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[The following post is an interview with Kate Aly-Brady, Daniel Budiansky, Adam Lioz, and Rupa Mitra by Stephanie Jenkins about their article, “White Phragility.” The interview is part of an AMA series celebrating the publication of the “Phish and Philosophy” special issue of the Public Philosophy Journal (edited by Stephanie Jenkins and Charlie Dirksen). Kate, Daniel, Adam, and Rupa will also be answering your questions in the Comments throughout the week. Please note that the opinions expressed in blog posts on this site are not necessarily endorsed or shared by any of the volunteers who run Phish.net or The Mockingbird Foundation. This site and this blog rely entirely on the work of volunteers. -Ed.]
Tell us about yourselves? Who are you? When were your first shows? Why do you come back?
RM: My name is Rupa Mitra, and I was born in the US to parents of Bengali ethnic heritage. I grew up in the Northeast of the US but lived a third of my adult life abroad (mainly France and Tanzania). I’m a labor/human resources lawyer. My first show was in 2011. I had to take a hiatus when I gave birth as a solo parent in 2019 but hope to be bringing my little one to shows before long! Nothing can compare to the exuberance of a Phish show.
KAB: My name is Kate Aly-Brady, and I am a cisgender white female who grew up on the East Coast. I moved to the Pacific Northwest after college, and have been a special education teacher ever since. My first shows were in 1998, and I keep coming back because the music, the people, the energy are like home. I’m a part of Phans for Racial Equity (PHRE) because I want everyone to have the chance to feel at home there, too.
ARL: My name’s Adam Lioz and I’m a secular Jewish kid from Long Island who grew up seeing the Dead at Nassau Coliseum, MSG, and Giant’s stadium in the 90s. For my day job I work to promote inclusive, multiracial democracy (fighting to expand voting rights) as a lawyer and advocate. I saw a few shows in 1.0 and 2.0 (including Coventry), but I really got hooked in 2009 when I went to the Gorge and Festival 8. I keep coming back for the music, the community, and that decent chance each night to experience some pure joy and collective ecstatic release. I sometimes think these four guys run the most efficient joy factory I’ve ever seen.
DB: My name is Daniel Budiansky (.net: @climber17). I am a cisgender white male who grew up in the suburbs of Northern Virginia during the 80s. While my first show was 4/20/94, it wasn’t until my second show, when they played University Hall (at UVa, where I was a student) in late fall ‘94 that I “got IT”, during the first set "Maze"…it’s been a long, strange trip ever since. A Phish show will forever be my “home away from home.”
Why did you decide to write this essay? What do you want your readers to take away from it?
ARL: The essay is based on the online reactions to the "Phish Scene So White: Let’s Talk" blog post I wrote in 2017. To be honest I was pretty surprised and a bit taken back by the response – first that it went so viral, with thousands of comments, and then by the vitriol it inspired, both through those comments and through some pretty harsh direct messages to me. Of course, people looked me up and called me a tarper and that was fine, but I really didn’t anticipate how upset people got. But when I started to look at the response through the lens of DiAngelo’s white fragility framework it started to make a lot more sense. A big reason people were so angry and defensive is that we see ourselves as an inclusive, welcoming scene and my essay was a threat to that self-image. Once we started looking at the comments with DiAngelo’s lens it was pretty easy to start seeing a lot of the comments as examples of one or more of the elements of defensiveness and fragility.
Our goal was to encourage people to examine our scene a bit more closely and critically and think about whether we’re quite as inclusive as we think, and whether the kind of defensiveness that is the hallmark of white fragility might be a particular challenge for us moving forward. We also think we hit a neat extension of D’Angelo’s theory by distinguishing between “pillars” of white fragility (which are the false beliefs about race that lead to the fragility) and “manifestations” (which are the various ways that the resulting defensiveness plays out).
Why do so many people in our scene seem so resistant to even discuss race as an issue, as it relates to the phan experience?
RM: I think everyone has their own take on this. Mine is that, because the scene is overwhelmingly white, it has a particular, built-in resistance to questioning the majority point of view and lived experience with regard to race and white privilege. White phans think of their scene as “apolitical”, even though that sense is just a product of white (and socio-economic) privilege to begin with. In addition, a big part of the phan experience is based on a sense of connection and familiarity, and of belonging to a group of people who are “different” from mainstream folk (who are called “normies” in a gently derogatory way). Phans think they are unconventional and have better values than “normies.” Ideas that challenge the status quo of that experience and that sense of belonging are therefore hard to entertain. Also, the phandom seems to generally be politically left-leaning. People in the scene may think they are already “enlightened” when it comes to issues of race and that they don’t need to question their ideas or learn more.
What do you think it will take to push against the myth of Phish shows as apolitical spaces?
RM: It has been helpful to create a forum for the voices of those who recognize Phish shows as the political spaces they are, rather than the little “oases” and “neutral” bubbles that may believe and wish them to be. Tabling and showing our presence as an organization at shows is an important action in this regard, too. And having the band recognize and even showcase PHRE, in particular through their Dinner and a Movie series, is priceless. That makes it harder for people who want to believe that the shows are apolitical spaces to persist in such a belief, and hopefully makes them question the belief at least a little. I also hope Adam will write a follow-up article to his Headcount piece- it would be very interesting to read and weigh the reaction to that, in light of how far we have come!
Would you recommend some tactics when encountering white fragility, anywhere, not just at shows? I know that's a big question, but perhaps a simple first step, where someone can start.
KAB: Sometimes, a statement as simple as, “I hope you’re not saying that to me because you think I agree with you” or “we don’t believe things like that here” is enough to interrupt things. Other times, it might be more important to focus on who might be harmed by the showcase of fragility–maybe there are ways you can use your presence to increase safety, show solidarity, and/or provide distraction. PHRE has developed a bystander training, which we have delivered in conjunction with tabling before the shows
Do the strategies and skills for responding to racism and white fragility in live music environments differ from those in other scenarios? In other words, do concerts present unique challenges? If so, how? And how do we overcome them?
DB: These dynamics are systemic, show up everywhere, and any distinctions of how they show up in different scenarios, are at some level, academic. The personal work and skills for responding to racism showing up are also fundamentally the same. We can be mindful of our surroundings, prioritize the safety of those being harmed, and check our own tendencies towards righteousness (because folks are unlikely to even hear us over the band). In addition to the dynamics described by Rupa, a concert creates a particular intersection between leisure space, including the potential for “accepted” law breaking, and policing.While the band has worked with the communities where concerts are scheduled to ensure a “light touch”, this experience is not the same for all fans. Having a table at shows has created a unique opportunity to create visibility for PHRE’s message, and allows for an intentional “safe” space for conversations and connections.
Let’s say I’m a white person who made one of the comments you cited (or a phan who took a similar action) and, after reading your article, I understand I had a white fragility reaction. What is my next step? Apologize? Delete the comment? Do better next time? Educate myself? Something else?
KAB: Recognizing your own moments of white fragility is a huge step, and a place where immense learning can happen. If an apology is warranted, it’s important to keep it genuine and simple. Overdoing it centers the person who caused harm, rather than restoring things for the person or people harmed. Deleting comments often erases the labor others put into bringing awareness to the reaction, and negates any future impact it could have on others who have similar thought patterns. Educating oneself, in an effort to do better next time, is always time well spent, whether it’s spurred by a fragile reaction or not. The more we know, the more we can do better.
A sincere thanks for the article and for PHRE. I wish everyone would read it. Despite what many phans think, the problems of the world don't stop at the entrance of a show. Question: Ever think about turning this into a book? It could be authored by the four writers here or an edited collection addressing various aspects of race and the jam band scene (or related topics). It could help circulate these ideas/practices in more spaces.
DB: The origin of this article was our paper submitted for participation for the first Phish Studies Conference, hosted by Dr. Stephanie Jenkins, and was part of an entire panel focused on race and social justice issues. Some of these papers were also included on the special edition of PPJ that was dedicated to scholarship on Phish and Philosophy. And while we four authors are not currently planning additional work on the topic, there were quite a few full time academics on the panel, and we are hopeful that these issues will continue to be explored.