How to Talk About Race Without Getting Stuck in ‘Clybourne Park’ (Participation)

Thoughts about how to talk about race, the article below, and the obstacles to those conversations:

How to Talk About Race Without Getting Stuck in ‘Clybourne Park’

In “Clybourne Park,” at Walter Kerr Theater on Broadway, characters pick up the conversation about race where Lorraine Hansberry’s “Raisin in the Sun” left off. Nathan Johnson

Bruce Norris’ play “Clybourne Park” picks up the conversation about race where Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” left off. Nominated for four Tony Awards, this drama is set in fictional Clybourne Park—the Chicago neighborhood that represents the American dream to the Younger family of “Raisin.” The first act of the play simmers as the all-white community comes to terms with the idea of blacks moving into their midst during the 1950s. The second act explodes as the same neighborhood, now all-black and neglected, is “rediscovered” in the 1990s. Two affluent couples, one black and one white, face off over zoning laws. What begins as a negotiation over building codes develops into a screaming match about race, gentrification, and identity.

The two couples spend a great deal of time talking around the structural issues of racial change in the neighborhood. When race is finally addressed by name, both the actors and audience erupts. The talk of race sucks the air out of the room, exposing prejudice and insecurity underneath the studied colorblindness of the couples. Everyone ends up a victim; everyone ends up attacked. It’s easy to walk away from the performance skeptical about productive conversation between people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds.

But there’s another way to talk about about race, one that moves everyone forward rather than driving them apart. Just because we start from different points doesn’t mean we can’t come together and have an honest discussion. So here are four ways to not get stuck in Clybourne Park.

Make the Structural Visible
Norris’ Clybourne Park is a neighborhood that’s been gripped for generations by destructive economic forces, such as redlining and white flight. But the characters shy away from addressing these structural issues. In real life, it’s also easy to avoid talking about policies and laws that affect us all. No one wants to sound preachy, dorky, or like a conspiracy theorist. But racism isn’t a problem of individual actions, it’s a problem of systems. Simply blaming individuals makes for great theatrics but poor understanding. It’s easy to resort to name calling if we don’t look at the context of our choices.

Leave Room for Everyone
Lena, the only black woman in the room, repeatedly tries to break into the conversation. She gets sidelined again and again. As she prepares to make a point about the changing face of Clybourne Park—her neighborhood—she is rendered invisible. Her silencing comes not only from the whites in the room, but from her own husband Albert. We all have a voice, but some instantly carry more weight. Any genuine conversation needs to involve both talking and listening. A true discussion of race and privilege needs to accept that all voices are important, even if they collide or create discomfort.

Say What You Really Mean
In our supposedly colorblind society, racial differences are hidden in coded words. In “Clybourne,” Lindsey, a white woman, talks about her comfort “once I stopped seeing the neighborhood the way it used to be, and could see what it is now, and its potential.” When Lena challenges her to clarify, Lindsay responds with “the changing, you know, demographic.” We’re uncomfortable with saying what we mean, because sometimes we mean uncomfortable things. But hiding under code words is a move away from honesty. Being honest requires you to weigh your statements carefully and stand behind them.

Don’t Be a Jerk
Honesty always has to be balanced with thoughtfulness. When you traffic in stereotypes, you never know who will be affected. As the insults start flying, Steve, a white man, tells a story that his wife begs him to skip. Her insistence lets us know that this will be a terribly offensive joke. He refuses to back down, and delivers the punch line to the horror of black and gay characters alike. His determination to speak, regardless of hurting others, starts a downward spiral of racist jokes. Maintaining a respectful tone goes a long way, and when that tone is broken, all hell breaks lose. Race is difficult enough to talk about without being a jerk.

Let’s keep the drama on the stage, but out of our lives. Norris has done us a favor by showing us the worst version of ourselves. “Clybourne Park” shows us the limits of our present discussions—coded language, colorblindness, and blaming individuals. With numerous productions in England, Canada, and the United States, the play clearly touches a nerve in our increasingly multiracial societies. But we can avoid the shouting and screaming with an intentional approach to talking about race.

Tiffany Bradley is the online marketing associate for the Applied Research Center, which publishes Colorlines.com. She has worked for arts consortia such as Americans for the Arts and Heart of Brooklyn, and tweets @tiffanymarket.

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4 thoughts on “How to Talk About Race Without Getting Stuck in ‘Clybourne Park’ (Participation)

  1. I thought that this reading was incredibly interesting. One of the things that i thought was interesting was how blunt all of the characters were. Although i dont think that people in our society should be this blunt, i think that people should talk about race more openly than they do now. Another point that was made in the reading was to leave room for everyone. I think that often times we are so afraid of race that we put off asking someone of a different race to speak because we are too afraid that someone will think that we are a racist. The truth is though, if people of different races were all engaged in a conversation, we would be much more likely to have an interesting and diverse conversation. It is also good to mention that although we may be a part of the majority at one point, we could just as well be a part of the minority at a different point. We always need to be kind, and never be a jerk.

    -Barrett Porter

  2. Without practice, it can be quite easy to “get stuck in Clybourne Park.” Practice, and lots of it is the key to progressive conversations involving race. Giving every person in the room the chance to be heard is important, but actually allowing yourself to be open minded about accepting their ideas is more important. You may not agree with what they have to say at first, or ever, but they have an opinion for a reason, and I believe everyone should at least strive to ‘walk a mile in someone else’s shoes,” and truly try to understand each other. We have to accept differences before moving forward.

    There is a very thin line between being honest with our opinions and not being too forward or rude. Honesty is always best, but negative stories about one individual or one stereotype doesn’t lead to a progressive conversation about race, they lead to resentment and insensitivity. By the same token, if you can’t speak about your true and honest opinion, then the conversation becomes extremely staged or fake. Speaking in broader terms helps to not target a specific person and being open minded can help us understand other people’s actions and intentions.

    -Sarah Farmer

  3. I thought that this article was really interesting to read because it gave an alternative way to talking about race. It said things that I would have never even thought about. For example, the section talking about how people should just say what they mean, even if it sounds uncomfortable. It seems like people usually try to sugarcoat everything so this statement was really surprising to me. I think that if people could just move past this then it would become a lot easier for everyone to talk about race. People would stop trying to tip toe around what they are saying and this would make conversations move faster and be more efficient.
    Another point that this article made that made a lot of sense to me was the section about leaving room for everyone. It talks about how people not only need to say what they want to say about race, but they also need to listen to what other people have to say. This makes it so that everyone has the chance to share their option, but they also have the chance to learn from others.

  4. To me this article was interesting because it is talking about a play but this play could be one of those plays that shows what kind of people some people are and or could be. One of my favorite parts in the article is when they just say what they mean without hesitation. They do not care how the person will react. I believe that some people be more like that because their people in the world who want to hear the truth but they want the person who is saying it to sugar coat it. They shouldn’t they just say it as it is and if they do not like it it is their problem, because they are the ones who wanted to hear it. I really thought this paper gave some good insight. -Nohemi Meza

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