When I left Bryce Monroe’s production “The Lower Frequencies,” I was angry. I felt attacked, marginalized and stereotyped. I somehow felt simultaneously invisible and horribly, garishly visible. I felt muted by the inadequacy of language in speaking my reaction and trapped by the in trusion of others who did so for me. The irony of what I, a member of the “model minority,” felt does not escape me. It was not the play that made me react this way, but the question-and-answer session that followed.
“It was messed up how members of the audience stood up to clap at the end of the production, essentially applauding at black death.” When a black audience member stated this, I squirmed uncomfortably in my seat along with the all but handful of people who remained seated. Her frustration was completely justified. She had every right to resent the “colonization of the stage” that occurred when the Caucasian director monopolized the question-and-answer session with his own “personal” encounters with race. She had every right to her feeling of being under the “white man’s gaze.” A feeling that occurred even before the director physically imposed himself on the stage. A feeling that began when non-black eyes, possessing the power to judge, but not to understand, were fixed on Bryce Monroe during his performance. A feeling that was only affirmed by the seemingly insensitive clapping of audience members.
Following her comment, I wondered why I had given Bryce Monroe a standing ovation after his painful and drawn-out final scene. I do not think I clapped at the “spectacle” of it all. When I stood up to applaud Bryce Monroe’s production, it was not at black death. It was not at entertainment value. It was not at very real sadness and pain. It was at his intention. I applauded at Bryce’s courage in sharing a story so personal to him and so unfamiliar to me despite knowing I could not fully understand and thus could not fully appreciate it. I applauded to show I tried to grasp the best I could the difficulty of his Herculean effort. I applauded to make myself heard in saying “I hear you.”
“White and non-black people of color just came to this show to check off one of their boxes and have some comment to make in their black studies class on Monday.” The distinct category of “non-black people of color” was created by a black audience member after an Asian boy stated that although he was a “person of color,” he could not understand the experience of blacks. Immediately, this distinct category was made non-distinct by lumping it in, on every occasion, with white people. I felt frustrated at this. I fumed at the ease with which yellow diluted into white to fit the preexisting framework of speaking about race. I resented their assumption that they could comprehend, define and categorize the experience of Asians and Asian Americans and turn it into something unchangeable, unrealistic and uniform.
But then I understood. The lack of self-definition that I only became aware of in occasional moments like this one was one that black people experienced constantly. To me, the act of people claiming to understand another person or people’s experience and pocketing it to play into some self-satisfying, progressive image of themselves was just a temporary annoyance; but to the black audience member, it confirmed fears that would linger much longer.
I do not claim to understand the play. More importantly, I do not claim to understand the life. I want to grasp it, and I kind of do, but certain parts will always remain out of my reach, and rightfully so. Because I cannot understand, I am unwillingly ignorant. Because I cannot comprehend, I bring misunderstanding and unintentional colonization to every encounter. Because there is so much I do not know, it is easier to simply disengage.
Paralyzed by guilt and unnerved by the awareness that any attempt to do right could be so very wrong, I was thankful when a non-black audience member asked about our role in causing change. In response, a black audience member stated how it should not be the burden of black people to fix problems that others created. The cruel irony she elucidated was correct and shame-inducing. But if those questions are not discussed and that dialogue does not take place, where can we go?
Non-black people should not be so afraid of being wrong. We can be judged. We can be insulted. As long as we are corrected, it is worthwhile. Again, I realize it is not fair that black individuals have to work harder and endure more to rectify mistakes that are not their own. Why should they have to be patient and kind in correcting us? Why should they be expected to applaud our well-intentioned but horribly misguided efforts? Why should they have to tediously redefine their experiences in the eyes of others? Why can’t they just live their experiences in terms of themselves? We messed up. It is not fair. But if people stay separate, if experiences continue to be misunderstood and if resentment remains, how can anything change