How to Talk About Race Without Getting Stuck in ‘Clybourne Park’

Jun 08, 2012

Bruce Norris’ play "Clybourne Park" picks up the conversation about race where Lorraine Hansberry’s "A Raisin in the Sun" left off. Nominated for four Tony Awards, this drama is set in fictional Clybourne Park–the Chicago neighborhood that represents the American dream to the Younger family of "Raisin." The first act of the play simmers as the all-white community comes to terms with the idea of blacks moving into their midst during the 1950s. The second act explodes as the same neighborhood, now all-black and neglected, is "rediscovered" in the 1990s. Two affluent couples, one black and one white, face off over zoning laws. What begins as a negotiation over building codes develops into a screaming match about race, gentrification, and identity. The two couples spend a great deal of time talking around the structural issues of racial change in the neighborhood. When race is finally addressed by name, both the actors and audience erupts. The talk of race sucks the air out of the room, exposing prejudice and insecurity underneath the studied colorblindness of the couples. Everyone ends up a victim; everyone ends up attacked. It’s easy to walk away from the performance skeptical about productive conversation between people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. But there’s another way to talk about about race, one that moves everyone forward rather than driving them apart. Just because we start from different points doesn’t mean we can’t come together and have an honest discussion. So here are four ways to not get stuck in Clybourne Park.

Make the Structural Visible

Norris’ Clybourne Park is a neighborhood that’s been gripped for generations by destructive economic forces, such as redlining and white flight. But the characters shy away from addressing these structural issues. In real life, it’s also easy to avoid talking about policies and laws that affect us all. No one wants to sound preachy, dorky, or like a conspiracy theorist. But racism isn’t a problem of individual actions, it’s a problem of systems. Simply blaming individuals makes for great theatrics but poor understanding. It’s easy to resort to name calling if we don’t look at the context of our choices.

Leave Room for Everyone

Lena, the only black woman in the room, repeatedly tries to break into the conversation. She gets sidelined again and again. As she prepares to make a point about the changing face of Clybourne Park–her neighborhood–she is rendered invisible. Her silencing comes not only from the whites in the room, but from her own husband Albert. We all have a voice, but some instantly carry more weight. Any genuine conversation needs to involve both talking and listening. A true discussion of race and privilege needs to accept that all voices are important, even if they collide or create discomfort.

Say What You Really Mean

In our supposedly colorblind society, racial differences are hidden in coded words. In "Clybourne," Lindsey, a white woman, talks about her comfort "once I stopped seeing the neighborhood the way it used to be, and could see what it is now, and its potential." When Lena challenges her to clarify, Lindsay responds with "the changing, you know, demographic." We’re uncomfortable with saying what we mean, because sometimes we mean uncomfortable things. But hiding under code words is a move away from honesty. Being honest requires you to weigh your statements carefully and stand behind them.

Don’t Be a Jerk

Honesty always has to be balanced with thoughtfulness. When you traffic in stereotypes, you never know who will be affected. As the insults start flying, Steve, a white man, tells a story that his wife begs him to skip. Her insistence lets us know that this will be a terribly offensive joke. He refuses to back down, and delivers the punch line to the horror of black and gay characters alike. His determination to speak, regardless of hurting others, starts a downward spiral of racist jokes. Maintaining a respectful tone goes a long way, and when that tone is broken, all hell breaks lose. Race is difficult enough to talk about without being a jerk. Let’s keep the drama on the stage, but out of our lives. Norris has done us a favor by showing us the worst version of ourselves. "Clybourne Park" shows us the limits of our present discussions–coded language, colorblindness, and blaming individuals. With numerous productions in England, Canada, and the United States, the play clearly touches a nerve in our increasingly multiracial societies. But we can avoid the shouting and screaming with an intentional approach to talking about race. *Tiffany Bradley is the online marketing associate for the Applied Research Center, which publishes She has worked for arts consortia such as Americans for the Arts and Heart of Brooklyn, and tweets @tiffanymarket.*