Theatremaker Matthew Xia could not believe the racial microaggressions he was met with at the Edinburgh Fringe, so he put it on tape. Sadly, he found it was a situation that was only too familiar to people of colour.
This month I had the unusual feeling of emulating the protagonist of a novel that affected me greatly. That novel was Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. A few weeks ago I visited the Edinburgh Festival, and the sensations Ellison describes were uncomfortably close to my own: conspicuous because of my skin colour, yet isolated in invisibility. I arrived at the fringe during the first week of August to support Cosmic Scallies, a show that the Manchester Royal Exchange and Graeae had co-produced, then stayed on a few days to soak up as much theatre as possible.
The first couple of days passed without incident. I was sharing a flat with theatremaker Selina Thompson, whose show Salt, about a trip she made that retraced the international slave trade triangle, was on at Summerhall. I spent much of my time around that venue near the Meadows, where we presented the show in a space programmed by Northern Stage.
The programme at Summerhall was diverse, truly diverse, and this perhaps shielded me with a sense of international liberalism and made what was to come more surprising.
After a few days of walking through the city, especially the Meadows and the Royal Mile, I began to get a peculiar feeling.
Of the thousands of people thronging the streets trying to sell themselves and their shows to passers-by, not one had given me a flyer. There were more than 3,500 shows at the Edinburgh International Festival and the fringe, and the battle for audiences was fierce. The performers sang songs, performed publicity stunts and handed out flyers to everyone in the hope of getting a precious sale. Well, not everyone.
I noticed that very often the people in front of me would be spoken to, invited to the show and given a flyer. The people behind me would be given a flyer and treated to the same cordial invite. I was ignored.
I started to try and tempt the flyerers: make eye contact, smile. But still nothing
I started to try to tempt the flyerers: make eye contact, smile. But still nothing. I watched a series of drawbridges go up on either side of me as flyers were raised to chests and gazes averted. I began to question my own sanity, to ask if this was paranoia? Then it hit me, as it often does on family trips to rural England: everybody (else) is white.
The people handing out the flyers were, largely, white, as were the people they were giving the flyers to. The one black woman I saw promoting her show offered me a flyer, I almost snatched it from her hands I was so hungry for the interaction.
It was the same in restaurants, where white patrons were lavished with attention and I was treated indifferently. I tried to hail at least three black cabs (which advertised themselves as available for business) – they all acknowledged me, and chose to drive on.
The following day, having sat at the Pleasance Courtyard for more than half an hour watching every single white person receive flyer after flyer, it began to erode my sense of self.
Was I rendered socially invisible by my skin colour, like Ellison’s nameless central character? A woman approached the table I was sharing with a father and his two young children. It’s boring to have to keep pointing it out – but they were white.
My paranoia at this point had gone full throttle. It’s the beard. It’s definitely the beard. I decided I was going to shave when I got back to the flat.
Having contained this experience of Edinburgh during the festival alone for long enough, I spoke to Selina about it. She reassured me that I wasn’t alone in feeling this way – and that I didn’t need to shave.
It is her fifth fringe and she tells me of similar problems: no one flyering her, and of being ignored. Of there being fewer than 100 shows from artists of colour among the 3,500 in Edinburgh, about standing out and it being crushingly lonely. (It’s worth reading about her Edinburgh experiences on the website Exeunt.)
Inspired by the woman who filmed herself walking through New York to expose the daily barrage of catcalls that greets her, I stuck my phone down my belt and filmed what it was like to be a person of colour at the fringe. The video, 15 seconds in length and underscored with the sound of a distant bagpiper, shows two white men about four metres in front of me passing through two promoters.
They are offered a flyer and spoken to by both. I follow four seconds after as they avert their gaze and clutch their precious packets to their chests. Another few metres on and they are engaged again, this time verbally – I’m not.
I documented this to attempt to preclude what Reni Eddo-Lodge describes in her new book as the “gulf of emotional disconnect displayed when a person of colour articulates their experience… the bewilderment and defensiveness as [white people] try to grapple with the fact that not everyone experiences the world in the way they do”.
Responses on social media were mixed, from the expected defensiveness through to incredulity and sadness; although there was a pattern: every single person of colour who had been to the fringe reported a similar experience.
Actors told me of only – rarely – being acknowledged when they were with a majority white company. A writer told me he was stopped from entering a Summerhall venue by security, who then acted as if nothing had happened when his white friends arrived shortly after him. Amit Sharma told me he has pretty much never been given a flyer at Edinburgh.
Is it because people don’t want us to attend their shows? That they’re simply making theatre for their peers and their parents? I don’t think so. I think it’s something much colder, more insidious. This is unconscious bias manifesting as racial microaggressions. People give flyers to those they unconsciously believe ‘think like them’, and that’s people who look like they do.
In the split second required to work out whether to hand a flyer from the stack or not, it becomes easy to cast away ‘the other’. This extends to age, disability and gender – for example, I spoke to several people who were older than me who also reported a degree of exclusion.
Selina charts a shifting racial context across the time she has been attending the festival. I wonder how much the EU referendum result and bolstered intolerance is affecting this year’s atmosphere – is this the Brexit effect?
Or is it connected to the wider problem of structural racism in the UK? To cite Eddo-Lodge again: “Structural racism is dozens, or hundreds, or thousands of people with the same biases joining together to make one organisation, and acting accordingly.”
To move beyond this, we need to have uncomfortable conversations. And rather than dismissing that this is the experience for people of colour, accepting a collective responsibility to dismantle the thinking, biases and individual prejudices that support the structure.
Despite the humorous response I often get – “Count yourself lucky, who wants a thousand flyers to a thousand dreadful shows?” – I don’t count myself lucky.
I want the right to be informed, to be included, or rather, not to be excluded – I want the right to refuse.
This is a problem the festivals have to deal with. Due to their very nature, from a point of governance and policy this is an impossibility.
Therefore the individuals who comprise the festival have to address this issue. If every person of colour who attends reports a similar experience – of isolation, invisibility, and exclusion – then, along with the galvanizing and unifying work by artists of colour, it is up to everyone to invite us, to include us, to see us.