In a year when it seems as if a day doesn't go by without a new report of a police officer shooting a person of color under dubious circumstances, it's obvious that there's a serious need for a discussion on the subject of systemic racism. Still, the fact that one is being led by a white guy might raise an eyebrow or two.
This past Saturday, local playwright and actor Michael Kearns hosted “White on Black: Ferguson Two Years Later,” the second in a series of conversations exploring racial themes, at the Silver Lake branch library. Delving into topics such as white privilege and the Black Lives Matter movement, the forum assembled Angelenos of varied ages, sexual orientations and ethnicities, among them Kearns' 22-year-old daughter, Katherine, who's African-American.
“I’ve learned so much being the parent of a black kid, especially in the last year or so with all the upheaval,” Kearns said during a one-on-one interview after the group discussion. “Her life is more precious and jeopardized emotionally. There are certainly ramifications to what’s happened over the last couple of years. I can see it on her, and it's my job to enunciate it to others.”
Katherine sat in the first row as Kearns directed the flow of conversation around the library’s conference room. Several white people in the room related anecdotes of bigoted relatives. A multiethnic former actress vented about the frustration she felt when a potential agent rejected her because “he didn’t know what to do with” her. A 15-year-old African-American poet talked about the tribulations involved in growing up black in the new millennium. While the event may seem like, as one participant put it, “preaching to the choir,” Kearns thinks it's important.
“There just aren’t safe spaces to talk about these issues, even if you are ‘singing to the choir,’” Kearns said. “A lot of people in the room acknowledged their racism, some for the first time in a public setting. A lot [that goes] toward healing the issue is acknowledging what you carry. Almost every white person carries some kind of racism.”
Known for being both the first openly gay and openly HIV-positive actor in Hollywood, Kearns has taken to writing plays with bias as their cornerstone. In last year’s Bang Bang, workshopped at Skylight and produced by Highways in April 2015, Kearns wedded overt homosexual themes with gun violence against African-Americans. But the playwright is quick to point out that equating the LGBT experience to the black experience is a kissing cousin of white privilege.
“You can hide that you are gay and get away with it for decades, as we know that some people do,” he says. “You can hide that you are HIV-positive. You cannot hide that you are black, generally speaking. It is a different phenomenon. A lot of gay people, I think, want to [claim] that their feelings of discrimination are greater than anybody else’s, including black people. I don’t think that’s true.”
The most effective aspect of “White on Black” was the way in which it blended catharsis with pragmatism. A portion of the discussion was allocated for offering practical solutions to combating racism. The one that resonated the most came from Ella Turenne, an African-American woman.
“Part of the problem is that this country hasn’t atoned for slavery,” Turenne said, pausing as the room roared with applause, “ … or all the atrocities, for stealing land, for building on the backs of indigenous and African people. Until that happens, we can talk about root causes, economics, education, but these norms that we have are so deeply ingrained that unless there is a public acknowledging and atoning for what brought us here, we can never get past it. In any program that you go to where you have a problem, you have to first say that there is a problem.”
Kearns says the next “White on Black” discussion will take place in October.