Masked protesters, proclaiming Black Lives Matter, became one of the dramatic images of summer 2020 across the country and also in Utah streets.
After the COVID-19 shutdown paused the state’s art performances and closed museums, MUSE magazine sponsored a cultural conversation with artists discussing systemic racism. The panel, hosted by Utah Poet Laureate Paisley Rekdal, featured actor and singer Dee-Dee Darby-Duffin, actor Latoya Cameron, arts educator Gabriella Huggins, and poet and activist Willy Palomo.
In a far-ranging conversation on Aug. 10, the artists talked about barriers for participation and the need for white people to listen, while calling for institutions to make genuine partnerships to elevate the voices of Black and brown artists.
This transcript has been edited for length and readability.
PAISLEY REKDAL: Biggest question to ask right now: What do you want the arts sector and the arts audience, in particular, to understand about barriers to participation for artists of color?
Dee-Dee Darby-Duffin: The same barriers that were around before COVID-19. Being seen not just as artists of color, doing work that is all-encompassing and doesn’t just talk about our traumas. Writing some of our own stories, getting our own stories up and out there.
Latoya Cameron: I feel like in Utah, in general, we isolate or separate ourselves from what is happening across the country in regards to how we handle racism. [But] those microaggressions are definitely in the artistic world. Just because I’m part of the BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and People of Color] community doesn’t mean my work is less than or I have not done the same work.
Gabriella Huggins: Part of the dynamic is that it’s so homogenous [here] and we keep recycling the same narratives. The art becomes more and more sanitized to be palatable to a specific population. It assumes a lot about the kind of white people who have access to consuming art.
Willy Palomo: One thing I wanted to point to was the lack of mentorship. If you are a young artist, it’s transformative when you finally find somebody who actually is able to speak to the experience you are sharing. It was important for me when I finally had my first Latino professor.
I also wanted to come at this question from the perspective of an attendee. The cost to attend things is always something that should be mentioned. In high school I got a free ticket to see “The Color Purple” in Salt Lake City. I thought, “Cool,” I went on a date, took somebody there, and the minute I got there, I said, “I’m not supposed to be here,” just because of how old and white the audience was. Even with the cost taken care of for me, I was still put in a situation as a youngster where I felt deeply uncomfortable.
Rekdal: How is this moment — the racial equity protests and conversations we are having around antiracist practices — how is this affecting your artistic work?
Darby-Duffin: I perform jazz, and at every concert, I always sing “Strange Fruit,” which has made me consider my own personal safety. With the protests and my participation in Black Lives Matter, honestly knowing that the songs I sing or even the simple statement of Black Lives Matter, saying that in a public forum could upset someone so much that they will want to cause harm to my body. What it has caused me to do is add a security rider in my contracts. I’ve never had to think about that before. Also, thinking about where I live — Salt Lake City is in a concealed-carry state. That is the biggest thing that’s occurred for me in terms of changing how I operate as an artist.
Huggins: It feels hard to not feel offended by [watching people who don’t have to think about these things]: You never thought about this and never knew it was real? [The kids I teach and mentor at SpyHop] don’t have computers, they can’t do my programs because they don’t have internet access. On one hand, it’s exciting and there’s possibility in these conversations being at the forefront.
Cameron: Once the world basically stopped, I remember thinking to myself: “This is an opportunity for me to create.” Then the world started to really reveal itself. I feel like it’s the destruction of the society we thought we were in. When I started reassessing — trying to create energy and that space — I couldn’t. I felt defeated. Until it became a very intense rage with the murder of George Floyd. I can’t believe we are still in this repetition, this repeating of history. If I’m not going to be going on the stage, which I don’t feel so drawn to right now, how can I assist in uplifting the voices of my people and my BIPOC community? And holding those people accountable who have come and said: “We stand with you”? When everything prior to those moments [has] shown us that they have not. We are not a trend. I’ve been [working] behind-the-scenes in regards to having those difficult conversations with local theater companies to see how I can continue the conversation to hold them accountable.
Palomo: There’s always that question if I should be writing or organizing right now. It comes down to keeping your head above water and floating in surviving. Art becomes the space where we go to heal and try to create a sense of being OK. This has been a challenge for all the artists I know. We know this is the opportunity for change; the window to get social change will close up again.
Rekdal: We are attending many of these talks, right? That’s another potential barrier I think artists of color feel right now, the multiple hats we are all being asked to wear. I want to go back to Utah culture: Talk about how you think the context of being in Utah, Utah’s history, Utah’s predominant culture — how that influences the reception of your work.
Huggins: I think Salt Lake has a big problem with trying to distance itself from the rest of the state. I think the performance is the specific countercultural backlash to the LDS Church. I think white institutions and institutional power here want to think of themselves as progressive and open-minded but we do a lot of really racist things in trying to distance themselves from that. Inclusion is a tricky word, as well. I think there is a plausible deniability that exists in Salt Lake because we are liberal — but also so white. It’s very clear that the city is not for our art and our stories.
Palomo: For me, personally, leaving Salt Lake City is what allowed my work to be able to finally blossom because I did not have to worry about what this audience would understand. For me, it’s always been about trying to create the spaces where we can exist as our full selves. Sometimes that means choosing our audience rather than letting everybody in. That’s always been something we wrestle with, with diversity and inclusion: How do you create safe spaces for folks to be able to show their work and clearly be whole in it while allowing as diverse of a group as possible?
Darby-Duffin: The state itself was formed so that people could stop being persecuted and do their own thing. I think it is an interesting kind of dichotomy when other groups are like: “Hey, we would like to do our own thing, too,” [and] everybody all of a sudden has amnesia. I call it the “Technicolor Dreamcoat” version of Utah. People go, “Wait, but I did something. I did this. Isn’t that enough?” You just have to stop saying that because I did this one thing, because I was an ally that one time, that that was enough. That is like putting a Band-Aid over the Hoover Dam and saying you’re plugging up holes.
There is work for you to do as an observer and as a listener — as much as there is for us as actors and performers — to get ready to enter this world. You have to do some of your own work. You can’t just continue to utilize the resources of your BIPOC friends and continue asking them.
Cameron: Growing up in Utah, especially in Kaysville, identity comes up a lot for me right now. I remember having conversations with a fellow artist who said: “You’re not really black.” I looked at him and I was like — “OK, then you tell me what it is to be black, because you obviously know something I must be missing.” He could not answer the question.
Especially in Utah, it really becomes confusing when you come into a space of creativity. When I go into a space where it becomes a show that traditionally was not a POC playing this role, instead of me just bringing myself and my identity to the table, it becomes “No, it’s not that. You need to be more like this, or more like that and need to do this,” or “That sounds a little too much, like too urban. You need to bring that back.” What does that mean? I have to even code switch my own identity in Utah, not just outside to survive in the Utah culture, but in the Salt Lake culture.
When I go into an all-black cast, I feel like I have to catch up because I have not had the mentors that I wish I could’ve had on how to interpret certain texts without having the influences of what happened when I’m doing Shakespeare or stuff like that.
This culture doesn’t allow you to just be because it’s always trying to judge you and to depict you instead of just letting people be who they are innately. That does a huge disservice for everybody, especially if you are a part of a marginalized culture that’s always being put under a microscope.
Rekdal: Here’s another enormous bomb of a question: What does progress look like? What are some antiracist steps that can be taken. This is the question on everyone’s lips.
Darby-Duffin: Stop asking what you can do to be antiracist. Go do the work. The same work I had to learn about myself and my history. I did that. I put that work in so I could speak eloquently about the things that are affecting me.
Huggins: I feel like these conversations are rehashing and rehashing. How about you guys all talk to each other? Do you have ideas? Do you have thoughts? Are you not listening? Are you not reading? This is not new.
Palomo: One tension I always have to wrestle with this is the idea that we’ve been talking about, not expecting POC people to educate, along with this other idea, the catch phrase for it is: Nothing about us without us. There’s a lot of organizations that would try to hold Mexican-themed events, and not be in consultation or conversation with any Latino people. It’s this tension where ideally we’d be working alongside each other, but until the cultural competency fluency is gained, doing that work becomes a burden on the POC organizers who were putting it together.
Thinking of antiracist steps, for me, [is about] finding POC organizations that you can partner with and actually bring something to the table and support them with, while following their lead in the work that is going on. There’s a few places: Plan-B [Theatre] has what I think is a really good project supporting the POC community there. There is a Woman of Color writers collective that has been doing a lot of good work. Supporting these spaces like this should be part of this conversation of how you move forward.
There’s so much work to be done in shifting the narrative. We talk about money and power and funders, funders become the driving force for all of the work. It’s completely secondary — we go to them so we can have our numbers for diversity in our organization; we have no respect for these communities at all, for their stories. We want to try to amplify their stories in a specific way and get them to make specific types of work that make our funders happy so the community can be happy. It’s so paternalistic. And white supremacist.
Cameron: I would also say: Take the time. It’s not a rushed process, truly take the time to do it. Slow down and reassess and really digest the information.
Rekdal: One last question: What’s giving you hope? What’s pushing you forward in a way you feel is positive?
Darby-Duffin: Having a group of people in my community that I can go back to. Knowing that there are people who have your back, who get you, who you can be authentically yourself with.
Cameron: I have an older sister who is a performer as well; she has two little ones, my niece and nephew, and I love them dearly. That’s one of the major driving forces for me, the hope that the kind of work that [is] happening now will provide a little bit easier of a path for them.
Palomo: I don’t expect to see a lot of change in my lifetime, frankly. For me, it’s been a matter of building the capacity to still have joy alongside all the other feelings. Just being in the moment, even while we are collectively grieving horrific things that are happening to our communities. Having hope shouldn’t mean disregarding the collective difficulties and challenges that we are also facing.
Huggins: I would be remiss if I were to deny, disrespect and forget [that the] struggles that happened in the past have got me to this place. There is so much that has happened leading up to this. If I am going to be here, I better be doing something.
Rekdal: Thank you all so much for your time, your brilliance and your great comments in your work and your art.
Paisley Rekdal, a University of Utah English professor, is the guest editor of “Best American Poetry 2020,” and created the Mapping Literary Utah website. Her ninth book, “Appropriate: A Provocation,” which considers cultural appropriation and the literary imagination, will be published in February 2021.
Willy Palomo earned a master’s degree in Latin American and Caribbean studies from Indiana University. He is a poet, educator, organizer and translator, and program manager for Utah Humanities’ Center for the Book.
Dee-Dee Darby-Duffin is a singer and actor and a 2020 Utah Arts & Museum Performing Arts fellow. She has acted regularly at Utah theater companies and regularly performs at Utah concert series. Her first play, “Dols,” will be streamed by Plan-B Theatre in June 2021.
Latoya Cameron, a Utah native, graduated from Southern Utah University. She performs at the Salt Lake Acting Company, Plan-B and Pioneer theater companies, as well as the Denver Center for Performing Arts and Utah Shakespeare Festival.
Gabriella Huggins is a Salt Lake City native and multimedia producer who is the community programs mentor of Sky Hop Productions. She leads the “Sending Messages” podcast, which produces stories by youth in custody.
WATCH the complete conversation at youtube.com/watch?v=XMdsoqb0HfA.
Additional panel sponsors: the Utah Department of Heritage & Arts, Utah Division of Arts & Museums, Utah Cultural Alliance, Utah Humanities, Utah Museums Association, and local arts agencies throughout Utah.