David Furlong, Artistic Director of Exchange Theatre has experienced his fair share of discrimination as a Mauritian born man, but, as he explains here, in order for his company to grow, he had his own to confront.
After the assassination of George Floyd last year, there’s been a lot of focus on the notion of biases. As a father, I was wondering how best to explain what is a very nuanced, yet fundamental idea in how our society is shaped, to my daughter. I wanted to give her the tools necessary not just to grow up anti-racist but to think actively about intolerance, xenophobia, racism and – most of all – systemic injustice.
At the time of Floyd’s murder, I was getting involved with Migrants in Theatre, a movement made up of first-generation migrant theatre artists who joined efforts to campaign for more and better representation in British theatre. In our founding conversations, we had to very closely examine the xenophobia and racism that we’d all experienced, as well as consider that some people could never begin to understand it.
It forced me to look at the basic definition of bias:
It is a result of something natural, a sort of mental knee-jerk which is triggered to make quick protective decisions – sometimes for the better (run away from a tiger), and sometimes for the worse (take me for a waiter because I’m a brown man). It is in most cases unconscious, but deeply embedded like a conviction, an implicit belief, which could be towards anything. It’s a thought.
It precedes stereotypes which are more explicit over-simplifications towards groups or individuals. It precedes prejudice, which is a fully-formed idea/feeling and it results in discrimination: thoughts or actions which can be advantageous or disadvantageous for individuals or groups, generally by unfair treatment of categories of people.
Discrimination, in turn, is a judiciable notion, considered by the international UN court, which condemns any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, sex, gender, sexuality, language, religion, political opinion, national origins, class, fortune.
Biases are not judiciable and we all have bias, negative or positive, affecting the way we see the world. No matter how open-minded, socially conscious, or anti-racist I think I am, I still have old, learned hidden biases that I need to examine, whatever my origin. Moreover, bias can be reinforced unconsciously through contextual life: families, media, environment, historical narrative, language, habits, social structures, political discourse. This is what makes them difficult to identify and become more aware of. They can prevent us from understanding someone else’s potential or point of view, and they can be dangerous and aggressive: “I cross the street when passing a group of coloured men, or polish workers.”
These thoughts shape our reaction to the world and more often than blatant racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, aggressions – micro biased aggressions are somehow daily and benign. Some are even culturally perceived as funny: “Blacks can move better”, “Asians are good at maths”, “Real men aren’t sensitive/don’t cry” etc.
These wrong assumptions are not justiciable bias, but they create wrong behaviours and systemic limitations. And in my personal life as well as in my company Exchange Theatre, I wanted to come up with a clarity of distinction, and tools to put in how we work.
The process began introspectively, looking at our own history as a company of foreign-born artists in the UK – Exchange Theatre have experienced biases and xenophobia throughout the whole of our fifteen years as a company.
The whole existence of Exchange Theatre is the result of not being offered work as actors at the time. We had accents, we had different training, a different culture. But as migrants, we tried to fit in, we were always very obedient, nice and polite even when we were treated unfairly or patronised. However, there are some traumatic experiences that we’ve tried to forget: one time a theatre manager shouted “ENGLISH!” at us on stage before opening the doors of his venue (that we had hired). No questions asked. When we proudly moved in our own rehearsal space for the first time, we threw a small quiet cocktail party for the opening, put a note out to the neighbours, one of them walked in uninvited, and when I told him we were theatre producers having a little celebration, he shouted, “NO, YOU’RE NOT!” No questions asked.
When you’re younger, you think that there’s only something wrong with ‘these people’ using the same generalisation they make about you, but you don’t see the underlying xenophobia – or you just block it out to prevent it from impairing your determination to be assimilated. Now that we have the tools to recognise when something wrong like this happens, I wish I could have flagged it sooner. I think it’s a bit sad to say that the way Exchange Theatre operates a policy of kindness, care and listening, comes from us just being treated with prejudice.
To create these tools, to understand and start opening the conversations about change, we had to look at our own biases first. Because although I share experiences of racism, I acknowledge my own share of privilege, and blinders – for instance we only made a conscious choice in 2016 to change how we cast/recruit. Before then, we also made some mistakes in unimaginative casting or tokenist representation.
It is everyone’s responsibility to check ourselves for our stereotypes, prejudice and discriminations, so that it doesn’t remain unconscious. Try listing how you cast and represented some characters and some professions in the past. Did you ever enforce a stereotype or generalisation? What part could have actually been played by different people? How were your casting and creative call-outs formulaic? Are you feeling defensive about any of it?
The tools for change are these questions, for ourselves and subsequently for the audience, through our work. Of course, these questions need time, nuance, attention to detail and to be unafraid to consider our own actions, and what we might find. This is what I had to do as a parent and as an artistic director this year. And this is what we do at Exchange Theatre to contribute to change.