a letter to the princeton triangle club
About a week before I graduated from Princeton University in 2013, I sent this email to the director, choreographer, and stage manager of the Princeton Triangle Show. After spending time on campus at Reunions this past weekend conversing with other alumni and current students of color involved in the arts, I felt it important to formally share more of my Princeton experience.
After sending this email, I did receive generally thoughtful responses from the director and choreographer. I sat down with the director and had a long conversation about how to enact change in the club. However, it has been five years since I’ve been a Princeton student and I cannot presently speak definitively to what has or has not changed in Triangle. It is my hope that by sharing this email, students of color, especially those involved with the arts at Princeton, will feel less alone and that others with societal and/or institutional power will be pushed to take concrete urgent action against systematic oppression.
I apologize for not sending this email earlier. It took some time and emotional energy to compose, and I haven’t had wifi access.
I am currently in Puerto Rico. When I booked the flight, I thought the reunions rehearsal schedule was different and that I would be able to make some brush ups earlier in the week. I chose to miss some rehearsals to go on the trip because even the prospect of spending a week on campus with only Triangle members (as the rest of my friends will be gone) was stressful, for a variety of reasons.
I wanted to send this email in order to better contextualize and clarify this situation. I do not want my decision to go on a dead week trip to be construed as me abandoning my commitment to the club just to have fun. I have been very conflicted about my involvement in Triangle this year, as I enjoy performing and many other aspects of being in the company, but find so many other facets of being part of the club problematic, offensive, and often enraging. Spending time exclusively with members of Triangle, surrounded by its songs and traditions (the majority of which are problematic and exclusive on many levels) has been frustrating in many ways.
To elaborate on the issues I have with Triangle as a 122 year old club that encompasses trustees, professionals, students, writers, musicians, performers, technicians, and more, I feel it is important to view the group as an institution. It reflects not only norms and hierarchies on campus, but those present in society in general. Triangle cannot be viewed as just a club or as just a group that produces shows, because that obscures the ways it impacts individuals, campus culture, and society in general. When I first joined Triangle my sophomore year, I finally felt like I was part of something “quintessentially” Princeton. Triangle’s traditions, connections, and community helped me feel like I was a part of something. However, over this past year, I have gotten to see (more) the other side of this Princeton-ness. The racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, and non-prioritization of diversity present on this campus more generally have become increasingly present to me in Triangle.
It became clear to me my freshman year that Triangle had an issue with diversity. As a sophomore newbie, it became even more obvious that the people in charge of making recruitment decisions (including professionals and students) were apathetic and did not see it as their job to actively recruit racially and ethnically diverse talent the club. “Triangle is America” became a joke because everyone seemed to know it wasn’t true, but no one seemed to really take issue with it, nor the initiative to fix it. This combined with many club members’ casual or ironic racism, left me feeling isolated. Last year, I found the show to be incredibly problematic. The representation of the “Mayans,” the racist and classist “Ghettoverit” Detroit song, and the sole black girl in the cast singing the Cool Runnings-style Apacalypso song all highlighted Triangle‘s collective privilege and its ignorance of the effects it has.
This year, I tolerated people’s questionable racial/racist comments during fall show and was enjoying my time with Triangle until the afro wig incident. While I was glad that the wigs did not end up in the show, the reasoning was still latent with privilege and entitlement (again, the “it’s okay if its art and educated people do it” argument emerged). I became highly disillusioned with the club, its members, and its leaders. It became apparent that the club (or at least those making decisions within it) lacked a consciousness about oppression and marginalization, especially regarding race. It was up to me as the sole black person, and as one of the few people of color, to police the racial elements of the production. I became more than just the token black (girl), but also the token angry black woman who wouldn’t let things slide for the sake of musical comedy. People seem to dismiss Triangle‘s race problem (and other problems) by claiming its just the nature of comedy and art. I find this invalidation of my experiences to be very concerning.
I have a very trying semester regarding race, etc. on this campus, including an incident with a professor which resulted in my meeting with several administrators. Triangle has not been a safe space for me this year. In my meetings with members of the administration over the past few months regarding my experiences as a black person on this campus and how the experiences of people of color more generally can be improved, my experiences with Triangle have certainly been significant. Racist (or otherwise insensitive) comments have come not only from my peers in Triangle, but from professionals in the club and other people on this campus.
Basically, I feel that Triangle does not take seriously the ways in which it perpetuates the marginalization of certain groups (namely on the basis of race, class, sexuality, and gender). This has become apparent to me at the various levels of the club, through my interpersonal relationships with other student members and professionals, and through my interactions with the content of the productions and the club’s traditions. While other people of color (or women, or queer people, etc.) may not feel personally offended or disagree with the types of jokes made by club members, on or off stage, it does not change the fact that some do (myself included) and that such trends continue the same types of oppression that permeate every level of society.
Recently, black friend of mine asked if they should try out for Triangle. I was very conflicted about what answer to give. While I think it is great for people to branch out and join groups where they are not otherwise represented, I have experienced firsthand the frustrations, emotional, mental, and otherwise, that come with being a person of color, and particularly a queer black woman, in an overwhelmingly white, male-dominated, hetero/cisnormative organization. It’s up to me and others like me to bring up such issues, and even when we do, they are not always taken seriously. It is emotionally, mentally, and ideologically draining and enraging in many other ways as well.
Given my experiences during fall show, on tour, and this year in general both with Triangle and without, for my personal well-being, it was definitely best for me to not spend a week on campus immersed in all things Triangle. It was not my intention to drop out of the show, but I could not prioritize Triangle over my well-being when Triangle does not prioritize my concerns (which are incredibly important and relevant to everyone). While financial restraints prevent me from changing my travel plans in order to come back to campus sooner, I would be willing to do so if money were not a concern. I would indeed like to be a part of the show to whatever extent possible. I care enough about the club to share my experiences and seriously suggest that everyone involved does a lot better when it comes to diversity, race, inclusion, privilege, etc.
Please feel free to respond with any further questions and I will do my best to respond as soon as possible. Also, apologies for any typos. I wrote the majority of this email on my cell phone.
With greatest sincerity,
Friday, May 24th, 2013