Politics

On Broadway, ‘Centering’ Antiracism Is Delightful

My 12-year-old daughter practically had to drag me into the musical “Six,” currently raging on Broadway, in which Henry VIII’s six wives all have their say about what happened to them. I wanted to see “Kimberly Akimbo.” I’m afraid I have lost touch with modern pop, and from a distance the whole “Six” premise sounded kind of unpromising to me (a singing Anne of Cleves?).

But after 15 minutes I was already itching to give it a standing ovation. Each wife comes out, in her way, as a proud, self-directed figure. For one, I love that my daughters will get this slice of history from the point of view (even if stylized) of the women, and even more that the women are cast as people of color(s), fostering a view of them as humans rather than racial types. In this, the whole show is a kind of lesson in antiracism, regardless of whether a viewer is consciously aware of it. In that way, it is a quintessentially modern work of musical theater. My daughters can sit through “A Man for All Seasons” some other time.

Beyond the lessons “Six” teaches, the performers manage some of the deftest work on Broadway I’ve ever seen. All six sing, act and move during almost the whole show at top-rate levels — I don’t even know how they remember all they have to do during the hour and a half — and the score does its job and then some: Every song in “Six” pops even if the genre isn’t your everyday soundscape.

So, “Six” can change your lens in an antiracist (and antisexist) way — while also turning you on to art, wonder, curiosity and excitement.

And this got me thinking about how much less vibrant, or even constructive, the antiracist mission feels at universities. Remember when, in 2020, the new idea was for them to “center” antiracism as their focal mission? One may have thought this was more trend than game plan, but it remains very much entrenched nationwide. According to the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, a conservative law firm, first-year law students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison just this semester were required to attend a “re-orientation,” learning that explained that white people have a “fear of people of color and what would happen if they gained ‘control’” and will never be free of “racist conditioning.” A University of Notre Dame “inclusive teaching” resource from last year notes that “anti-racist teaching is important because it positions both instructors and students as agents of change towards a more just society,” emphasis theirs, with the implication that this mission has unquestionable primacy in a moral society. Statements that antiracism (and battling differentials in power more generally) are central to university departments’ missions are now almost common coin. I just participated in a discussion of antiracism as universities’ central focus at the University of Texas at Austin and am regularly asked to do so elsewhere.

And I think the persistence of this centering of antiracism at universities is kind of scary.

It may understandably seem, after these four years as well as the ones preceding, that for universities to maintain antiracism as the guiding star of their endeavors is as ordinary as steak and potatoes.

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