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  • Kim Senklip Harvey

Refusing White Supremacy in Theatre

I read this blog post Indigenizing Canadian academia and the insidious problem of white possessiveness by Zoe Todd and found so many parallels to theatre and highly recommend you read it.

My artistic practice is centered around my Indigeneity and I predominantly work with settler institutions which makes that challenging. Maybe one day I will get to work with a structure of artists and community members that are all or predominantly Indigenous but because of what I've inherited and because of what the community continues to uphold, my options are very limited.

The Coast Salish and some leaders coming from Salish territories I find, are at least 10 years ahead of the other territories with regards to their ideologies and ethical practices with Indigenous artists and peoples. I believe this to be the case because we are not on Treaty territory and therefore the provincial councils and private sector have had to continually sit at the table with us. This relationship continues to be negotiated and funding bodies have had to prioritize Indigenous artists because Coast Salish settlers have been attempting wokeness a bit longer. 

This has resulted in artistic institutions actively engaging with practices that attempt to centre Indigenous peoples. So we see a lot of efforts to Indigenize our stages but not necessarily decolonizing our institutions and that's problematic.

Todd writes “if we are not dismantling the structures of white supremacy, we are neither indigenizing nor decolonizing the university. We are just upholding the status quo. And the status quo an unacceptable path at this particular point in our collective histories.”

Theatre tends to admirably look upon itself as forward thinking, innovative and different than other sectors but we are not. One example of this woke disillusion is how we unfairly position racialized artists in theatre.

One of the reasons we had to reimagine and innovate roles with Kamloopa, Fire Creator, Fire Holders etc. is because we knew the labour and responsibilities would be more than what white settler artists have to do. To keep ourselves aligned with the 7 Grandmother teachings we wanted to make sure we were honest about the vastly different responsibilities and workload. We knew that institutionally Canadian theatre works to maintain white supremacy and within that it positions itself to have some kind of authority and control over Indigenous artists and we wanted systems in place to protect ourselves. 

I knew I was never going to be able to just be the "director" or "playwright" that’s a privilege not afforded to me. The work to invert and dismantle white supremacist power structures in Canadian theatre will be a life long one but that's okay because it is my responsibility to make a more equitable environment than the one I've inherited.

Our refusal of so many aspects of Canadian theatre was our deliberate measures to decolonize, aka refuse the systems being consciously and unconsciously oppressed upon us. Canadian theatre is constantly trying to manipulate and reduce Indigenous artistic practice into paradigms of white and patriarchal knowingness. The hiring of women and mostly Indigenous women, centering Indigenous Matriarchal voices, values and ways of working was the Indigenization of our work in theatrical reform that refuses white supremacy.

With the power I had, every step of the way, I did as much as I could to disseminate the power to women, predominantly Indigenous women. From the Settler paradigm these decolonial practices position decolonizers as problematic or inconvenient. This is the settler mentality that upholds colonial supremacy and is usually so deeply ingrained in settler practitioners they are unconscious of their cognitive prejudice and judgement. 

From an Indigenous world view, my living experience is that we are attacking the status quo to challenge the inherently racist and white supremacist systems that Canadian theatre exists in. I do this in order to ensure my people are given equitable treatment and afforded the dignities denied by these white supremacist systems. On top of this exhausting work, racialized artists are also having to deal with white and patriarchal fragility.

Todd goes on to say, "in academe, Indigenous bodies, stories, knowledge, and ‘contacts’ (‘informants’, ‘participants’ or ‘interlocutors’) act as a kind of currency or capital that is concentrated in the hands of non-Indigenous scholars and administrators. Therefore, overwhelmingly, it is still white people who control the flow of this knowledge and the parameters of these relationships."

That's the imbalance but truth of the oppressive relationships we currently have in theatre. Which is predominantly held by white and settler leaders taking up space in upper and middle management positions, controlling the relationships, ways of working and programming in theatre. 

I hope Canadian theatre practitioners start to honestly recognize how deeply entrenched we are in white and settler supremacy and that Canadian theatre recognizes the harm done and the results of this continued violence of maintaining the status quo.

Yes, to authentic, meaningful and ethical efforts to engage with Indigenous artists but also ask yourself how can I dismantle colonial systems of oppression which are currently holding down racialized artists. Ask how have I positioned myself in my artistic practice to uphold my power and how does that impact others. Ask how can I lessen the labour of racialized artists and better support them as they engage in their decolonial and Indigenous practices.

Every day, every moment we make decisions around what systems we support so do an honest inventory and understand what oppressive and racist systems you are not only maintaining but upholding. Patriarchy, white and settler supremacy is omnipresent and we need everyones conscious awareness and rigorous practice to help in the extractive process.



p.s oldy but goody - me engaging with white fragility. 

p.p.s I'm currently re-reading Mary Shelly's Frankenstein for Break research and remember Frankenstein is not the monster - Victor Frankenstein was the human scientist who created the systems to invent and destroy "the monster."

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