Internalized racial oppression has ruined a lot of my auditions. If you’re unfamiliar with IRO, it’s the partner system to racism that operates within communities of color, in which we use the the narrative racism has inflicted on us to keep ourselves oppressed. It’s when an auntie shames you for wearing your hair natural. It’s when a black acting instructor tells you not to speak out against racism in the industry. It’s when you don’t use headshots where your nose is too big. You only have to show people for so long, in so many ways, that they’re subhuman before they start saying it to themselves and one another. Four years ago, I took the Harvard IAT for black-white racial bias and scored biased against black.
I am black.
Although I didn’t have a name for it then, it did not escape me that this was a very serious problem. It made me physically sick and afraid, but I knew I didn’t want to deny that it was true.
The test highlighted a series of moments in my life where IRO played a factor. I did not yet know how to process this and it created a massive identity crisis that followed me right into the audition room, though I told myself that it didn’t. The result of that ardent belief was out of a shining opportunity to work with a legendary black female director, on a legendary play, I created a dumpster fire. When you haven’t figured out how to process trauma, it’s amazing what you can do to yourself in between one audition and a callback. I got it into my head that the role I was called back for was their way of saying they just wanted me to be “blacker”. I was stopped, I was thanked, I was asked to leave. And as I stood in the wreckage of that day, it dawned on me that I was the one that lit the fire and I had no idea why. But I had to find out.
Here’s what I’ve learned.
It Does Not Go Away at the Stage Door
“Whatever you’re going through, whatever you’ve been through--it doesn’t matter. Leave it at the stage door” is something I’ve heard a million times as an actor. It infuriates me. It’s a privileged statement that leads those without access, ability, and luck to believe their lives don’t matter and their own erasure has more value than their experience. That phrase became one of tools I used to wall myself off from my own humanity. And not only is that precisely how IRO works, denying your humanity is precisely when your acting falls apart. I’ve watched my craft crumble in my hands in front of at least three major networks and on a few equity stages all because I tried to leave it outside.
Yes, some things you can drop right off mentally and pick back up post-rehearsal or shoot. While that list will shift depending on where you are in life, IRO by nature will never be on it. It is a functioning system that is maintained through ignorance so it demands awareness and presence in real time. Confront it so it doesn’t get to choose when to confront you. Whatever you’re going through, whatever you’ve been through--every single second of it matters. Before you walk through that stage door, validate yourself so they don’t have to. And when you walk through that stage door, know exactly what you want to bring in.
Don’t Take It Personal
I can’t speak for all cultures in America, but the one I’m exposed to has a tendency to make us believe that what we do is literally who we are. It’s like flashcards. As children, we see the card, we name it, and maybe as we mature we realize that the picture of the card lacks the nuance of the actual. But more often than not, we don’t differentiate between what indicates and what is indicated. Your behavior, including the oppressive parts of it, is a flashcard of you. You need only to look at your craft to know it’s true--behavior on stage is a single indication of a wide variety of things that make the whole of a character. Kindly, direct that understanding toward yourself.
IRO is not an issue of confidence, wokeness, wealth, or mental health--though a practice around addressing mental illness and attaining mental health helps a lot in dealing with it. It is a part of your experience, not the whole of it. As you go along your journey and you discover over and over the ways in which it rears its ugly head, remember that whether it comes from inside of you or out, you are not your oppression.
Awareness is a Process, Not A Place
I catch myself acting all the time that I can walk up to the castle of IRO, jump the flagpole, beat it up and call it a day. Even though intellectually I understood that racism in any form doesn’t work like that, it used to overwhelm me that I couldn’t approach IRO that way. I blamed myself and considered it a reflection of my worth. It wasn’t. But if I couldn’t ignore IRO and I couldn’t fight it, then how was I supposed to beat it? Eventually, I found that instead of a struggle for survival where all moves are right or wrong, I have to think about it like just another process where I consider what is effective and what isn’t.
Parts of how I deal with IRO come straight from the acting and rehearsal processes. When I get lost in the sheer vastness of it’s impact on my life, I anchor by giving myself the same space I would at a first rehearsal. I don’t know my lines, because knowing all your lines on the first day is ridiculous. I don’t know how to move comfortably through the space. Half the time, I don’t know the people I’m about to get intimate with for the three to five months. I’ve done it so many times but every time is unique. And I never question whether or not I will be a fully realized human at the end of it, I just will be.This approach works more often than not and when it’s not working, I adjust. What’s right and wrong isn’t always clear, but you can always figure out what’s working and what isn’t.
I grew up as a black girl in white, American, poverty where I learned very fast I didn’t belong. My mother is a white disabled woman who raised three of us on her own, without the internet. I can count on one hand the encouraging black experiences I had until adulthood. That lack is where internalized racial oppression found me and being honest about it has only made it easier to navigate.
Unaddressed loss creates a floodgate for bias in the mind, which in turn gives bias the role of keeping that gate open.
We have enough gatekeepers, don’t turn yourself into one.