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That’s So Raven

There’s a statement we often present to students taking part in our Studio 180 IN CLASS workshops, asking them to respond by placing themselves on a spectrum between “strongly agree” and “strongly disagree.” It’s a very simple statement but it invariably opens up an animated discussion around issues of identity.

Labels are always damaging

While the conversations are usually fueled by the plays we’re producing or by complex social issues that teachers have asked us to examine in the classroom, every once in a while some good old fashioned pop culture really gets the ball rolling. Such was the case last week when former Cosby Show and That’s So Raven star Raven-Symoné sat down with Oprah Winfrey and defiantly rejected being categorized as “gay” or “African-American”

As anticipated by Ms. Winfrey herself, the comments opened up a firestorm of controversy on Twitter and the blogosphere with many denouncing her rejection of popular nomenclature as a backwards thinking, naive and destructive rejection of marginalized communities that would be well served by her standing in solidarity. If I may sheepishly embrace my own labels, as a straight, white, cisgendered male, I feel ill equipped to pronounce judgement on Raven-Symoné’s assertions but I can’t help but be intrigued by the conversation surrounding them. So I thought I’d open up the conversation a bit by checking in with an artist currently examining issues of identity (sexual, racial and beyond) in a show that “reveals what it is like to be sexy and proud, slutty and loud, queer and brown.” That artist is Catherine Hernandez, currently onstage at Buddies In Bad Times in The Femme Playlist, playing in rep with Brotherhood: The Hip Hopera, presented as part of bcurrent’s afteRock Plays.
The Femme Playlist's Catherine Hernandez

The Femme Playlist’s Catherine Hernandez

When asked whether labels are divisive or unifying, Hernandez is quick to point out the semantic complexities. “I think we have to think critically about who uses the labels. Also, let’s think critically about the use of the term “labeling”. As a person of colour I can tell you that re-framing this term to be “identifying” is empowering.” Having positioned it as an issue of identification, Hernandez is clear about embracing self-categorization. “Identifying as a woman of colour and queer is part of my survival,” she offers. “It allows me to find community in a post-colonial world that seeks to keep divisions amongst us alive and keep us from creating cohesion, because our cohesion is dangerous to the machine of whiteness. When you are part of an oppressed community, identification is imperative to surviving.” For Hernandez, understanding the distinction between identification and labeling is vital. “Now, labeling for me, has a different connotation. It connotes either cultural appropriation (Iggy Azalea) or a group of privilege labeling something that is not theirs to identify (“That’s sooo Zen!”). If we think critically about our place in this world – which I try and do on the regular as an ally to groups less privileged – we can hold these terms in our hands and be mindful.”

The notion of privilege informs Hernandez’s hesitancy to pass judgement on Raven-Symoné’s comments. “No matter what my response is to the video, I do not, as a person of privilege, (since I am of colour and not Black) have a right to tell a Black woman how she wants to be identified. She can do whatever the hell she wants. I do not, and neither does anyone who is more privileged than her have the right to discuss this.” As for the notion of solidarity, Hernandez sees identifying openly as a member of a given group as merely one way of standing united with a community. “Coming out is a privilege. There are thousands around the world who do not have that luxury and live in fear simply because they love. As a fellow queer I would never expect anyone to come out to support my identity. As for being Black: I am not Black so I have no right to discuss this. But as a person of colour I can tell you when my fellow community members simply wake up, get out of bed and survive micro-aggression after micro-aggression, that is all the solidarity I need.”

The situation brings up a lot of intriguing questions around notions of privilege (sorry Mr. Tory – it does exist), allyship and just who is entitled to discuss issues that don’t directly effect the communities of which they are a part. We can all have an opinion on such matters but who is entitled to discuss those opinions or to pass judgement? And is there a distinction between the two?

Thanks so much to Catherine for helping us kick the discussion off and for taking the time to reflect during her very busy schedule.

The afteRock Plays are on stage at Buddies until October 25.

AFTEROCK1

  • A co-founder of Studio 180, Mark is a Toronto-based actor, writer and producer. As a member of our Core Artistic Team, Mark coordinates the company’s new play development initiatives and is one of our Studio 180 IN CLASS workshop leaders. More posts by Mark McGrinder

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