabled person. And yes, this includes white people who are disabled. “Whiteness is a normative, dominating, unexamined power that underlies the rationality of Eurocentric culture and thought. It serves to push to the margins not only those defined as not-White, but also those defined as not-Able,” writes Dr. Phil Smith in Disability Studies Quarterly. Whiteness demands full control of the definition of these identities. This is why if you, like me, are a white person who ever said, “I don’t see color” you were full of shit. Whether or not you “see” color (ahem, you do), you were wielding your whiteness to even say that.
But whiteness has no definition of itself. It is a malleable emptiness defined not by what it is, but by what it is not. American whiteness didn’t include Italians - until it did. It didn’t include the Irish - until it did. Whiteness defined each of these groups as Other - see the 1891 lynching of 11 Italian Americans in New Orleans or the Know-Nothing political party which formed in reaction to perceived Irish-Catholic Otherness and elected 8 governors and over 100 congressmen & mayors. As new Others appeared and generations passed, whiteness gradually redefined both Italian-Americans and Irish-Americans as less other, eventually accepting them into the dominant white power structure. But the definition of whiteness did not change - it didn’t exist, so how could it? One could deduce that escaping that process of definition is an inherent component of whiteness and white power.
* * *
Which brings us back around to that improv class and to defensiveness. Because the awkward jokes of those white men in my class were made defensively, whether or not they were aware of that fact. A white person who has not considered their whiteness is almost always uncomfortable mentioning it. Funny how those with entrenched power don’t like discussing the thing that ensures it - the “old money” rich are also the ones who find talking about money gauche. Refusal to speak about or acknowledge something is another defensive-oppressive act.
Had I the power to do so, I would neither individually blame nor absolve those white men from my class. Their discomfort in that moment was likely something they didn’t understand. While I am still a long way from completing my journey to internal liberation, wrestling with my own whiteness has been a complex process. I’ve been processing the cruelty in my bloodline since a flyer for the Veal Trio’s upcoming jazz concert on an out-of-town lamppost prompted my first uncomfortable conversation about race. Mine is an odd and unique surname and I was surprised to encounter it at all, especially belonging to a Black person. Thankfully my mother didn’t shrug this off but reminded me of my paternal grandfather’s Mississippi heritage and explained that many freed slaves kept their former owners’ last names. I felt profound shame wash over me. The shame that makes us defensive. The shame that keeps many of us from admitting our nation’s history of white supremacy. The shame that keeps others of us from doing anything about it. Only when I finally dealt with the full catalogue of my shame, was my white-shame able to transform into the desire to make amends.
And what led me to finally facing and dismantling my shame? My desire to self-actualize, to define myself for myself and embrace this identity. Dismantling my white shame also helped me see how bereft I was of a more specific cultural heritage. Whiteness gives you nothing to hold onto. I’ve only just started tracing back, but am hungry to connect to the traditions of my Celtic and Germanic ancestors.
I’m also hungry to get back into an improv room - scratch that, almost a year of limited meaningful eye contact and no kinetic energy and I’m starving to get back into that room. And I feel pretty confident I’ll know how to handle introductions in my first class:
In a moment, we’re going to go around the circle and introduce ourselves. This isn’t just some formality to check off a list, but a real opportunity for us to start coming together as a group. Each group is as unique as each person, because every group is made up of unique people. I’d like you to tell us how you identify yourself - yes, please include your pronouns, please include your racial identity, and also include whatever attributes define you as you. And if you have never thought about this before and feel super intimidated right now - that’s ok too! Just be honest and tell us that. I’ll get us going.
I’m Anne Veal and I’m a cishet white woman.
I use she/her pronouns.
I’m an improv teacher and a theatre maker and less successful at either than I wish.
I’m descended from Midwesterners, Southerners, Germans, Austrians, Scots and Irish folk.
I’m an only child and have a penchant for loneliness I’m trying to shake.
I’m full of feelings and will cry every single time I see Beast die, even though I know he will come back to life.
I really care that each of you grow and get something out of this class.
I also really care whether or not you like me but am trying not to because that doesn’t make me a better teacher.
I’m also Aardvark Anne and my arm is a super long tongue.
That’s some of me.
Who wants to go next?