"They put me in this dark little room"

By Rob Wipond, March 2011

Métissage creates a stirring view of our shared oppression.

 

It was a very unusual way of discussing power and discrimination. And it left me thinking we should be doing it more.

After lunch in a lounge for about a hundred people during the University of Victoria’s recent Diversity Conference, we prepared to hear actors recount true experiences of an anonymous UVic female custodian, Aboriginal technical worker, black office worker and student, and female sessional instructor. 

During introductory remarks, the co-directors, theatre PhD candidate Will Weigler and educational psychology instructor Catherine Etmanski, explained that the project had hatched out of a growing awareness that UVic’s own challenges in achieving a healthy, diverse workplace for its non-faculty staff are rarely openly discussed.

“Their experiences of what happens is, as they say, where the rubber meets the road,” Weigler observed. “So we thought, how can we create an opportunity for their voices to be heard?”

They decided upon “métissage.” This experimental communication form, literally meaning “mixed-blood” from the same Latin root as Métis, gathers personal stories to help draw linkages between different cultures, identities, races and genders. By having the actors interrupt each other often, even more juxtapositions are created that might reveal connections and parallels between the stories.

It sounded esoteric—until we watched how, in mean-spirited janitorial conflicts, stodgy faculty meetings, affirmative action arguments, and awkward classes, similar feelings of humiliating disempowerment kept arising:

“Two men, I didn’t have any idea who they were, proceeded to scold me as if I were a child, about how if the building was not kept clean, it would start to look like a dog’s breakfast.”

“It was the same group of usual suspects in the meeting, all men—a sea of suited men with greying hair. All senior members of the faculty, all convinced that they didn’t need any opinions from me.”

And we heard repeatedly about the unsettling experience of being displayed as different, or ignored as different:

“I am a member of Designated Group: ‘Aboriginal Peoples: 04: Semi-Professionals and Technicians’... I am helping to fill a deficit of Aboriginal staff.”

“Everyone in the class would quietly stare at me waiting for [my perspectives] as the only visible minority there.”

Trivial acts like calling someone “dear,” using insider terminology, or chatting about golf started to look like stark symbols of power and exclusion when we spotted them popping up in countless social situations like secret handshakes. Forms of oppression emerged again and again, like a three-dimensional picture becoming visible within an apparently chaotic matrix of coloured dots. 

Meanwhile, the unaffected, openly vulnerable manner in which the actors spoke served as a model for the audience discussion that followed, which revealed similar commonalities in people’s stories.

A Latina woman described how she’d struggled in class until the professor had loudly insisted she stop apologizing for her accent because “it’s part of who you are.” 

A Philippine immigrant described her children’s long process of overcoming their cultural displacement to build friendships. 

An Aboriginal elder then stood and told of one day long ago in a Cowichan community centre steam room when a man had said, “Something smells really bad in here...” and then had prompted everyone to look at him.

“It scared me to death,” the elder said. His feelings had gone reeling into memories. “It brought me back to this young boy, six years old, taken away to a residential school.” He’d cried so much, so often, he said, “They put me in this dark little room all by myself. And I was so petrified, when I wanted to go to the bathroom, I peed myself.” Being stared at by everyone in the steam room as if he smelled, he said, “took me back to that place.”

After years of reconnecting with his culture, he’d healed that boy, he said. He then took up his drum and asked us to listen for the “powerful echoes” of the words we’d all been sharing. After his story and song, which lasted over ten minutes, the room was silent for a long time.

Then a black man who worked at UVic and had lived in South Africa under apartheid spoke. 

“I’m just so touched inside me... I realize that somehow there must be some kind of a safe place here. It might not be even the room, it might be that this event and this presentation created this feeling and this realization that we can be safe and talk about what really matters to us.”

As he described his own observations of our underlying commonalities of experience, I noticed how discrimination was taking on cross-cultural, even archetypal dimensions. Feelings of elemental fear, vulnerability, or anger at being treated like a powerless child or animal recurred regardless of whether the discrimination involved gender, sexuality, class, race or disability. 

I also pondered how differently this was unfolding compared to what normally happens during audience discussions after a play, film or presentation, when even brief, personal digressions are generally regarded as mere annoyances. 

In discussion with me later, Weigler pointed out that’s the very goal of métissage—to nurture stronger respect for how the thread of each person’s story adds something vital to the fabric of collective understanding. And politically speaking, he argued, its ability to help display our essential interconnections, regardless of the differences in our separate experiences, makes métissage “a wonderful tool for building allies.”

After that experience, it was easy to agree.

Rob Wipond is becoming increasingly interested in hearing about creative ways of communicating. He can be communicated with at rob (at) robwipond (dot) com