BECKET — I heard a disturbing story from one of our patrons here at Jacob's Pillow that has outraged me, and I can't stop thinking about it. She is a person of color and attended our gala last month. When she arrived, she didn't see many people that she knew at the cocktail party, so she headed into the Ted Shawn Theatre early for the performance.
She took her seat and began to read her program. A white couple sat down behind her and soon after, she felt the man's hand in her hair. She froze and didn't turn around. She told me this wasn't the first time someone had felt her hair uninvited. She has beautiful, tightly coiled hair and wears it in a ponytail that forms a halo of loose hair at the top of her head. The man said, "It's too bad they seated us here because we're going to have a hard time seeing the stage over that hair." At this, she stood up and left the theater.
She ran into a staff member whom she knew and decided to return for the performance. It's amazing to me that she didn't leave and give up on us.
After the performance, she went to sit at her assigned table for dinner. At a certain point, a white woman said: "What are you?" Not "who are you" but "what." Our patron, who had just endured a man groping and complaining about her hair, explained that she is bi-racial. The woman then began to ask her a series of questions: Who was black? Was it your mother or your father? What color was the person you married? What do your children look like? How do they feel about being bi-racial? Another woman at the table piped in to say that her husband descended from servants too, but they were indentured, and they were Irish.
The patron shared that this was also not the first time she's been questioned about her background. We talked about why some white people feel comfortable asking very personal questions that objectify people of color. Our conversation reinforced for me that treating fellow patrons as if they are fair game for one's curiosity or criticism is a worrisome sign of entitlement and bias.
NOT ISOLATED INSTANCE
I apologized on behalf of my institution. I am upset because I know that this story is not isolated. Our staff members of color endure similarly offensive interactions with some of our patrons. This patron trusted me enough to tell me her story. What about others who have had similar experiences but have never returned?
Many of our audience members at the Pillow return year after year and have a deep connection to the site, our history, and the dance that we present. It's a passionate and generous group of people that I care deeply about. And it's because I care so much for our audience, that I'm asking all of us to think collectively about what we should do to address bias and racism within our midst.
We at Jacob's Pillow, do not tolerate discriminatory behavior and have pledged to work to make meaningful change. Creating a climate of inclusiveness is fundamental, particularly as we seek to widen the circle of people who feel a part of our 87-year-old organization. We seek to engage more people, particularly in partnership with our year-round communities, in the work that we do. But what do we do when audience members violate our core values? Before every performance, in the recording that addresses where the exits are, we have added this announcement: "Thank you for joining Jacob's Pillow in our commitment to providing an environment that celebrates the art of dance, and supports an inclusive, diverse, equitable, and accessible community." In every program, we publish a patron code of conduct that includes the statement: "Please refrain from behavior that could disturb other patrons and performers ..." We are working as a staff to embody these core values, in our actions and accountability. How can we engage others in these commitments?
At a time when racism is more overt and less closeted, we need the arts to hold up a mirror to our current condition, to tell untold stories, to uplift us and to bring us together. We can diversify the artists and themes we celebrate onstage, the dancers we teach in our school, and the representation of people of color on our board and staff. What can we do to evolve our audiences so that our institution is truly inclusive?
This is a heavy lift that everyone in our community must think and talk about — from those who run cultural institutions to those who enjoy them. If you have thoughts about this topic, please write to me at email@example.com.
Pamela Tatge is the director of Jacob's Pillow.