I bring my whiteness with me wherever I go

From my family, I inherited an immigrant’s determination, values around doing good work in the world while making a living, a commitment to mutual aid, and the economic benefits of whiteness. 

My grandparents came to the United States from Poland by way of France in 1940. They were Jewish intelellectuals who escaped the holocaust by the skin of their teeth. Many of my grandparents’ siblings also escaped but scattered, creating a family diaspora with folks landing in France, Israel and Venezuela as well as here in the US. This connected, international family provided a network of mutual aid, with members helping each other out over the generations. 

Several family members pitched in to buy a small chicken farm in New Jersey in the 1950s, and while my grandparents continued their Yiddish journalism careers, their wealth and stability grew from a series of shrewd real estate investments over decades. My dad became a computer science professor and my mom was a therapist – both retired now. In one generation, my family went from penniless refugees to financially-stable, land-owning, upper-middle-class professionals. 

It took me until my 20s to understand that this path was not open to all. This story of prosperity – this successful implementation of the American Dream – was possible because of our whiteness.

I found my way to Oakland, CA in 2004 through a circuitous route that led through Chicago, Prague and Nepal, explorations in the theater industry and a public-school teaching career. I started a theater company, created a shared performing arts venue, and joined and created networks of arts professionals. As my years in Oakland passed a decade, then a decade and a half, my roots in the community got deeper, I married a local and had a kid, and my mom moved out to be closer to me. 

I have one foot in the Bay Area theater community, one foot in the Oakland cultural scene (which shares many members, values and identities with racial and social justice movements), a hand in the national Ensemble Theatres network, a hand in the social enterprise world, and perhaps a pinky in the cooperative real-estate movement. I also have a kid entering kindergarten in the Oakland public schools.

In terms of the Social Movement Ecology, I see myself squarely in the “Alternatives” approach. After heavy involvement in direct action in my 20s, I found that as an artist, I was more inspired to create the world I wanted to see rather than tear down and dismantle the one that existed. I also had no patience for the slow-changing world of government or large institutions. Throughout my career I have tried to create spaces that served a clear need and operationalized values I care about: equity, justice, honesty, health, interdependence, etc.

I saw that no one was creating the type of theater that I wanted to see, so I started a theater company (Ragged Wing Ensemble). I saw that there was no shared black box theater in Oakland, so I created one (The Flight Deck). I saw that there was no accelerator program for cultural enterprises in Oakland, so I started one (The Launch Pad). And I can see now that there is no way to network existing cultural spaces and create new ones, owned and democratically controlled by artists, so I am working on establishing one (Oakland Cultural Space Cooperative). 

The trouble is, in all of this creating of alternatives, I brought my inherited whiteness with me. How could I not? While all of the spaces, programs and institutions I have created have been wonderful and have led to great impact, when I step back to look at them, they still reproduce aspects of white supremacy culture that undergird and dominate our whole society. They are not “alternative” enough. 

I have reached a moment now, when I understand that I need to step back from creating alternatives, at least for a while, in order to do some deep personal transformation work within myself. I need to unlearn a lot of what I learned from my family, from the non-profit arts sector, and from the world about what success looks like and what leadership looks like. I need to deconstruct my identity, listen deeply to my community, and be very careful about where I put myself and how I move. I need to understand what my power is and how and when to wield it and how and when not to. And how to give some of it away. This is my current, most important work.

4 thoughts on “I bring my whiteness with me wherever I go

  1. Anna, thank you for sharing this background about your family and your work. I appreciated hearing you expound on it during our call today.

    I can relate to this line: “I also had no patience for the slow-changing world of government or large institutions.” As you reflect on past projects, are there any ways that government or large institutions could have been beneficial to their growth and sustainability? in what ways might building relationships with government and/or large institutions help or hinder future projects?

    “The trouble is, in all of this creating of alternatives, I brought my inherited whiteness with me.” How did it show up?

    You mention “deep personal transformation”. I’d love to hear more about what practices have helped you move toward that goal. What does it look and feel like? I hope this workshop and our peer group conversations are helpful to your personal transformation process.

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  2. I love your courage in acknowledging and allowing yourself to go through deconstruction. There are many things that can precipitate that; based on your comments in our group, I wonder if some reversals you’ve experienced could be triggering that–it might be helpful to examine that more deeply. I would love to hear what you discover about your Jewishness as well as how you are coming to understanding what your whiteness is. You mention you’re getting some feedback or sense that you ought to show up in a different way. How do you exercise the “right” degree of agency to exercise? what’s too much or not enough? Having a daughter early in her regional theatre career, I am very interested to learn what you see as future more cooperative structures for artists.

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  3. Wow, what an amazing family story. I really appreciate you sharing that history.

    It sounds like your caught in a conflict in your work. I noticed that you mentioned that much of your work has been wonderful. What was wonderful about it? What parts of it were successful? Sounds like there is a lot of good stuff there.

    On the other hand it sounds like you’re struggling with a white supremacist culture in the arts non profit world. One you feel you’re recreating or helping to recreate. You mentioned in our group chat on Wednesday that some sort of community conversation had brought that to the forefront. What happened?

    What would the wonderfulness that you were a part of developing look like if it didn’t recreate those negative aspects?

    Lastly … and don’t judge me: What’s a black box theater and why is in important? You need to educate me :).

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  4. Anna, thank you so much for sharing this about your family and life!

    This passage resonates with me (I, too, came to similar understandings in my 20s): “It took me until my 20s to understand that this path was not open to all. This story of prosperity – this successful implementation of the American Dream – was possible because of our whiteness.” I am wondering, do you have any recollections of how this recognition felt? Did this recognition come from a specific experience or experiences or over time? In what ways, if any, do you feel like you continue to carry the emotional weight of this recognition?

    Thank you again for sharing!

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