In How to be an Anti-Racist Ibram X. Kendi puts forward five tips to become an anti-racist: 1) acknowledge your own racism; 2) confess your racist ideas; 3) define racism and anti-racism ; 4) identify racist systems; and finally 5) work to change racist systems.
When we designed this research project for our grant application, we really did not think through the implications, in embodied terms, of what we were taking on. We did not think through the extent to which every aspect of our proposed research methods are tied into colonial / racist power asymmetries. We saw ourselves as anti-racist, but did not acknowledge to what extent our scholarly and artistic practices perpetuate the systems we are critiquing. We did not think through the implications of centring whiteness within a project that commits itself to anti-racist work. We did not consider that, in fact, it is contemporary dance’s anti-blackness that we should have signalled more forcefully through our project title.
Now, half-way through our project, we are encountering all kinds of resistances from within and without that we have been digging deeper to learn from. Here are some of the thinking that has been occupying my thoughts lately:
- Anti-Racism research teams should take care to ensure they are comprised of more than one person of colour (PoC) when working with white collaborators. The burden I have felt as the only PoC on this project, and how this burden has at times debilitated me from actually moving forward with the work, is difficult to put into words.
- The requirements of research grants by way of acceptable modes of dissemination, research methods etc are fundamentally bound up in colonial modalities and structurally racist mechanisms. Doing anti-racist work through racist research mechanisms is counter-productive. We urgently need to re-invent our own tools.
- Contemporary dance in the UK is a dance of white fragility. An industry and a sector that attempts to address its exclusionary guilt by purporting to diversity and inclusion, without addressing the structural racism that is foundational to its operations. Including artists of colour into a sector that is defined by white ideologies does not address its inherent racism. It masks it by wielding its power through a performance of fragility
- Addressing racism in the dance sector is intrinsically linked to addressing racism in the dance academy. One feeds and upholds the other in a permanent sealed dance of white power. Our project has not even scratched the surface of the role of dance studies and university/conservatoire based dance training in perpetuating racism in the dance sector.
Despite challenging circumstances, our collaborative research dynamic continues to be generative, caring and brutally honest. This is truly meaningful because, despite the very different stakes the three of us have in the project, what remains constant is our commitment to learning, relearning and unlearning together.
In her essay ‘The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House’ Audre Lorde writes:
“Advocating the mere tolerance of difference between women is the grossest reformism. It is a total denial of the creative function of difference in our lives. Difference must not merely be tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic. Only then does the necessity for interdependency become unthreatening. “
Lorde’s words are equally applicable to contemporary dance at large. If the contemporary dance industry merely tolerates difference through the rhetoric of diversity and inclusion, what it fails to do is to fundamentally acknowledge difference as necessary for creativity to thrive in, through and as a process of dialectic.
What then does contemporary dance as a field of practice find threatening about the potential of interdependency between points of differences?
Is it the threat of such interdependency that maintains the anti-blackness of contemporary dance?
How will universities, organisations and conservertoires invested in dance training move from the rhetoric of tolerance that keeps such anti-blackness in place to actively investing in creative training that rests on dialectic between different realities and perspectives ?
I’ve been driving people mad recently by constantly sharing ideas from a book called Difficult Conversations by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen — a book first suggested to me by Colin Poole many years ago. There’s a lot in the book about what lies beneath all of our conversations, but these can be summarised by what the authors describe as three different conversations: 1) the ‘what happened’ conversation about interpretation: “difficult conversations are almost never about getting the facts right. They are about conflicting perceptions, interpretations, and values … They are not about what is true, they are about what is important” (p.10); 2) the ‘feeling’ conversation to do with how each of us feels about what is being discussed: “difficult conversations do not just involve feelings, they are at their very core about feelings” (p.13); and 3) the ‘identity’ conversation to do with who we are and how we see ourselves.
When I think about talking about race I think about difficult conversations — about values, feelings and identities.
Towards the end of the book the authors ask us to consider how we see others with differing opinions about things that are important to us:
Consider this assertion: The more passionate we are about the issues that matter most to us, the more likely we are to have a cartoonish view of those who see things differently. That statement may infuriate you. You may find yourself chafing against such a ridiculous generalization. But flip it around: When others think your view is self-interested or shallow, base, and maybe even evil, do you think they see you clearly? Is what they’ve heard and read an accurate portrayal of what you see and feel? No. They’ve turned you into a cartoon they can dismiss without having to confront the fact that you care as much as they do, that you are a person of principle and conviction, that you’re working hard to do what’s right in the face of the very same human limitations and frailties we all confront.— Stone, D., Patton, B., Heen, S., 2003. Difficult Conversations, How to Discuss what Matters Most. Penguin Books, New York, pp.243-44
And they are too.
Toni Morrison died last Monday. She once described the english language as “at once rich and deeply racist”. She also discussed the way language acts more than just represents in her Nobel Lecture after she won The Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993:
The systematic looting of language can be recognized by the tendency of its users to forgo its nuanced, complex, mid-wifery properties for menace and subjugation. Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge. Whether it is obscuring state language or the faux-language of mindless media; whether it is the proud but calcified language of the academy or the commodity driven language of science; whether it is the malign language of law-without-ethics, or language designed for the estrangement of minorities, hiding its racist plunder in its literary cheek – it must be rejected, altered and exposed. It is the language that drinks blood, laps vulnerabilities, tucks its fascist boots under crinolines of respectability and patriotism as it moves relentlessly toward the bottom line and the bottomed-out mind. Sexist language, racist language, theistic language – all are typical of the policing languages of mastery, and cannot, do not permit new knowledge or encourage the mutual exchange of ideas.
We in academia have a responsibility to understand the work and actions of the language we are using, and to wield it in a way that does more than represent ideas.
Update 13 August 2019:
A reader suggested that “you guys should say on your blog that one really has to read/ listen to the whole thing to really get it. It offers so much to think about.”
So, here I am suggesting that you read/listen to the whole thing.
In her blog post last week, Arabella asked, “What sorts of disintegrations of our field are necessary for its institutions to move beyond diversity agendas …?”. I like the word disintegration and how it tears at the notion of integration — integration on whose terms? The word seems to underline the power of difference: to be ‘against integration’.
But Arabella’s question also reminds me of one of the starting points for this work. It was Royona, presenting at the Dance Studies Conference in Malta in July 2018, who asked quite directly what white people are prepared to give up in order to build and do anti-racist work. And so, as a white person continuously benefiting from the pleasures and possibilities afforded by the colour of my skin, I ask myself (again) what am I prepared to give up?