Cruelty in the Name of "Antiracism"
with John McWhorter and James Beaman
Many of my readers are likely familiar with some of the most public, spectacular displays of woke excess in the culture. We could make a list—there are plenty to choose from. But in some ways the most worrisome examples of “woke religion”—as John McWhorter might put it—aren’t big news stories. In fact, they’re not covered in the press at all, because no one involved ever talks about them publicly. Ordinary, unprejudiced people are shunned by colleagues for making perfectly innocent comments. Having “learned their lesson,” these victims remain silent about their ostracism for fear that speaking about it will only make things worse for them. I’ve spoken elsewhere and at length about the “spiral of silence” that envelopes our discourse, wherein people who hold views they perceive to be unacceptable to the mainstream withhold their opinions for fear that speaking out will render them persona non grata, even if they suspect that many others secretly agree with them.
In the following excerpt from this week’s episode of The Glenn Show, the actor James Beaman does something courageous: he unravels the spiral of silence. He recounts a racially charged incident during rehearsal for a show that led to his own shunning. James did nothing wrong. He said nothing wrong. He’s certainly not, in my estimation, any kind of racist. He only tried, as an experienced actor, to encourage his castmates to maintain their professionalism. And for that—as you can hear in the full episode—he was treated as a non-entity by many of his colleagues.
As John remarks, James’s story is not an aberration in the theater. It’s the norm. I would add that it is likely the norm in many other venues, where the kind of cruelty James describes, carried out in the name of “antiracism,” happens behind closed doors and with the tacit assent of those who are ostensibly in charge. What isn’t normal is that James is speaking about it in a public forum, despite knowing that doing so could hurt his career.
How many James Beamans are out there? As long as the spiral of silence maintains its grip on our culture, we can’t know. I suspect that, if people begin speaking out, we’ll find that there are more than enough of them to pull us out of hole we’ve dug ourselves. But in order to find out, they have to speak up. And when they do, they’ll need our support. So I ask my readers: Do you have any stories like James’s? If you’re comfortable doing so, please share them in the comments (anonymously, if necessary).
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JAMES BEAMAN: I think Mr. Kendi is simplistic in a dangerous way. And I think that Ms. DiAngelo is going to have a lot to answer for, because she's set up a psychological abuse situation for people.
GLENN LOURY: I want to hear more about that, Jamie. But I think John needs to refresh his page. Okay. So he has logged off. He'll be back momentarily.
JAMES BEAMAN: Okay. I just wanna say to you guys, you know, I was coming back from Thanksgiving up in Woodstock, New York, and I was on the bus, and I listened to the Don Baton podcast again. And I listened to the most recent conversation you guys had about theater. And it made me upset that this professional in his field had to be incognito just to talk about some things that concerned him. I was thinking about, I saw the 92nd Street Y with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the late great Ruth Bader Ginsburg, where she was extolling this thing of blind auditions for orchestras because women were being barred entry into orchestras. It was this great thing and it identified a bias and it corrected it in a large way. And now that's being changed, and I'm thinking, mmm, okay ...
This is something you're not allowed to talk about as yourself. John and I talked about my coming on, because he's encapsulated my experience in an incredibly artful and anonymous way. We talked a lot about my coming on here. So I was doing a show, and it's a jukebox music. It's probably the original jukebox musical. I think, John, you encapsulated. There's a couple of episodes in this story that deal with race and the crossover between white musicians and black musicians and cross-cultural marriage. Your leading character marries—and it's a true story—marries a Latina. It's a wonderful relationship that's shown with some resistance from his family. It takes place at a particular time in history.
And there's this scene where the new wife is in the recording studio, and the producer's wife starts making jokes about her ethnicity. The thing that is a disconnect for me, and this is something that I really wanna touch on and I shouldn't be going on about other things, because this is the thing: the scene itself would've been a release and a statement. It is a statement against racism. And the Latina character triumphs in this scene. She says, “Hey! You don't get to do that. You think I don't know what you're talking about? I speak English, thank you very much.”
JOHN MCWHORTER: It's all right there on the page.
JAMES BEAMAN: Oh yeah. It's in the scene. And consequently, the leading character takes his wife, says, “Come on, let's get outta here” and breaks ties with his producer.
JOHN MCWHORTER: The audience always claps at this part.
JAMES BEAMAN: Yeah. I mean, it's a moment of, no, you don't get to be a racist, right? And instead, we're in rehearsal, and granted a lot of this happened with all the company in the room. There's a scene going on. And the scene stopped because the actress, the Latina actress, started berating this white actress because she wasn't being ugly enough in her bigotry in the scene. It was early days in rehearsal. The director was standing right there and really didn't guide this. This white actress was struggling with playing a bigot. I don't see that that is white fragility. She was getting chewed out by this other actor. And you just don't give another actor a note. It's kind of a basic thing.
JOHN MCWHORTER: The director just stands there and watches this.
JAMES BEAMAN: Let it happen. Yeah. I didn't really get it until later. I didn't really know what was going on. And then the white actress starts to cry, feeling kind of put upon, and everybody's watching this happen. From outta nowhere, one of the other BIPOC members of the cast starts screaming—and I'm talking unhinged levels of shrieking—gets up, charges over, gets in this woman's face and says, “You're not the victim! Stop crying! This isn't about you! This is not about you! This is about her!”
JOHN MCWHORTER; Right out the playbook. Wow. This is DiAngelo.
JAMES BEAMAN: Just completely unhinged. And there were three or four people just sort of screeching at this actress who's in tears, and the director's standing there. I didn't know that this was a thing. I didn't know what a disruption incident was. Triggering incident. So the reason that I'm telling this story is not to throw anybody under the bus. Because I truly think that people think they're doing the right thing.
JOHN MCWHORTER: They do.
JAMES BEAMAN: I truly think that they believe that they're doing the right thing. But how do you do a social project without everybody being in on it? I just didn't understand what was going on, and I didn't know that this was a thing. So I'm thinking, why isn't anybody managing this? We don't do this to each other as actors in the workplace.
A break was called, we all went away for half an hour. We were called back in, and then there was a circle up that happened to talk about what happened. It proceeded to turn into crying and sobbing and trauma, confessions and things from actors not in the scene, not involved. You know, young BIPOC people who are still in college, who are doing their summer stock thing, sobbing and crying about how traumatic it is for them to walk into a rehearsal studio that's full of white people and how wounding that is.
And I'm sitting there going, what is going on? I don't understand what's going on. Now, our director was a person of color, a man who really is terrific director, a man of integrity. He was ostensibly monitoring this conversation but just sort of let it play out. And I didn't know that my job as a white person was to be quiet and to be present in the face of this expression of trauma, and, yeah, to be silent. Which is hard for me anyway, as you've already probably surmised. And I'm sitting there going, yeah, but let's talk about professionalism and let's talk about how we don't give each other notes.
So I was trying to bring it back to the work. Because to me, when things start to get personal and there's a lot of ancillary things being brought into a situation where we all have to work together, that's why we have a union. That's why we have certain protocols that are accepted. I'm sitting there going, there's one director in a show and he's right over here and we don't do that. And they sneered at me. I had these young people sitting there like this [folds arms and frowns]. Do you know the beginning of To Sir, with Love? Remember To Sir, with Love? Sidney Poitier walks into his inner city London school with a bunch of indolent working class cockney kids, and they're all sitting there like [folds arms and frowns]. It was like that. I'm saying things like, you know, we're union members, we're members of a union. And they're like, “Union. Ha!”
So I came to the defense of this white actress, and I said, look, from my own experience in this show—I played this sort of good old boy Texan, and I had to say “colored people” three times. On the first day of rehearsal when I had this scene, I connected with the director. I said, how should this land? How do we want the audience to feel about my character in today's climate with this particular term? We had a conversation about it and we found a way to do it artfully and in a way that the audience would be okay with it. And I wasn't worrying about people of color in the audience. I was worrying about the white folks getting like, “Oh, I don't know if I should be here with that word.” Because that's where we're at, right? We dealt with it artistically. And I thought, that's the way to do it.
So I related a story about a show that I did back in 2015. I was lucky enough to be part of a staged reading of a new musical called Loving v. Virginia. Loving v. Virginia, obviously, was about the Loving case, which overturned the anti-miscegenation laws in America. The musical was written by Marcus Gardley, Obama's poet laureate. The music was by Justin Ellington. It was directed by wonderful Patricia McGregor. I was brought in as one of three or four white characters in this mostly people-of-color, wonderful piece. Very confrontational about race. And I was cast as the redneck sheriff who was a personification of evil. And I had to spit tobacco and say the N-word ad nauseum. And I had to try and rape.
JOHN MCWHORTER: Did you really have to spit tobacco?
JAMS BEAMAN: Well, not really. I mimed it. But he was a flat-out bigot. Unapologetic, unflinching. And that was not easy for me. What was interesting about it was we did our first read-through table read. This cast, I gotta tell you guys, I was a fan of some of these people. I mean, we had some of the great people of color of the American theater in this cast. And I'm like, yay! Then we do the read-through, and for the next week of rehearsal, the people of color avoided me. It was this weird ... like, that's not really me, right?
So we're sitting there having lunch one day, and I'm in the rehearsal room and some people left the room and I was there with a few of the of the people of color in the cast and they were on their phones. It was all very quiet. I'm going, let me start a conversation somehow. There's a wonderful actress in the show. Her name is Carmen Ruby Floyd. I don't know if you saw After Midnight. That was on Broadway, but it was this sort of Cotton Club-like capturing [of] that era. And Carmen, she stole the show. She sang “Creole Love Call,” and she actually sang it on the Tonys, I believe. She's just glorious.
I turned to her, and I just said, hey, Carmen's a really unusual name. How did you get the name Carmen? She went, “Well, my mother was a fan of Carmen McRae.’ And I went, oh my God! She was one of my mother's favorites! My mother was into jazz because her father was into it. And my mom's a first generation Ashkenazi Jew, you know, daughter of immigrants. She's a jazz fan. So I grew up surrounded by this music. Within five, ten minutes, Carmen and I and a couple of the other people in the room started having this amazing, lively conversation about Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone and all of these people. And I'm like, this is my childhood, you know?
So the reason I mention this is because I had, as part of this circle up at this theater, I said, you know, I had to play somebody even worse than that. That hurt my spirit to have to do that. It hurt. But it was my job. My job is to embody things that are uncomfortable. That's what actors do. And I don't understand this whole thing of people being so fragile that they can't. It's your job! That's your job.
So I brought this up, and I said that it was very hard for me, particularly because my sister was black. My sister was six months old when she was adopted. I was four, and I grew up with a sister who was a person of color. I've got two beautiful nieces and a nephew who are different shades of beautiful brown people. That's my family. And I brought this out, and I said, this felt very difficult for me. And one of these actors says to me, “You know, you didn't have to bring up your sister.” And I said, excuse me? “You shouldn't use your sister as a prop.” I said, well, that's when I leave the room. And I got up and I left. Because I didn't know my job was to sit there and be silent. I was injured by that.
JOHN MCWHORTER: Folks, what you're listening to is now a norm. This is not an eccentric story being told by one person. You are getting a vivid exposure to something that in the theater world is now a norm. And if anybody wants to say that people like Glen and me are making up this attack on wokeness, and that really we ought to be thinking about other things, that there's nothing significant going on, that all that's going on is that bad people are being held to account? How many people think that Jamie needed to be held to account for anything that he did?
This is not about bad people being held to account. This is about a hostile religion taking over the way we think, the way we perform, the way that we reason. And this is real. Now, January 6th was real, too. Book bannings are real, too. Anybody who thinks that this is not important and that we should only be talking about Glen Youngkin has a very narrow view of what it is to be a nation and what it is to be human beings.