A Problem of Inclusion
An Asian American opera professional encounters unconscious bias.
At the May 26 Opera Conference panel “Creating Real Belonging,” the writer and activist Theresa Ruth Howard noted that artists of color, in order to get a place at the table, have to be twice as good as their white counterparts. “White people can see the potential of other white people,” she said. Her words made me contemplate my own experience as an Asian American scenic designer.
I personally feel that my physical appearance should have no bearing on my potential as a designer. However, experience has taught me that it remains a factor in every medium in which I work, whether film, television, theater, or opera. I have never wished to be hired to fill a quota for artists of color. Experience has taught me, when meeting potential new colleagues and company representatives, to proceed with caution. I often wonder whether my experience and qualifications have led to my hire, or if other considerations are involved. I have often felt like a quota hire, and when I’m engaged by a new company, that is usually my defensive reaction. The need to be treated and respected as an equal member of the team is of the greatest importance, but as recently as last year, I requested and was denied contract terms in parity with a Caucasian collaborator.
It is standard procedure to offer a contract before expecting a designer to work up a presentation, but in some instances, my own contract has come after I’ve presented my complete designs to the artistic management. This even happens with companies where I’ve previously worked. It feels like, even though I have already established my qualifications as a designer, I am nonetheless expected to “audition.”
I have given financial support to arts organizations, including opera companies, as a donor. I again expect to be treated as other donors are. But more than once, I’ve purchased tables for company galas and found myself seated in “Siberia”— by the kitchen. In one instance, I was serving on the company board (as the only trustee of color) and I had helped plan the event: using my background in live presentation design to arrange the layout of the space; creating and editing clips for a video presentation. I underwrote two tables for the gala, and when I got there, I discovered to my chagrin, if not surprise, that these flanked the kitchen door. I do not know what criteria were used for the seating assignments, and I do not believe that conscious bias played a part. But nonetheless, I had been given worse seats than people who had given comparable donations.
When trustees assess the issues of diversity and inclusion, they should get a sense of what the audience experience might be for minorities. I have, in fact, experienced audiences who have made me feel welcome. Sometimes, though, I have gotten seats in a premium section among people who think I’m in the wrong place. More than once, after I’ve already been seated, an usher will ask to check my ticket a second time. I get the impression that the older operagoers around me are clearly not used to sitting next to audience members who are not Caucasian.
A company may profess a commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion, but all too often, I have encountered microaggressions in the workplace. These experiences are not typical — most of the time, I’ve been treated as an equal member of the creative team — but they stand out in my memory. At the invitation-only dress rehearsal of a production I had worked on, the house manager questioned me about my role on the production staff — three times in the course of the evening. Even though I explained that I was one of the designers, the house manager still thought that, because I am of Asian descent, I was a friend of one of the student violinists in the orchestra, hanging out in the theater before the invited audience came in. The second time he approached me, he put his hands on my shoulders to make sure I didn’t walk away, and once again asked me if I was with “the kids” — the members of the orchestra. When I explained for a second time that I was the production’s designer, he let me go.
But I was then followed for about 10 minutes by an usher who also asked me if I was with the production. During the rehearsal itself, the same house manager came up to me yet again and asked the same questions. When I expressed annoyance about these multiple inquires, he explained that there were many new people the production and he was still getting used to recognizing them. In fact, though, I was the only “new” production person in the audience. I think the real problem is that with the exception of one costume designer, the company had not hired any designers of color for many years. I have to assume that they were not used to the idea of a non-Caucasian designer working for them.
I later brought this up to the project’s producer. The response? “I’ll do whatever you want me to do” — essentially throwing the problem back to me. I suggested that in the future, they provide ID cards for their guest artists. In all honesty, I suspect the production management and department heads found the whole incident amusing and of no serious concern. The incident struck me as a manifestation of racism, but I got the sense they all thought I was overreacting.
I am in this for the long haul. But I think that arts organizations often look at their use of artists of color as a kind of novelty hiring. Opera companies that present Madama Butterfly now go out of their way to find an Asian soprano for the title role. That’s all good, but if the soprano’s performance of Cio-Cio-San brings success to your company, should she not be considered to return to sing Violetta, Tosca, or Salome?
I have wondered if there is a solution. Currently, I am still looking and honestly am not very optimistic. Biases, both conscious and otherwise, come into play more often than any of us want to admit. This spring, Amy Cooper, a white investment executive, falsely accused Christian Cooper, a black birdwatcher, of harassment. People across the country reacted with horror, but it hit a special nerve with me. I realized that the microaggressions I’ve encountered come from people with the same mindset as Amy Cooper. They feel they have an unspoken license to behave badly toward people of color because the consequences won’t be the same as if their targets were Caucasian. The world of opera is not disproportionately full of Amy Coopers. But the mindset is there.