Hi, I’m Jonnie and I’m a Psychology student at the University of Warwick. I’m going to be writing about Diversity and Racial Dynamics in Theatre, as I am heavily involved in the drama societies on campus and have founded a new society BAME Creatives.
BAME Creatives is my baby, it’s taking up most of my waking hours! I am trying my best to expand the society as much as I can, answer relevant criticism and legitimise its existence every day but its purpose is to focus on aiding the struggles of BAME performers, directors, writers and artists and to give them a meeting place to share their experiences. (By the way for those unaware, BAME stands for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic and is more or less a way of describing everyone that is not predominantly white and British.) I started this society because of my own struggles with racial discrimination, and to stop others from ever feeling the pain and social humiliation I felt ever again. To help you understand my pain and why I am so passionate about this society, I think it is important for me to share my experience being a person of colour in a predominantly white art form and how this has impacted my life.
I am of Afro-Caribbean descent- my mum is white; my dad is black. Growing up, I never really experienced racial abuse. I was always one of the only people of colour in my primary schools, but I didn’t really understand how I was any different from others because, like most kids, I didn’t really see race. The first instance of abuse I can think of is my sister being called a “blackie” at a track meet, and I didn’t understand the term at the time. How could someone commenting on the colour of my skin be a retort or insult? My naivety on the subject extended until I reached secondary school.
I was very fortunate to attend Whitgift, one of the most multicultural schools in one of the most ethnic areas of London, so finding a lot of people like me wasn’t that hard. I had friends that were black, white, Asian and everything in between. You may be thinking that this sounds idyllic and a perfect environment for me to develop, and it was- but it also had its flaws. As society so often shows us, multiculturalism can garner extreme forms of isolationism. In the microcosm of my school, football teams were separated by race- lunchtime bouts were decided between “the colours” and “whites”, and I had friendships that were subconsciously defined by race- I had white friends and I had black friends. This was intensely problematic for me growing up as I have always felt divided from both. Not white enough to feel privileged, not black enough to feel a deep sense of heritage and pride in my African roots. I am in no way saying I hate being mixed race- I love it. The thought of being entirely either would be a betrayal of my identity.
Fast forward 5 years and I have faced the most racially challenging period of my life. In the last year, I have felt tokenised, ashamed and downright unworthy of bearing my Afro-Caribbean heritage. The guilt I felt for never truly embracing what made me different from others is something I still carry to this day. Whilst performing in society theatre I have been moved to tears as a result of this guilt. Whilst performing at the Edinburgh Fringe this August I was racially abused by a drunken audience member, whom called me a “brownie” during a performance of my show. I can honestly say I have never felt so devoid of happiness and confidence in my life, but the overriding emotion I felt, was guilt. I felt guilt because telling my producer about the incident has permanently changed our memories of an amazing experience, I felt guilt for making my grandmother hold me whilst I cried from embarrassment when that was the only time I got to see her for several months, and most importantly I felt guilty for being me. I felt guilty for being brown because if I wasn’t then the racist idiot wouldn’t have had anything to heckle me about. I still do this day feel that guilt and I’m still reconciling with that, but the creation of my society is a positive first step.
Creating BAME Creatives has already allowed me to become more in touch with my heritage, researching and understanding elements of theatre I had never considered and has allowed me to share my pain with similar experiences. Only by sharing, accepting and owning my pain have I been able to heal and make a positive influence in my university. The support I have already received for the society has been incredible and I am truly grateful to those that have supported me in this journey. However, it is a long old trail to happiness and accepting my racial identity and I, as well as the society I’ve founded, are both very much a work in progress. If you have read thus far, giving our page “BAME Creatives” a like on Facebook truly means the world. I never thought people would get behind my crazy idea to help unify my university and whenever I see someone else has “approved” of my lunacy it makes me incredibly happy.
I would also love to thank Issie for this chance to share my story and please follow her blog for much better content than mine coming in the future!
Much love, Jonnie x