Two months ago I visited the city of Paris for the first time. My boyfriend, who's actually from Great Britain, and I had planned the trip as a sort of weekend getaway for our one year anniversary. We only had about four days and three nights to work with and we spent the bulk of our first day planning around what attractions and sights we ought to see. The Eiffel tower was a must. The River Seine was also a must and since my boyfriend wasn't especially keen to the idea of seeing a performance (especially one that cost around 100 euros) I made a special case of us just having to visit the Moulin Rouge.
Now before I get into my experience with Moulin Rouge, it's critical that I explain my history with traveling and being an observer of the arts abroad. I first began my journey of traveling internationally, and for the sake of exploration and self-growth, as a study abroad student about a year ago. I had been eager to travel alone since beginning my undergrad, and by chance I had found a program in Scotland that aligned enough with my field of study for me to say 'Well, why not?' Little did I know, Scotland was home to one of the world's largest theater and arts festivals, and because I was (and am) an aspiring film director this opportunity was exceptional in that it opened the doors to an abounding creative frame of reference and an even larger creative possibility.
One thing that had never struck me in my earlier experiences with the arts was the lack of representation of the Black Community. Not only black people but people with brown, red, yellow, and generally just any kind of colored skin seemed to exist in small numbers when it came to the performing world.
It was at the Fringe Festival's Black Artists Meetup when I overheard someone say something along the lines of "I think I've seen one show with a black person" that I started to realize how little representation the colored community had. It wasn't as if I hadn't known that the number of black people in arts was low. It was more of, I hadn't realized that I could watch television for 10 hours straight and still count the number of black performers I had seen on both my hands.
I became compulsive. I couldn't watch anything without asking myself, 'Is this doing a good job of representing the overall population and if not, then why not?' This was also around the time that I began to do some self inspired research on cultural appropriation. It baffled me that people of one race could take on the customs, music, and artistry of another all the while holding the belief that that other race was inferior. Even in Great Britain, a country that to my experience treated racism very differently than my own, the representation of a community that obviously existed was just too modest.
This was the underlying attitude I had the night I walked into the Moulin Rouge. It was our last night in Paris and my overall experience had been pleasant. I had no real reason to expect anything but a good time. The theater was beautiful. The champagne was lovely and the atmosphere was joyous and inviting.
As the lights dimmed and the nearly nude, yet glamorously-costumed women and men filled the stage I couldn't help but get bubbly and think 'What a beautiful group of people!' They were a very talented group as well. However, about mid-show I realized that there was not a single black person. Not one. I tried to push the feeling away but as the show went on I became more and more uncomfortable. It wasn't until a few songs before the last that the notes to a song, I believe it was one by Aretha Franklin, came on. At this point I was no longer uncomfortable but angry. "Do you mean to tell me that you're going to play a song by a black woman but there isn't a single black person on stage? Could you really not find at the least ONE talented black person in the whole of Paris!" These weren't just words I thought to myself but words I also murmured to my boyfriend. By the end of the show I was stubborn faced and annoyed. I even made a video to display my frustration.
As I walked out of the show I began mentally drafting a serious blog post regarding blacks and the arts. Unfortunately though, the lack of reaction from my boyfriend and the other audience members we met on our taxi ride back to the hotel convinced me that my feelings were misguided. Before going to bed that night I began to doubt myself. 'Perhaps this wasn't an issue of race.' I thought. 'Perhaps I was overthinking the whole discrimination thing. Perhaps I'm lacking in some special understanding of how the world works.' These doubts stayed with me with for a few days and for some reason I began to wonder whether my experience of "probable racist misconception" had molded my ideas about race in America. 'What if America doesn't have as strong a racial discrimination problem as I believe?' I would wonder. I was devastated but this didn't last long.
A few days after returning to the United States my boyfriend randomly sent me an article stating that the Moulin Rouge had been charged 10,000 euros for being racist. As I read the article I couldn't help but think wow! It is so critical that we use our voices in cases of discrimination. As long as we're not being hateful why shouldn't we speak on topics that are important to us? Being black, I had been taught over and over again to silence my experience because it was rooted in ignorance and misunderstanding. Moulin Rouge's case proved that it just wasn't that simple. Our experiences matter and after mine with Moulin Rouge I learned that it's important to let go of doubt in cases that require me to speak up.